This short story was originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Her car windows slowly roll down, inviting a wisp of chilly, crisp air that is all too familiar to Mei, though nothing within her line of sight, aside from a few street names and the general building architecture, evokes any sense of familiarity. But she is no longer an outsider in Hayes Valley —no sense of the piercing neglect that bleeds into her most recent memory of the city.
The San Francisco she had left was a dead one.
Mei passes the SF Jazz center and turns left onto Grove street, gradually easing to a stop. A large sign blocking traffic reads “Permanently closed for pedestrians,” no, “CREATIVES.” Her lips curl into a slight smile. So it's happening?
Her eyes then wander to the new murals on the walls, the paint beautifully and inadvertently blended in with the colors of flickering lights that lined the streets. Mmm, the smell of fresh paint— strong and seductive...nostalgic. A past that has long gone. She draws a deep breath, taking in the chemical aroma. But now revived?
On her left lies a vacant yoga studio, barely noticeable behind its thick wood panels that signified its closure. A mid-aged woman in front swipes her paintbrush over the wood with exaggerated movements, forming wide, abstract strokes resembling somewhat of a 21st century Polk. Across from her, a young violinist's bow dances to Brahmn's concerto, joined by a crowd of appreciators swaying to its melodic tunes.
“Are we there yet?” Lina yawns. Five hours in the backseat left her limp.
Mei opens the car door and swoops her daughter up, shifting her stacks of canvasses in the back. Lina lets her hand slide into her mother's and, habitually, rubs on Mei's hardened calluses. She likened them, seeing her mother as invulnerable to the decades wear of paintbrushes.
“Almost,” Mei cracks. A single tear rolls down her left cheek.
As they walk towards the center, her eyes fixate on a thin, off-white building in the middle of Ivy street. Memories flash back. Mei remembers. She was on her knees, screaming, crying, begging —one hand over her pregnant belly. She had been dragged out from the flat after her landlord filed a lawsuit against her. A battle she lost.
Rent prices had surged astronomically in the past three decades, especially after her landlord renovated her building. Most of her friends, artists as well, had left the Bay. But she refused.
San Francisco was her home — it was where her grandparents settled in the early 1900s after immigrating from China, it was where they raised her. It was where she started her work as a painter, authentically capturing the hidden life of 90s Hayes Valley, when the central freeway still towered over the narrow streets. Back in the days, poets and revolutionaries lined the cafes, joined by artists, hippies, and queers openly flaunting their personalities.
San Francisco was the dream for any young, bohemian frolicker.
She persisted through the internet age, the dot-com burst, the mass influx of young workers to the Silicon Valley dream. Through Facebook and Google, and then the other unicorns. She watched her city succumb to the demand for tech and talent. She watched her friends flee one by one to the East Bay. She protested the gentrification of Hayes Valley, the lack of affordable housing, the forever increasing rent. Until she couldn't any longer.
Mei never really understood who's fault it was. At first her anger was channeled towards the newcomers, then the city for allowing them in, and then the companies that built this empire. Resentment turned into grief, and then to acceptance. Cities change, cultures shift.
Eight years had passed since Mei stepped foot inside the city. But now she is back. And the flat, the one where she was so forcefully and unjustly evicted from, is now back in her possession.
She looks down at Lina, at her innocence. Mei knows she will never truly understand the beauty nor the ugly of the past. It's for the best.
“Mama, is that your old house?” Lina asks, following her mother's gaze. She picks up a large piece of stained glass from the sidewalk and peeks through the yellow filter.
“Lina, don't touch other people's work!” Mei scolds.
A laughter bursts from behind, and a tall, bearded man with frazzled gray hair appears. “Please —let the child play.” His voice is friendly. “Mei, wow, you're here. What has it been? Ten years?”
“Eight, actually. But yes, a long time. Good to see you again, Gary,” Mei scans his figure. “Wow, you look thinner...and older,” she winks.
Gary smiles, “All the days stressing through the pandemic, that's all.”
“Are they really all gone?”
“Almost. Still a few lingering up by the Marina but they'll probably be gone by end of month. The others are huddled in Pac Heights and the Presidio. At least the Mission and Castro are clean.”
“Who's gone?” Lina asks, curiosity lurking.
Gary's face lights up with delight, “Well look at you! All grown up. The last time I saw you was when your were still inside your mama!”
He kneels to match Lina's height. “You see, this place here wasn't like this before. That music that you hear, the murals on the walls — that's all new. It used to be full of young rich folks working computer jobs. They took over this area and kicked your poor mama and me out.”
“Well not intentionally. We just couldn't co-exist,” Mei corrects Gary.
