Chancelucky

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

My Day at Angel Island


Because of confusion about times, I missed the ferry to Angel Island from Tiburon that had my mother and stepfather and their group of seniors from Sacramento on it. I left a message on my mother's cell phone, then realized that the Island might not have cell phone coverage. That and my mother is forgetting things like her cell phone from time to time. Angel Island's not very big, a few square miles. I think the majority of people who come there go to hike, bike, or picnic, but for more than thirty years the island was used as an immigration processing center for the west coast. It has a special place in Chinese-American history because this is where the Chinese Exclusion Act played out. Angel Island is currently controlled by the state park service and they’ve turned what remains of the old intake center into an “Immigration Memorial”.

I’m like a native New Yorker who somehow never went to the Statue of Liberty. I’m not sure how it happened, but this was my first time there. It’s also possible that I went once and totally forgot about it. They didn’t start making a big deal of Angel Island until the seventies when they re-discovered poetry carved into the wooden walls of the immigration center. At the time the poetry was written, the government saw it as grafitti and painted over all of it.

I spent my first forty five minutes on the island trying to find my mother and stepfather. I couldn’t find a map and naturally I walked in exactly the wrong direction, stopped for lunch, then walked towards the immigration center on the Eastern side of the island. My cell phone wasn’t working and I figured my best chance of finding them was by heading there. For most of the forty five minutes, I was convinced that I wasn’t going to find them.

I hadn’t exactly come prepared for a long hike, the first part of which was up stairs carved into the hill. I was wearing Crocs and it hadn’t occurred to me to bring a coat. I didn’t exactly feel like an immigrant longing to reunite with his family in America, but I got a vague hit of melancholy along those lines. I found the Immigration Center, took the self-guided tour. It wasn’t much. It’s a big room with facsimile’s of the very tight bunks used in the sleeping quarters, several posters, and then views of the poetry carved on the walls. The problem is that the poetry was painted over several times and it’s in Chinese. I don’t read Chinese. They spent 15 million dollars on the most recent rennovation, while it’s nice I’m not sure it showed.

After a few minutes of acting more interested in the poems than I really was (I know that sounds incredibly crass, but I was totally dependent on the translations which the park service provided via laminated placemats), I went to see if there was anything else to see beyond this early version of “blogging”. In the back area, I found a room used for presentations that I initially thought might be hosting my parents. Instead, there were about sixty Hispanic students sitting reasonably attentively to a presentation by female park ranger. She repeatedly tried to impress on them the parallels between Chinese exclusion and current debates about Hispanic immigration legal and illegal. At one point, one of the kids mentioned that the place looked like a park and maybe wasn’t so bad. The ranger parried with, but you can’t go anywhere or see anyone. Eventually, she mentioned that they would someday grow up to vote and they might have to vote on creating some modern equivalent of Angel Island.

The kids nodded. A teacher asked a question about Native Americans being granted citizenship and when that happened. The ranger didn’t know.

Was the ranger being the Sonia Sotomayor of the park service by sliding into political advocacy? The thought crossed my mind, but it also strikes me that certain historical events speak for themselves. I’m not sure what you’re supposed to say about the slave quarters at Mount Vernon, Tule Lake, the site of the Haymarket Massacre, Wounded Knee. Of course, these were horrible things and we have memorials in these places to remind us that the past was not perfect and that we’re supposed to be beyond such moments. What are you supposed to say as a tour guide at say Dachau? Well this was a Jewish perspective, but to be totally fair here’s the Nazi perspective on this place and why they did these things?

I left slightly before the 60 high school students and started to head back to the trail and maybe the ferry. Just before heading down the covered stairway to the Center, I glanced in a room and spotted my stepfather. Naturally, the “cool” tour of Angel Island isn’t the public self-guided version. This one had a room set up that replicated the women’s barracks. On each of the very narrow bunks, they had suitcases set up to show what the detainees might have brought with them. At that point, my mother broke down a little. Her eldest sister came to California alone at age 8 and spent a few weeks stuck on Angel Island. My grandmother had initially brought over my Uncle with her because he was a boy. My aunt had to wait until there was more money, so she had to stay with relatives for several years. My great grandparents died during that time, so she was left to stay with strangers for some of those years. The strangers didn’t treat her well. Eventually, my grandparents sent for her, but she came over alone by boat and for her stay on Angel Island. It ends well, my Aunt made it to San Francisco, eventually married, and they got quite wealthy. She’s still around at age 91.

I think some of my mother’s sadness was also due to the fact that she hasn’t had much contact with her sister in the last 10 years. In any case, the guide brought us into a small room with a genuinely well preserved example of the poetry carved on the walls written in scholarly Chinese. He talked one of the tour group, mostly older Chinese, into reading it in Cantonese.

Afterwards, we went back to the big room where my mother handed me an extra bag lunch and two books she had gotten for me, one about Cantonese Immigrants in Sacramento (had a photo of my Dad’s family) and one about the rise and fall of the Chinese Supermarket Business, by Alfred Yee. Alfred was the guy who helped to organize the excursion for my mother and her group. Once down the stairs, she made sure that I got to meet Alfred, because I’d e-mailed him once with some questions about Locke. We then walked back to the ferry together (maybe a mile and a half) as he filled me in about various myths of Chinese-American history and the history of Locke.

It’s rather amazing what my mother remembers sometimes. Ever since I tried to get in touch with Alfred, she’s made a point of getting me his e-mail, getting me these books, and making certain that I met him. There are days when she can’t remember her own social security number or if she’s asked me in the last half hour about how my daughter, her only grandchild is doing. I think she knows that my writing project is important to me and this is her way of showing that she cares about it. It’s odd sometimes how older parents demonstrate these things.

It’s also odd to think that my mother is 79, was born in San Francisco, and had never been to Angel Island either. My aunt who was there has a daughter who recently moved to Tiburon, the very wealthy town nearest the island. All these distances of time, place, memory got bridged briefly and in some ways I felt it all the more because I missed the ferry that afternoon and happened to glance inside an open door on what I thought was my way out of the immigration center.



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2 Comments:

At 7/30/2009 03:42:00 PM, Blogger benny06 said...

Sorry I'm late to the reading of this post, although I think many of your posts are essays that are timeless. This may be one of them.

I've not been to Angel Island either, but I have fond memories of biking in Tiburon about 12 years ago. I love that area of Marin County and hope to get back to visit sometime.

Regarding your experience, I need to read it again, but this grabed my attention:

"I’m not sure what you’re supposed to say about the slave quarters at Mount Vernon, Tule Lake, the site of the Haymarket Massacre, Wounded Knee. Of course, these were horrible things and we have memorials in these places to remind us that the past was not perfect and that we’re supposed to be beyond such moments. What are you supposed to say as a tour guide at say Dachau? Well this was a Jewish perspective, but to be totally fair here’s the Nazi perspective on this place and why they did these things?"

I think there will always be some awkwardness, especially as the beer summit at the WH is going on. What giles me about that is the media's obsession with a beer summit rather than discussing the real issue of racial profiling and the actions of the police who have more control over who gets arrested on the spot.

 
At 8/02/2009 02:46:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Benny,
thanks for your kind comment. The beer summit is one of these unfortunate moments. Henry Louis Gates probably did over react, but he over reacted because there's a very real history and current practice of racial profiling.
Now, everyone's saying, the President jumped the gun,etc.

 

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