spring 2018 / interviews
AN ARBITER OF TASTE
janelle bitker, food writer foR the east bay express, dishes on writing up the local restaurant scene
by ADAM MANN
the remarkable life of
betty reid soskin, an extraordinary ordinary woman
by nANCY MILLAR PATTON
gabriel garay on his life as a chicano, muslim convert, former incarceree and "calligraffiti" artist
by MAYA KASHIMA
mining for laughs (not bitcoin)
tracy nguyen on the bay area comedy scene
by LIZ ZARKA
ON THE COVER: India Meyers is an ESL teacher and collage artist based in Ulsan, South Korea. She is an alumna of Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore., where she studied History and East Asian Studies. A Portland native, Meyers has also lived in Ecuador, Australia and China. She began collaging nearly 10 years ago and hasn’t stopped since; today, she finds inspiration in the green, mountainous landscapes surrounding coastal Korea and the local magazines from which she sources her materials. See more of her work on Instagram: @indi.journal.
The BCC VOICE is produced by students from English 14 and 15 at Berkeley City College, with funding from the Associated Students. A special thank you to the ASBCC, the BCC English Department, administrators, faculty, and students who make this school great! Visit us online at bccvoice.net.
Janelle Bitker, food writer for the East Bay Express.
Photo courtesy of: East Bay Express
spring 2018, interview Issue / bccvoice.net
living life to the fulton-est
todd fulton on finding satisfaction, loving what you do, and leaving a lasting legacy
by MATTHEW STRICKLAND
Growing up in the Bay Area, Janelle Bitker has watched a lot of things change over the years. A devotee of local food writing, she waited for years to cover the culinary renaissance unfolding in the place she grew up. After attending University of California, Davis and writing for Sacramento News and Review, Bitker, in 2017, saw her chance. She returned to the East Bay to write about the exploding food scene, and became the restaurant reviewer for the East Bay Express, filling the shoes of former food writer Luke Tsai, who left the Express for San Francisco Magazine in the same year. Bitker is now the managing editor for the paper.
Since Bitker started, her reviews have guided the dining habits of anyone who has picked up a copy of the free alt-weekly. Her evocative language, replete with "gurgling stews," lamb shank "falling off the bone and covered in a thick, tomato-and-onion sauce," and sandwiches bedecked with "a thick slice of frittata, teeming with marinated shiitake mushrooms, sweet potatoes, and caramelized onions," leaves readers gripped by hunger pangs.
We met up at a coffee shop near her office and spoke about how she got into food writing, the logistics and considerations of being a restaurant reviewer, her thoughts on preparing and judging foods from other cultures, and what it takes for budding journalists to establish themselves.
You were born in Oakland and lived in Alameda. It seems like a lot must have changed with food in the East Bay over the last few years. Or has it just been getting more attention now that more people have moved out here?
It’s changed so much, it’s crazy. When I think of Alameda, growing up there, we had one Indian restaurant, one Thai restaurant, one Italian restaurant, one Japanese restaurant, and that’s where we went all the time. We’d come into Oakland to eat in Chinatown and get Vietnamese food, but there wasn’t much "destination food" happening.
I don’t know if you’ve been in Alameda recently, but there’s a real food scene there now. It’s not amazing, but there's a lot. There are a lot of Oakland restaurateurs moving in. Now, the SF Weekly food critic keeps coming out to Oakland and stealing my stories [laughs]. It’s super annoying. I think it just speaks to how much better the food is now.
Why did all that happen?
Overflow from San Francisco. I used to intern for the San Francisco Chronicle food section in college, and at that point there was good food in Oakland, but there weren’t places that were going to make Michael Bauer's Top 100. Talking to the food writers then, they were like, "Now is the time." Right at the time when the rent in San Francisco became insane, that was when, suddenly, lots of people came over. Even now, I feel like half the restaurants I write about are San Francisco restaurateurs moving over.
When did you know you wanted to be a food writer?
I wanted that as early as high school. I didn’t think it would be possible, though. I would read the East Bay Express food critics in high school every week. I loved them and loved reading the Chronicle’s food section. I wrote restaurant reviews for my high school paper, and then kind of quickly decided, "This is never going to happen. It’s too competitive." And then somehow it happened.
Back then, there were so few food writing jobs. Now there are actually way more opportunities. There was no Eater then. You moved to New York for one of four elite food magazines or you were the one critic at the one paper. So it just seemed very unlikely.
Do you wish you could just stick to writing about food? Or do you like being an editor?
I like doing both, and that’s the hard part. During this past year-ish that I was just writing about food, it’s been really fun and rewarding in its own way. But back in Sacramento I was the arts editor, and I loved working with young writers and cultivating them and watching them get better and better — it's rewarding in a totally different way. So I’m trying to do both right now, but I might die [laughs].
Your longer reviews are around a thousand words, have menu recommendations, and will say whether you recommend the restaurant. How do you decide which places to review, what is your process like, and how long do reviews take you to write?
I’m constantly monitoring what new restaurants are opening and deciding which ones I might want to go to, because obviously there are way too many to go to all of them — it’s impossible. I consider whether it’s a chef that’s kind of buzzy, or if it’s a cuisine that’s hard to find, or if it’s a location that everyone’s going to be interested in just because of the location.
Once I decide what I’m going to write about, I go at least two times, sometimes four times, to the restaurant, if I can afford it. I take notes after each visit, and then I try to interview the chef or owner. Sometimes we just talk for ten minutes, and it’s like, "What was in this sauce and how did you prepare this?" And then sometimes we talk for far longer. There was one restaurateur I talked to for an hour because they just wanted to talk. For the writing, it sort of depends, but it usually takes around an hour after all that’s done?
Do restaurants know you’re coming in?
No. I’m not anonymous like some critics are — you can see my photo online. Most progressive critics these days don’t bother just because it’s not realistic. Michael Bauer is anonymous, but every restaurant has a picture of him in the kitchen. So, if anything, it’s kind of unfair to the smaller restaurants that don’t have the money to pay a PR person to give them a photo. But I don’t make reservations under my name or announce that I’m coming or anything like that.
What name do you use?
Not telling [laughs].
Where do you get ideas for your stories? Are there people you work with who have leads, or is it all the connections you have from doing this for awhile now?
It’s pretty easy to track restaurant openings because there are so many different writers covering restaurant openings. So, I just have a huge spreadsheet where anytime someone writes about a restaurant, I put it in — date it opened, what it’s like, if it’s buzzy or not. Once a month, I sort of go back through it and read Yelp reviews and other things, and look at lots of pictures to decide if I want to write about it. For food news stuff, you just build connections, basically. I’ve only gotten one scoop from looking at alcohol licenses, because usually places end up reaching out to the media before that point to try to build a buzz. So usually it’s driving by a sign or hearing about it from people in the industry. Once people know you’re covering restaurants, they start talking to you.
Do you ever get angry emails or other correspondence from places?
Only once [while at the East Bay Express]. The food’s so good here, I don't have to write a lot of bad reviews. And if it’s a small mom-and-pop type of place, I generally try to keep it as positive as possible, even if I don’t love all the food, just because I don’t necessarily want their business to go under. But a place that charges a lot of money — I think those are fair game, because they have investors and they should be better.
But when I worked in Sacramento, I got a lot [of angry responses]. I had a bad reputation. When I was writing about food there, the scene was going through this really interesting boom period where tons of stuff was opening with a lot of money behind it, and every food writer in town was a booster. Some of it was great, but most of it was terrible and expensive, and had so much hurrah behind it. So I wrote a lot of bad reviews in Sacramento, and I got a lot of shit for it.
What are you judging a restaurant on when you write a positive review?
Context matters. What restaurants are presenting themselves as is just as important as what they are. The one really negative review I wrote here was about this Italian restaurant on Grand. It was presented as fine dining, the chef had a fine dining restaurant in San Francisco. Not only was the food not good, but the space was weird. It was too bright, they didn’t design it at all, the service was oddly stoic, the plates were wet still, they never brought us water. All these things I would forgive in maybe a small Burmese restaurant in East Oakland, but in that type of place, they matter a lot. What are they trying to be and who are they trying to get to eat here? Are they delivering on those things? Context matters.
I don’t care about service as much as I think other writers do. I acknowledge that there’s a terrible staff shortage here, and I think everyone’s struggling with that a lot.
Are there any restaurants that you've been really disappointed to see closed?
I was really shocked when Juhu Beach Club closed. And Hawker Fare — that was depressing. Those were the types of places where you expect them to survive, so it hurts even more. They were so set up to do well, and they were doing well in that they had tons of business, but it’s still so hard.
In the last few years, there have been a lot of conversations around cultural appropriation in cooking and restaurants — about who is allowed to make certain types of food. How do you relate to that conversation? Has it come up in your writing for the East Bay Express?
I ask people about it when it’s appropriate. I think a lot of chefs are sick of talking about it at this point — I think that was a very 2016 conversation, where it was kind of new and people were interested in hashing it out more. Some chefs are going to always want to talk about it, like the Juhu Beach Club chef. Also, I feel like we’ve kind of gotten to an understanding where most chefs feel like the white chef, who is cooking a food not of their culture, but is doing so respectfully and with knowledge and intention, is fine. I think probably 90 percent of chefs would agree, including chefs of color.
Most recently, this came up with the chef at The Temple Club. The chef is a white guy who moved to Vietnam for 16 years and came back and opened a Vietnamese restaurant in a Vietnamese neighborhood. And I think a lot of people agree that, yeah, he put in his time — of course he can open a Vietnamese restaurant. And it’s a very good Vietnamese restaurant. But I think he’s gotten upset about how it’s come up so much in writings. In most reviews, there’s at least a paragraph about [his origin] — including my review. But it’s sort of the elephant in the room.
The other side of that coin is, do you ever feel that you’re not qualified enough in terms of knowing about a particular cuisine to review it well?