“Yea sorry, I don't give them any of my pity. They're all just selfish duds who convince themselves they're doing good for the world. See? After the rona they just moved out! To Bali, or Denver, or wherever there are beaches and mountains. Taking advantage of every crisis.”
Mei sighs. Gary has been critical of the tech community for as long as she's known him. She couldn't blame him. He was a poet with an archaic stained glass side hustle that didn't mesh well with the yuppies, and he took it as a personal offense, lashing out his anger by blaming the tech industry for destroying the culture of the city. What Gary wanted, a resurgence of the San Francisco Renaissance, was simply not going to happen.
But finally, things took a turn in 2020. Following the pandemic, the homeless population surged when more evictions poisoned the city. With a majority of Silicon Valley companies shifting to remote work, the city saw a large exodus of tech workers to safer, family-friendly towns. Housing prices dropped, offices relocated. Landlords had a moment of scare and started frantically selling their buildings, an act colloquially coined the “tech flight.”
At first it looked as if San Francisco couldn't be saved, but then came the artist coalition, composed mostly of displaced artists from the Bay, who fought a year long battle with the city government. They petitioned the mayor and ultimately gained support and state resources to turn many of the heavily discounted buildings into artist co-ops and community shelters for the homeless.
There were conditions, of course.
It was then when Mei phoned Gary, reconnecting with her old friend. Gary had scoffed at the idea of moving back. In his jaded view it would take a miracle for something substantial to change.
“But look,” Mei had persisted, “There's already so many people moving back —- like, musicians, painters, poets like yourself — you can revive the San Francisco Renaissance! They're looking for people, uh, to head these co-ops, I don't know. This IS a miracle.”
Gary was stubborn indeed, but he nonetheless caved. They joined the coalition and opted to lead the co-ops in Hayes Valley, which included Mei's previous flat. Wounded by the past and apprehensive of the future, they endured many sleepless nights in the weeks leading up to the move.
Mei snaps back to the present with Lina's tug. “I want to see more!” Lina demands.
“Mei, I'll take her around. You start getting settled in,” Gary offers.
Gary takes Lina by the hand and walks her to what was once Patricia Green. The grassy area has now transformed into a sustainable garden flourishing with tomatoes dangling from vines, chiles and herbs of all kinds, and various lettuce sprouting from the soil. In the corner, a young fig tree towers over a rosemary bush. The scent of lavender from the garden greets the aroma of freshly baked bread from a cafe.
“We're turning this center block into a garden so we can cook for the community.” Gary points to an unfinished bamboo structure to the left of the garden. “There, we're building an outdoor kitchen.”
He turns around to a row of fancy apartments. “And those will be artist studios. Each artist gets their own space. They just have to contribute to —”
“I like it. I want one!” Lina's eyes widen at the ceramicist spinning clay over a wheel. A man in a suit next to him packs a few of his creations into a box. “Where are they taking them?”
“Oh that, yes, so we sell our work to the city and state government to pay for the housing. I believe it'll be another 20, 30 years before we completely own everything. Not a perfect model, but it helps us build THIS,” he says as he flails his arms around to signify the vast expanse of a self-sustaining artist co-op.
“Was it like this before they came?” Lina asks as two sculptors walk past, carrying a marble carving of deadbeat robotic caricatures.
“They? The computer people? Ah, yes. I mean no, it wasn't like this before. This...is new. The old model, well, it didn't work because we all had to leave. We developed this new system so they can't come back again, and, you know, destroy its soul again.” He bit his lip to stop himself from a rant.
“Well,” Lina starts cautiously, “they're gone right? Is the soul also gone forever?”
Gary is fond of the little girl. “Yes, they're gone for now. Don't worry, the soul is still here, we just have to look deep and find it again.”
She doesn't understand. If anything, this neighborhood has more soul than any place she's seen before. Lina takes a large brush from a can of red paint. She gets on all fours, and uses the brush to outline a shape around her.
“Then I'm giving it a heart,” she beams.
Mei watches the two of them from her balcony above. The neighborhood is a canvas, a diary, a garden, a music studio —anything the artist wants it to be.
This is what Lina will grow up to know of her city. It isn't perfect. But it comes pretty darn close.
The San Francisco she knows now is alive.
And the importance of open and honest discourse
The growing polarization within our political party system is no obscure truth. The chasm between liberals and conservatives has been ever-expanding, a bottomless pit of deadlocked despair. Government shutdowns, fiery debates, relentless filibusters and marriage disapprovals are only a few examples of its consequences. It doesn’t help that social media, an unavoidable societal staple, contributes to the political polarization by creating "echo chambers" which not only magnify confirmation bias, but also stifle cross-pollination of ideas and harden extremist views.
