July 14, 2011
Living in Monterey's Past for a Change
On the day of Monterey History Fest I toured some of the 18 showcases listed in the "Passport to the Past," a list of spots to visit with a map on its back. Looking at the map and deciding a most efficient route, I felt like being a tourist again.
I have been almost three years in this city since I came here. I have toured most of the visitable places in the town and in Carmel and Pebble Beach. I have been forced to tour the same places again and again because of the lack of anything more to see here.
But I have never really gone into the depth of the place, by which I mean its past. I know a little bit this and a little bit that of the area's history, but never feel any attachment to it. After all, I am an outsider, a migrant worker.
Being a tourist on the history day, however, helped me to build some sense of belonging. Still superficial, I could think about what life in the past was like when I stared at a photo of well dressed young ladies on the wharf laughing at a huge caught swordfish. Looking at the picture, I thought that girls of that time must have had a closer tie to the fisheries than today. I wondered what they had felt, thought and planned their life at that time. Today there are seldom girls at the fish company wharf. It is often empty there except for a few biking kids and occasional customers of fresh fish. Fisheries made the place a home for ordinary people and the decline of the trade changed the face of Monterey, making it to be reborn as a tourist town from the fire of canning industry collapse. Tourism, however, seems to be always a step further away from the common masses.
I mean a town should have more worldly pleasure from work, even dirty, smelly work, not just from festival shopping stalls and high brow galleries and cafe bars. In the Old Customs House there is a picture with the caption that says the idyllic life of the Mexican California was forever changed by the American occupation. I said to a lady beside me:" That is very true."
Monterey today needs something of John Steinbeck's Cannery Row and Tortilla Flat. Monterey is too well groomed to be interesting. It is hard to see life unfolding here in the almost empty streets of residential quarters and behind the closed doors of houses. To seek the authenticity of social life in this area, I would rather roam the residential streets of Seaside, visit Latino mercados and buy their tortillas, and strike up a chitchat at yardsales.
Living in Monterey often reminds me of my visit to the small town of Putuoshan Island many years ago, a tourist island off the southeastern coast of China’s Zhejiang Province. The tourist souvenir shops in the narrow streets often give you the sense of inauthenticity and temporality . Being there, you know you are gong to leave. You have no attachment to its past, though it has one. You never will say it is “our town”.
Unless you are emotionally versed in a place’s history, you do not belong. That is why such programs like History Festival is beneficial to people who wish to settle down into the local community. You gotta have some historical sense to make your life more “round” . This, together with the effort of reaching out into communities ethnically different from your own, will make you feel at home in a stranger’s land.