Totally. I think interviewing the chef and owner and doing a lot of research, looking at a lot of cookbooks and recipes, is really important in that situation. One food I’d never had before, and have only had once at this one restaurant in San Leandro, is Liberian food. At the same time, how many people in the East Bay have had Liberian food? It’s the first Liberian restaurant here. If I’m writing for an East Bay audience, I don’t feel as bad for not knowing about Liberian food.
There’s a common starch in West African cooking called fufu, and Nigerian food has it too. It’s like a big ball of playdough. It’s a lot to eat. It’s not a texture I naturally enjoy, but I acknowledge that people in that culture do. So, I don’t critique it. I don’t feel comfortable that this place’s fufu is good or bad. I kind of remove myself from certain things that I don’t know. I think people who read my writing know that I know southeast Asian food pretty well and Chinese food, because I’ve spent a lot of time in those places. So, I’m more critical of those.
Do you worry about getting burnt out, or do you still get excited about going to new places?
I mean, I haven’t been doing it that long. I talked to the guy I replaced who had been doing it for five years. After five years, I understand if you’re eating out too much. But he wasn’t burnt out, his wife was burnt out on going out so much with the kids. I could see that happening — life circumstances changing and thinking, "Okay, this lifestyle isn’t conducive anymore."
When I was in Sacramento, I was going to two or three concerts every week, and I got really tired of going out late so often and still having to work the next day. But, I think going out to dinner is different, because I would probably still be doing that, to an extent. But people do get burnt out on journalism pretty often. It’s a lot of work, and not a lot of pay. And it’s not stable.
Would you do any other kind of writing other than journalism?
Most journalists end up going into public relations work, which sounds terrible. It’s a tough situation. I have a friend who does copywriting for Sephora, and she comes up with the names of lipstick colors, which in a way sounds kind of fun.
Do you have any advice for people who are trying to break into journalism, who don’t have much experience outside of classes?
Internships. Internships are so important! I talk to a lot of students who say they understand that internships are important, but then have gone four years of undergrad and have never had one. I think if you don’t have an internship — at least one solid one — then you’re not going to get a job anywhere. No one is going to give you a chance, because as great as classes are and college newspapers, that real-world experience is so much more important. Real clips from a real paper.
I did four or five [internships] ... I did a lot. And I didn’t have any trouble getting a job after college. I know people who were at the college newspaper as well, and were very good, who didn’t have the internships and couldn’t get a job and went to PR instead. So, get an internship. Or freelance at the local alt-weekly — that’s another good way.
An Arbiter of Taste
THE PEOPLE'S DRINK
jesse sariÑana ON BREAKING INTO THE CRAFT BEER SCENE
by JESSE ROSENTHAL
by ADAM MANN
On Dishing Up the Local Restaurant Scene
kamal khan on life as a first generation pakistani-american
by MINHAL MOTIWALA
vanessa manley on body positivity, fashion, and finding your authentic self online
by SUMMER VODNOY
by MAYA KASHIMA
On His Life as a Chicano, Muslim Convert, Former Incarceree and "Calligraffiti" Artist
Gabriel Garay live-paints a transliterated verse from the Quran at an art show held in conjunction with BCC's Muslim Student Association and GAMA (Gathering All Muslim Artists).
Photo Credit: Maya Kashima
Gabriel Garay (also known as Gabril Garai) is an Oakland-based artist, a Chicano and Muslim convert who brings the influence of both cultures into his works. His website describes his style as "a mixture of urban/abstract expressionism and sometimes Islamic calligraphy." He calls this style "calligraffiti." Once a street artist, today he paints with acrylics on canvas and has shown his work across the country and internationally.
Give me the rundown on your background — the first bit of your artist bio.
I’m Chicano. My grandfather came to America as a bracero, a guest worker. I grew up in the Central Valley, which I call the "industrial farm ghetto" of America — you know, these neglected communities. See, when the Mexicans came in, there was a "white flight." Where I’m from, Tulare County, has the highest percentage of Hispanics in the country, I believe, per capita. It’s pretty much like you’re in Mexico.
I started doing graffiti young, and then I became nationally known within the graffiti scene, and then I became Muslim and I ventured off into stuff like what I’m doing now.
What got you into graffiti?
When I was younger, the hip-hop movement was spreading across my neighborhood. We had movies like "Beat Street," PBS documentaries like "Style Wars." I just saw the graffiti and then started to attempt it, went out and started tagging. My first time tagging was just my neighborhood name. Then I started to develop my skill, and some older, more established graffiti artists saw my potential and just kind of took me under their wing. They grew me. And then [I] just developed [my] own style.
Was it mostly you on your own?
Yeah. There were other kids that were doing graffiti, but then they got dragged into gang culture. It just came and swept. I held onto the graffiti as a way to distance myself, and I got a pass from people in my neighborhood. I grew up with all these kids that ended up becoming gang members, and they were like, "Oh, he’s the graffiti guy."
Were you religious growing up?
I wasn’t. Some of my family was Protestant, and my grandma’s Catholic, but I went to church mainly for the snacks. Then, in my teenage years, I started to search for something deeper. [And] when you grow up as a Hispanic, if you’re searching for God, you go to the church. I became born-again [Christian] and was reading the Bible, just trying to make sense of it all.
How did you manage to go from born-again Christian to Muslim?
After 9/11, there was a spotlight on Islam. I was like, "What’s going on, what is this?" I already knew some things about Islam, but some of them were huge misconceptions. I wanted to find out more. There was a Muslim who worked at my mall, and I asked him what his religion was about, ‘cause it was all over the news. So he explained the difference between real Muslims and terrorists. But I wanted to know what Muslims believe. What is the belief system? What do they say about Jesus? My main thing with Christianity was Jesus, and the place of Jesus. And that was something the Quran answered for me. It didn’t negate the Bible — like, you have to believe in the Bible, you have to believe in Moses to be Muslim. I converted when I was about 18. It was self-study, reading the Quran, but I also think Islam has always been a part of my life in some way.
Growing up, I liked listening to rap music. And rap has a huge Islamic influence that people don’t know. Because of the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X’s presence within the African-American community, it comes out in the music. I was picking up terms and words I didn’t know. For example, I listened to a group called the Goodie Mob growing up. The Goodie Mob is like, Cee-Lo, OutKast — Southern music. On their album they had a song called "Inshallah," which means "God willing" [in Arabic]. And in the song, one of the members recited Al-Fatihah, the opening chapter of the Quran, but in English. Wu-Tang Clan and West Coast rappers like Ras Kass had Islamic influences in their music, too. And then you find out that certain rappers are actually Muslim, like Ice Cube. So the seeds were always planted.
And then, years later, you ended up converting.
Yeah. But even when I converted, I wasn’t the Muslim I am now. I had an amateur understanding of religion and couldn’t fully commit to the ideals. There was a conflict within myself. Because when you become a Muslim, you have to live a certain lifestyle. It took some time for me to get in accordance. But the belief was there. That’s the first step — belief.
It’s clear that you’re in a much different place now, both with your religion and your art. Did your art evolve alongside your faith?
They were kind of simultaneous. As I started to get known in graffiti, that’s when I was starting to become Muslim, too. But I didn’t really become practicing until I was taken from society for a while. I got dragged into the criminal justice system, spent some time in prison, really did some self-development. I did most of my studies there. I studied Islamic art, looked at the calligraphy, and so that's where I started to mesh the two. After five years, I’d worked my way down to minimum security. They had arts and crafts there, and I used to paint. That was where I first did the calligraphy and graffiti mix.
Were you around many other Muslims in prison?
Yes, and actually one of the fastest growing Muslim communities is people incarcerated. Of people converting to Islam, a high percentage are people in prison. Because it gives you structure, you know? The community in prison was mainly other converts.
What did being a practicing Muslim look like while you were there?
You’re able to pray and hold your services, but there is some favoritism, especially in the private prisons. A lot of people don’t know that there are a lot of fundamental Christians that have interests in private prisons. [Our] private prison corporation, Corrections Corporation of America [now known as CoreCivic], had this faith program that you could only be in if you were Christian. It was called a "faith pod," and if you signed up, you would have to go to church on Sunday. If you were any other faith, you would still have to go to [Christian] church on Sunday. Islam wasn’t allowed. We knew that it was against the law, you know, but to actually fight something like that, guards are gonna make you a target.
What did your life look like when you got out of prison? You’ve mentioned that your current style of art mostly developed after you were released.
When I came out, I was having trouble finding work and started to pursue art. I figured, "Okay, I can’t be doing graffiti," you know, with the harsh laws if you get caught spray-painting. Some of my graffiti friends, they gave me all of these devices, my friend showed me Instagram and all of these new apps, so I started putting my art on there and started to develop a fanbase.
Was Instagram even a thing before?
Nah, Facebook. No, no, no, it was Myspace!
Yeah, I was [in prison] from 2005 to 2012.
How did you manage to build a following on Instagram? That’s something a lot of artists struggle with.
I instantly got one just from the graffiti community. People who knew me from the graffiti scene were already following [my work], and then as I started to do the Arabic stuff, I picked up a more Muslim-based following.
How did you come up with this – the "calligraffiti?" It’s very unique.
When I started learning about Arabic calligraphy as I was studying Islam, one thing I learned is that Arabic calligraphers will play with the structure of the Arabic alphabet, elongating letters and things like that. And then I just looked at what graffiti artists were doing in America with the English alphabet, and it was kind of similar, you know – keeping the structure, but creating new looks [for] letters. Now I’m doing Chicano typography and Quranic verses. I’m doing them transliterated [from Arabic] and in a "placa," which is a certain [graffiti] style of writing that’s common in Mexican-American communities. It’s a merging of identities, you know, just trying to create something beautiful.
What are some themes you try to incorporate in your work?
I have the Chicano writing, and then I have the Arabic — different phrases. I like to do the Arabic phrases because it’s a form of remembrance, so when someone sees it, reads it, remembers God, we believe there’s a reward in that, so you share in the reward of people for remembering God. It works in your favor for God, it’s like an act of worship, in a sense. I call it visual dhikr. "Dhikr" is remembrance of God.
What has the reception to your work been like?
