“It’s Asian culture to assimilate."
Longtime homeowners wary of renters, changing demographics
He placed both palms flat against the cracked white window frame, the wooden floorboards creaking slightly as he leaned out.
“Hey!” he recalls shouting, his entire frame bent toward the neighboring house, where a copse once perforated the crease of land between the two houses.
“You’re so loud,” he had said, frowning. “All I want is some quiet!” Then, without bothering to wait for an answer, he receded. From a distance, shadowed by the late-evening sun, he looked like a neighborhood watchdog: whether lounging on the porch in his white rocking chair or shouting from his second floor window, he has always been alert to the shifting sounds of the cul-de-sac.
This time, Stan Tsing hadn’t even bothered to go downstairs and knock on his neighbor’s door. The time for politeness was over. He also hadn’t bothered to check what time it was, but it didn’t matter. In the old days, this is when he would be asleep.
Thirty years ago, when Stan Tsing and his wife bought their house — one of the smallest of the homes cinching two cul-de-sacs — the space behind it had been part junkyard, part idyll. Presiding over the lot, then lined with browning grass and festering with crows, was a black and red sign that said “NO TRESPASSING.” Though the occasional neighborhood teenager would occasionally dart among the birch trees, perhaps in a game of war or tag, the only permanent resident was a rusted orange scooter somebody had long ago abandoned. That, and silence.
But in the spring of 2013, four new houses were proposed by former city council member Marty Miller. These new houses’ foundations would fill the old lot with cement. The “NO TRESPASSING” sign would soon be replaced with “OPEN HOUSE.” Trees hit the pavement before their leaves had begun to brown. By fall, their idyll had been broken, and Tsing attended a City Council meeting to protest the construction. The council reduced their plans by one house.
“They don’t listen to us, they don’t care about ordinary citizens,” Tsing said. He had been largely ignored at the meeting, and he had returned more frustrated than ever. When the houses were finally being built, Tsing watched in dismay as they were assembled like gingerbread houses.
“Everything was ready-made [and flimsy]. The walls were put up, just like that.” In an attempt to combat the rising dust clouds and the air powdered with cement flecks, he primed and repainted every inch of his house. But the dust lingered, like pollen, for months afterwards.
“There is so much development. [And so] the quality of residents and houses went down,” Tsing said, shaking his head. As the cost of living rises, the number of renters in the neighborhood has increased, especially as purchasing homes has become increasingly difficult.
“It’s impossible for people to [live here]. Only the rich can live here,” Tsing said. His own daughter, who graduated from MVHS in 2005, wants to live near home, but that possibility is long gone. When Tsing and his wife Lillian purchased their house in 1935, they had a combined income of about $60,000.
They originally purchased their house for $300,000. Now, their neighbors’ homes, adorned with Ionic columns and Tudor-style stone fronts, towering over the rest, sold for over two million dollars each. The only way for his daughter to return, he concedes, is for her to get married and have a combined income of $200,000 or more.
“No one can live here anymore...so the problem now is renters,” Tsing said, admitting that this is merely his impression. “I see a lot of renters come in. This makes me very concerned.” His neighbors, who were once homeowners, are now mostly renters, which he believes is a sign of the community disintegrating. He admits he has no real proof that renters are troublesome; nor does he know how long his neighbors, who are renters, have lived in Cupertino.
What he believes is that homeowners are somehow superior. He can’t exactly explain it.
“Some may call me prejudiced...but I see people who are different, which worries me,” he said. He shakes his head and leans in his doorway, nodding at his neighbors’ homes.
When he himself had moved in, thirty years ago, the neighborhood was about half white and half Asian. He believes he has never faced any discrimination, but as he watches the Islamic crescent moon and star replace the usual fluorescent Christmas stars, he admits that he doesn’t like this new diversity.
“Everybody is bringing something new here. They want to preserve their lives,” Tsing said. “In this case, diversity is not good. With renters, the class of people is different.”
He crosses his arms, and his wife, Lillian Tsing, stands by him on the porch, recalling how the few times she had spoken to her neighbors, she hadn’t understood why they’d felt the need to mention their religion or ethnicity.
“It used to be fifty-fifty, white and Asian. And I like diversity, but...” Lillian Tsing said. “But with diversity comes friction. Because we do not understand each other totally. We don’t have time to understand each other.”
One of the main reasons the Tsings moved in the Cupertino in the 1980s, besides their wanting to give their children a reputable education, was because they hadn’t wanted to be stared at. They didn’t want to be different. Even now, running errands in Los Gatos, Lillian Tsing feels like she’s being watched. That people mentally label her “Asian” when they see her, that they look at her and think “other.”
“We moved to Cupertino so we wouldn’t be different. We worked for the white man’s companies...But people [didn’t] look at us,” Lillian Tsing said. Their neighbors had been almost exclusively East Asian or white, and now none of them are. They feel like the different ones now.
“Now I notice that when I go to Jollyman Park, I see that there are different faces,” she said. “That’s good.” The shift of demographic from white to Indian and Asian had never troubled her, but now that her neighbors were no longer either, she feels out of sync with her surroundings.
And what she wants the most is to recover that old sense of sameness.
“I don’t know what to say,” Tsing said. “[Except you] shouldn’t impose. I shouldn’t impose my belief, my lifestyle, just because I pay the bills. When you move into a place, you should blend in,” Tsing said.
Tsing believes that as a Chinese woman raised in Korea for eighteen years, she is more accepting of different cultures. Like her husband, though, she believes that renters have crossed the line between living and imposing. The Tsings want their old quietude, their old isolation.
When neighbors hardly ever used to interact, whether to converse or chastise. When kids were obedient and didn’t leave the house after 10 p.m.
“It’s Asian culture [to] assimilate,” Lillian Tsing said. “We tried to assimilate, because that’s our culture, that’s how we were brought up. So that’s what others should do, assimilate.”
As if to make a point, Tsing jerks his thumb at the house, through the screen door. His is the only house on the block without an air-conditioning unit — he and his wife had decided not to add one, even if it meant weathering nights smothered in their own home. His neighbors houses’ have always had air-conditioning, or they had added it. And when they use it, all night and all day, he feels that his own air has been polluted, dirtied.
“You see? They are affecting me,” he said. “They should not be affecting me.”