It would not be an exaggeration to say that I feel as comfortable around Asians as Caucasians, maybe more so. That mindset can be traced back to my experience in high school (1979-1983). Lowell High School was the finest public high school in San Francisco and although at first I was not all the enthusiastic about it, I think now it was a tremendous opportunity to study there. The student body of Lowell High School was about seventy percent Asian American, primarily Chinese. Often I was the only Caucasian in the room at school.
I was quite influenced by some of the Chinese students that I met at Lowell High School. I remember those conversations quite vividly even today. People like Melvin Chan and Dennis Woo who showed a remarkable degree of intellectual engagement. But there was one particular Chinese girl whom I remember quite vividly—even though we did not actually spend that much time together. Her name is Christine Liang and I have since lost touch with her, although I did try to track her down one time. Christine was not a girl friend of mine. Just a very remarkable girl that I just spent a good amount of time talking to for a period of about three months of my sophomore year in high school.
Christine, and her Filipino friend Patty Cachepero, formed a group of two at Lowell High School. At an age in which all students were seeking acceptance from their peers and trying to fit in by wearing the right clothes and cutting their hair in the right way, Christine had decided that she did not care what others thought and would make up her own world. She wore an assortment of odd clothing from the 1960s that she had bought at used clothing stores. Finding odd things seemed to be her main interest, and was linked to her own unique interpretation of the world.
Christine listened to music from the 1950s and 1960s that I had never heard before, and which no one else at our school cared about. She had no interest in Michael Jackson. In sum she was extremely brave individual and extremely confident in her own ideas and her own culture–one she seemed to make up by herself. She did so without any particular support from her family and in fact was not particularly well off. So Christine was quite different than the children of privilege in our school who had access to many cultural events.
Christine just ignored the stupid status games that the other students played at high school. When other kids were racing to buy Yves St Laurent pants, something that I also did, Christine just bought interesting clothes from the used clothing stores on Haight Street. The clothes were cheap, but she wore them in such creative combinations. She had very short hair and round turtle-shell glasses. She wore no make up and She often wore a cardigan sweater and often had old work shirts. I would not say that Christine read more than other students, but she certainly did think more critically about what she read than any of the other students that I met then.
There may have been other students like Christine, but I never met them. She was unique in my experience as a high school student willing to make up her own mind as to what was of value without any particular concern for what those around her thought. I remember sitting with her at night listening to old LP records: recordings of James Taylor, Dizzy Gillespie and various American popular singers from the 1930s and 1940s.
I would not say that Christine was an easy person to get along with. After about six months, she decided that she was not that interested in talking to me, perceiving me as an overly ambitious student with a mind clouded by plans to go to a good school. But I never forgot her ability to decide for herself what her own identify would be and how she would define herself. It would be easier for a Caucasian from a family with roots in the 1960s to do so, but Christine had none of that background. She made it all up for herself and did so without regard for what people around her thought. There was something both creative and brave about Christine and she would indirectly impact how I perceived Asia later. Asia was not just a culture of conformist immigrants trying to be successful in the United States for me. That image of Asian culture as a tradition lacking creativity or originality is common among educated Americans. For me I saw in Christine a tradition of some quite different, and quite impressive, in Asia. I would later find many examples in the Chinese tradition of these brave Chinese individuals and that tradition was ultimately what led me to East Asia.
I had many Asian friends in high school, including Susie Kim, who ended up working in Hollywood, Dennis Woo, who runs an IT company in San Francisco now, Emily Murase, who is on the board of education for the city of San Francisco and Maria Pao, who ran the high school literary magazine is a professor of Spanish literature today. All of them had a deep impact on me. But I personally think that there was something about Christine Liang, whom I knew for just a short time and did not have contact with again, that has stuck with me through the years.