It’s been positive. People love it. It’s unique, you know? But, given my background, I think younger [Muslim-Americans] can identify with it more than the older Muslim [immigrant] community, because it’s kind of an American thing.
Your art has brought you many places, including an art show here at Berkeley City College. What else have you done?
It got me a free trip to Malaysia. I did a graffiti tour in Malaysia as a cultural ambassador for the United States [through the U.S. Embassy Small Grants Program for Malaysia]. It was all through social media — this Malaysian artist started following me, then he created the event and got funding for it, and I got a free trip. I brought my wife and daughter out there and we traveled around Malaysia. I’ve also spoken at University of California, Los Angeles on identity. Their Muslim Student Association has brought me out there twice. Then I also do events with GAMA [Gathering All Muslim Artists, a traveling art collective]. And I still do graffiti wherever they let me. I’ve done businesses, some commissioned youth centers for a couple mosques. So hopefully it all keeps growing, you know?
Where do you see all of this going in the future?
Only God knows.
See more of Gabriel Garay's art on his Instagram, @gabrilsart, and on his website, gabrilgaray.wordpress.com.
An Extraordinary Ordinary Woman
by NANCY MILLAR PATTON
In a recent lecture at the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historic Park in Richmond, Calif., The BCC Voice ambushed Park Ranger Betty Reid Soskin to ask her some questions about her extraordinary life.
Sitting in the little theater where Soskin conducts her weekly Rosie the Riveter Home Front historical talks, she proudly wears her Park Ranger uniform. Barely five feet tall and scarcely 90 pounds, Soskin’s power comes from her personal history and from her willingness to talk about it plainly and honestly, without mincing words. She talks quietly, but with an iron will, and today says she "lives her life in a complete state of surprise." At 96, Soskin is the oldest serving career Park Ranger in the United States National Park Service.
"I’m living in uncharted territory right now," declares Soskin, "Since there are no models for me, I have to make it up as I go along. I have to reinvent myself every decade." Having outlived two husbands and most of her friends, Soskin says, "I’ve lost my sense of the future and in compensation, my sense of the past has been amplified."
Soskin shared that she "spends a lot of time in reflection these days." Explaining to The BCC Voice, "we have to go back and see the past for what it was, so we can see how far we’ve come. We have to recognize, in truth, where we have been, because other than that, we have no way to know how we got to where we are. We have been many nations over the years, and some of them I’ve been through, and some of them have not been very comfortable." Soskin has had nine decades of experience "living while Black," and her mission now is to share that experience with anyone who will listen.
According to Soskin’s new book, "Sign My Name to Freedom: A Memoir of a Pioneering Life," (Hay House, Inc., 2018) she was born into a Cajun/Creole African-American family in 1921 and spent her early years in New Orleans in the era of lynchings and Jim Crow segregation. Her family later settled in Oakland, after a hurricane and the subsequent Great Flood of 1927 destroyed their home and business. The flood, at the time, was the greatest flood in history.
Soskin’s memoir also chronicles her great-grandmother, born into slavery in 1846 in St. James Parish, Louisiana. Enslaved until her 19th birthday, at which time she married a Corporal in the Louisiana State Colored Troops fighting for the North in the Civil War. She lived to be 102, dying in 1948.
"I may not be enslaved like my great-grandmother was, but there is much, much work to do. Today I’m looking out on a world in chaos. Ever since 1776, we have been a democracy in chaos — every generation must re-create democracy in its time, because democracy will never be fixed."
"It was never meant to be fixed," Soskin adds, "It’s a participatory form of governance for which we all have responsibility to form that ‘more perfect union,’ and that has been what has kept me going for the last decade — that sense of responsibility, that I really do have a role as that 'extraordinary ordinary person.'"
"We’ve still not processed that history [slavery] as a nation," explains Soskin, "A history where the women of my world [women of color] fell into three categories: house slaves, field slaves, and 'breeders.' And for a period of 300 years! A time when white men were using rape as a tool with which to increase their 'stock' after the English had outlawed slavery and ships were no longer bringing human beings for purchase into our ports. A time in our history when white men were quite literally selling their own children on the block. Tell me," demands Soskin, "how one processes that in today’s world without explosive rage begging to be released?"
Her question is born from experience. "I used to say I’ve lived long enough to outlive my rage without losing my passion," recalls Soskin, "But I found that after — which one was it, one of those deaths on the streets — No — it was after that white nationalist shot those nine people in South Carolina in the church." Her eyes tear up almost imperceptibly. "I suddenly found myself in bed, in a fetal position, and that rage returned. I realized it had simply been dormant all that time. It still exists."
Reflecting back, Soskin says her life seems to change drastically every 10-12 years. By her own count, she has lived eight or nine lives. "I’ve known a complicated set of identities," she said. "I have been many women, sequentially."
One of Soskin’s first jobs was as a file clerk in an all-black segregated Boilermaker’s Union Hall during World War II. During which, she was witness to the flood-tide of black and white workers who poured into the Bay Area to work in the war-time shipyards in Richmond. However, to say she’s lived nine lives, is to minimize what she has accomplished.
Soskin has been an activist, a singer/songwriter during the Civil Rights Movement, a field representative for California State Assemblywomen Dion Aroner and Loni Hancock, and played an integral part in the development of the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, to name just a few of her accomplishments. Soskin also co-founded with her then-husband, Mel Reid, Reid’s Records in 1945, one of the first black-owned record shops in California. The record store, still in operation, is one of the oldest in Berkeley.
In the 1950s, Reid’s offered jazz, R&B, and gospel music; a range of music pioneered by people of color. As their business flourished and their family grew, the Reid's decided to build their dream house in Walnut Creek, because their housing options in Berkeley were limited, due to redlining. She said the new neighbors were not happy to see a Black family move into the lily-white suburb and threatened to destroy the building materials if they stayed. Even then, Soskin was not easily intimidated. She spent many hours on-site guarding her property. "No one was going to tell us where to live," she said firmly. "I was standing up for our rights."
Eventually, she said she found and joined the local Unitarian church and slowly discovered a group of friends and allies. During the Civil Rights era, she became a bridge between her liberal white community and the Black Panthers. She would collect money in the suburbs around Diablo Valley, and hold fundraisers, then deliver the money to Kathleen and Eldridge Cleaver. Twenty years after moving to Walnut Creek, her once ostracizing community embraced her and sent her as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in support of George McGovern.
Soskin has been politically active throughout her life. She fought Berkeley’s City Hall to clean up the drug corridor that had overtaken Sacramento Street near Reid’s Records in the 1970s. She became so effective that she ended up working in City Hall herself, as a Legislative Aide to Berkeley council member Don Jelinek.
She also worked with Berkeley's then-Mayor Gus Newport to help build low-income housing throughout Berkeley. She lobbied the city to purchase properties previously operating as crack houses around Sacramento Street and Ashby Avenue, across the street from her store. The city eventually bought the properties and created Byron Rumford Plaza, an affordable-housing development named after the state assemblyman who authored the state’s first and most important fair-housing law.
It was from City Hall that she went to work for California Assemblywoman Dion Aroner, and that led to her involvement in the creation of the Rosie the Riveter Park. It’s at the park where she was finally handed a microphone and asked to tell her story to a live audience three times a week.
While serving as a California State Assembly Field Representative, Soskin became actively involved in the planning stages and development of the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historic Park, memorializing the role and contributions of women during World War II. She entered as a state employee during the park's planning stages in 2000. Eventually, her role morphed into that of a consultant to the National Park Service, then evolved into contract work paid for by the Rosie Trust, and finally, at age 85, she joined the National Park Service as a Park Ranger.
Reflecting on her role in the creation of the park, which would bring a spotlight to the work and conditions of African-American women working in that still-segregated environment, she cautions, "What gets remembered is a function of who’s in the room doing the remembering."
So Soskin has put herself in the room. "There were no black Rosies," says Soskin, "There was still segregation in California in the 1940s, and Blacks were given only menial jobs." As a park ranger assigned to the Rosie the Riveter Historical Park, Soskin’s historical talks at the national park museum’s small theater routinely sell out. She's become so popular, in fact, that the park's tour audiences have doubled. Tours are now booked months in advance, and the park has had to add tours to keep up. Soskin has become what she calls, with some surprise, "a D-list celebrity."
Soskin works five days a week, about five hours a day, and occasionally works extra hours. Most Wednesdays and Fridays, she spends the day answering emails and requests from her desk at the park's headquarters in downtown Richmond. On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays she works at the Visitor Education Center and gives two or three presentations in its small theater.
Soskin’s mother and grandmother both lived into their tenth decade, so Soskin expects to have a few more years to make a difference. She said she is "obsessed" with being "all used up" before her time comes. She doesn’t want to leave anything on the table.
In addition to her day-job and her many speaking engagements, she is collaborating with two filmmakers making documentaries about her life. She expresses hope that during this process, "I will become whole, perhaps for the very first time, like metal shavings attracted irresistibly to a magnet. It is in these moments that I am beginning to feel all the parts of myself coming together, and the distance between them lessening."
The Remarkable Life of
What gets remembered is a function of who's in the room doing the remembering.
Betty Reid Soskin
Nonagenarian Betty Reid Soskin, who once worked in a Jim Crow segregated union hall in Richmond, Calif., now educates others about a history that was nearly forgotten.
Photo Credit: Nancy Millar Patton
Kamal Khan describes himself as part Desi and part American. Desi, which means indigenous to the Indian subcontinent, holds a larger value within brown families. To be Desi is to meet certain familial and cultural expectations. It's a way to identify yourself while taking pride in your culture and heritage. But can a first-generation immigrant call themselves Desi? Where is the line between identifying as American and identifying as Pakistani? How does one avoid being the outcast of American society while still trying to preserve their roots and ethnic background? In an interview with The BCC Voice, Khan weighs in on this topic as it pertains to him, a first-generation Pakistani-American Muslim.
First of all, tell me a little bit about yourself.
