My strongest memory of my first year at Berkeley is of clouds. Clouds of tear gas blanketing protesters throughout the year, like during my first visit there, when I almost changed my mind about U.C. Berkeley. That day, I joined thirty-thousand People’s Park demonstrators slowly herded along by armed, National Guardsman, bayonets at the ready, half-tracks revved up for mayhem.
At a second visit, I witnessed tear-gas clouded surreal battles as rag-tag groups of anti-war students battle mano-a-mano with fully armed, helmeted police during anti-war protests. Then in my first year, tear gas became common place, clawing at my eyes and throats as I joined anti-war demonstrations.
Cumulous clouds gliding over the spacious campus, more clouds than I had ever seen in my urban upbringing. Clouds burnished Maxfield Parrish beautiful by the neo- classical columns, wide peaked roofs, and marble steps of Berkeley’s buildings... the golden light of the setting sun.
Clouds of marijuana smoke in the rooms in Davidson Hall, our co-ed dormitory, as America’s middle-class children gathered in our generation’s version of cocktail hour, listening to the Beatle’s Abbey Road album, exchanging stories of our upbringing, flirting, clucking our dismay at the War (always the damned War), exchanging rumors about Professors, and asking who wanted to carpool to Altamont, where the Rolling Stones were giving a free rock concert.
Clouds of mental confusion as Marxists, Conservatives, Liberals, the Spartacist League, the World Law Federation, the Esperanto Society, Hare Krishnas, Jews for Jesus, Students for a Democratic Society, the Christian World Liberation Front, L. Ron Hubbard, street characters like the Soap Bubble Lady and General WasteMoreLand, and our outnumbered professors competed for our attention, our allegiance, our lives, and our souls.
The U.C. Berkeley campus, circa 1969, was obviously was not my family’s life- long notion of bucolic academia. Had I told them that the university was many a time an armed camp, they may well have insisted that I attend another campus.
So, I didn’t tell them.
Beginning with my Il Piccolo’s friends, I had started to edit my reports of my doings to Mother and Father. But with Berkeley, I went beyond editing, I hid truths from them: the dangerous demonstrations, life-style experimentation, and the many fleeting liaisons. When and why had I started this concealment? By my third quarter, I was barely visiting my parents’ home, afraid to reveal how much I had grown-- – and grown away from them.
My evasions started the day when my Mother’s soft words and mediating style failed to soften my high school principal. I thought, bless her heart, but she doesn’t get this America. Recognizing it was Father’s aggressive soliloquy on my behalf and our attorney’s confident power that convinced him to rescind my suspension, I concluded that these were the tools of influence and success, not mother’s ways, not her Chinesey “Why can’t we all get along? We’re all friends here.” Her gentleness looked like weakness, her soft words came off mute, and her patience easily mistaken as surrender. So much for her old Toisan ways. At a deeper level, my turn away from Toisan ways had started at thirteen, when pinched by life’s circumstances, Mother was no longer able to pipeline to me the energy, the connection to Toisan. I had too long been weaned off her spiritual mother’s milk.
My Father’s repudiation of Toisan as our native home did not help: America is our home. But he also pushed me away from him, and thus began the untethering of my family ties. I vividly remember a day when I was fifteen, when he told me that I would be completely be on my own by age eighteen. In one of his bad moods and angry about something or other, he raged, “I will pay the rent, put food on the table, and buy clothes for you until you turn eighteen. After that, you’re on your own. No more help from me.”
Mother wasn’t there or she would have set him straight about his Toisan duties. But, from his perspective, it was a good offer. for I would have five more years of family support than him: he was on his own at thirteen. But he didn’t present it as a traditional passage into, independence. It was not an offer, but as a punitive edict, a threat. He snarled it in my face.
In Toisan, parents proudly supported scholarly-gifted children: even a poor family would sacrifice greatly to put a son through college. Had mother been present, she would have sharply remonstrated the coarseness of his words, the error of his threat. But it was just the two of us in my bedroom.
