My Hometown Top Travel

She’s at home among the jackfruit and chicken feet

Inside Ranch 99, a popular Asian grocery store. (Isabel Shen/YJI)

Oakland, California, U.S.A. – Living in the Bay Area of California is always an adventure. Yes, it’s naturally beautiful, with complications of clouds hanging from wide skies over the churning seas, and sunny until we yearn for the cool rain, but every location has its natural beauties.

The life of a Californian is uniquely rich because of the allure of shared cultures, the vibrancy of our diversity.

Historically, California’s coastal location has led it to being a major hub of meshing cultures and traditions.

Ranch 99s, which are essentially Asian supermarkets, illustrate this vividly and concisely and have always been a major influence in my childhood.

Founded by Taiwanese immigrant Roger H. Chen, it is one of the largest Asian supermarket chains in the U.S.. Chen chose the name “Ranch 99” for the prosperous sound of the English word “ranch” and the good luck associated with the number 99.

Every Californian Asian has a preferred Ranch 99 made superior by either market quality or proximity and is willing to spill blood in the debate on which location is the best. The Ranch 99 I’m closest to – by location and in heart – is off the highway in El Cerrito, situated in a predominantly Asian neighborhood and surrounded by Asian restaurants (as well as a thriving pot dispensary).

The El Cerrito Ranch 99 holds a melange of businesses such as restaurants, dusty gambling centers and traditional medicine shops. The ethnic cultures present aren’t just the stereotypical Chinese – every person under the inclusive flag of Asian-American can find their home and culture here.

But the center of this Asian empire – the vortex of hard-won money and what piqued younger Isabel’s interest the most – was the grocery market.

There, grannies with bird fluff for hair and young parents with yowling children attached to various limbs/extremities (and the accompanying eyebags from loss of sleep) jostled in line for the cashier. Mounds of crinkly-bagged snacks chock-full of MSG, sugar, artificial flavorings, and other wildly popular ingredients were piled nearby.

Overhead, speakers played vaguely calming music, as if mocking the bedlam of the geriatric and young below.

Some of the produce at Ranch 99. (Isabel Shen/YJI)

In one section of the grocery store, bright vegetation such as pea sprouts, bok choy, and green carrot spilled from the sides of refrigerators, surrounding low-leveled counters stacked with fruit impossible to find in your average Safeway.

Personal favorites include the quarters of spiky, fleshy jackfruit, red mesh bags of lychee and longan still attached to skinny branches, and the pears with ivory, delicately crispy flesh draped with misleadingly banal sandy skin.

Few things make an Asian feel more at home than the flora of their homeland, whether it be stewed in soups, pan-fried with horrifically large chunks of garlic or simply cut in neat rows. 

Just beyond the greenery are the meat and fish sections. Every child – and a few adults – is fond of gawking at the tubs full of glistening congealed blood, skeletal chicken feet, chunky pork ribs, or even meaty cow tongues, the sucker-like taste buds smoothly pressing against the clear plastic wrap. Occasionally, a few whole chickens or squab are displayed in the front of the freezer. Some of the prizes are black silky chickens – small lean fowl with inky feathers, skin, and flesh that my family consumes during the winter in soup with daikon and ginger.

The seafood, on the other hand, is freshly displayed in moist rows. Clear-eyed and with scales and skin glistening with the combination of fish slime and fluorescent lights, the marine exhibit runs the gamut from large googly-eyed fishheads to whole fish to wet pink-skinned squid.

Wrapped meat and fish for sale. (Isabel Shen/YJI)

A few sad-looking carp always drift in the murky waters of tanks last cleaned in antediluvian times. The mutilated crustaceans piled nearby are scrabbling on top of each other in futile attempts to escape their clouded cages and their impending fate at the hands of the seafood chefs.

And then, the focal point of all this delicious chaos – the food aisles. A pantheon of snacks awaits.

Forget dignity and pile your red basket high with snacks as the ravenous appetite of your eyes is satiated. 

Food, community, spectacularly mind-boggling sights; what more can I ask for?

Ranch 99 is a major part of my identity as an Asian and illustrates the parts of my cultural identity I’m most proud of.

Over the years, I’ve wrestled with my feeling of belonging in the Asian community: if I don’t fit the Asian stereotype of math Olympiad winner, pianist prodigy, and overall nerd, am I not Asian?

If the lilting vowels and the clacking consonants of Mandarin and Cantonese don’t flow from my tongue, am I not Asian?

Do I not deserve to be a part of the Asian diaspora? 

Seafood tanks at Ranch 99. (Isabel Shen/YJI)

It took years to realize that being a part of the diaspora isn’t as simple as sharing traits or talents or quirks. It’s shared love. Shared experience. It’s overwhelming yet subtle, powerful as well as flexible, unified but multivalent.

Belonging is too complex to be simplified to a few facile characteristics. 

I love the food of my culture, and I love my culture itself. I love the gathering place of the people who share my love for the beauty of our heritage.

Ranch 99 is totemic of California in the sense that both contain multitudes of cultures, a diversity of experiences coalescing into an American Picasso, a true melting pot of expression and customs.

My hometown is my identity as a complex human being. 

Yes, gunshots occasionally pop through the air like fireworks in the day. Yes, humans just like me languish on the street, sleeping in tents and overdosing on crack and fentanyl.

Yes, wildfires blaze through our dying forests and smoke up our air in hazy shrouds. Yes, housing prices suffocate Californians in the rising waters of financial debt. 

So let’s enjoy the most unique aspect of California – the magnificent, awe-inspiring diversity, the abundance of cultures integrated into the stuff of every-day life – while gritting our teeth over the harsh realities of a splintering world. 

Isabel Shen is a Junior Reporter with Youth Journalism International.

Leave a Comment