My name is Kamal Khan. I go to Berkeley City College, I’m a sociology major, and I’m hoping to go into law enforcement once I transfer and graduate from college. I’m a first-generation Pakistani-American Muslim. My parents are from Pakistan, but I was born in N.J. Then my family moved back to Pakistan for a year, then we moved to Texas and then Calif, and we’ve been living here ever since. I’ve actually spent most of my life in Calif.
Do you consider being a first-generation Pakistani-American Muslim a big part of who you are as a person. In other words, is it something that’s affected your life in a significant way?
Well, it kind of is my life, but I feel like I have two different personas. There’s the person I am when I’m at home, versus the person I am when I’m with my friends, which is the more Americanized version of me.
What do you mean by Americanized? And how are the two personas different?
I’m very Desi at home, you know? Like when I’m at home, I speak in Pukhto, which is my native language, and I’m a lot more involved in my religion. Actually, when I’m at home is when I really indulge in my religion because I’m around my parents and I’m just more involved in it because of them. I’m also pretty argumentative with my parents at home, but when I’m with my friends and my sisters I’m more American. We don’t really talk about religion. I pretty much only speak English with them and I think I’m a bit louder with them around too. I think I just act more like a typical American teenager overall when I’m not at home.
You said that you practice religion more when you’re at home. Do you think you will still practice once you move out?
I don’t think so. I know I’ll always have my faith, but it’s kind of like the opposite of most people when they’re born into a religion. I feel like most people, when they’ve been practicing a religion all their life, they’ll continue to practice out of habit. I feel like I don’t need to do that because whether I’m practicing or not, I’ll always have my faith and I think that’s what matters. I try not to blur the lines between the two personas, but my faith is the solid ground that’s kind of involved in both parts of my personality.
Do you think having two different sides of who you are as a person has affected your social life at all?
It’s definitely affected my socialization I would say, even my sense of self a little bit, actually.
How do you mean?
Well, there’s such a contrast between what I’m expected to act like at home and what my friends expect me to act like, and I’m never really sure where I fit in. When I’m with my American friends, I’m always "The Muslim Friend" but when I’m at home or when I’m with my other Pakistani friends, I’m "The American One." There’s really no group of people that’s just "People Who Are Kind of Pakistani and also Kind of American." I drift between friend groups and just kind of adapt to be the kind of person I’m expected to be with whatever group of people I’m around. So when I’m with my Pakistani-Muslim friends, I act more Desi, whereas, when I’m with my American friends, I act more American. It’s just little microscopic behaviors like switching up my vernacular a little bit or staying quiet during certain conversations, so I’m not the outcast of the group.
Do you feel like the outcast anyway?
A little bit. Once, I was at an Easter dinner at a friend’s house and they were serving pork. As a Muslim, I don’t eat pork, but my friend was insisting I eat it anyway and his reasoning was something like, "Oh but you do all this other stuff you’re not supposed to do anyway, so why not just do this one other thing too?" It was pretty uncomfortable for me. On the other hand, when I’m at home I always get something like "You go out too much," or "Oh, you’re becoming too American," and I just don’t really fit perfectly in one place or the other. It’s also annoying to have to deal with Islamophobia and racial slurs on one hand, and then also have to deal with being "too American" on the other hand.
As a Pakistani-American Muslim, do you think there are certain preconceived notions about you, or misconceptions that people have that you have to deal with?
Definitely. It happens pretty often when I’m at a party, there’s always one person who says something like, "I can’t believe you can do all of this stuff even though you’re a Muslim!" And it’s such a weird misconception-- that just because I’m Muslim means I can’t go out and have any fun. I can though, more than some other people.
When you say "more than some other people" do you mean as compared to your sisters, or other Pakistani guys that are less "Americanized," or someone else?
Both, I would say. Not that my sisters can’t do whatever they want — they can — but I think my parents are a little more lenient with me. I feel like when I go out they check in with me a little less than they do with my sisters. I think I have the advantage there. When it comes to other Pakistani guys, I don’t know if I go out more because I can, or just because I like to. I don’t want to assume anything.
Is there any media representation or any artist out there that you can relate to?
There’s this song called "The Art of Peer Pressure" by Kendrick Lamar about how he acts a certain way around his friends even though he might not agree with or want to do everything they’re doing, but he does it anyway because he feels like he has to. That really resonates with me. It’s one of my favorite songs.
Do you think you prefer being Pakistani-American Muslim, or would you rather just be one or the other?
I can’t say I would prefer being one or the other because I really don’t know what it’s like to be anybody but myself. I was on a flight back from Pakistan once — I must’ve been around four or five years old at the time — and I remember feeling like I didn’t fit into Pakistani society at all. At the same time, I didn’t feel like I fit perfectly into American society either. I think I’ve always felt that way and it’s always affected what I thought of myself too, but I will say that it’s also given me an interesting perspective on life, and I don’t think I would trade that for anything.
On Life As a First Generation Pakistani-American
by MINHAL MOTIWALA
Kamal Khan unravels and reads a fortune cookie in this photo.
Photo Credit: Gina Wright
Vanessa Manley is a 22-year-old body positivity activist from San Jose State University. She has almost 75,000 subscribers on YouTube and almost 10,000 Instagram followers, but she’s humble about her success. Manley is active on social media, and shares her struggles and triumphs regarding her body image. On top of advocating for self-love and body positivity, she shares make-up and fashion tips with her audiences.
I started watching Manley a couple years ago when I was looking for thrift haul videos. I instantly fell in love with her bubbly personality and love for body positivity. I’ve been keeping up with her content ever since, and last week, I was able to meet and interview her. I don’t have many plus-size women in my life, so I wanted to ask her about topics that I’m not able to confide in with other people.
When did you get your start on YouTube, and why did you start making videos?
I started right after high school, when I was 19. Wow, I’ve been doing it for so long now. My first ever video was made when I went on vacation with my aunt, and it was a shitty-ass vlog. I formatted it totally wrong, so it turned out horrible. Someone mentioned it looked "90’s" and I was like, "sure, that makes me feel a bit better." I put black bars on it by accident, I had the crappiest camera, it was just a mess. I was so proud of it though, I was so happy at the time that I was making something for myself and it was such a great memory of being on vacation with my aunt and being able to document it and feeling like a true YouTuber.
I think everyone should try and make a YouTube video at least once, and be creative, because those memories I look back on and it’s so lovely to be able to see them. I was just watching a video of when I got Ashton, my cat, and I was so glad I had it because pictures are great, but videos are so much more. They have more emotion and remind you of a time in your life in a different way than a picture ever could.
Do you still enjoy making YouTube videos? What motivates you to keep going?
I still feel awkward before every video I make, and that never seems to go away, but it’s worth doing because of the responses I get. Not all of them are great, I get sad when everyone talks about the numbers of how many subscribers and views I get, but I guess that’s the only thing they can connect to. I especially hate it when they talk about money because it’s so rude to ask someone that and you would never do that for someone else’s job.
But when it comes down to it, the messages keep me going. I get so many girls telling me how I helped them with their body image or their emotional state or their mental health. I just received a message yesterday from this girl saying how she watched my video about my asymmetrical boobs and she tried wearing a bralette, which is a more revealing bra, and she finally feels free. I was so happy because that’s amazing, like truly amazing. She said she decided to tell her best friend about her insecurity, and now she feels like a weight has been lifted from her and she thanked me.
That’s so awesome!
That is the kind of thing that I want to spread. As much as I love fashion, it feels very superficial sometimes. So many people go through periods of negative body image and why should they be alone? Why shouldn’t we talk about this? And why shouldn’t you be supportive of people in any way that you can? This is the change that I want to make, and YouTube is the platform I find most approachable, and the easiest way to reach a wide, young audience. Everyone’s on their phone, so, might as well.
When did you start blowing up on YouTube and Instagram and how did it affect your life to have more followers and attention?
I really haven’t blown up, [laughs] but two years ago I made a video called "Festival Lookbook" and it got 22 million views. I don’t know why. Most of my current subscribers came from that video. I have a few others that reached a million, but that was definitely the biggest one. It got shared in different countries and I kind of wish it didn’t get that much popularity because I got a lot of unwanted attention from it. Lots and lots of foreign males commented really creepy stuff that made me uncomfortable. I get that daily on Instagram and YouTube, which results in me blocking lots of people, which sucks.
I’ll open up my Instagram and it’s ridiculous how many unwanted sexual pictures and creepy, unwanted messages there are from men I don’t know. It really affected me, I started feeling like an object. ["Festival Lookbook"] made me feel very objectified motivated me to make a video about my body — reclaiming it to be mine.
But it still affects my daily life, I’m active on social media so it’s something I can’t really escape from. I could post a picture, and if it's even slightly revealing, I’ll get so many inappropriate comments about how I look and what these men want to do to me. This guy the other day commented on a video of me trying on clothes, "I literally fapped to this video of you," and it made me so uneasy and uncomfortable because I was being completely objectified.
What are the positives and negatives of being so open on social media?
There’s a lot of positives! Connecting with people is so great! I would never have met you, so it’s cool that I’m able to do that. I’ve actually met a bunch of people that I would’ve otherwise never met because of social media. They all understand my situation of where I’m at with my body image and are so accepting, so it’s great to be able to meet them. You wouldn’t expect so many people across the world to be so accepting of who you are, and having that validation makes me so happy.
Social media also just gives me something to do. For a while, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, I mean I still don’t know what I’m doing, but I enjoy doing social media so, might as well keep going.
YouTube also gives me a creative outlet! I’ve always been looking for some sort of creative outlet, I’ve done painting, sculpting, name any kind of creative outlet, I’ve probably tried it. So, finding something I actually enjoyed in YouTube was so great for me. It helps me mentally because it gives me something to look forward to and strive towards.
Negatives … Unwanted attention for sure. I guess making the time for it? Oh my god. It’s insane to navigate being your own brand, and state how much you’re worth to companies trying to do brand deals. It’s really consuming. Marketing myself as a product is super weird. Having deadlines has really been affecting me too! I have to shoot a video today for a Chinese clothing company and I’m feeling sick, but I gotta persevere because there’s money you know. But, I’d say there are a lot more positives than negatives for sure.
When did you first start getting into fashion?