But recently, a new phenomenon is on the rise: the revival of cancel culture and the silencing of non-progressive, contrarian views. What it means to be an “accepted liberal” has seemingly changed. You could have voted for the Democrats in every presidential election, participated in every Women's March, donated to LGBTQ initiatives, supported income equality and Black lives, and yet, if you just so raise a finger questioning the effectiveness of riots, or lament property destruction, I'm sorry, you're cancelled, and maybe you should also consider resigning.
Social media has its own merits, which I won’t get into, but it has also unintentionally propelled the emergence of a new social construct — one that suppresses intellectual discourse and good-faith disagreements. Any person, idea, or research can fall prey to a mob takedown on Twitter. You either subscribe to the predominant narrative on social media, or you’re definitely wrong, and probably a racist. This reaction has tainted prominent publications, as Bari Weiss stated in her resignation letter:
Twitter is not on the masthead of The New York Times. But Twitter has become its ultimate editor.
Her letter came weeks after her colleague, James Bennet, resigned as editor of The New York Times' editorial page. Bennet had drawn widespread criticism from colleagues and prominent figures on Twitter after the publication of Republican Sen. Tom Cotton's controversial op-ed, which called to “send in the troops.”
In her letter, Weiss wrote:
As the ethics and mores of that platform have become those of the paper, the paper itself has increasingly become a kind of performance space. Stories are chosen and told in a way to satisfy the narrowest of audiences, rather than to allow a curious public to read about the world and then draw their own conclusions. I was always taught that journalists were charged with writing the first rough draft of history. Now, history itself is one more ephemeral thing molded to fit the needs of a predetermined narrative.
Whether or not you support Sen. Cotton's argument, it is undeniable that he, a Senator for Arkansas and likely the Republican presidential candidate in 2024, is an important public figure with substantial political backing. Thus, his opinions are a critical reflection of the realities that exist in our country. Given that the New York Times, one of our nation's most coveted news platform, felt compelled to outwardly apologize for publishing a conservative viewpoint, what does that say about all the other conservative voices that make up the United States? Ignoring these views, regardless of whether they are accurate, implies a denial of this reality. Perhaps this is why we (liberals) failed to predict the rise of Trumpism, as we don’t even want to hear anything that goes against our own righteous beliefs (in fact, we criticize conservatives for being stubborn).
If the mainstream media will not host a diversity of opinion, or puts the “moral clarity” of some self-appointed saints before the goal of objectivity in reporting, if it treats writers as mere avatars for their race and gender or gender identity, rather than as unique individuals whose identity is largely irrelevant, then the nonmainstream needs to pick up the slack.
A vicious cycle develops, fueled by a “chilling effect,” where writers, researchers, and public figures alike refrain from mildly controversial topics in fear that doing so will result in the loss of their jobs and / or reputations. Questioning the liberal herd mentality, posing challenging beliefs and even calling out the strain on free speech, regardless whether you identify as a liberal, may generate animus amongst your colleagues and peers.
Recently, a prominent group of writers and academics signed a seemingly harmless open letter arguing that “the free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted.” The letter raised eyebrows, and responses criticized its vague text and suggested that “marginalized voices have been silenced for generations in journalism, academia, and publishing.” Moreover, a Princeton professor was chastised for publishing his mildly opposing stance on a faculty letter that demanded perks to people of color.
The rebukes are valid, but the resulting backlashes appear to misconstrue the original objective of the author(s). But those who have stood up to denounce the impairments on free speech are prominent individuals, well respected for their literature, research, and societal contributions. They know they will survive the backlash, but many others, silenced from fear of being cancelled or losing their jobs, remain in the shadows.
America has long ways to go to promote a safe and anti-racist space for all marginalized communities, but we also need open and honest discourse to debate existing misconceptions and define the best solutions to dedicate our resources towards.
The dismissal of certain thought expressions reinforces tribalism, and democracy becomes less meaningful as people become more tribal in nature. In other words, let’s avoid a neoliberal orthodoxy, and instead, channel the energy towards discussing the immediate reforms our country needs to take and debate the merits and limitations of those ideas.
You should be able to embrace liberal values and support progressive movements while admonishing the current limitations on free speech. The objective is the same — to establish a society that actively addresses the startling inequality in our nation and the racism deeply rooted in our systems. Rather than calling out The New York Times for publishing Tom Cotton’s op-ed, let’s discuss why his approach hurts society; rather than shutting out opinions against violent protests, let’s instead discuss police reform and incremental, rational changes in the workplace and college campuses.
