Ride with Me: Passenger Talks Biculturalism in Oakland, CA

*Names and certain identifying details have been changed to protect confidentiality

Exploring the city

Known by many as San Francisco’s across the bridge neighbor, Oakland is the largest city in the East Bay region of the SF Bay Area, widely varied and home to 440,000. Accompanying its downtown’s urban grit are the hipster Temescal neighborhood, the posh and upscale Rockridge, and the Latino culture, artistic vibes and authentic taquerias of the Fruitvale district.

Up in the hills, towering redwoods await, as do exquisite hikes and retreats into nature. Green moss shrouds the trunks and branches of trees at Huckelberry Regional Park, creating a jungly feel while enclosing hikers in a tunnel-like canopy. Much of the wood and logs from the hills of Oakland were used to construct San Francisco back in the early 1800s.

Redwood trees in Oakland
Redwood Regional Park in the Oakland Hills

Having grown up in the next town over, I’ve seen the city in various stages of evolution and hold many memories of it— particularly of downtown’s Lake Merritt (located about ten blocks from my childhood home), where my dad took my sister and me to ride our bikes, feed the ducks, and run through the grassy maze when we were kids. High school cross-country teammates and I ran laps around its 3.5 mile perimeter several times a week. Some weekends my friend Eric and I would take part in a lake clean-up group, using giant nets to pull everything from couches to dead turtles to drug baggies to condoms out from the water.

Still, it wasn’t exactly considered a desirable place for people to spend their leisure time at.

Things have changed a lot since then. The Lake Merritt of today welcomes a heterogeneity of human backgrounds, a site that unifies the old, the young, the bikers, the bladers, the yogees, the sprinters, and the casual strollers. Couples paddling through the water in canoes, the 20-something men with shoulder-length hair stepping precariously across slack-lines tied between oak trees, and groups of middle-aged women doing yoga in the grass all speak to the vibrant hub it’s become.

I don’t want to paint broad strokes or glamorize the city though. Not when the truth is that this “diversification” and growth has sadly occurred in tandem with gentrification and come at the cost of displacement.

Many neighborhoods of East Oakland, for instance, house people of color who have been pushed further and further to the margins as more people with higher socioeconomic standings move to the more desirable and populous center. These neighborhoods lack basic amenities like a grocery store or gas station due to redlining and other discriminatory practices, forcing residents to travel in order to purchase their necessities.

Driving Lyft through this familiar city, passengers include a girl originally from Korea, who’s just finished midterms and is on her way to CatTown Cafe as a form of “pet therapy;” a guy I pick up in front of the Fox Theater, whose his hair is matted down with what he refers to as “concert sweat,” and is carrying a half- consumed, slightly crushed water bottle; an older lady passenger who, when dropped off, gestures to the colorful little tree (from the branches of which hang multiple types of) in her front yard and tells me “it’s a fruit salad tree.”

Perhaps most substantive of all of them was my ride with Denzel, who opened up about the experience of growing up biracial. Scroll further down to read his story.

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Nanny Mind Games

 “I love playing mind games with kids. Not in a manipulative way or just for the fun of it— but with the goal of helping them in the long run,” she continues. “Like getting them to eat their vegetables by pretending the spoon’s the train and their mouth’s the tunnel.”

-Passenger Layla*, who works as a nanny in East Oakland and whose shirt with its colorful, visually arresting pattern reminds me of a Rubik’s cube

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# Spanish Practice: Overfed Geese

“Se dice que no se les debe dar comida a los gansos. Que si comen demasiado no pueden volar. Que sus barrigas llenas les mantienen atrapados en el suelo. Pero la gente aún les da pan. Está convirtiéndose en un problema grave.”

They say you shouldn’t give them food, the geese. That if they eat too much, they can’t fly. Their full bellies keep them on the ground. But people still feed them. It’s becoming a big problem.

– A middle-aged woman passenger about Lake Merritt’s Canadian geese, as we drive past the lake

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Bigger Passenger Story: Biracial Identity and Passing

“How can you exist if you don’t know where you are? What do you do if your culture will always be that of a Thai fishing village and of Parisian grands bourgeois at the same time? Or if you’re the son of immigrants but also the citizen of an old, conservative nation?”