Being overweight as a kid, nothing fit me, so I would cry every time I would go shopping with my mom. It was so horrible. I went to try and look for trendy stuff and it was impossible because there was no junior and plus-size options, the only plus-size stuff was adult business wear. My mom took me to Macy’s and JC Penney’s and nothing would fit me. On top of that, my boobs were so much bigger than all of the other girls, so none of the bras fit me either, and it was such a struggle to find anything that remotely fit me!
It was a really hard time in my life because I wasn’t comfortable with my body, so the fact that clothes didn’t fit me and I wasn’t comfortable, that sucked. I persevered through all of that though and was like "No, I still love clothes," so I went and found stuff that actually worked.
When you don’t like yourself that much, you try to grasp onto stuff that makes you happy, and clothes made me happy. When I had a good outfit, I remember people telling me I looked good, and it reinforced a positive image of myself that I needed. I needed someone to tell me, "You look really nice today," like at the time that was so necessary for me. Now, I can finally tell myself that I look good when I look in the mirror. It was a long journey of finding what I like, what I didn’t like, and what I could actually fit into. It’s crazy how much it’s changed though, so many brands will sell plus-size clothes online, although they won’t sell it in stores. They still want to make a profit, but they don’t want to show they make plus-size clothes. Which presents a conundrum because it’s like should you shop at these stores, even though they don’t like you? Brands like Forever 21 act like they’re inclusive, but they aren’t actually.
Why do you think plus size representation is important?
Because it exists. Because of how much people say it, size 16 is the normal size of a woman, it’s true. It’s legit true, so why shouldn’t it be out there, why shouldn’t it be shown? And not just online, it should be in stores. Making people feel shameful about their bodies isn’t going to sell any clothes, so why is it happening? There’s such a big market to capitalize on for plus-size clothing but brands don’t do it because of society saying it’s shameful to be plus size. Society markets the idea that if you’re fat, you should feel bad about it and I’m like "No, I’m fat and I like myself," and so many people are angry about it.
People are so angry that I’m happy with who I am and I would never put the pressure on someone else to feel any negative emotion towards themselves. When people see me, they think I’m lazy, and not hard working enough and indulgent and it’s not true. I eat as much as everyone else, I work out probably more than most people and I’m still treated like I’m a lazy piece of shit. It sometimes makes me look at other people and wish I was them because of their accepted body types by society, but then I’m like "No, I love who I am, and I don’t need to be someone else."
Representation of body image in media needs to be addressed, even more so, because it’s not accurately shown and it isn’t as inclusive as it’s advertised. Body acceptance and positivity isn’t addressed in the media or in school, where you spend a lot of your time in your adolescence, and it really should be. Why isn’t negative body image being talked about when it’s hurting so many young women and men? It should be a part of the discussion. I know so many people who aren’t comfortable showing their body to their partner, and if body inclusivity and acceptance was talked about more, this wouldn’t be as big of an issue.
Do you think there has been more progress in the inclusion of plus size models in the fashion industry?
There’s a stereotypical way that the fashion industry wants to portray plus sized people, and I fall into that category because I don’t have a larger stomach, and it’s so messed up because people who don’t look that stereotypical way, aren’t accepted.
There’s only one model I’ve seen, Tess Holliday, who is actually plus size and is actively modeling. Most plus-size models have hourglass shapes, smaller arms, no double chins, and flat stomachs. A person who hates fat people would look at these models and be like "Oh, you’re so pretty, you should just lose 15 lbs." To them, it just looks like the models are slightly overweight and that’s plus size. They think, "Oh I can handle that, I can be tolerant of that."
They see the plus-size model as accepted and plus-size people who look different than that as disgusting. If the industry showed a woman with bigger arms, stomach, or thighs modeling, I don't think it would be acceptable, people would be angry.
Then the whole "slim thick" thing comes into play. Since celebrities like Kylie Jenner have been gaining popularity, girls all want big boobs, flat stomachs, and to look exactly like their celebrity idol. This body type is becoming the norm, and people that look different are going to be thought of as ugly and worthless and less than.
Manley plans to graduate soon, with a degree in child development and to keep YouTube and social media as her hobbies. She puts out content on a regular basis and you can find her YouTube channel if you search "Vanessa Manley;" her instagram is @vanessaisawolf. Manley has a killer sense of style and an engaging online presence, so I see big things happening for her in the near future.
On Body Positivity, Fashion, and Finding Your Authentic Self Online
by SUMMER VODNOY
Manley poses against a nearby park shed, showing her natural modeling skills and adorable sense of style.
Photo Credit: Summer Vodnoy
The People's Drink
Jesse Sariñana has worked in the beer industry for years. Although only in his thirties, his experience is expansive. He has a deep knowledge of the process of making beer, and even taught classes for his employees on the science behind the beer. So, where did we decide to have our interview? Over a cold beer at a local Alameda bar, the Lost Weekend Lounge.
We met for our interview late in the afternoon, on the bar's back patio, just in time to blend in with a few locals gushing at the feeling of knocking off work.
Sariñana was born in Austin, Texas, grew up in Upstate New York, and moved to the Bay Area in 2003. He grew up with little in excess. His parents separated, and, living a life of juggled uncertainties, Sariñana learned to cook when he was young. This, was his segue into beer. He was cooking at the age of eight with his brother, Tony, helping out their busy parents accordingly. Sariñana and his brother were drawn to the designs of the beer labels, and Sariñana, perusing the library one day, picked up "The Joy of Brewing" by Michael Jackson. Soon after, while cooking one day, he went to his father and said, "I bet I can make beer."
And he did.
Sariñana now manages the Alameda Island Brewing Company, but many steps led him to where he is now. After a few bar jobs to float him through college, he landed at Jupiter, in Berkeley, Calif., where he was hired as a bar manager, but Sariñana insisted that he work each of the positions before settling into the manager role.
"I had the owners put me in every position first," he told me, "without telling anyone I was going to be the manager. What I like is when people see me doing every position." He spoke with his hands, emphasizing the importance of a solid work community.
Sariñana effectively proved himself capable of everything that needed doing, from busing tables, to cleaning bathrooms, all the way to inventory assessments and predicting the week's trajectory.
After Jupiter, Sariñana went on to manage Berkeley's Triple Rock Brewery and Ale House. He was there for eight years, and after a short stint of time off, took on his current job in Alameda.
"So tell me what's happening at Alameda Island [Brewing Company] now?" I asked.
Sariñana lifted his beer to inspect it in the light, it happened to be the "Hazy Jane" from Alameda Island Brewing Company. I could tell by his attention to detail that he was proud of his position at the brewery.
"There are no hops added to the boil," he told me. "It’s all dry hopped, and I don’t think any other brewery has done that … to use wheat and oats and then not boil any hops and just bomb it with [hop breeds] Citra and a little bit of Mosaic."
He went into great detail and told me about the different varietals of hops coming out of Australia and New Zealand and how the mineral content of the soil plays into the characteristics of the hop flavor. He was charged up describing what happens to a single grain on a molecular level when you hit with the initial boil, and the different stages of when brewers can add hops.
"As farmers have been able to develop new varietals," he tells me, "it gives brewers the ability to use hops in different ways," he said.
"What do you notice when you travel, when it comes to beer?"
"When I go to Texas, where I’m from, it’s red or blue. And I mean Bud or Bud Light, that’s it. But of course, Austin has a real beer scene. Where I grew up in Upstate New York, it was a beer desert. It’s a little town, you know, but they’ve got five breweries now!"
"You’ve been doing this for so long now," I went on, "what have been some major changes you have seen in the craft beer world since you have been working in it?"
Leaning back and shifting his Oakland A’s cap, Sariñana replied, "The greatest thing that’s happened is that the paradigm shifted from being Nordic men exclusively, to now all-inclusive." He paused for a moment. "I remember [when I started] I was the only Mexican that I knew! Now it’s wildly inclusive."
"Nordic men?" I asked.
"White dudes." Sariñana responded, "No women and no other demographic. Only white dudes."
"I see," and he made it very easy to see, he was adamant about the changes. It was clear to me that Sariñana had a deep insight to that very shift, "and all-inclusive?" I prodded further, "In what way?"
"I think it’s allowed for anybody to open a brewery and make a life out of it. when you go to beer events now, like festivals or brewery anniversaries, it’s not just white dudes. I don’t know what’s going to happen with the next generation of beer drinkers, but I do like that it’s opened up this way."
We clinked our glasses to the shifts and openness in the Bay Area, and I couldn't help thinking of all the new styles and takes and renovations of beers sprouting up all over the Bay Area. I thought about the limitless personalities coming into the world of beer, the fresh minds of those who may have been otherwise shunned from beer-making in the "Nordic male-dominated" recent past. Coincidence? Perhaps not. I was curious where he thought all this might lead to.
"So, what’s next for beer?"
"I think beer is changing an awful lot; it's moving into a place where small breweries can open up and bring interesting new styles to people who aren’t normally accustomed to having them. We’re developing new strains of yeast, new hop varietals, [and] with all the things happening these days, there’s something for everyone. Beer is the people’s drink. It’s always been the people’s drink."
Jesse Sariñana gearing up to strong-arm a pony keg down Park Street, Alameda.
Photo Courtesy of Jesse Sariñana
On Breaking into the Craft Beer Scene
by JESSE ROSENTHAL
by LIZ ZARKA
On the Bay Area Comedy Scene
Tracy Nguyen at Beer Basement for the comedy special "Bad Asians."
Photo Credit: Michelle Yramategui
Mining for Laughs (Not Bitcoin)
On my way to meet with San Francisco-based comedian Tracy Nguyen, I almost got run over by a scooter — twice. Not one of those cute Italian ones in "Roman Holiday," but a rinky-dink little contraption that looks like a tech-era reanimation of the Razor scooter that has been sitting in your parents’ garage since the early 2000s. I’ve noticed flocks of these scooters lined out on blocks throughout the city over the past couple of weeks and just assumed that they were portents of a particularly robust spring tourism season, or the transportation du jour for baby-faced tweens with Xbox Live names like "Pu$$y Slayer 420-69." Crossing Mission and Second Street, I was surprised to find that the perps who almost took out my Achilles were fully-grown adult men looking a little too proud as they zipped through foot traffic, ostensibly to make their 10 a.m. meetings at one of the hundreds of tech startups now nestled within the city’s SoMa district.