Father’s words didn’t hurt me so much, as shook me awake. I didn’t like what he said – who likes discovering that his father considers him a financial burden, who kept him chained to dead-end jobs? But I accepted it as true - his truth from his own childhood and now, and my truth from him. So, I continued my turn away from Mother’s nurturing soft Toisan perspective to Father’s harsh view of life, a “toughing it out” immigrant viewpoint. Okay, I will be on my own at age eighteen – and—I silently upped the ante-- – and free of you too. You won’t hear from me, and you better not be telling me how to live.
As we counted down to lift-off date, I felt a decreasing responsibility to let my parents know of my whereabouts, thoughts, and friends, and yes, my explorations and experimentations of a kind that would trouble them. I prepared myself to honor my father’s eviction notice.
So it was that with a portion of the same courage that brought my father, and then my mother into an unknown and equally daunting America, I entered Berkeley that fall quarter and checked into Unit II, Davidson Hall, Berkeley’s first co-ed dorm. Now, finally, I was on my own, paying my own way through a hard-earned scholarship and part-time campus job planting and then cleaning up hundreds of tomato plants at the Genetics greenhouse work-study stipend. I used this time to enter a larger American, aware that the intimacy of Davidson Hall would help me decipher the unspoken social mores, cultural codes, and implicit rules of mainstream America.
Although I had been better exposed to America than my parents, my San Francisco was not Middle America; mainstream Americans remained a mystery to me.
My first insight into the mystery was that Jewish Americans were not 100 percent “white folks,” even if they were indistinguishable in my eyes, but a kind of category within white folks. Thus, Davidson Hall introduced me to a new category, Jewish-Americans, who looked white to me, but not to WASPs, who considered them off-white. Nothing personified this split more than the relationship of my floor-mate John—later the editor of our nationally regarded Daily Cal student newspaper and subsequently an investigative reporter for the Wall Street Journal—--and his dorm girlfriend Alysha from Los Angeles’ West Side, an upper class Jewish-American enclave. Free to fall in love with John, a non-Jew, within the socially liberated zone of co-ed Davidson Hall, Alysha soon succumbed to family pressure to marry within the Jewish community. They spent the rest of that year as “friends,” but John’s heartbreak was constant in his downcast eyes.
I knew from my Bible that Jews had faced prejudice, found strength in five thousand years of their own recorded history, and fostered strong communities to overcome the obstacles. Sounds a lot like the Chinese-American community, I thought.
As between Jewish Americans and Wasps, ironically, there was some political dispute as to whether Asian-Americans, viewed as a model minority, were really people of color, as true-blue an oppressed minority as others in the Ethnic Studies Department. Without a doubt, African-Americans, Chicanos, and Native Americans were unquestionably oppressed. So how had Asian-Americans carved out our own department within the newly founded Ethnic Studies? Those skeptics viewed us more as “off-white” and not as “off-color,” a position of ethnic ambiguity akin to that of Jewish-Americans. – one of those endless variations of colors and tones of underlying yellows, blues, and grays that only home decorators truly appreciate. The history of prejudice and violence against Chinese was clear. Yet, as the “model minority,” we were still suspected as the supplicant ally of the majority white society.
Another big surprise was that not every Rockefeller was considered of equal peerage, that hierarchy existed within elite, wealthy white families. Peter, a Rockefeller, explained to me that direct offspring of Rockefeller men enjoyed higher status than those of men who had married Rockefeller women into the family. Peter’s father had married in, and mandating that the annual Rockefeller family reunion, that Peter and the other men in his category wore blue formal wear tuxedoes -- and their female counterparts wore blue cocktail dresses, a way of de-ranking them from the “authentic” Rockefellers, who dressed in formal black. Peter chuckled that the “blues” had all the fun at these clan events. My fondest memory of Peter, a son of privilege despite his misgivings, came about one afternoon as I rushed off late for work at the Genetics Department greenhouse on the other side of the campus. He agreed to retrieve my clothes from the impossibly slow dryer. Not only did he do that, but he folded over so neatly every pair of underpants, socks, jeans, and t-shirts into piles, and then arranged them in a neat row on my bed. A Rockefeller fetching and folding my laundry! Father, once a houseboy, would have never believe it. Warm feelings welled through my body, renewing my faith that most people, at heart, were intrinsically kind.
