This had been the first time the memory of my dad had come so clearly, slightly over three years after his passing on to another world. I always felt it was strange that, even though my mother had constantly dreamt about him, coming to her in waves of undiluted dreams, sometimes with kindness or sometimes with admonishment. My mother would always tell me about these dreams, recurrent and steady like the ocean. She was always like that, having dreams that related to her family, beautiful dreams full of imagery and legend... I am reminded of one she had of me.
It had something to do with a Tiger, and Mountains, and Korea. She was born in 1943, before the war, in a time that I always thought had the peaceful and winsome feeling of a time past... It was while she was pregnant with me, and the Tiger represented my soul. He was bringing a large piece of meat down the misty hills, and had laid it down in front of her. My oldest sister was spring flowers, and my other sister was a snake. I always thought that these dreams, right on the edge of my mother's imagination, were sort of like a spiritual homeland for me. I, who had never been religious, had always found my solace in these poetic korean tales. Deep inside of me, I felt I faced the twenty first century with still a sense of where I belonged. And all thanks to my mom's dreams.
But that was her. My subconscious had always been eerily passive, which I always found very interesting since I considered myself as having a vivid imagination. I would always find myself in (what I thought) was a peaceful dreamless sleep, and I always privately wondered if her korean-ness had not been passed on to me that way, that it was confined to my taste buds that were always aching for spice and ground pepper paste. But none of that mattered now.
Because right there, in front of me, was dad. A Tiger-Hippo-yoyo with exuberant eyes? Right in the middle of Chinatown, San Francisco? I could not believe what I was seeing. San Francisco had always been the city of my twenties, of hanging out by pagodas and eating green tea ice cream while looking at girls, of going to twelve dollar rock shows... But now it was something entirely different. I had this legendary, dragon-like figure in front of me, and I knew it was him. My dad, who had always been such a serious yet loving man, was dancing, flying over the streets where he had once conquered immigrant fresh faced Chinese women. I always pictured him walking those streets in 1965, so much younger and slimmer than what I would know him as, working as a bus-boy or a delivery man for restaurants... Maybe he was just coming back. And then I heard his voice, in Korean, even though spanish had been the language we had used the most. He spoke to me in a calm, booming voice, so apt to a luckdragon.It was not exactly his voice yet it was, I knew it. It was almost like it was mixed with golden ash and ginseng. My korean's never been so good, but I strangely understood everything.
"How are you son? How are you? It's so good to see you, are you doing ok? You have not changed much since I last saw you... Where's your girl?"
I didn't stand in awe, but actually felt a quiet comfort washing over my heart. The New Year's parade kept going as if nothing had happened. I was certain that nobody else had noticed what I had just heard, my dad's voice booming over the celebrations around it. I looked around for a few moments, and saw the smiling faces of people of all ages, feeling confident and happy in their own turf, under their own rules. But we'll get back to my father in a moment....
Chinatown and its surrounding cities have always been a strange place to me, always retaining that aura of mystery yet mixed with a sense of familiarity that has always escaped me. For most people, Grant Street, the main commercial thoroughfare has always been the main attraction. It always seemed to me as if they were selling dreams for under 5 bucks a pop... A dream of an entirely different world, whether it is red colored smiling Buddhas raising their arms to welcome the storms, or a parasol destined to fend off the incoming mosquitoes, red and yellow pieces of paper blessed with the powers of the Dragon. All of that for under 5 dollars, and the tourists flock to these bottled pieces of fantasy in a world that requires less flights of fancy than usual.
But as I stray farther away from Grant, things start taking an altogether different feeling. The streets are equally crowded, but the people change. Gone are the tourists, the wide eyed Westerners who take endless pictures and stroll around carefreely, and are replaced by a different stock. Chinese people always seem to be lost inside their own world, content in ignoring the lands-even in their own mind- that stray beyond the limits of the Celestial Empire. My dad used to say that Chinese people didn't feel anything else but Chinese, and that little else mattered. Learned in the ways of herbal medicine, their own sense of astrology and destiny, it seemed to be like their power was written in code-inside their almost indecipherable tonal language which rises and falls almost as much as their rugged landscape. Yet they are here, on the other side of the world, creating a self-sufficient community that stands aside from the city, almost looking at it like an aloof Shanghainese lady. Yes, we will sell our products to you, will enchant you with incense and serve you Dim Sum in golden domed restaurants, give you a whiff of what it being Chinese LOOKS like, yet you will never understand the depths of our feeling, the nature of our culture.