In a part of the city dominated by men in relaxed moccasins and vests, Nguyen stands out. The first thing you’ll notice upon meeting her is her signature safari hat, which she is rarely without if you catch her outside. You aren’t sure if it's a joke, an eccentricity, a conversation starter or all three, but it doesn’t matter, you’re mesmerized.
"It’s for sun protection," Nguyen explained as we took a seat at Special Xtra, one of the many upscale cafe-by-day, bar-by-night joints that replaced the warehouses that used to blanket the region south of Market Street. "I’m 30 and my body is calcifying and so I’m doing a lot of foam rolling right now, trying to eat a lot of hydration tablets. I’m trying to keep my instrument tuned." Nguyen is a stand-up and improv comedian who has been showcased at venues all over the Bay Area in events like Real Live Comedians, Bad Asians, Mutiny Radio and Comedy Baseball, to name a few. You probably wouldn’t guess it with her quirky, sardonic sense of humor and alluring fashion-savvy (it was a Monday and Nguyen was sporting a jean jumpsuit and socks under chunky heels), but Nguyen is a tech startup veteran.
Conversations with Nguyen meander, and for the next two hours, we discussed how growing up in a large Vietnamese Catholic family influenced her decision to get into comedy, how Silicon Valley is affecting the comedy scene on all sides of the Bay and what Andre the Giant has in common with today’s most popular stand-up acts. Our conversation was even punctuated by a live guest appearance from Glossier CEO Emily Weiss!
What inspired you to start doing comedy? Can you share a little background about your beginnings as a comedian?
Well, I had a quarter life crisis at 26. I had taken improv classes before, hated them, and then I found this standup comedy class, and I wanted to take it as part of my bucket list. I really liked it, and I met some cool people and I started to do open mics.
How did your quarter life crisis manifest itself, and why did that make you want to get into comedy?
I was bored at my job at the time. It was the second or maybe third career change in my life. So I was like, "If I can’t make it as this, what the fuck am I going to do?" I felt a little lost. I just wanted to explore self-expression. I think that when you’re very confused in your life and you don’t know what to do, it’s probably just best to experiment for a while, just to move toward things that you enjoy or that you’re good at. I didn’t know that I would be good at stand-up, but I was funny to the people around me. I made people laugh who were close to me, so I thought maybe it would translate.
This really resonates with me. At my first job out of school, at the end of the day I would feel so empty and wonder what I had to look forward to tomorrow. You can lose yourself really easily if you don’t have a mode of expression to help you understand where you are. So self-expression — you need it, most people need it to survive, but why comedy? What about comedy, rather than other forms of artistic expression, drew you in?
I always thought that comedians were like gladiators, and I wanted to be like that. I wanted to be respected for my wit. And I do think that you can develop that. I don’t think anyone is born with just a natural charisma. You have to develop it like a muscle. I grew up Catholic and so not a lot of vices are tolerated by the Church —
Except for drinking! And communing with crowds. That’s a big thing in Catholicism. It’s allowable. When you asked me that, I’m kind of just like, "Why did I choose comedy?"
Let me try to reel it in a little bit. You said that a comedic voice and charisma are muscles that you have to work. Even before you knew what stand-up, sketch or improv were, do you feel like — and maybe I’m projecting here — but do you think you were exercising those muscles unknowingly by trying to endear yourself to people or by trying to deal with pain?
Absolutely, absolutely. I remember growing up and feeling very stupid. I never felt like I was smarter than anybody else in my class. One way to hide that is to turn everything into a joke. I was never the cutest girl in my class, or the most athletic, or the brainiest person. I was sort of middle-of-the-road.
Do you still feel that way looking back — that you were an everyman?
Yeah. Here’s the thing, I grew up in a predominately Asian school. I never felt like a minority. I actually felt like just a cog. Like I was just another faceless, nameless Asian person at my school. And so then I asked myself, "What could I do to feel more special?" I love fashion — it’s a way for me to express my uniqueness through my clothes. Comedy is similar.
It's your special skill!
Yeah! I can bullshit.
You can riff.
I notice people. I actually have a knack for remembering people’s faces. I not only remember people’s faces, but I also remember what we talked about and the situation that we were in when we had the conversation. I recognized an Uber driver that I had eight months ago, and I clearly recalled the conversation we had previously.
Whoa, that’s really nuts. What would you chalk that up to? I know this sounds like a hand-wavy Berkeley-slash-Bay Area thing to say, but is it being present in a moment or being attentive?
I think it, too, is like a muscle. I was in a refugee camp in Thailand. I don't know how many people were in that camp, I want to say, like, 50 to 100 adults and just like, one baby.
And you were the baby?
I was the baby, dude. I have a big family, too, and I have to remember everyone.
Was anyone in your family funny? Did you grow up with funny people or have funny friends?
I had a lot of funny friends growing up.
Were you attracted to those types of people?
Absolutely, absolutely. Anybody who had a special talent, I was attracted to — the weirdos. Like, people who were kind of chubby, but had the voice of Whitney Houston. I was like, "Oh my god! You’re amazing!" I have a lot of people in my life who may or may not be characterized as bitch[es], but I love them for the certain thing that they have, things that they provide in my life that are irreplaceable. You’re like a comedy historian. You’re like that person that they interview in documentaries.
I’m over here like, "Since the dawn of time, people have been telling jokes! Comedy is defined as 'XYZ!'" Which grad school department should I apply to to do stuff like that? American Studies?
I have no idea. Dude, I don't know. Actually, there’s a really good documentary that this is reminding me of, about Andre the Giant.
I think I saw a trailer for that and cried a little bit. HBO, right?
Comedy and wrestling are very similar. Both started off as vaudevillian types of lower art very specific to a certain territory or market. With the advent of cable television, comedians and wrestlers almost became like sports teams; you had your superstars and people from their region would cheer them on.
Oh yeah, I definitely cheer on people like Ali Wong, from San Francisco, Chelsea Peretti, who grew up in Oakland, W. Kamau Bell — Actually, I’m curious to know which comedians inspired you to get your start. Who did you try to emulate?
In the early years, I was really into Roseanne Barr.
You’re kidding me. You want that to go in print?
No. I was really into all the major guys, like Dave Chappelle and Louis C.K. although —
That didn’t age too well.
No, no it didn’t. I’m in the school of thought where you can separate art from life though. Like you can read "Mein Kampf." Just kidding, you can’t. Um, I’ve never read "Mein Kampf."
Me either. Neither the original nor the Knausgård novel.
Yeah, I haven’t read any edition of that book. But you know, I still enjoy Woody Allen’s movies.
Me too. And you know, if he called me up on the phone today and said "Hey Liz, I have the perfect role for you in my next film," I can’t say that I would say no. This isn’t about me though.
Yeah, this isn’t about you. So, to recap, Louis C.K., Dave Chappelle, Roseanne Barr and Jim Carrey — just the faces that he makes.
How would you describe your set, your angle or your stage persona? You know, we have Sasha Fierce. We have Ziggy Stardust. We have Tracy Nguyen. But is Tracy Nguyen always Tracy Nguyen?
I’m not really known for my content as a comedian. I’m more of a delivery person. Tracy Nguyen is not Tracy Nguyen on stage. You know, I like to play with magical realism. You never know if what I’m saying is true or [a] fairy tale.
So you’re like 20th century Latin American authors in that respect?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. You don’t know what is real and what is fabricated.
What do you talk about on stage? Do you do a smattering? You said you lapse into magical reali —
I mainly talk about sex.
So would some call you a "sex comic?"
I would call myself a sex comic. A lot of my material is about sex, but it’s sex as a metaphor for power — power relations between men and women.
So not literal experiences of you having a lot of sex?
Or not having a lot of sex. But they're my experiences.
Oh, not having a lot of sex. Okay, interesting. That’s fine.
[Laughter] Of not having a lot and then also, you know, it’s about being in a relationship and what that’s like, and also the power struggle of two people trying to negotiate a household.
Was it weird for you to perform comedy about your relationship in front of the person that you’re in a relationship with? Does that feel at all sociopathic?
It’s liberating. It’s absolutely liberating. You could look at is as being sociopathic — I have a voice, he doesn’t, and he is being put on trial. But I try to keep it pretty fair. I ask him every time I’m thinking about doing a joke about him if he would be affected by it, or if he doesn’t want me to do it. I try to be considerate. Also, a lot of times, the jokes are a dig on myself, about how I reacted to him in certain situations. But yeah, I spend the most time with him out of anyone in my life, so it makes sense that there would be a lot of material about him.
Do you think that he is your muse? Is he flattered by it?
Initially when I started doing stand-up, he was flattered because a lot of the material was complimentary to him. However, I think as time has gone on, he’s gotten less and less flattered because the material, you know, I just have a different lens on our relationship.
It’s not the honeymoon phase.
It’s not the honeymoon phase anymore. It’s the logistical stuff. How do you live with this person day to day?
How do you co-raise a dog?
Yeah, how do you co-parent? How do you negotiate space? Physical space and mental space. How do you retain an identity without morphing into the same person? I mean, I’m morphing into him and he’s morphing into me.
That’s kind of beautiful.
It was at this point in the interview Nguyen pointed out that we were sitting only a few tables away from Emily Weiss, the founder and CEO of Glossier cosmetics. She asked if we should go and say hi, and I said no. Ignoring my response completely, Nguyen declared that she would take the lead and pounced when Weiss walked across the room to get water. The conversation with her was brief. The only major highlight was that Weiss asked me what color "Boy Brow" (an overly-expensive eyebrow filler) I was wearing and I panicked and said "Medium." "Medium" is not a color. After some chatter about Weiss’ jacket and whether or not women have to be bitches to lead Fortune 500 companies, Nguyen and I turned back to the interview.