The chasm between the political parties and the emerging fissure within the liberals do not need to get any bigger. The best policies come from active participation and open discourse, and publications are in the best position to drive this dialogue.
Once we set aside our previous affiliations, acknowledge different perspectives, and proactively challenge and question others and our own beliefs, we may actually see real change and growth.
And what you can do to help
“Refugees are not terrorists. They are often the first victims of terrorism” — António Manuel de Oliveira Guterres (Secretary-General of the United Nations)
But claiming “refugees” as “terrorists” is exactly what the Trump administration did to justify executive orders to reduce the cap on refugee admissions. The order instituted a Muslim ban which blocks travel to the United States from six predominantly Muslim countries. This is not an act to protect the safety of the American people; rather, it is a xenophobic expression of our backwards progression as a free country, intensifying with the advent of COVID.
The United States is a nation built by immigrants. It previously set an example to the rest of the world with its welcoming borders. According the the U.S. State Department, the U.S. admitted over 3 million refugees and granted asylum status to over 700,000 individuals over the past three decades. But as of 2019, the administration cut the annual refugee cap to 30,000, a 65% drop from the 2016 limit. Public support and reactions are further fueled by prejudice, misconceptions and fears that are exaggerated by unsubstantiated claims.
Some believe that refugees are simply taking advantage of America’s rich economy by moving away from poorer regions, or that refugees steal jobs and lower wages for natives. Others still believe refugees are terrorists and America will be safer without them. All three ideas are misconstrued and falsely popularized.
A refugee, as defined by international law, is someone outside the country of her nationality, who is unable or unwilling to return to her country due to persecution or fear of persecution. They have little desire to leave their families and friends behind and start fresh in a foreign country. Especially among poorer families, people are unlikely to leave their villages even when there are strong incentives present. The risk and uncertainty involved in the process is a massive undertaking that can potentially lead to even worse consequences. Most refugees have no other choice but to leave, given the precarious nature of their situation.
Furthermore, there is no evidence that suggests that increased migration negatively impacts wages of natives. Examining empirical research in recent decades, the US National Academy of Sciences concludes that “the impact of immigration on the wages of natives overall is very small” (267). You may wonder, why is that? Migrants take on jobs that many natives refuse to work, and hence they are not in direct competition with each other, as the positions would have been left unfilled. Employers favor familiarity, and research indicates that migrants do not take away jobs natives already hold, even if they offered to do it at lower wages.
The idea that terrorism in America is aggravated by the admission of refugees within our borders is largely conflated. Research indicates that the probability of an American being murdered in a terrorist attack caused by a refugee is 1 in 3.64 billion per year, which is significantly lower than the chance of being murdered by a tourist (1 in 3.9 million per year). Furthermore, terrorist threat in the U.S. is found to be largely homegrown. Not only is foreign-born terrorism in the U.S. a low-probability event, it is also attributed largely to people who are citizens or permanent residents. There is little evidence that suggests closing America’s doors to refugees will protect the U.S. from terrorism.
In fact, migration brings a number of economic benefits to our country. For refugees, it takes a great deal of patience, grit, money, and ambition to get to where they are. The journey is long and arduous, and the screening and vetting process alone takes an average of two years. To be admitted to the U.S., refugees go through several rounds of background checks, screenings, and interviews under the United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). Therefore, those who are admitted bring their entrepreneurial energy and stamina to their host country, leading to greater innovation, higher production output, and increased consumption for our economy.
We should not let misinformation guide our views towards refugees, nor should we let xenophobia, racism, and fear overpower our compassion. They are not stealing our jobs or lowering our wages; they are not trying to take advantage of our economy nor are they increasing terrorism within our borders. In fact, refugees do not even have the final say in where they are placed; that is for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to decide.
So what can we do?
The recent coronavirus pandemic could result in further complications for refugees. Post-pandemic, the administration may continue to tighten its immigration and asylum-seeking policies for migrants. Growing economic woes, sense of nationalism, and xenophobic attitudes can squeeze the nation inwards. It is already terrifying and difficult to adjust to a foreign country while being far from loved ones, and it becomes much more challenging when the leaders of the host country seemingly despise their existence.
As we enter an altered society, we should set our fears aside and embrace solidarity.
We can start discussions and use data to help educate people in our community about the costs and rewards of migration. We can offer housing, employment, and educational assistance to ease their integration. We can advocate for greater refugee protection in the U.S., and denounce justice-obstructive policies implemented by the administration. We can provide financial assistance by donating to NGOs that support refugees. Some examples include UNHCR, IRC, Migration Policy Institute, UNICEF, Save The Children, and Alight.
But most importantly, we can offer solace directly to refugees by simply listening to their stories and better understanding the world through their eyes.