Unfortunately, the hardest lesson of Davidson Hall was that too many of my white dorm mates lacked this second-nature tai-chi balance of give-and-take within relationships, a balance so intrinsic to my upbringing under Mother. Perhaps it was the difference between the communal-village sensibility of my Toisan heritage and the individualistic focus on acquisition, ownership, and privilege that constituted the upbringing of most of my white dorm mates. Over the year, I increasingly felt ripped-off, then increasingly disrespected. I waited in vain for the natural rebalancing, but to my surprise, the more I shared, the more I was perceived as a soft touch, a pushover, a weakling. I had to pull back, not be so generous with my records, books, notes, limited funds, and marijuana stash. This withholding was not an easy transition for me, but I learned to harden as a first response, and then to soften only when sure.
By spring of 1970, settled, but at times disappointed with life at Davidson Hall, I turned back to activism. I started by switching jobs, quitting my Genetics green house one and working part-time at the new Asian Ethnic Studies program, as the interdepartmental liaison to Black, Chicano, and Native American Ethnic Studies groups. This was a role well suited to my multicultural urban upbringing - and as the sole male clerk-typist there (thanks to my typing classes at Francisco Junior High School). Interestingly, in their community service orientation, Asian Ethnic Studies at least offered Conversational Cantonese classes, in direct contrast with the classical Oriental Languages Department , which offered Mandarin exclusively. But both choices were puzzling to me, like a bad compromise, since Toisanese remained the predominant dialect of the Chinatowns of America. I wasn’t surprised. Most of the activist Asian-Americans on campus were middle-class, raised in white neighborhoods, with little if any fluency in any Chinese. Thus, this decision to offer Cantonese was well- intended, but from the head and not from the ‘hood.
Then, echoing Mao Tse-tung’s admonition for students to go to the countryside and learn from the peasants, the program decided to move the Asian Ethnic Studies program into San Francisco Chinatown, so that intellectuals could serve and learn from the people. Despite it’s Red Guard political “”correct line” imperative, I discerned that the real and unconscious motivations were personal: these fully assimilated kids craved immersion in Asianicity; to feed their starvation of cultural isolation; to heal wounds of assimilation – and eventually, to feel bone-deep good about being Asian-American. I quickly piped up, that since I just came from the “hood,” I’d gladly hold down the scaled down campus fort of the campus office -you know, like answer the phones, pick up the mail-- - to the chuckles of my sympathetic fellow clerk-typists.
Later in the spring of 1970, President Nixon sent in B-52s to carpet bomb the neutral country of Cambodia, escalating a war he had promised to end. That same day, following the morning news reports of the announcing the bombardment, students shut down the entire U.C. Berkeley campus by noon. Once again, tear gas clouds roiled through the campus and over the streets as our growing ranks spilled into the community. Over the next three days, other campuses followed --- 536 of them, to be precise. On May 4, National Guardsman shot and killed four students at Kent State, Ohio, and days later, other Guardsman shot and killed thirteen students at Jackson State, Mississippi, an African-American college.
In response, students were more resolved than ever to keep the campuses shut down. But nagging at our minds, but to what purpose, since it was our own education at risk? Again clouds of confusion - practicality colliding with ideals, for no one wanted to lose a year’s worth of academic credit. Several Berkeley faculty members led us beyond striking for striking’s sake by proposing “Reconstitution,” a complete reorientation of the University’s teaching purpose towards teaching the truth of the war.
If ever a speaking-round-and-round took hold at Berkeley, it was during Reconstitution. Department by department, then college after college, Reconstitution was adopted. Everyone was equal - professors, students, men, women, people of color, whites – even campus workers who cared to join our discussions. We spoke, shouted, quieted each other down, and planned the next day’s anti-war activities. Those final two months were the most comfortable of my freshmen year, with its bonds of community and the exhilaration of acting together for the common good.
Along with other students with Bay Area roots, we rode out like a brigade of Paul Reveres, to our old high schools, churches, and community centers. I alerted friends at Galileo to an upcoming anti-war march. At a previous San Francisco mobilization of over 150,000 marchers, I had spotted many Galileo students, pleased to see that the pioneering activism of my Chinatown days had taken root. Soon, I was recruited to join an antiwar tour addressing Asian-Americans at nearby campuses, as one who offered a slightly different perspective: Chinatown born-and-raised working class.
