This past weekend, I finally made good on a promise I’d made my best friend four years ago: I’d visit him in Chicago while he was in medical school. Two of those years passed while I was in college and lacked the money to travel. Another two of those years passed with poor excuses, thus, I visited the Windy City for the first time (with Candle Boy, who tallied off his third trip here).
Chicago is not at all like the Bay Area. I know that statement is worthy of a “Thank you, Captain Obvious” retort, so let me add, I was also surprised by how stark I found these differences.
In the Midwest, everything is flat. From the top of Willis Tower on a clear day, you can see into four different states. You never complain about always walking uphill (This is still my favorite complaint about Berkeley, expressed by one of my favorite professors during her first semester teaching here.) because there are no hills to climb, just stairs into storefronts and buildings and train platforms.
The food is incredibly heavy and, surprisingly, often offered by chains or franchises. Dunkin’ Donuts storefronts are just a few blocks away from the next. Unique donut and cupcake shops are scattered between the Dunkin’ locations. One of their famous restaurant-diners—Little Goat—serves a goat burger that stands about a foot tall, and have I mentioned deep dish (We went to Lou Malnati’s) or hot dogs (Portillo’s and Kim and Carlo’s Hot Dog Stand) yet?
I walked at least 57,461 steps during the 72 hours I spent in Chicago, but I gained weight when I came home. (Yes, I checked, because on the Friday I was in Chicago I had three desserts. Those vacation calories definitely counted, the desserts were great, and I am still trying to burn them off.)
Chicago is also home to the American Writers’ Museum—a fantastic little find tucked away next to Millennium Park—many American writers, and Second City, a world renowned comedy club that’s known for launching the likes of Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Jordan Peele into their careers.
Candle Boy and I watched a show at Second City (from the second row!) one of the nights we were there, and I’d dare say it was funnier than Ali Wong’s live show in SF last summer. The comedians at Second City did a bit where they sought out members of the audience to connect with each other, using the logic from the idea of six degrees of separation. When their first target said he was from Seattle, and added later that he had only had a granola bar for breakfast, the comedians ripped him apart.
“Oh, Seattle, so west coast with your quarter-zip Patagonia jackets and only eating granola for breakfast!”
Needless to say, Candle Boy and I got a kick out of hearing what Midwesterners apparently thought of Seattle—which is, frankly, nowhere near as bad as the Bay Area, especially Berkeley and Oakland. But this raised an interesting question for me the next day, as Candle Boy and I made our rounds through The Field Museum.
The entire Second City show (Dream Freaks Fall From Space) ranged from being an obvious rag on Trump to a deliberate slandering of him, complete with giant cardboard masks of his face contorted into very unattractive, but common, expressions of rage. One of the comedians, a Vietnamese woman, sang about someone’s new baby definitely being gay, and the Black male comedian explained why he asked every new woman he dated whether they voted for Trump.
I can’t recall all the jabs they threw that night, but I do remember thinking, these are jabs and stereotypes that folks of color in the Bay Area most commonly use in reference to white people.
At the show, as it was for the vast majority of our time in Chicago, Candle Boy and I were surrounded by white people. When the house lights rose during intermission, I craned my neck to count how many Asian Americans were present. (Five, including us.) I managed to spot one Black person, but most everyone else was not (noticeably from first glance) a person of color.
And yet, just about everyone in the audience (white people) was laughing at all of these jokes that were clearly taking stabs at white people. In retrospect, I can’t help but wonder, “Why are they laughing? What are they laughing about?”
I don’t ask this because I think they shouldn’t laugh or find these jokes humorous. I ask this because if I sat through a comedy show where comedians, regardless of their race, constantly made punch lines about negative Asian American stereotypes, whether or not there was any shred of evidence or truth, I would feel uncomfortable. I’m not certain I’d laugh.
As a woman of color who has had the fortune of living in the Bay Area for over 20 years—specifically in the liberal, diverse space of Berkeley for the past four—I have been fortunate to know that the rising social justice movements and the causes people fight for in this part of the country are ones that protect vulnerable members of my communities. Sometimes, that includes me.
In Chicago, a woman dining next to us at brunch one morning gave us a particularly dirty side eye as we sat down. A white pilot checked me so hard at the train station that I actually fell over straight backwards. (Thank you to the man walking behind me who caught me in the moment, I was too stunned to express my gratitude, and I regret that I didn’t.)
I know, Chicago is technically the big blue splotch of Illinois, so I can’t assume my experience was at all representative of, well, anything. But it was different—different enough from my experience at home in the Bay, as well as my experience traveling in Portland and Washington, D.C., that I noticed enough to write a mental Post-It for myself when I returned home.
I hate being in the center of attention, but I kind of wish I had volunteered as tribute when the comedians were looking for audience members to connect. I’m dying to know how they would have stereotyped this Berkeley grad.