What San Francisco Says About America
AFTER more than 27 years abroad, mostly as a foreign correspondent in Asia covering civil unrest and poverty, I wander the streets of this city, my new home, like an enchanted tourist.
The people who share sidewalks with me must wonder why I sometimes laugh out loud. The advertisements for sustainably grown marijuana on the sides of San Francisco buses. (“That’s cannabis, the California way.”) The comfort dogs on public transport and the woman who brought her dog to the Easter Sunday service. Blindingly white teeth. The burrito that was so huge it felt as if it would break my wrist. Police officers covered in tattoos.
I left the United States when Ronald Reagan was president, so adjusting to life here involves more than just unlearning the metric system and remembering to put the month before the day when writing checks.
I drive around the Bay Area marveling at the America that we often take for granted. In so many countries that I covered in Southeast Asia it was a given that the elites would take over public land as a kind of perquisite of power. But in the hills and gullies surrounding San Francisco I gaze in amazement at the endless unmolested tracts of open space.
I spend hours in supermarket aisles. Organic ice cream sandwiches! Vegan shoes! A “Bluetooth compatible” electric toothbrush!
The America of 2016 is so much more specialized than the one I left in 1988. It almost seems that we have created needs so that we can cater to them.
I stop and stare at the giant trucks in San Francisco designed for the specific purpose of shredding and hauling documents. What a luxury as a society to produce tons of confidential documents and then deploy specialized trucks to destroy them. I knew yoga was big in California and ditto for cannabis. But it was still a surprise to discover “ganja yoga.”
The Bay Area is, of course, the world’s laboratory for new technology. I tend to meet people finding solutions for problems I never knew we had. A woman told me she was developing an algorithm that would determine what kind of books a child might want to read.
Everyone keeps offering me credit in America. I drove away from a dealer with a brand-new $30,000 car without handing over a penny. It was so thrilling that I keep repeating this routine. I bought a Vespa. Why not? At 2 percent interest the money seemed almost free. Then I bought shopping carts full of home improvement materials at Home Depot and was told I didn’t have to pay for them for two years.
Someone needs to tell Equifax to decline my next credit application. This could end in penury.
Of course some of what I’ve encountered has been less alluring. During all my years in Asia I constantly grappled with the perniciousness of poverty. Yet somehow I was unprepared for the scale and severity of homelessness in San Francisco.
The juxtaposition of the silent whir of sleek Tesla electric vehicles, with the outbursts of the mentally ill on the sidewalks. Destitution clashing with high technology. Well-dressed tourists sharing the pavement with vaguely human forms inside cardboard boxes.
I’m confounded how to explain to my two children why a wealthy society allows its most vulnerable citizens to languish on the streets. My son, when he first encountered a homeless man, asked why no one “wanted to adopt him.”
It seems a terrible statement about my home country that my children will encounter homelessness and mental illness much more vividly in the wealthiest nation in the world than they did in Thailand, where we previously lived.
During a trip back to Bangkok I spoke about this paradox with Nopphan Phromsri, the secretary general of the Human Settlement Foundation, an organization that assists the homeless there.
有一次我回到曼谷，与当地无家可归者关怀组织人类住区基金会(Human Settlement Foundation)的秘书长诺班‧蓬西(Nopphan Phromsri)女士聊起这种矛盾。
Greater Bangkok, a sprawling metropolis with more than 10 million people, has 1,300 homeless people, a survey this year found.
San Francisco has less than one-tenth Bangkok’s population but six times as many homeless people. I’m sure you could fill a book with the reasons for this. Ms. Nopphan believes that homelessness is more intractable in rich societies. “In wealthy countries there are systems for everything,” she said. “You’re either in the system or out of the system.” There is no in-between in America. In Bangkok, by contrast, rich and poor coexist. There are vast tracts of cheap, makeshift homes and a countryside where people in the cities can return to if they lose their jobs or hit hard times.
On most days Asia feels very far away.
But a few weeks ago I had an odd flash of connection with my old life, during a visit to Walmart. Something about the cavernous warehouse roof, the grid of fluorescent lighting and the austere, sterile design brought on a sense of familiarity. It struck me that the ordered rows in Walmart didn’t look that dissimilar to the factories in Asia where most of these products came from.
I found myself staring at details — the laces on the construction boots, the hints of glue holding together soccer balls, the knots on the drawstring of a sack holding a portable chair.
I remembered the hands that made these things, the factories I visited in China and Southeast Asia where workers spent their days hunched over tables smelling of glue, plastic and leather.
It was as if there was a symmetry across the Pacific between the producers and the consumers, between the factory and the cash register.
I stood in the checkout line and watched milk-fed Americans unloading their carts onto the conveyor belt. My mind flashed back to the diminutive workers in a factory I visited in Tianjin, China, who for a few hundred dollars a month stitched leather boots and who giggled when they thought about the giant feet that would one day fill them.