After a packed, contentious but, and rousing forum at U.C. Davis, an agricultural sciences campus an hour from Berkeley, Jerry Chong, from the old Kearny Street apartments, introduced himself. I was puzzled when he asked if I remembered him. Of course I did – he was the older brother I never had, whom I admired for his brains, athleticism, leadership and style.
In the chaos of my first year at Cal, Jerry was the embodiment of sanity, harkening back to our simpler, halcyon days in the Kearney Street apartments. We reached out, shook each other’s hands. In the grab of our handshake, I felt as if I had beached back onto the safe shores of that stable epoch, of my first home, our apartment building cum village.
Jerry filled me in on his time in Vietnam, as as the respected leader of a squad that fought the Viet Cong nightly in the Mekong Delta. Night patrol was the deadliest patrol, a nervy game of hide-and-seek and, search-and-destroy among the quiet waters and darkened reeds. This was the toughest tour of duty in “the 'Nam.”
On too many mornings, white American GIs had stood in his way, staring him down, and demanding to know, “Who’s that gook? What’s he doing, wearing commando stripes, carrying an M-16 ?” or “What is that slant- eye doing, carrying an M-16 like he’s worthy?” Never wounded in combat, yet these bursts of racism wounded him as deeply as bullets. Still, Jerry returned home a hero to a job at IBM, earning rave performance reviews and promotion after promotion. But later, when he and another valued IBM employee, the only other Vietnam vet, wore black arm-bands on a national day of silent protest, the rave reviews and promotions stopped, the personnel counseling sessions increased, and soon he was out of a job. Jerry explained his presence : he was in his second year at the at the UC Davis law school.
My main point that day was that at home Asian-Americans suffered from the same mentality that considered Vietnamese aspirations unimportant, that their lives cheap had struck home with Jerry. It was white Americans, not his Vietnamese enemies, who had spat words of hate at him and, most spiteful of all, questioned his American birthright, Jerry ruefully recalled. His words penetrated more deeply than any well-written anti-war editorial or stirring oration. In quiets moments, I had wondered whether I was cowardly, or unpatriotic, or ungrateful for opposing the war, but no one could challenge Jerry’s medals or bravery or patriotism. And Jerry and I were the same kind, Chinatown kids. I knew that had I been drafted, I would have fought alongside him without question. So, those doubts now disappeared for good., grounded in the reality of Jerry's experience.
And here we were, each one hooked by an angst – that of finding ourselves at odds with the country we were raised to love and serve. Were we ingrates whose actions shamed our parents, since they had found economic and political refuge here? But Jerry had paid his full price of admission in night-patrol and then sublimating the racist morning taunts. I’d paid mine in the streets, was still paying it as we spoke. We were the only ones who could, and did, provide each other absolution from what had felt like a sin.
When President Nixon announced America’s's withdrawal from Vietnam in January 1973, Cal students danced wildly on Telegraph Avenue and Sproul Plaza, chanting “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, NLF has won again!” The campus quickly shifted into a more-or- less normal rhythm of study, play, final exams, and quarter breaks. I hitchhiked across the Bay bridge home for dinners and holidays, and family was only a phone call away. But I continue drifting from the closeness of my family, coming to relying on my familiar if temporary “families” in Davidson Hall, Asian Ethnic Studies, and campus activist circles. I was living out the pattern set by my parents, and of centuries of independent Toisanese pioneers, casting out onto the seas of the larger world. My father, as if in instinctual accord, checked on me less. Mother, though, steadily insisted on my presence at family gatherings, solicitations I patiently as frequently declined.
In the same way, Richard was already making his own life. In early 1972, I knew enough of the surface facts to conclude that Richard was walking along a similar path to mine, but not in my footsteps. He co-organized a student walk-out and march from Galileo to the Board of Education, protesting the same issue of a Chinese-American glass ceiling in the public schools. But where I had raised this issue, they succeeded-- – Stanley Tong, my Geometry teacher and a popular sports coach, was eventually appointed principal. Richard, too, served on the Chinatown–North Beach Youth Council, organizing youth dances and community street fairs. Yet he never visited me at Berkeley and wasn’t interested in applying there.
