Reflections, reprogramming in San Francisco

Life since COP18 has been tumultuous at best. After spending a frantic two weeks in Doha, Qatar for the UN climate negotiations, I came back to the US feeling tired, disappointed and, well, downtrodden in a lot of ways. Instead of jumping on the next grassroots organizing bandwagon, I withdrew from the climate scene and instead occupied my time with trivial, lighthearted activities: watching reality TV shows, partying/hanging out with friends and generally avoiding all activism-related work. I couldn’t ignore it completely, though, and often found myself wishing I was out there doing my part to save the world, but I lacked the courage and empowerment I thought I needed to be successful.

About a month ago I heard of a grassroots organizing conference in Berkeley that also promised to bring “clarity, focus, ease and grace” to one’s social justice efforts. This opportunity sounded like exactly what I was needing at the time – a weekend training with friends in a cool city – except for one caveat: the three-day event was priced at $600 and did not include food, travel and accommodations. Friends who’d attended before praised it to a life-changing calibre, and since they’d been right about other conferences I knew this would be a meaningful experience. But I still couldn’t shake off the event’s price tag – the down payment alone would’ve equaled a month’s worth of living expenses. Even with scholarships and payment plan options, I had to really sit down and think about it: was I willing to pay that much money for something I might be able to achieve, though likely not as quickly nor easily, on my own?

What I felt to be most true was that I was not willing to pay that much for a three-day conference, no matter how life-changing it could potentially be; by not attending, I consequentially obligated myself to rise to the challenge of bringing clarity, ease and grace to my climate/social justice work without resources from the conference. While I still felt apprehensive about pursuing my closely-guarded dreams and ideas, I felt excited by this challenge: I knew what I wanted to do and how to do it, and by simply trusting my instincts and acting accordingly I felt empowered and confident in my ability to succeed. My biggest takeaway from this experience was that it takes so much more effort to convince oneself to not do something than to just do it – even if it ends in failure, it’s so much easier to take a chance and just do it.

Since I’d already purchased my bus ticket to San Francisco, I decided to spend my time exploring the city in lieu of attending the conference. I rode cable cars up and down the hills and buses across the bay; most of the time I roamed the streets on foot. With a free city map I found my way to landmarks such as Chinatown, Japantown and Pier 39, places I’d visited with friends on roadtrips a few years back. A place I’d never visited before was the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park; inside I watched a show in the planetarium and snapped photos inside the aquarium and four-story rainforest. I attended a March Against Monsanto rally downtown that was held in solidarity with dozens more around the world for a global day of action protesting GMOs. Everywhere I went was also a prime spot for people-watching: I crossed paths with folks of all ages, nationalities and walks of life.

This trip reminded me of how much I love to travel: I felt a strong sense of accomplishment and self-reassurance every time I successfully navigated myself to a destination without technological support (i.e. no smart phone, limited wifi access). Being in an unfamiliar place felt refreshing; it kept me on my toes and enabled me to break out of my monotonous mindset. I was reminded of how much beauty and honesty could be found in the simplest of acts: offering a seat to an elder or a parent with small children, making small talk with a man who slept on that park bench last night, receiving good-natured advice in a Chinatown bakery (“That’s fermented duck egg – you don’t want that,” said the woman next to me in line when I inquired about a pastry labeled Thousand Year Duck).

Yet as much as I love traveling, flying solo on adventures never seems to be as fun as when with friends or loved ones. I was thankful and giddy to have successfully found my way to places I’d been before with friends, but the excitement wore off as I realized these places – a hilly knoll in the Haight, a cupcake stand in Japantown, even a BevMo! on Van Ness – were only exciting to me because they held sentimental value; they’d changed since I’d last seen them, and in my mind they’d never be as great as the first time I experienced them – with the people who’d experienced them with me.

San Francisco also showed me how major cities can strive for both cultural inclusivity and economic/environmental resiliency in the future. I loved seeing translations for at least three languages on billboards and street signs, or hearing announcements translated on public transportation and in tourist-heavy areas; I felt happy knowing that city planners and businesses understood how translation services make things easier for both tourists and employees, as well as encourage tourism and, thus, economic revenue. Most importantly, though, I saw this multilingualism as a beacon of anti-oppression and cultural inclusivity for the rest of the country to follow.

But as I observed the people around me – especially the older folks of Asian descent, usually traveling alone – I was reminded of my grandma, who’s living by herself in LA and getting to that age where she probably shouldn’t be driving. I felt so worried about her: what if she forgot to take her medication? what if she goes too long without eating because she’s so engrossed in her work? what if she gets into another car accident? After considering these anxieties for a while I realized how helpful it is for me to be living with my grandma: this living situation lets me save my money for traveling instead of paying rent, and I’m able to assist my grandma and, of course, spend time with her.

As I prepare for a trip back up to Oregon next month I hope to gradually increase progress on my personal goals. I’ve told my grandma about one of the ideas I’ve had, but have felt too scared/disempowered to pursue, and she not only thinks it’s a good idea but is going to hold me accountable to my goal so that I have some support in achieving it. I am going to stop putting so much energy into discouraging myself, and instead refocus that energy to maintaining a healthy lifestyle (diet and exercise) and working on projects/tasks that are fulfilling and empowering (writing, crafting, organizing). I think what I lacked before was an idea of what a successful “me” would look like; I have that now, and can’t wait to make it a reality.

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