I begin with this quote from Muriel Barberry’s Elegance of the Hedgehog because I like the way it captures some of the experience of living between two cultures and identities. It’s an experience that Passenger Denzel* knows all too well, having grown up in two geographically close yet distinct communities.

“My mom lived in the hills, dad lived deep in East Oakland. I went back and forth between them every weekend,” he recalls.

Minutes earlier I’d pulled over in front of Rockridge Bart to pick him up, looking out my rolled-down window to take in the surroundings as I waited for him.

A pigeon perches atop the big yellow“R” of the Rockridge sign. Outside Market Hall white couples both old and young sip from coffees while prodding at the food on their plates. Newly arrived Bart commuters descend the escalators and unlock their bikes from metal racks. Bart whooshes by overhead, creating that eerie high-pitched horror movie sound mixed in with some clanking and clattering.

Denzel is carrying a brown paper bag from Cactus Taqueria when he gets into the backseat. Dark hair covered by a black baseball cap and dressed in a grey sweatshirt, he tells me he’s just been to the dentist’s.

“And now I’m about to destroy all his hard work with this messy fucker,” he says with faux menace in his voice, giving the bag a shake.

We briefly discuss the awkward conundrum of trying to converse with dentists when your tongue is held captive by their tools.

“Forming words without the use of your tongue— it’s like trying to run without feet!” he aptly compares.

The brown bag crinkles in his lap. Inside of it rests a jumbo steak burrito that, after returning home, Denzel will have just enough time to scarf down before heading to work in the service industry. It’s a job that he hopes to quit soon in order to go back to school to become a public defender.

Writing is one of his strengths, he tells me, which will help him in the process. His mentioning an essay he wrote that helped him get into college on the East Coast segues him into talking about his biracial identity. 

“Played for two different baseball teams,” he recalls. “I was the blackest kid on one, whitest on the other.”

Denzel pauses here and looks out the window, reaching into his Cactus bag and breaking off a piece of tortilla (only the tortilla, I note– not any of the burrito’s inner contents) then slipping it into his mouth before continuing. 

“It gave me a bigger network, which was cool. Feel like it taught me how to get along with different kinds of people.”

When he says this I think about a passenger I drove a few weeks earlier–Jamie*, a girl whose mom was from Spain and dad was from Mexico. With her blond hair and blue eyes, she often passed as white.

She too mentioned partial inclusion and acceptance into two different groups as advantages of her biculturalism.

“No one knows I speak Spanish. It can be fun—kinda makes me feel like an undercover agent sometimes,” I remember her saying.

Like Denzel and Jamie, throughout my life I too have passed, albeit not in a racial sense but as an LGBT person constantly perceived as straight in a world where despite the strides we’ve made, heterosexuality continues to be the assumed default.

Heteronormativity

Comments and experiences that reinforce heteronormativity have run the gamut.

A guy asking, “Are you selling those for a friend?” (referring to the books with lesbian characters on my blanket at a flea market) is an example of one.

An elderly Latina lady joking about bringing me back a husband from El Salvador as the two of us sipped coffee together at a work breakfast is another.

“Portland’s a great place. Expensive right now, but if you find a reason to go—like if you meet some dude who wants to move there—I really recommend going,” a male  LYFT passenger once said to me.

I imagine one advantage passing has granted me is that I’m subjected to fewer overt acts of homophobia in places outside of the Bay Area. Strangers at rural country gas stations, for instance, can’t discriminate against me if they don’t know I’m gay just by looking at me.

As we drive down Grand Avenue past the shimmering marquee of the Grand Lake Theater, Denzel touches on one of the drawbacks of passing: “That access (to a bigger network) was cool, but it’s also like, neither group fully got me. I didn’t fit perfectly into either one.”

I remember Jamie expressing a similar sentiment, something along the lines of: “Who people perceive me as isn’t completely true to who I am. And that can feel icky sometimes.”

Like Jamie I too felt uncomfortable (particularly in my younger years) when people’s assumptions didn’t align with my true identity, and like Denzel I also at times felt like full belonging eluded me in both the straight world and the gay one. As someone who didn’t “look” LGBT but was, it wasn’t until cutting my hair short in Uruguay and adopting a more queer aesthetic that I perceived a warmer reception when inside queer spaces (I’ve since let it grow back because long hair feels more “me”).

