T and I are planning a trip to Joshua Tree National Park tomorrow. I’ve driven through the town dozens of times on my way to Las Vegas but it never occurred to me to actually go visit until very recently.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about “bucket lists,” ever since many of my friends and I decided we were leaving Southern California. It was obvious to me that white folks have different goals in the Desert than other ethnicities, but I’ve found myself having to explain the concept to several people, since we all have our perspectives and our blind spots.
The big three sites to see that were most obvious according to my white friends: Salvation Mountain (I went a few weeks ago), Idyllwild (I went two months ago), and Joshua Tree National Park. I had assumed I wasn’t going to make it to JTNP because nobody seemed interested in going with me; luckily T stepped up and we’re both pretty stoked. I might never have gone to any these places on my own.
So I was asking the lovely A for tips about JTNP, and I found myself feeling like I had to explain to her why it’s cultural that I didn’t go. She grew up as a hiker, and feels she needs to go, alone sometimes, it’s an itch she gets occasionally.
Filipinos don’t really hike, culturally speaking. Of course many Filipinos probably do love hiking, but none of them will say that it’s their cultural heritage to hike. No, our cultural heritage is to picnic. I guarantee that if you told a Filipino person you were going to go on a hike, the first and most important question that a Filipino would ask you is, “Ha?! What will you eat there?!”
So no, hiking and discovering nature did not ever occur to me in my four years in the desert.
So now, the mistake that some white folks make upon reading that statement above, is that they think I did nothing. They think I stayed home and watched TV. They think I plugged into my alcove and stopped existing. They think I do not have a sense of discovery.
Let’s review: some karaoke-phobic people, people who aren’t comfortable with chopsticks, who can’t tell a nopal from a saguaro, some people who are afraid to eat any Japanese food because they think it’s all raw fish, they think I don’t have a sense of discovery about the world.
Asian life. I tell people that I drive out to Asian supermarket during the weekend, and that doesn’t really spark their imagination. What they don’t understand is that I’ve been to Asian supermarkets in LA County, Orange County, San Bernardino County, Riverside County, and San Diego County. I can tell you which ones have tanks of live seafood, which ones have great delis for kimchi, which ones have the vegetables that white people don’t know about. I can tell you which Asian groceries in LA are easy to park at. I have a devastatingly complete mental map of Asian supermarkets in Southern California. You think I’m kidding.
After a year of being here, someone asked me if I knew about the Asian market in Cathedral City. “Did you know there’s an Asian market over on…. Date Palm….?”
I was like, “You mean Fil-Am Oriental Market? Yes I know about them, they are from Agoo, La Union. They are nice but the food at their steam table is a little greasy. They gave me a recommendation on a barber.”
That person that was trying to be helpful in suggesting that place. I didn’t let on that I was actually annoyed. Did they think I didn’t find that place in my first week in the desert? Yah, I don’t need any help being Asian, thank you. Did you think I lacked a sense of discovery about the world?
I happen to know there are 14 Daisos in LA County, 14 in Orange County, one in San Bernardino County, and four in San Diego County. I’ve done several Daiso introductions to my white friends, they have all lost their minds in there. How have they never been to Daiso?! They must not have a sense of discovery about the world.
Beaches. I’ve been to nearly every beach from Santa Barbara to Rosarito, Baja California, México. I know some people who have lived in Southern California for as long as I have that never made it to Mexico at all. They must not have a sense of discovery about the world. I think my favorite of all was Aliso Beach, in terms of the beach itself, the parking, the food options around it.
Mexican culture. First of all, Mexican birthday parties. I know some people who lived here as long as I have and didn’t make it to a single Mexican birthday party. Little kids, turning one, or five, or seven. Or forty. It’s not like an American birthday party. When you walk into a Mexican backyard birthday party, there are minimum three events going on simultaneously. I’ve seen bouncy castles, clowns, comedy, mariachi, taco carts. Every twenty minutes there’s a new event: cake, candy bags, musical chairs, scavenger hunts, face painting, prayer, a formal toast, gelatina, popsicles, someone showing up with dates, piñata… I usually only stay for a couple hours, not long enough to get drunk and embarrass myself. My friends the hosts always seem so gracious, busy running the show but also very much at ease; it’s a Mexican superpower. I tried to never miss a Mexican birthday party, and I exhorted my friends to go to at least one while they were here. Sense of discovery.
Second: Mexican food. I stopped eating meat a few years ago, but eating cheese enchiladas has taught me something about the Mexican cuisines of this region.
In LA, there are restaurants from Oaxaca, CDMX, and of course Tijuana. There’s an overall norteño feel, and chile rojo is more soulful, deeper, darker, than anything that I ate in Seattle.
In the desert, enchiladas verdes are more interesting; spicier and more vibrant. The signature regional dish is chiles gueritos rellenos de camarón, which are served with soy sauce of all things, which makes me recall the Chinese population in Mexicali.
There is as much bad Mexican food in Southern California as there is in Seattle. There are good places, but it’s not always easy to find them; it takes a lot of research. Asking Mexican American friends for their recommendations is not always productive; mostly because they eat Mexican food at home and have no reason to eat it in a restaurant. On more than one occasion, I’ve gotten bad recommendations from a Mexican American friend because they liked the drinks; when I tell the the food was bad, they say, “well yes of course the food is bad. Don’t eat the food, make good food at home.”
I also think I have a rather complete mental map of the frozen yogurt shops that serve no-sugar-added frozen yogurt. I know all the places in the desert that serve falafel–the best by far was the now closed Aladdin Deli, the only place I ever Yelp reviewed. I even know where to go in Southern California to find a juicy roast chicken, despite being a pescatarian.
So no, I didn’t prioritize all the places that my white friends do. I never saw Frank Sinatra’s grave, I never played golf or tennis, I barely went to the pool. I did, however, discover a lot of things, some of the things long-time desert residents don’t know about. I’ll never forget the time I had to explain the difference between a nopal and a seguaro to a gentlemen who has been in this community for years… where was his sense of discovery?
That said, I do have some regrets. I didn’t go to karaoke enough. I failed to take my friend to casino bingo. I didn’t go to the Thousand Palms Oasis, or sit in a hot springs. I didn’t go to Smitty’s Famous Fish and Chicken, or the Broad. Maybe I’ll still have time to do these things next month before I move. Tomorrow: Joshua Tree National Park.