The Self, Actualized
Simon lives in what we like to call a "vibrant community." There are Chinese families on either side, an apartment complex of Spanish-speakers (Mexican? Guatemalan? Puerto Rican?) across the street, and at least one black family on the block. We seem to be the only white people in the immediate vicinity, and for a girl who grew up in suburban Salt Lake City, it's at once cool and weird to suddenly be a minority. If I'm feeling particularly simplistic, sometimes I feel like I'm in that multiculti dreamland called Sesame Street.
While the inside of Simon's apartment is spacious and comfortable (although frickin' freezing, Mr. Bigglesworth), the neighborhood is a little run-down, a little ghetto, a little more security gate than white picket fence. I wasn't that surprised when a four-cop-car drug bust went down right in front of the house a few months ago, although it should be noted that the bust was on a car passing through, not on a house on our block.
Yet, while the area might not be the newest or cleanest or hippest part of Oakland, and although I detect a distinct absence of neighborly cameraderie among its denizens, it seems that everyone is nevertheless allowed to live their lives peacefully and in whatever way they want--with loud mariachi music, loud Cantonese talk radio, loud hip hop ya don't stop--all with full assurance that those who are different or who disagree will keep a respectful distance.
We got home from rollerderby (pictures coming!) at about 11:50 on Saturday night, and while foraging for late-night snacks, we heard outside and at a distance the pop and crackle of fireworks? gunfire? who knows--it could very likely be either. Sometimes we hear and see arial fireworks after games at the Oakland Coliseum, but never at midnight, and never coming from all directions; we could only wonder what the commotion was.
And then, "Chinese New Year, duh," and he was right, of course, it was firecrackers. Happy Year of the Dog, woof.
Just then we heard LOUD-ASS firecrackers and saw white-hot sparks through the front window, so we went out on the steps and watched the people kittycorner across the street huck BIG-ASS strings of M80s onto the sidewalk, where they blam!blam!blam! and ow!myeyes! and cough!cough!cough!
Then other people started venturing outside to see what was happening. The first people to exit the apartment building across the street were a man, his wife, and their two little boys. The six-year-old was in bare feet and underoos. The baby was in jammies. Their mom looked upset. They stood out there in the cold for a minute or two and then another string of M80s went off and there was more popping and sparking and smoke. The woman started shaking and sobbing and had to be comforted by her husband and some of her apartment-building neighbors--there were at least a dozen standing on the sidewalk at that point, all probably woken from their beds. Some of the kids were running around playfully, but most of the adults looked at least a little startled and/or puzzled.
Just then our neighbors to the north--Chinese Cookie Lady and her family--popped from their front door and lit a string of firecrackers. "Happy New Year!" Simon said. "Happy New Year!" she returned. And for the next fifteen minutes, fireworks went off all around the neighborhood as some celebrated the new year and others awoke scared out of their gourds, reminded maybe of gun violence in their past or perhaps the mere possibility of gun violence in a neighborhood with graffiti and barred windows and groups of sketchy looking kids hanging out on street corners at all hours. These Chinese people unintentionally frightening their non-Chinese neighbors...it was a peculiar brand of racial tension--certainly not the kind of animosity and intolerance you hear about on the news, but definitely a culture clash.
On Sunday afternoon, Chinese Cookie Lady came over with a huge tupperware container full of--what else?--Chinese cookies. They look like this and are apparently made with coconut milk, rice flour, and sugar. They are also 98 percent grease, and so delicious, although now, almost twenty-four hours after scarfing down half a dozen of them, my gorge literally rises at the thought of eating another because oh my, the grease, it has coated my innards.
Along with the Chinese cookies ("phang siew kueh"?) and some puffy grease dumpling things, Chinese Cookie Lady gave Simon a blessing for continued wealth and prosperity in the new year, "Kung hei fat choy; make lots of money this year!" she instructed him.
Yes, that would be nice. For, you know, the house in Boulder and the cabin in Tahoe, and the violin lessons and the gymnastics competition entry fees and the summer aeronautics program for gifted children ages 5 to 9. Yeah, it's that stuff again. At around noon on Sunday, Simon asked me a fairly simple question about my past, and five hours later, we were talk talk talking about the pros and cons of moving our non-existant family into the mountains where there is fresh air and open space and rosy cheeks and murderers that will come out of the forest and kill your family and no one will ever know because your closest neighbors are clear across the babbling brook and down the dell.
We talked about isolation and convenience and big-city living and sprawling suburban yards and play dates and family vacations and community, and that got me thinking about where I rank a nice house in the White Folks Hills compared to a modest place with firecrackers on Chinese New Year and an Indian fast food joint around the corner and, yes, even mariachi music at 7 a.m. on a Saturday, so help me god. These are undoubtedly questions for the distant future, and neither of us is in any hurry to make any decisions of that nature right now, that's for sure, but gosh, it was nice to be able to spend all afternoon sipping tea and playing What If without either one of us getting overwhelmed by the pressure to meet some arbitrarily adopted external expectations (read: keeping up with the Jonses).
As we talked into the sunset, I couldn't help appreciating that for all our similarities, Simon and I have just enough differences to keep things interesting. He has a bit of a get-rich-quick flair that I don't, and I am a worrisome, nay, paranoid freak. He leans toward idyll, and I, surprisingly, have become a realist.
But where there is difference, there is also the potential for compromise, and for learning new ways to think, even if you are by nature an overconfident know-it-all (Exhibits A and B: Leah and Simon). But being open to foreign perspectives, and especially allowing yourself to be changed by another person (because, despite what Cosmo says, sometimes it isn't about YOU as an individual but about you as a partner)...well, it's scary and wonderful at the same time. And, as with most things, it takes a great sense of balance--knowing when to be wise and wary versus when to have stupid blind faith, knowing when it's right to close ranks and just be yourself versus when to join the crowd. How often do you think people isolate themselves from other viewpoints, lifestyles, and cultures because they're afraid that to open up to something foreign would weaken their own fragile identity? Thinking back to Saturday night, I wonder should we have called out to our Spanish-speaking neighbors and wished them a Happy Chinese New Year, from our non-Chinese household to theirs? Or is it hard enough in this Anglo-centric world for minorities to maintain their own sense of self that it would be unrealistic to ask them to accept another culture into their lives?
"Why in the world would you want to live a thirty-minute drive from the grocery store?" I ask Simon, incredulous. "A five-minute trip down the street for some milk is already a pain in my lazy ass; why would you want to settle somewhere that would make everything an ordeal?"
"Because I've changed since meeting you. I don't need the things I used to think I needed. We could live a hundred miles from anywhere and still have a wonderful life."
Okay. Hmm. Well. Is that my ego crumbling around me? Is that the sound of things being put into perspective? Is that why I know for sure we're going to be just fine? One thing I know is that it's definitely something. Really something.Previous Next