Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Dinner by the Asian American Journalist Association (AAJA) on May 22, 2005

It is 4 p.m. and I can't decide if I should drive to San Francisco, take BART, or take Caltrain. I know that BART is more frequent, but I would have to drive all the way to Fremont to catch it. I look for BART schedule on the net--the train leaves Fremont every 20 minutes, and to go to the Embarcadero station I would have to change trains at Bay Fair. While I am making decisions about my commute my clothes are going through laundry. I look at the clock, it is 4:20; the dryer will run till 4:45; let me quickly take a shower, get ready, take the clothes out of the dryer, and then head to the Fremont BART station. I won't be able to catch the 5:12 train, but the 5:32 one looks more doable. I go through the program. It is 5:02 when I get in the car, but then another setback: I am out of gas. I stop at the neighborhood gas station; first thinking of buying enough gas to just make it to the Fremont station, but then deciding on filling up the tank--heck I am already late for the 5:32 train. MapQuest says it will take 28 minutes to drive to the Fremont station. While driving I wonder if MapQuest calculates driving times for really slow drivers, if I will be able to make it there in 15 minutes, just in time to catch the 5:32 train. Traffic slows down near the Dixon Landing exit on 880. I am not looking at the clock anymore. MapQuest told me to turn right on Mowry, then right on the Civic Center Drive, and then left on BART way. I keep driving on Mowry, but I don't find the Civic Center Drive. I wonder if I have missed it. I make a right turn at a signal to see if going down that way I will come across BART way. I stop at the next light. The car on my left has its window down. I ask the driver about the BART station. He tells me to go back to Mowry and keep driving in the direction I was driving; Civic Center Drive will be after Paseo Padre. I do what he told me. This being Sunday, there is plenty of parking available at the station. I walk to the station building and for the next couple of minutes fight with the ticket machine. It is not accepting my credit card. I feed dollar bills in the machine, it spits my $4.70 ticket to Embarcadero. There is a train at the station; I get in and take a seat. It is now 5:42. There is an announcement that the doors are about to close. Hooray! It is the 5:32 train running 10 minutes late, I tell myself. The doors close, but seconds later open back. My joy is short lived. It is the 5:52 train; the driver was just playing with the doors, and me. I hate her. The train leaves on time. The car I am sitting in is mostly empty. The commuter trains have their own unique culture. All the passengers sit very quietly, either reading something or looking out of the window. They are all aware of each other's presence but they pretend otherwise. And then there is always this instance when the doors joining your car to the other car open, a man enters, walks across, and leaves at the other end. Everybody checks him out and forms their own opinion about him.

Two stations later three young girls board our car and liven up the atmosphere. That's another organic part of the commuter train culture: young, good looking women will board the train and everybody will become interested in them. These three girls are talking rather loudly and all of us while pretending we are not paying any attention are keenly interested in their conversation. The girl wearing a black T-shirt bends to get something out of her bag. Her top lifts up and bares the lower portion of her back. You can see she is wearing a red underwear, a thong. It is taking her a while to find what she is looking for--nobody minds the delay. Take your time, Honey! But then she sits up and the show is over.

I get off at Bay Fair. There is a little wait at that station. During that time two trains carrying passengers unknown to me, living lives of complexities unrecognized by me, pass by.

