Some of the most interesting journeys are the ones you take closest to home.
I thought of this the other day when an old friend of mine took the oath of office as mayor of Oakland, California. She is Jean Quan, the first woman and the first Asian American to hold the highest office in the city of 300,000-plus souls.
I lived in Oakland, at three different addresses, years ago, but took a while to get to know it. One of my de facto tour guides was Jean, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, a UC Berkeley student activist who graduated to broad-based, progressive-left community organizing years before she ran for the Oakland school board as a concerned parent, and won, then ran for the Oakland city council, and won again. You know how Barack Obama used to list 'community organizer' on his resume for the several years he spent working in the neighborhoods in Chicago? Jean has worked that beat for nearly 40 years. Talk about paying your dues.
I saw hardscrabble neighborhoods in Oakland and San Francisco while hanging out with Jean, met her husband, the smart, sympathetic physician Floyd Huen, and their two young children, now grown and holders of Ivy League degrees. I learned about traditional Chinese family customs from them years before my travels took me to China, a place I've now visited about a dozen times. If I had never made the long journey to the Middle Kingdom I still would have known a little bit about Chinese culture, thanks to Jean and Floyd, their family and friends. It wasn't all sober-minded learning, of course, and it certainly wasn't structured, but it was learning just the same. It didn't come as a big surprise when Jean got involved in education through the school board. Politically and culturally, she has long been an educator.
The San Francisco Examiner's food critic, the late Jim Wood, a colleague of mine, wrote an engaging and amusing piece about taking the great foodie Julia Child and her husband Paul to a hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese restaurant on San Francisco's funky Sixth Street, called Tu Lan. As Jim's story goes, they had almost literally to step over a sidewalk denizen to get into the place, a classic, cheap, good greasy spoon. The fellow recognized her: "Bon appetit,'' he said.
Tu Lan was a favorite lunchtime haunt of San Francisco daily newspaper-types by then - we're talking about the early '90s - but I had been there way before, thanks, of course, to Jean Quan, who first took me there. I think she knew every inch of the neighborhood, a gathering place for people up against it. "Try the imperial rolls,'' she said. I did; they were terrific.
Jean Quan's campaign slogan during last fall's grassroots, underdog campaign was "Taking back Oakland block by block.'' I wasn't involved in the campaign, having lost touch with her over the years; we haven't talked in forever. But I watched from afar with a certain sense of I-knew-her-when pride. She will have a challenging time governing Oakland, a culturally rich, materially impoverished town that is also dogged by high crime, budget shortfalls and a reputation as the unglamorous sister of the sleek city across the Bay: San Francisco.
Nevermind the always-quoted remark of another Oakland homegirl, Gertrude Stein, who said "There's no 'there' there.'' Stein meant there were few surviving traces of her girlhood years later, not that the whole town was a big nothing. There's plenty of 'there' in this working-class city in the East Bay. Some of it can rival San Francisco, notably the nest of artisan markets, restaurants and shops in the Rockridge area and the fast-developing Uptown area that is, despite its name, actually near downtown. Such destinations are worth making a trip to see.
Congratulations to Mayor Quan, who is, as folks used to say, bringing it all back home.