The Colgate Scene
May 2005

Finding community in San Francisco

Junior Lauren Siegel (right) works on the dinner line at the Glide Foundation, the community service arm of Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco. [Photos by Timothy D. Sofranko]

"Inbound train, now approaching," intones a woman's voice over a loudspeaker. I am under the streets of San Francisco, stepping onto a train that will take me downtown. As the train shifts abruptly forward, I stand in one corner, looking around. Just about everyone reads a newspaper or employs some form of personal technology to enforce the norms of urban anonymity in our briefly shared public space: a cell phone, a BlackBerry, or -- the most ubiquitous of all -- an iPod. Aside from this similarity, the riders appear remarkably diverse, especially by the standards of Hamilton, N.Y. A businesswoman on her way to the Financial District sits in front of a punk rocker with a Mohawk. Two women with plastic shopping bags at their feet converse in what I think is Cantonese . . .

At Powell Station, I get off and walk north, past a line of tourists waiting to get on a cable car, across Union Square toward Chinatown, where I will meet 13 Colgate students for class. The students are participating in the fall 2004 San Francisco Study Group, jointly sponsored by Colgate's sociology and anthropology department and the Asian studies program, and affiliated with San Francisco State University. The brainchild of my colleague Professor Michael Peletz, who led the first group in fall 2003, this program uses San Francisco as a laboratory for studying the movement of people and cultures from across the Pacific Rim. Roughly since the California Gold Rush began in the 1840s, San Francisco has been a "global city," attracting people and resources from all over the world. Today, San Francisco retains this character: according to the U.S. Census, 36.8 percent of San Franciscans in 2000 were first-generation immigrants (versus 11.1 percent for the entire United States; 61.4 percent immigrated from Asia, 21.2 percent from Latin America); 30.8 percent of San Franciscans in 2000 self-identified as Asian (versus 3.6 percent for the entire United States; 19.6 percent of San Franciscans are ethnically Chinese); and 4.3 percent self-identified as multiracial (versus 2.4 percent nationally).

Making my way past touts trying to lure tourists into their restaurants, I head toward the historic Chinatown YWCA building, now home of the Chinese Historical Society of America. The students and I meet twice a week for class here in the heart of Chinatown. As a sociologist interested in the history and culture of work in California, I teach a course titled Working in California. We read about domestic workers in the homes of affluent Los Angelenos and graphic designers in Silicon Valley. We travel to Muir Woods National Monument to see the redwoods that built San Francisco; we make a trip south to Salinas to see the home of John Steinbeck as well as our nation's fresh produce industry (read the label on a head of lettuce next time you're in a grocery store). My goal is to show the students how work in California is intertwined with the study group's broad themes of race and ethnicity, immigration, and globalization.

Members of the San Francisco Study Group move along the crowded streets of the city's Chinatown.
One of my favorite examples of this connection revolves around a common stereotype: the Chinese launderer. Why are there so many Chinese laundries in San Francisco and other American cities with significant populations of Chinese immigrants? The answer is that the Chinese were largely excluded from other forms of work when they moved from labor on the railroads and in mining in the late 19th century. Laundering in the 19th century was hot, exhausting work, and no one was eager to do it. Chinese San Franciscans opened laundries because white workers feared competition from Chinese labor and restricted their access to most urban labor markets, leaving open only truly undesirable work like laundering. Work, then, is a nexus that shapes our views about phenomena like immigration and race, in this case creating cultural boundaries around the kinds of work that are seen as "appropriate" for specific racial groups.

Another key goal for the study group is to get the students (and myself) beyond voyeurism, to engage with real people and real communities in San Francisco, gaining a kind of experiential learning that links with our academic course readings and classroom discussions. To this end, each student also spends six to 10 hours each week interning with a local community organization. Nicky develops curricular materials on the history of Angel Island for the Chinese Historical Society; Daljit counsels young men in San Francisco's lockup for juvenile offenders; Cassie works with a community health organization on the problem of gambling among Chinese Americans; and Juan tutors a recent immigrant from Russia. Each of the students' internship experiences is a chance to make the connection between community and classroom -- in my view, the true purpose of off-campus study.

Over the course of our semester in San Francisco, there are ups and downs. During the students' first two days in the city, I try to give them a crash course in the best transpacific cuisine -- sushi and dim sum -- but many of them are not impressed. They are also relatively indifferent to the classic (at least in my eyes) film Chinatown, starring a young Jack Nicholson, about the politics of water in Los Angeles during the 1920s. To illustrate my example about Chinese Americans and laundries, I make reference in class to an old TV commercial for Calgon laundry detergent ("Ancient Chinese secret, huh?"). Of course, the students, all 18 to 22 years old, have no idea what I'm talking about, given that the commercial aired when I was a kid in the 1970s and early 1980s (see At 35, my cultural references are already getting old.

But as the semester progresses, I am happy to see that the students are becoming more open to the full variety of experiences available to them in the city, and are making connections between these experiences and their coursework. Ana and Lauren bring Vietnamese sandwiches to class for lunch; Maria and Kowo bring take-out dim sum. Kate talks animatedly about the Filipinos in the United States course she is taking at SFSU. I hear interesting reports about the Folsom Street Fair, an annual S&M festival that a few of the students check out one weekend. Several students interning at the Glide Foundation, a community organization located in San Francisco's rough Tenderloin district, are making links between their course readings and the problems of homelessness and drug addiction they see on the street every day. Living, working, and studying in the city, we have found real connections to the communities at the heart of San Francisco.

-- Director of the fall 2004 San Francisco Study Group, Chris Henke is an assistant professor of sociology who has taught at Colgate since 2001. He specializes in the sociology of science and technology, work, and environmental studies.

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