By the time I reach Embercadero it is 6:42. I walk to 101 Spear Street. The dinner is at Yank Sing Restaurant. There are a bunch of people outside the restaurant; all dressed up, putting on their best behavior, enjoying drinks, talking passionately. I look for a registration table, there is none. I walk into the restaurant. It is full. Tables are numbered. I look for a table with all the South Asian journalists sitting at it; I don't find one. I am now looking for Julie Patel of San Jose Mercury News; I am here on her invitation. I find Julie at the far end of the room. I am glad I recognize her even when she is in a sari today--our last meeting took place many months ago. Julie tells me she wasn't sure I was coming, someone else has taken the seat at the table I was going to sit at. She says I can sit at the table we are standing it; there are two seats available there. I take a seat and get introduced to the people at that table. They are Jane Morrison of San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee, Gimmy Park Li of Susquehanna, Boyd Fung of Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office, Brenda Huang of Tracy Press, and Audrey Wong and Judith Sagami of Daily Republic. We talk about little things newly introduced people talk about. Jane tells me she is originally from Oklahoma and came to California in 1949. I wonder if that year California had a centennial celebration of the gold rush. I ask if being so late I have missed anything. Jane tells me I missed the Filipino dance. Brenda tells me the name of that dance, a name that slips off my mind very quickly. I'll Google it.

Then the speeches start. I am sitting behind a massive pillar. To see the speaker I have to turn my chair around and pull out a bit. It is an awkward position. Just then Julie shows up; she tells me there are seats at Table #18, in case I want to move. I mumble my excuse to the people at the table and head to #18. After I leave I wonder if my table-mates thought it was rude of me to leave like that. I am sorry, but don't know how to convey my sorry to them.

Table #18 is more centrally located. I can see the podium and the speakers. I get introduced to some of the people at that table. They are Virginia Mak of HP, Edward Iwata of USA Today, and Kai Aiyetoro of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters.

Speeches are made by important people while we carry on with our dinner. I feel very ignorant because I don't know any of the speakers--well, I know Lisa Chung of the Mercury News. The cliché of that night's speeches is civil rights: Asian Americans representation in media, diversity in Hollywood, same sex marriages, and all.

Yank Sing is famous for its many course dinner--this will be my first time to go beyond a 3-course affair (salad/soup, entree, and dessert). Multiple course dinner appropriately comes with smaller serving plates--you are supposed to take just a bit from every course. Salad and soup are followed by shrimp cocktail, then fish, then vegetables, then chicken, then I don't remember what. The business ends with rice. People are now getting up. Everyone has overeaten. A waiter comes and asks if any of us would like to pack anything to take home. We all ponder the merits and demerits of that proposition. Kai braves out; she tells the waiter she would like to have the remainder of the shrimp dish packed. I follow suit and ask for the leftover rice and fish.

The waiter comes back after a few minutes; he got two bags in his hand. I am given the big red plastic bag--the rice and fish are in there in a foam box; Kai gets the small paper bag. Kai comments on why she didn't get her paper bag in a bigger plastic bag like mine. I ask the waiter to get a plastic bag for Kai. He says they don't have anymore plastic bags. I don't know what to think of this. Kai says something to the young woman sitting next to her. I can't hear her but I wonder if Kai is commenting on this incidence to be some kind of discrimination. Was it sexism? That I being a man was treated better than a woman (Kai), or was it some kind of racism in which Asian Americans are provided better service than the Afro Americans?

I say goodbye to Kai and others and leave. I go back to the table I sat at earlier. Boyd, Brenda, and others are still there. I take leave from them and promise I will get in touch with them via email.

I now look for Julie; I want to talk to her before leaving. Julie is one of the organizers of today's program. Tonight she is a social butterfly gliding from one corner of the room to the other, giving smiles, saying hi to everyone she knows, which is basically everyone in the hall. I meet her and briefly speak to her. I tell her I need to send her my check for the dinner. She asks if I have my checkbook with me. I don't. I had this mental note that I would tear off one check from the checkbook and take it with me to the dinner. But then in the rush of things I completely forgot.

It is a little after 9 p.m. as I come out of the restaurant. The Spear Street is deserted. I walk towards the BART station; far behind me a homeless person yells something and I fight the urge to look back. The BART station is full of life. I am able to use my ATM card at the ticket machine. I now realize that at the Fremont station I was inserting my credit card backwards; that's why the machine failed to read it.

Sitting in the train I pull out a blank piece of paper. I have to become one with the commuter train culture. I must be absorbed in doing something. I start writing notes on today's program.