Okay, anyone involved in comedy knows that stand-ups bomb a lot — even when they’ve made it and especially when they're starting out. I’m curious to know how you bounce back and what keeps you coming back. Have you learned to stop worrying and love the bomb? What do you need to tell yourself?
You know, I’m like, gainfully employed. I love my job. I have great family members and a good relationship. So I try to fall back on them when I’m feeling shitty. I’m also, like, a great yoga person ... Please don’t quote me on that, DON’T QUOTE ME ON THAT. Okay, redo. I’ll take a hot bath. I’ll eat a slice of cake. I’ll do yoga. You know, anything to make me feel better about my terrible performance. Also short term memory loss, I think. I smoke a lot of weed to forget. It eases the trauma of a set. I will even do it sometimes when I’m going up on stage, which I should stop doing because I forget my lines and stuff.
Now might be a good time to confess that I was eating my lunch through a large portion of the interview to "keep things casual." During Nguyen’s above response, I started cracking open a hard-boiled egg, to which Nguyen shouted, "This is your brain on weed!" This made me chortle and drop egg in my cleavage. Only later did I realize that I was speaking to a wildly successful businesswoman/model/social media influencer with two eggs bulging out of my front jacket pocket and the rest of the interview with egg on my chest. Back to the interview.
Maybe just whatever it takes to remind yourself that you’re not a piece of shit and you have things going for you?
Exactly. But also, to not take the bomb that seriously. I don’t take myself seriously, so it’s not a big deal.
Do you feel like you've always had a non-serious approach to a non-serious medium, a "joie de vivre" where it's okay if you mess up?
Yeah, I think that’s the best philosophy to abide by when you’re doing something like this, which is a lot of times very thankless and also doesn’t pay at all. For instance, on Thursday night, I made a whole 15 bucks, and on Friday, I made 11 bucks in tips. That’s enough to cover travel and a little bit of beggars’ money.
Yeah, some beggars’ money and maybe a cup of coffee. Not even a latte though.
Not even a latte, just your standard cup of coffee. You’d have to choose between travel and a latte.
Was that casual attitude hard for you to develop?
It was kind of hard, yeah. Stand-up is you on the stage, and so it feels like people are judging you. But what you have to realize is that people aren’t judging you; they’re just judging the parts of you that you are showing them. And those parts of you aren’t necessarily permanent. Those parts of you can change. We don’t even have the same molecules in us that we had two years ago. So how are we going to expect ourselves to have the same thoughts, the same opinions or the same emotions? All of that shit is going to change. So, I can say whatever, and you know, I might be judged for it like three years from now, but I will be a different person when that judgment comes.
So you worry about people judging the opinions you express on stage rather than how they might evaluate your abilities as a comic?
Yeah. I don’t give a shit about that because I know that I’m naturally funny.
How do you know that?
People laugh! Like right now, I don’t feel nervous about going up, even if I don’t have anything to say. I have no nervousness. But I am concerned about my material being good, so I have to focus on writing.
Because you're a delivery person, not a content person?
If someone hands something to me, I have the delivery. The parts of comedy I love the most involve the audience; they involve a certain rapport with the audience. Crowd work I really like. Riffing I really like. I just want to interact with the audience. I just want to walk around it and play with it and feel it.
Is it kind of like improv?
No, it’s not.
Because you’re in a position where you still have the control?
Yeah, I’m moderating the conversation. I’m a medium, almost — in the fortune-telling sense. Just kidding. I will say that a lot of comedians look down on people who do improv because they think of them as dumb jocks.
That’s a thing! Isn’t that weird that there’s that stratification? But there is. There's a doctors vs. orthopedic surgeons thing going on here.
Oh, and stand-ups are like orthopedic surgeons and improv comics are doctors?
No, stand-ups are the doctors and improv-ers are the orthopedic surgeons.
I think this metaphor is falling apart.
The metaphor is falling apart. But yeah, I actually think this division is changing. Now that stand-up comedians are doing improv, and improvs are doing stand-up, there’s a lot of crossover. They know that it’s a way to entertain, and so they’re going to do it — even actors are doing it. You don’t even have to be a comedian to do stand-up. You can just go up there.
Inspired, and still ignorant of the egg on my boob, I set out to revolutionize the art of the interview —
Oh! Here’s an interesting one (I said about my own question). What question to do you wish someone would ask you?
[Nguyen stares blankly].
Revolutionize the art of the interview. Check.
What do you want to tell people?
What do I want to tell people?
What do you think you know about that you wish someone would ask you about?
I wish people would ask me more about the state of the world. Actually, I’m not really an authority on that.
I was going to ask you, "How do we solve homelessness in San Francisco?" But I thought that was a lot for a Monday morning, I kind of wanted to ease into it first.
I’ll answer that. I think the city needs to employ the homeless as street cleaners. I also think that company offices should house homeless people at night. People leave offices and nobody is occupying those buildings in the evenings.
Except for the — what’s that movie about the little people living in the wall?
Oh, "The Borrowers." Yeah, but those people are tiny. Their footprint is like an ant’s. So, we could fit them all. I also think that once virtual reality gets better, there will be no need for employees to even go to an office. They’ll have a VR room, and they’ll just meet their co-workers there. Then we get to free up all of this office space for people who actually need the housing.
That’s so interesting. Or maybe we upload our brains to the cloud so we don’t need a physical space. That frees up half the city, maybe even more than half. Alright, cool, good, good, good question answered. Okay, last official personal question and then we’re going to transition to some scene stuff. Would you rather have feet for hands, or hands for feet?
Oh my god, definitely hands for feet, dude. If I had an opposable toe, I’d be a monkey basically. Feet for hands, that’s just useless. Dude, these questions are quality. Is this a Rolling Stone interview right now?
Pitchfork. Where are your favorite spots in the Bay Area to perform? Where do you feel the best? Where are you treated the best? Where is the audience best for you?
I really love the open mic at this bar in the Outer Mission-slash-Bernal Heights called Iron and Gold.
Ooh, Bernal Heights, fancy.
It's a very fancy neighborhood. The open mic is in this really small room in the back of the bar. I love performing there because it’s noisy, so you have to talk over a lot of the music and a lot of the crowd, it’s a challenge. I also run an open mic every Monday night at Mission Hills Saloon in Potrero Hill. That room is pretty good too, although you’re mostly just performing for comedians. At least at Iron and Gold there are actual audience members, even if it’s just a single couple.
Speaking of talking over music, we’re talking over a very loud recording of George Michael right now. I don’t know if you noticed, but it’s very distracting.
I don’t think this is George Michael. No, this is — who’s the guy, Rick Roll, who’s that guy? Roy Orbison? [Nguyen looks the lyrics up on her phone]. Rick Astley! This is Rick Astley.
Oh wow! Oh man, I was about to spread misinformation. I’m glad we cleared that up. Moving on. Do you have a favorite gig that you've done?
Hmmm, my favorite gig that I’ve ever done. Actually, this just happened last week. I was doing a showcase at this place called the Beer Basement. They have this stage underground in their bar that is very similar to a New York comedy club. It’s kind of small. It has like, brick walls.
Everybody loves exposed brick.
Everybody loves exposed brick at a comedy club. It was an all-Asian showcase called "Bad Asians." That was great, because I was speaking to an audience who shared my life experiences. It was about growing up as a first-generation immigrant in the Bay Area. It was like talking to family. My boyfriend came, and he hasn’t seen me do comedy in two years. A lot of the jokes were about him, so I could point directly at him and the crowd was loving it because they got to put a face to a scenario. He was shaking his head the whole time even though he was a good sport about it.
I think a lot of people who are familiar with the Bay Area comedy scene have noticed that the East Bay is becoming more of a hotspot for comedy because of gentrification, people being squeezed out of San Francisco, yada, yada. Do you sense a difference between the San Francisco and East Bay comedy scenes?
I think that the East Bay scene is a lot more vibrant. It’s younger and there are a lot of students out there and a lot of female and LGBTQ representation, so it’s a different variety of voices. In San Francisco, you have more of your legacy folks — people who have been on the scene for a really long time. Mutiny Radio represented the free speech radio establishment in SF. In Oakland you have a lot of little pockets of stuff and some really exciting things happening. People are playing with the form. You have showcases now where it’s not just stand-up. It’s like, dirty haiku contests and variety shows, so it’s expanding comedy in that way. It’s a little more experimental. If there’s an alt scene in the Bay Area, it’s definitely in Oakland.
Does the liberalism, diversity and relatively high education levels of the San Francisco audience affect your approach? If so, how?
Absolutely. I’ve worked in tech for a while now, and I feel like I have a lot of material for a tech audience. I feel like I can talk about anything, although I’m not particularly interested in talking about politics unless it’s pertinent to the local economy. I’ll talk about homelessness and tech’s influence there, but I’m not trying to talk about property rights in the United States or around the world —
For the better, probably, because that doesn’t sound hilarious.
But I do like to reference certain authority figures, and it’s nice knowing that people will know who I’m talking about. Like everybody knows who Peter Thiel is, so I can make a joke about a vampire facial and people will know what that is. So it’s nice, yeah. I like it. I do.
Do you feel like you cover tech stuff because those are the people at your shows, or do you do it because it’s funny and relatable?
I think it’s a little bit of both, but maybe less so because it's relatable. I’m living it, and it’s funny. You can't know if something is relatable until you test it out, so it’s probably a secondary consideration for me.
What are your favorite and least favorite aspects of the Bay Area comedy scene?
I like the fact that since it’s such a small scene, you get to know everybody and it feels like a community. I like that you can root for people you like and befriend the people you like. It’s less intimidating than, say, the New York scene or the LA scene, which just feels like a sprawl.
And probably a rat race too. As an outsider looking in, the Bay Area seems like a playground where you can test your stuff. If you want to, you could take it to the next step and move to a different city.
Right, a lot of people train here, gain the confidence and then move to New York and LA to get really polished. So it’s lower stakes, but it’s still fun, which is why you get into comedy in the first place. It still feels like that for me and that’s why it’s my favorite part of the scene. Least favorite part, hm — I think you can get caught in the crossfire generated by feuds between people.