Lake Merritt appears through the window to our left as I briefly reflect on this, and my attention turns to the glimpses of life that flicker beside it: a pug nuzzling a golden retriever in the grass; an older Asian lady dressed in black leggings and a long-sleeved teal shirt doing squats next to a bike rack; an Ethiopian wedding taking place on the lake dock. I smile watching a three-legged dog race ahead to match the swift pace of his roller-blading owner. 

Overhead the sun is a ghostly golden, stretching its limbs and coming in and out of view from behind the clouds like a stealthy, elusive octopus. As it sinks lower into the sky it bathes each of these moving images in a twilight hue.

It illuminates the passenger’s face as well as he recounts the morning in his childhood that his dad, a grits purist intolerant of any imposters or close imitations, caught him eating a bowl of oatmeal and responded in a way that forever changed how Denzel felt about grits.

“‘What is this?’ I remember him yelling before he threw the bowl across the room. Then I remember it shattering when it hit the wall, and watching the oatmeal ooze down towards the ground as my dad proclaimed in a loud voice ‘We only eat grits in this house!'”

“We only eat grits in this house!”

He laughs.

“I still always choose oatmeal over grits now, and I’m pretty sure that one incident’s the reason why.”

Often when I drive past Lake Merritt now, the subject of passing comes to mind. I think about the way certain identities are nuanced and defy easy categorization. I think too about the Ingrid Rojas Contreras quote (from her book Fruit of the Drunken Tree), “They told us to strive for assimilation. But how could we choose? The US was the land that saved us; Colombia was the land that saw us emerge.”

Grits flying across the kitchen and splattering against the wall alternate with images of Denzel playing baseball with the white kids in the hills and the black kids in the flatlands. I hear a dentist gregariously firing questions at a patient with a pinned-back tongue like a coach throwing footballs at a downed linebacker. I see Denzel wolfing down bites of burrito in between putting on his work shirt, combing through his hair, checking for wallet cell phone keys before racing out the door.

To close off, here are a couple more passages about living between boundaries that resonated with me:

“When you live between cultures and boundaries, invisible appendages take root. Tandoori chicken with macaroni and cheese is more than fusion food—it is the zoom lens through which one experiences the world. There are pauses and uncertainties from this vantage point as a new culture emerges.” – Deonna Kelli Sayed, Love InShAlla

“I am always ‘almost there.’  I am almost a girl, or almost a boy. I am almost butch enough, or almost genderqueer enough, almost radical enough or interesting enough or attractive enough. But I never feel that I am enough, which academia taught me is the state of being queer. To be on the cusp, to exist on the edge, within and without. To be the barrier between or beyond.” – Kate, ButchPlease column in Auto Straddle

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#Lyft Thoughts #Road Diaries: Changing lanes for nothing

When you get all all exultant and proud of yourself  because you’ve finally managed to change into the crowded  adjacent lane that seemed like it was going to be impossible to change into, full as it was of grumpy drivers and people who didn’t want to surrender any space, only to realize that your two lanes were about to merge anyways.

Really punctures a hole in my exultation, you know?

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**Check back in the coming weeks for another LyftTales entry!

Photo credits

Geese- http://www2.oaklandnet.com/government/o/PWA/o/EC/s/MeasureDD/OAK025955

Rubik’s cube- https://www.etsy.com/listing/892446572/rubiks-cube-digital-image

Rockridge sign- https://www.sobusobu.com/blogs/the-sobu-guide-to-rockridge-oakland

Dentist cartoon- https://stock.adobe.com/hk/search?k=dentist%20cartoon

Mesitzos – http://www.ethnicityrace.org/conference.php

Published by esteph42190

A 30-year-old queer bilingual writer born and raised in the Bay Area, I’ve been writing since before I knew how to spell. Balancing my generative energy with a desire to inform, as a child I printed and distributed to classmates publications that included The News Newsletter and Health Digest (ironic considering I also ran an illicit candy business that landed me in the principal’s office several times). As a student at UC Davis I wrote for The California Aggie, with pieces ranging from an exploration of gender roles in the movie Tangled to my own weekly psychology column. After graduating I kept a bilingual blog of my 14 months living in Montevideo, Uruguay, and upon returning continued to blog about social issues and human psychology.

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