San Francisco, Schools, Race, and Class

This post was inspired by this news from Philadelphia, but I am going to talk about San Francisco.

In San Francisco, about one-fourth of K-12 students attend private schools – one of the highest rates in the United States. About 90% of public school students in San Francisco are people of color, whereas private school students are overwhelmingly white. Class is also a divider – generally, it is assumed that the white students who attend public schools do so because their families cannot afford private school.

Many white families who cannot afford private school struggle to put their children private school anyway. They claim that it’s because they want the best for their children – but most of them do not do comprehensive research on public schools, so I don’t know how they can know that the private schools are better. The evidence I have encountered suggests that the private schools do not actually provide a better education than the public schools – based on some of the stories I’ve heard, I even doubt that private schools are safer than public schools. I think the real reason white families act this way is that, in the United States, sending one’s kids to an urban public school is a threat to one’s white middle-class identity – it’s something that is simply not done. My mother phrases this in a more blunt way – “they do not want their kids to mix with the ‘wrong’ kids”. Of course, in ‘liberal’ San Francisco, the white families are not going to admit that.

My own situation was unusual – I am white, my family could have afforded private school, yet I only went to public schools. My mother actually did investigate different options, and found no evidence that the private schools were better than public schools. Furthermore, as a taxpayer, she felt that it was the government’s responsibility to educate me, and she thinks activism, not private school, is the appropriate response to problems in public education. My father has philosophical objections to private school – he thinks thank sending children to private school is bad citizenship.

I don’t think going to public school gave me a greater awareness of people with a different class/race background. I was told to try to cover up the affluence of my family. Thus, I generally avoided discussing class issues (and I got the subtle message that I should keep a certain distance from them). Furthermore, my peers generally did not bring up the subject, because it was assumed that we were all in a similar situation and there was nothing to say. If there was a significant effect, it was that it hindered me from identifying with people from my own class – I simply did not know anybody my age (outside my family) who came from an equally affluent background.

This is just scratching the surface (I didn’t even address the divides inside the public school system), so I might write more on the subject.

Flora of Where I Live

When I see San Francisco in my mind, much of what defines the look of the city are the plants. Miner’s lettuce, nasturtium, French broom, Himalayan blackberry, eucalyptus, hollyhock, rosemary, Algerian ivy, jasmine, fennel, pines, ginkgo, olive, yellow oxalis, and so forth; these are all plants which are really common in San Francisco, and are plants which I powerfully associate with both the city and my childhood. For example, as a child, I would eat (or at least try to eat) most of the plants on the list with my school friends. Interestingly, out of all of those plants, only the miner’s lettuce and maybe the pines are native to California.

Taiwan has very different flora, having a totally different climate at all. In the less populated areas, lots of ferns, subtropical broad-leaf trees, ferns, bamboo, ferns and so forth. In the more populated areas, lots of rice, bananas, and vegetables. Outside of Taipei city itself, quite a bit of food gardening/farming happens within town/city limits – for example, just a 15-minute walk away from where I live there’s a rice field, and I live in downtown. And there are even still some farms within the city limits of Taipei itself – they tend to be in places like Neihu and Maokong. The lines between the urban and the rural seem blurrier in Taiwan than in California.

But sometimes I go to a place in Taiwan, and the flora makes me think of California.

Keelung makes me think of San Francisco and Oakland simply because it’s a hilly port city. Most of the flora in Keelung is of the low-elevation subtropical type, … but on Heping Island, the flora consists of coastal scrub. San Francisco also has plenty of coastal scrub, and while I’m sure the species are different, coastal scrub looks like coastal scrub. It made me think of California all the more as I looked out at the Pacific Ocean.

The first time I went through a patch of pine trees in Taiwan (I think it was in Pingxi) it also made me think of California, but pine trees are actually common in Taiwan at the higher elevations, and I’ve seen enough pine trees in Taiwan that they do make me think of California as much.

But last week, I went through an oak forest. In Taiwan. Specifically, I hiked the Wenshan trail in Hualien county, which runs from Wenshan to Lushui and is part of the path the Japanese made to help ‘pacify’ the Taroko people. I associate oak trees with the East Bay (Oakland and Berkeley), and I had never really seen oak trees in Taiwan before. So there were moments on that trail when I asked myself if I were really in California, not Taiwan. I even looked out for poison oak once or twice, even though I knew there is no poison oak in Taiwan.

Plants which I encounter frequently sprout and grow in my subconscious.