You probably don’t want to air any dirty laundry on The BCC Voice website right now. We have tens of readers — like literally, ten readers. But if you’re comfortable saying, what do you mean by that?
Like you mentioned, there are rooms that are super tech-friendly, but then there are also rooms that are not tech-friendly. There are rooms that are super "social justice warrior"-friendly, and there are rooms that are not SJW-friendly. Do you know what I mean? You really have to pick and choose, and I think that’s unfortunate because a lot people won't do certain rooms. It’s an advantage and a disadvantage, because in one sense, you have your niche. You are a comedian and you have your niche and maybe you just perform for that niche. Or you try to have sort of a broader appeal and your material is watered down because of that. So there’s a balance you have to strike.
That sounds really tricky to navigate. The city can feel really polarized. You have your old guard of politically active, more alternative populations in the same area as a new generation of tech employees. I could imagine that comedians in other cities don't have to deal with that specific type of division as much.
What's next for you, Tracy? What are some goals relating to comedy that you’re thinking about?
You know, the comedian lifestyle is not necessarily for me. I don’t like staying up late. I like being healthy. I don’t like drinking. I don’t even like going to bars. But I enjoy the community. I think the next goal I have for comedy is to start my own projects. I would like to do some sketch stuff. I would like to start a podcast. I have some video footage that I’m developing into a reel.
What is your fantasy?
I would love to have a show like Margaret Cho had, "All-American Girl." I have comedians in my life where I’m like, "You gotta play my mom!" So, I would love to make that happen and write roles for that and feature people in comedy that I think are really funny, but maybe don’t necessarily get as much respect. I would love to be a showrunner.
I think that’s a good one to end on, right? Like, the future? Looking to the future?
Tracy Nguyen has performed all over the Bay Area at showcases you may or may not have heard of: #Trivialol, Real Live Comedians, Bad Asians, Hellafunny, Hell Hat @ Mutiny Radio, Comedy Baseball, Comedy Couch SF and Comedy Incubator.
Most recently, she was spotted telling jokes at a boba shop in San Jose, and at a weed dispensary outside of Twitter's headquarters. You can see her every week at Mission Hill Saloon, where she hosts Monday night open mics at 8 p.m. When she's not performing, Nguyen is working on her acting reel. She's been typecast as a therapist in two student productions and will be the understudy for Brad Pitt's Tyler Durden character in a student production of select scenes from Fight Club. This part is not a joke.
Follow her on Instagram at @dicktracy if you’re into it.
Todd Fulton grew up in Stockton, Calif. in an ethnically mixed family. Coming from modest means, educational opportunities and hard work afforded him the chance to better his life and to work in the progressive field of computer science. Fulton is an example of how rewarding diligence can be.
Never one to let socio-economic constraints keep him from success, Fulton's life’s work has been implementing the use of computer code within modern business. He has evolved along with the industry, from the dot-com boom to the present-day world of mega-corporations and startups. He now finds himself indispensable to PayPal, working to create international business solutions and holding his own with giants of the industry. His is a fine example of how education and hard work can be a path to success.
With 25 years of experience in a field many students are currently pursuing, The BCC Voice sat down with Fulton to ask what he enjoys about his career and whether a life in tech is all it's cracked up to be.
How did you become interested in computer science, and what is your background?
I first became interested in computer science when I was in high school in Stockton. I had mastered C, Pascal and Basic by my senior year. Computer science was a new and unknown industry back then. I think I ended up writing code better than my instructor. There was no advanced curriculum. The school had to invent new classes to keep me busy. I was able to get accepted into the University of California, Los Angeles, in part because of my Hispanic heritage and the affirmative action programs at that time. I took a bachelor’s in economics from UCLA in 1991 and I was accepted to the University of Southern California where I obtained an MBA in 1995.
How did an MBA lead to a career in programming?
It was sort of a fluke. I had always had an interest in programming. I was applying for internships the year before I finished at USC. I ended up with a job doing marketing for an internet radio promoter. We were working with Mosaic, an early web browser, and I found the experience fascinating. I had a feeling that I was in a place that could be pivotal as technology was developing. It was a brand-new thing, it fit well with my background in computer science. I had been doing side jobs all through school. I was looking for a marketing position and this worked.
Do you enjoy working with computers?
Sure — they don’t talk back. It's kept me busy and paid the bills. I saw that it could go somewhere, and it felt good to be accomplishing something tangible.
Where did it go from there?
I found myself in the middle of the dot-com boom.
Do you see yourself staying in this career for the rest of your life? Do you enjoy it?
It is not my life’s passion, no. It is, however, something I am very good at that I can tolerate doing. It is a thing that I do well, I excel at code and I know I have found a comfortable niche. My job allows me to afford my family and a decent lifestyle. It is honest work, and at the end of the day, I am satisfied most of the time, and I feel that I am in a position of importance, where I can accomplish things and affect the global marketplace. I am a part of something greater than myself.
Do you recommend computer science as a path for today’s students?
If you do it well, the tech industry offers a comfortable living. But most important of all is that you should do something you like. If you love your work and can make a living at it, this job won't be all bad. You must love it or [you will] be miserable. Don’t pursue this career choice if you don’t enjoy it. That goes for any career.
Does computer science work for you?
It’s what I am good at and it is what I have done the most. I am very good at what I do. I write code as well as anyone. It is the thing that I have the most skill at. There is a book called "Good to Great" by Jim Collins, in which he explains how some professors at Stanford did an in-depth analysis of successful public companies that managed to maintain sustained growth over 10 years. There was a pattern to the success of those companies, the executives, they all loved what they did. This was called the "Hedgehog Concept." It changed the way I thought about approaching success. It is about loving your job, rather than seeking success. It comes down to love, skill and dedication.
What do you think about outsourcing within the computer science industry?
People see it as the ultimate cost saving solution, but in truth it is difficult to manage remote labor and there are questions of accountability. The remote workers are difficult to organize and the lower wages can result in poor work quality. The most important tasks should be kept close, where they can be held under scrutiny. Ideally, you keep your family jewels close to home. Your family jewels in this industry are the product and the people who are fundamental to maintaining that product and its production. You can outsource the mundane tasks, but not the essential ones. It is like with car companies. You keep your specs and engineering close to home, as well as your product design. Once the blueprints are done, remote production is viable. Keep the people who design the product at home. The key design people and the management need to be close to headquarters. When you outsource, you can have problems. I have seen companies who try to outsource the entire project, it tends to have problems. I have seen projects go south because the control is not effective.
What duties do you perform for PayPal? Or is it eBay?
I now work only for PayPal. The two were once one company, but have since reorganized. PayPal has moved off on its own. I work in integration architecture, with PayPal’s largest merchants. We develop systems for maximizing efficiency.
Would you want your son to go into computer science?
I would like to see him go into something like making movies. Something where he is actually making something rather than providing a service. If I could do it again, I think that is where I would go with it. I am able to make the money I need and that is one of the aspects of this business that fueled my inspiration. When a project comes to fruition, there are gratifying aspects. The rewards are there. That adds to the driving force that keeps you on task. It can be exciting. The hope of making money is a big part of it.
You have also worked in startups. How did that go?
I spent much of the last two years in startups. It is a tough business, I learned a lot. There is more latitude, but you tend to have to wear more hats. There is a lot of turnover, and the resulting culture is problematic and fraught with challenges. I was happy to come back to PayPal. There is comfort and security in a larger company. There is also a sense of power and satisfaction as you work within the global economy. When you accomplish something, it makes a worldwide impact. Your work is a powerful force. You change the world. That is rewarding. That tends to happen in large companies much more often than startups. The scale of our impact is immense. That just doesn’t happen with small companies.
Any predictions for the industry?
Using tech as a tool for advancing society is like burning the candle at both ends. I am worried that we may be wearing ourselves and the planet out as we become driven by technology. How will the average person work to have the latest iPhone? Contrast that to how much benefit we get from the new tech. We must ask if this kind of growth is really worth the opportunity cost. Will we use social media, or will social media use us? My mother texts me rather than calling. What does it mean to society when people no longer talk on the phone or sit down to dinner? Is social media really very social?
What about Mark Zuckerberg?
He is a smart guy who runs his company well. He is professional and well-groomed in all aspects of business. That is what put him where he is.
What about the security breaches?
People need to be realistic. They share personal information on a platform where they know others have access to it. How can you expect that data to remain private? The user puts that information out there. If they expect it to remain private, think again. It is not a data breach, it is part of the design. Maybe people need to actually read their end-user license agreements. These breaches are not even talked about in tech circles. Industry people are not concerned.
Is there anything else that you think you would like to add?
Tech is like any other industry, except that it moves faster. It is like boiling water, the particles are accelerated. The fervor that the industry paces itself at is of a level greater than most other industries. There are options and opportunities that go along with the increased pace — you can rise faster, but you can also fall. There are also some dark aspects of the industry and the lifestyle that are often less than wholesome. These I would prefer not to talk about because I believe the good our industry can offer outweighs the negative.
If you could do it all over —?
I think I would try to be in the film industry. There is so much gratification to be had and one can make profound statements and influence people’s lives. For now, I am comfortable at my job. I enjoy flying drones with my son in my spare time. We find it rewarding and it makes us happy. I have been able to find satisfaction and happiness. When I reflect on my life, I am pleased. I love my kids, I have a great wife and we enjoy our freedom. In the end, it is the thing that you make [of it]. It is like the end of the movie "Wall Street," they made all their money by non-production means. I find more satisfaction by actually producing something. That is why I want my son to make films. Though if he is happy in computer science, I am alright with that. You can become an internet billionaire, but at what cost? People need to find the middle path. A happy medium that allows them to be satisfied with what life gives us.
On Finding Satisfaction, Loving What You Do, and Leaving a Lasting Legacy
Living Life to the Fulton-est
by MATTHEW STRICKLAND
The tech industry's influence is writ large in the Bay Area, from its skylines and traffic to the well-being of its citizens.
Photo Credit: Ken Lund