I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been to San Francisco.
I can’t tell you where to find Golden Gate Park, either. Or where to find Fisherman’s Wharf (down by the water somewhere?). Or anything else the city’s known for.
But I can tell you exactly where Grandma lives, or where Aunt Carrol lives.
All my life I’ve been visiting the city my parents immigrated to when they were my own age. I know the corner of Grandma’s street with perfect clarity, having waddled down the hill as a toddler, then scootered down as a kid and sauntered as a teen. I rarely have the chance to go sightseeing—unless you count going to Chinatown for lunch and dinner almost every day as sightseeing, which I don’t.
Yet as I got older, seeing this beautiful, richly storied and incredible city through such limited scope—a couple of streets and houses, and Chinatown restaurants—seemed like a crime, especially for a history buff like myself. Why had I never seen the Castro district? Heard about Harvey Milk before the movie? And come on, what about the Zodiac killer?
So after much pleading and complaining, I got Aunt Carrol and my mom to agree to take me around the city. I armed myself with a camera and just about leapt into the car, restraining myself for the sake of teenaged dignity and decorum.
I couldn’t tell you the exact route we took that day, but I remember the places we saw. The rainbow flags over the intersection of Market and Castro Streets fluttered on high. Men and women chattered away, sitting outside a coffee shop in Noe Valley. I snapped a shot of the El Capitan Theater from the rolled-down window as we drove through the Mission District, and I oohed and aahed over the beautiful murals covering the building walls. Later we stopped for gelato at my aunt’s favorite North Beach store.
But what made this tour especially memorable were the sights that no other visitor would care to notice: A red three-story house with white-lined windows. A quiet white and blue church fitted on a street corner. These were the landmarks of my family’s history—my mother’s first home in America, and the church my parents married in. I even visited my parents’ junior high and high schools, where they met over two decades ago. They were still alive with summer school and club activities and kids running wild.
Only afterwards, when we went back through the photos I’d taken, my relatives chattering around me about their childhood and their memories, that my limited scope of the city truly widened. I realized that my parents, my aunts and uncles and grandparents each had had a city of their own, a city that was not the “San Francisco” of travel lore. They contributed somewhat to its history as Chinese immigrants, yes, but it was in the smaller scope that they made the city their own, made it their new home, creating their own individual lives and histories along the way.
Knowing a city wasn’t just about knowing where the tourist hotspots are. It was about the underlying essence, the years and the love and the character that the little people have given the city to make it what it is as a whole. Tours, fascinating as they are, can only show you the results of those years.
So I could tell you that San Francisco has a population of 800,000.
But I could never tell you how many people there were on the way.
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