Then he won a scholarship to attend San Francisco State CollegeState University that coming Fall, planning to continue his summer summer teller job with Wells Fargo Bank on a part-time basis while enrolled.
Richard, too, was becoming his own man, and I was happy for him.
We had grown up as close as two brothers could be-- – running the streets of North Beach, Telegraph Hill, the waterfront; walking to and from the same schools every day; avoiding or fighting off the same bullies; chipping in to buy the “Down Memory Lane” record collection from Reader’s Digest; jointly collecting Spiderman, Fantastic Four, and X-Men comic books, and in our last collaboration, Playboy magazines. As the older brother, I often overshadowed him in strength, reputation in school, the streets and the Christian mission, and of course, priority in our parents’ traditional eyes.
Richard didn’t seem to mind my first-born ranking, since I wasn’t a mean older brother. In critical ways, we were equals, made joint decisions, some very important ones. Once, when I was around ten, after our Boy Scout troupe wound down, one older neighborhood boy, a newcomer and a teenager whose father owned the local rice store, drew us momentarily into his “Rebel Without a Cause” juvenile gang. We started with a short spell of shoplifting toys from downtown department stores. Then, he began to talk of “rumbles,” the 1950s slang for fistfights with kids from other blocks-- – or what he now called “gangs.” His pitch sounded fun in a dangerous kind of way. But one Monday, our teenage would-be leader of the pack gleefully reported about his recent weekend in a place called “Juvie,” the local Juvenile Hall incarceration facility. At that point, Richard and I looked at each other, went home, and talked it over. If shoplifting and rumbling led to
“Juvie,” this would cause a lot of trouble and distress for our parents, not to mention the punishments we’d suffer for weeks. One of us suggested, “I’ll quit if you quit.” We did and convinced others of our old pals to stay away. Then wisely we spent our evenings once again in our apartment building, studying and playing with the Cheong kids, and our weekends with Father at the matinees and Sunday brunches.
Like most brothers, we had our tussles, but they were rare and fought fairly, never to inflict damage, and at any sign of surrender we stopped and went on to the next thing, grudge-free. Harmoniously sharing the same small project bedroom for eight years-- happily tolerating the beat of top-forty radio, the mysterious sounds of French or Spanish lessons on our tinny record player, the smells and noise of raising guppies, hamsters, and lizards, we ended many a night falling asleep together sharing stories, life’s lessons, and tomorrow’s plans.
Our later conversion into the Assemblies of God church was in tandem. True, our old Kearny Street pals had joined en masse, but we lived now in the urban oasis of the spanking new Ping Yuen projects, with its own playgrounds, the Cheong kids, and scores of new friends. If either of us had hesitated, or wasn’t interested, that would have been the end of it. But we went for it, and although Richard left first, without consulting me, his departure actually quickened the process of my own exit.
But in actuality, Richard’s abrupt solo departure from the Assemblies of God mission was his first major step onto his own path. From that moment, we slowly drifted apart, at first imperceptibly, and then by strides during my two remaining years in high school, as my interests in theater, music, the counterculture and finally, politics filled my time.
It was during this drifting that we fought our final fist fight. Richard said something that seemed to be disrespectful to my older brother status, or in my unconscious resistance to his developing independence, I took it as lip. We threw fists, hard and fast, mightier and harder than normal, as if we knew the fight was truly about our growing apart, the prize was Richard’s autonomy, freeing himself of my older brother authority. Soon we were on the ground wrestling. Then with a final fury – my last breath actually - I managed to sit on top of him, pin his arms to the ground with my hands, and shouted, “See, I can still beat you. You’re still my little brother, and don’t you forget it.” But we knew that it could have gone either way that day. We never fought again, but between us, he was now free now of my traditional first-son authority. But too, I was free of having to watch over him.
