I live in Nob Hill above a major bus line. The #1 stretches from the salty edges of Ocean Beach to the glass-wrapped Financial District. It comes frequently. If you miss one, another will bob its head over the hill in a minute. It’s also a main artery for the San Francisco Chinese to get to Chinatown.
With my view of the #1 for seven years, I’ve had the chance to observe an astonishing and sometimes daily feat: Elderly Chinese Bus-Chasing. Almost without fail, if a bus pulls away before a Chinese person can get on, our city’s aunties and uncles will suddenly turn into Olympic athletes and rocket toward the bus. They will reach the departing Muni and beat the door with their cane until the driver opens it, or they will sprint uphill to the next stop. It doesn’t matter if they are traveling with carts, groceries, or grandchildren-shaped packages, they are getting on your bus, mister. Don’t even try to leave them. Their walkers with furry tennis balls are known to out-hustle an internal combustion engine.
I am not exactly an impartial observer of this. As a second generation Chinese American, I grew up around a game-on mentality. My family was what I call Orthodox Chinese. They experienced major unemployment and political hijinks in China, so even after they left, they were hardwired for certain rules of survival. And those rules involved forward momentum no matter how ridiculous the odds.
When my parents bought our first house, it was in a rural suburb in Virginia that was frosty to immigrants and had an active Ku Klux Klan. When my grandfather opened a Chinese restaurant, he opened it right next to another Chinese restaurant. When my parents came home from work most nights at 11 p.m., we were expected to show them our homework, even at midnight. They were bus chasers in their own way, assuming life was unfair but always going after the highest hanging fruit.
I was a bit resistant to this constant noble struggle when I was a kid. It was exhausting. I didn’t enjoy academics and I was a far shot from what we now call the model minority. I doodled and wrote a lot, unconcerned about whether I might contribute to our overall social mobility one day.
When I moved to California years later to work in a creative job, I couldn’t believe how easy life was out here. The sun was out every day. It seemed everybody was here – brown, black, yellow, gay, straight, undecided – and no one had to be the underdog. You didn’t have to be smarter or work harder, you could just be here. For the first time, I felt like I was thriving and not just surviving.
But the hardwiring was still something that was ticking in me like a bomb waiting to go off. And I had residual guilt about choosing a different set of high-hanging fruit than my parents; they took it as a betrayal that I was choosing California and bohemia over life in the South and its constant struggle. I wanted to build a deprogramming chamber to cure myself of all this karma and be free of the urges to chase anything at all.
So by 30, I quit my corporate job, sold my possessions, and went traveling for three months. Three months turned into three years. I lived on organic farms and communes; I taught English at a monastery on the Burmese border; I studied Buddhism in Tibet, yoga in Indonesia, and boys in Australia. It was awesome. I was alive. And I came back to California saying things like, “Let’s just trust the universe and let the gifts come.” And I actually meant it.
But getting out of the noble suffering path in a Chinese family is like getting out of the family business. It’s like leaving the Mafia, if the Mafia were obsessed with grades and achievement and home ownership.
“How do you know you won’t die on the streets?” my parents asked cheerfully when I started making art for art's sake again. “You are going to live in a box? Do you want to live in a box?”
But in the end, it was the hardwiring they gave me that was the perfect survival tool for being an artist. Along with an independent spirit, the immigrant attitude also delightfully obscures objective reason when it comes to why you should do the things you do. It gives you naive optimism for trying anything you want. And since you’ve never been told you have natural talent, looks, or gifts, you just have to honestly, unflinchingly believe in yourself. Faith is reason enough to chase the bus you choose.
Perhaps I will never be as willful as my family, because I have never truly been the underdogs they were. But at the end of the day, I couldn’t live without either of my two culture’s inheritances. I love my mash-up of bus-chasing meets pizza-eating hardwiring. I think the bohemian-ness of California blends perfectly with the immigrant mentality to make a great sandwich. Or taco, or fajita. You’re never a fucked taco in Northern California – you’re just a new, fresh, never-been-seen-before taco.
The Great Transportation Race
Above all, I feel grateful to the bus chasers I see. They turned hustling into an Olympic sport so that I can stand around clicking my smartphone looking bored. In them, I see my grandmother, her grandmother before her, and her great-great-great-grandmother, who likely chased the shit out of some disobedient wheel.
And while I may witness their efforts silently much of the time, perhaps I should rent a Muni bus for the sole purpose of organizing a Bus Chasing 5K in their honor. In said event, a Muni bus would stop and depart every block before you had a chance to get on. The entire city’s population of artists, lawyers, hipsters, and Zuckerbergs could chase it. We’d show the aunties and uncles that the entire city is behind them. We are not always bored, lazy, and simply smartphoning through bohemia. We see who they are.
They are tenacious. They are breathtaking. They would run over a city hipster in their slower-moving skinny jeans just to get their four adorable grandchildren on the bus. They show off their balls – including the furry yellow tennis variety – to the end. “Get out of my way, motherfuckers,” their sweater vests might as well say. “The Chinese people are getting on.”
The other day I was in my car, going up Clay Street. As I slowed down at the stop sign, an auntie ran over and frantically beat the window of my car. I mean, beat it, with her cane. What had happened?
Had a crime been committed? Was someone just stabbed? Where was the fire? I slowly rolled down the window. “Take me to Chinatown,” she ordered. “The bus is late!”
In the rearview window, I could see the #1 bobbing over the hill, not three blocks behind us, its metal top gleaming like a diamond. As she tried to open the car door, I looked at her, bewildered. “But, but … I’m actually turning here,” I heard myself saying. It was the truth, but she was still clawing at the door handle like a wild animal. “I’m going the other way – to yoga.” I gestured toward my mat like it was a shield against this woman and two thousand years of mainland China-cultivated-take-no-prisoners assertiveness.
“Take me to Chinatown,” she said. I didn’t want her to beat me up. I think she might have beaten the shit out of me. I was younger and more active, but she could’ve taken me. So what could I do? I clicked the button on the driver’s side and she slid in. I tossed the mat to the driver’s side and she slid in. I tossed the mat to the back and pulled forward the passenger seat. She dumped her bags, recycling, grandchildren-shaped packages, and all.
“Which block?” I asked. And she pointed the way.