Go with a smile!

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

California 2008

Things had become strained a little during our visit to Yosemite national park. The previous day, we ate some junk food and my sister even had some onion rings. But as the day wore on, she got grumpier and grumpier. Yosemite was a beautiful place, but it’s a little bit crowded for a national park. Can you imagine any park in Singapore where you have to spend a few hours in a traffic jam because the cars on the thoroughfares are crawling? Probably this was the summer break, and a lot of people were visiting. It would be easy to spot our car: it was the only one with a North Carolina car plate. Aside from us, the furthest away car plate was Texas.

We saw great marvels: snow capped mountains, winding rivers, great waterfalls and giant sequoia trees. Even the charred remains of a forest fire. Earlier on, she had been in a good enough mood to take a very scenic shot with the remains of a squirrel killed by a car in the foreground. But by the time we visited the sequoia trees in the afternoon I had to bite my teeth as she lashed out at me at letting her do all the driving. It turned out that she had fallen sick, and had the flu. Well it was dumb of me not to notice, but she never mentioned it to me either. Women are like that, they expect you to know everything.

It was just as well I had let her do all the driving up till then, because from then on until the end of the journey, I was behind the wheel. We took a long and winding road out of Yosemite, and because I was driving the car so slowly, I often found myself at the head of an increasingly long convoy. Those roads are 1 lane in each direction, but there are places, like a bus bay, where they allow you to drive off the road, and allow those people behind you to pass first. It’s the opposite of overtaking. We drove through the rustic parts of California for ages before we came to the main highway.

We stopped at a fast food joint for dinner (where else?) Then we continued on our way. It was dark and scary. Throughout the trip, we tried to drive only during daylight, but this was the last day, so we’d thought we would keep on driving until we reached the Bay area. This is not Singapore where every highway has street lights. And even so, there were enough cars on the highway to make you nervous. I was going at more than 100 kmh, which was the standard speed everybody was going at. Luckily I was fully awake: if I had thought I would fall asleep, I would have stopped and pulled over. Finally, at a convenience store not more than half an hour from the destination, I pulled over and handed the wheel back to my sister, who would navigate the car into the Bay Area, the way a pilot guides a ship into harbour.

One enduring regret about the road trip: we never took a picture of the interior of the car as it was carrying all of my sister’s stuff, as the back seat was packed just short of obstructing the rear view mirror. We took hundreds of photos during that trip, including quite a few shots of what my sister’s car looked from the outside, but no interior shots.

It was 10 or 11 when we reached the house. She was subletting it from another immigrant couple. We had a room that was on the exterior of the house. (People who live in tropical climates may not care for this, but rooms on the exterior of the house are the coldest.) There was no heating, and I had not been prepared for how cold summer nights are in California. The temperatures can drop to below 10 celsius.
This was my second time in California. I had gone to California 2 weeks earlier to hook up with my parents, who had attended my sister’s graduation, and who were going home. Then my sister and I would fly back to North Carolina, then drive the car over to Cali.

We spent the next few days shopping for various things. We went to WalMart, the great retailer of the 00s. It was packed with people and (probably) illegal immigrant workers. Incredibly, no matter how packed it is, everything was laid out immaculately, nothing was out of place. In contrast, we went to Sears, the great retailer of the 70s. It was almost a ghost town, and even though it was quiet, a lot of people were queuing up at the counter because the incompetent cashier didn't have a clue about what she was doing, even though she looked like she had been there for 20 years. She asked us if we wanted to apply for a Sears card in order to get 20% off our purchase. Then we said, OK, is it alright if we are not residents? She said that it's OK. Then later on after the system refused to accept our forms, she said, "how come you didn't tell me you weren't residents?" We couldn't get angry because we were laughing so hard at the moronicity of the cashier.

My aunt was ordering nail polish, and she wanted to find certain colours. We spent a lot of time hunting around for her nail polish but we just couldn't find it. It was funny to be buying nail polish for people who were on the wrong side of 50.

One morning, I took the train down to San Francisco. It was weird sitting in an MRT thingy (they called it BART) that was built in the 70s, and is really empty. You will never see an empty MRT station. I went into San Francisco, and got a complimentary copy of the San Francisco chronicle - senator Barack Obama had just won the biggest election fight of his life and secured the Democratic Party nomination ahead of Hillary Clinton (in comparison, it was not that difficult to beat John McCain, and we knew that.)

Walked around San Francisco. It is part of the Wild West, but it has enough history in it to be more than 100 years old. It had the biggest Chinatown of any city in the USA, and it also has a name that's not directly translated from English. There were a lot of old piers that were converted into nice swanky places (think about Collyer Quay).

Took a while to get used to the bus system (you pay $1.50 to get on, but after that, for the next few hours, you get as many free transfers as you want.) It was really hilly as well. The trams were more than 100 years old, even if they were retro-fitted. It was a nice place, even though I inevitably ended up hanging around the bookstores too much. There was this bookstore that was famous for being a counterculture hangout.

I visited the first headquarters of the United Nations. It looked freaky, with great big statues which ended up invariably being apologists for imperialism. Outside, there was a bad neighbourhood. A Chinese tramp and a caucasian tramp were fighting, and the Chinese tramp won. I shouldn't be proud of this but I was rooting for the Chinese tramp.

I also visited Ghiradelli's chocolate centre. Nice coffee and stuff, waterfront stuff. Didn't have time for Alcatraz.

The next day I visited Stanford. School had ended and there was hardly anybody around. I have been biased, or perhaps it was because a lot of my formative years had been spent in my own alma mater, or perhaps the best looking colleges are in secluded areas where nobody wants to go. I still thought that my college was the best looking one around.

But walking around the campus - which I'm told is one of the biggest campuses around, - I have mixed emotions. I had expanded my intellectual range greatly during those years, but I hadn't thought enough about how that fit into the great scheme of things. I hadn't thought enough about what were the truly important things in life. And studying in a great American university in many ways didn't teach you the right things.

In some ways, California was the image of paradise. LA is fond of boasting that it’s a place where you have 300 days of sunshine a year. Skies are more often than not blue, and the weather is supposedly perfect. It’s a place which boasts some of the best cuisine in the world, and grows some of the best produce in the USA. It’s the golden state, where the living is good. It’s the California of the hippie era, but also the California of the Internet era, the capital of cyberspace. My sister drove to a weekend market, where there were a lot of nice cafes and bistros. Food from every ethnicity and culture, and it was fine food. I think it's also true that California is an agricultural paradise, where you grow some of the finest food in the world.

But it was also here that my sister, for the next year, would endure her infamous first year as a surgical intern. She would work for 80 hour weeks (on average; she sometimes got 90 or 100). Her sublandlords would give her trouble because they didn't always like her using the kitchen. (Luckily she moved out after 1 year). It was awfully strange. But maybe it looks like that for migrants working in Singapore - on one hand this is a place which looks 10 times better than anything you can get back home, and on the other hand, you could end up plenty miserable in a place like this.

When it was time for me to go home, we set off early, and thank heavens for that. Because after almost 1 hour of driving, I found out that I had left behind the boxes of chocolates I had bought for my colleagues. My sister actually turned back and got it, and we had 1 more hour talking to each other about the future.

After that, it was time to go.

I've been to America once, when it was the greatest superpower in the world. But now when I left, it was a superpower in decline. But it has been in decline before, in the 70s and the early 90s, so who really knows?



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