Then, surprisingly, I repeated this same ritual of emancipation with Father, only our encounter turned quickly dangerous. Although Father had expected me to be on my own by eighteen, he too, didn’t adjust easily to my burgeoning independence. One night he threatened me with discipline - unfairly. His justification, mirroring my last fight with Richard, was that I gave him lip. He screamed that he was still my father and as long as I lived in his house, I will obey him. I was seventeen going on eighteen, full of myself, and refused his command to extend my palms for a chopstick whacking, a sharp, but relatively harmless childhood punishment from childhood. . I knew I didn’t deserve it and I certainly wasn’t going to infantilized by a childhood punishment. So, as with my final fight with Richard, this too, was Father’s last hurrah of his evaporating authority. My now enraged, Father screamed at me and we ending up shouting for minutes. Suddenly, he scurried into the kitchen, u-turned, and rushed me, alarmingly armed with a small, serrated steak knife. Just as quickly, I dashed safely into my room and bolted the door.
But this fight wasn’t like the one with Richard, where there was never a possibility of serious injury. One of us had to stop, and I knew it would be me. Still angry, but room behind that locked door, I screamed that I held the stout business half of a cue-stick. I whacked it loudly against the door to emphasize its destructive power, that I would defend myself, could really hurt him if I wanted to. I screamed that I wasn’t afraid of him anymore, that he could no longer treat me unfairly just because he was in a bad mood, and that I could really hurt him if I wanted to. Thwock. Thwock. He left my door and within a half-an-hour, we had both calmed down enough so that I could leave for some night air. Father was slumped in the living room armchair. He didn’t look at me, didn’t say a word, lost in something. He never physically disciplined me again.
So by the time I reached Berkeley, I lived very much apart from these male members of my family. No longer growing up in my footsteps, my little brother became his own man, with his own interests, friends, goals and secrets. We didn’t see each other except during holiday dinners. I rarely made it back home, and though I encouraged Richard to consider Berkeley, he never visited me.
I used our separation to avoid the life-long oppressiveness that can characterize the sibling relationship between Chinese-American brothers close in age, where the younger always gave way before the example of the older, and the elder had to live up to a higher standard. Even though my authority had seemingly vanished in a final fight, I wanted to give Richard respite from this still-powerful conditioning, space that he obviously wanted and space, too, that I wanted.
In my junior year, my activism refocused back to campus, where I co-founded a very successful campus club, the Asian- American Students Association. My motivation for such a massive undertaking was because middle-class Asians didn’t invite me to their parties: I was a Chinatown kid – an undesirable, car-less student from the projects who didn’t go away during spring and winter breaks. As it turned out, I found the few parties that I crashed to be downright boring: cocktail parties barely buzzing to a kind of soft-volume, soul muzak. I wanted to amp up the happening vibe and create fun, stimulating events where everyone was welcomed, and, yes, that even the coeds who had rejected me couldn’t resist. Our student group started with multimedia dances (akin to the early Winterland happenings),then poetry readings, jazz performances, and art events that expressed our long-suppressed Asian-American heritage. Our swiftly growing membership swung the annual campus election to Bruce Quan, a Chinese-American, as co-president of the Berkeley associated student unions and John Sugiyama, a Japanese-American, as co-vice president.
About to complete my bachelor’s degree in architecture, I contemplated entering the school’s Master’s Program in City Planning and Urban Design. The conventional academic wisdom was that unlike Ping Yuen, our vertical urban Toisan village, most public housing projects inevitably devolved into devastated battle zones of drugs and violence, where community spirit and personal self-esteem degenerated along with the buildings. It could be otherwise, I knew, like the nurturing, self-contained community of my own Peaceful Garden North Chinatown housing projects. Perhaps a new generation of urban architects, actually raised in public housing, could and would design a new kind of safe, decent, and sustainable public housing for all Americans.
That summer, I was about to fly overseas to visit the three faces of China: republican Taiwan, free-market colonial Hong Kong, and then the Communist heartland. The first step of my new career was to return to my past. I received a departmental grant to photograph the public housing spaces in Taiwan, Hong, and China. I would synthesize my past with my future, on a journey combining field research with a search for personal roots.
Now the only clouds over Berkeley were of the cumulous variety. Spring was finally peaceful and the lengthening days sunny.
Life was great.
THE EIGHTH PROMISE