2: Philly

We landed in Philadelphia after what must have been an exciting first flight for me and an exhausting one for the grandparents. As a kid I loved to fly and would always order a cup of hot cocoa to drink, not realizing then how much extra work this required of the overworked flight attendants. And as a kid that steaming mug of watery cocoa was divine. Kids create their own world and to paraphrase David Foster Wallace, it is a small and serious one. Kids see everything the way they want to see it, which is what makes them so inspiring yet so ridiculous. For child me, airplanes = hot cocoa and turbulence = a mild roller coaster. All that’s changed now of course. Adult me is too embarrassed to order cocoa in economy class as you’d get either a flat “we don’t serve it” rejection or a harassed acquiescence. And every mid-flight dip or pilot announcement of upcoming turbulence makes my hands sweat as they flee to the hardened safety of the arm rest.

Today when I think of Philadelphia I think of UPenn because my first girlfriend – my first love – went there. I think of squeezed and packed philly cheesesteaks wit wiz, of a street grimyness and art culture and a particular kind of American pride, part nativist and part clan-al, a tight East Coast us-versus-them set that is parts amusing and inspiring and foreign to my Austin and Bay Area sensibilities. I think of our apartment building pot lucks, where Chinese immigrant families gathered so the kids could run amok and the parents could chatter loudly and play rousing games of Monopoly.

We were poor, and not just grad student poor, but immigrant grad students with a young kid poor. Census poor. Like certain sections of San Francisco today, we lived in a Philly neighborhood where it was not uncommon to find your car with its windows smashed, car radio taken, or wheels replaced by cinders. My Dad used a red steering wheel lock and I always thought it looked like a ninja weapon. In fact I was disappointed when we later moved to Florida and stopped using it. Only today do I recognize the stress he must have shouldered from the very nature of having to use and think about those lack-of-trust devices.

We were poor but with a key difference: We were immigrants. Immigrants are like newborn babies, sucking at the teat of the American dream. Everyone in America is an immigrant, but the newer immigrants retain hope. Hope in the right hands is more valuable than cash. Hope made my parents work hard. Hope made them endure whatever indignities surfaced daily, helped them plan and save and worry and push until they carried us up the class ladder, rung by rung. In America, they did what they were told, and they resented it later at home.


This is one in a series of personal reflections. I’m writing them in roughly chronological order, starting with childhood, and hope to arrive at the present day. Click here to see what’s been published. Thanks!

Hi! I write about habits and spirituality and random whatevers. Click here to see the daily habits that I track. Find me on Twitter @kgao.