May 12, 2015

Sunset’s Best Cabin Getaways

Sierra National Forest,  California

Far Meadow

Yosemite may be only 12 miles away, but Far Meadow’s Base Camp, in some ways, trumps the iconic park. No valley floor swarmed with bus tours or crowded cafeterias—just you, your friends, and family tucked into a 750-square-foot pine cabin, with 5 glorious High Sierra acres all to yourselves. The Base Camp cabin—undamaged by this summer’s Rim Fire, which actually stopped 100 miles north—was remodeled in 2013, with the addition of a second bedroom and French doors that open onto the deck. In autumn, you’ll find the kind of Technicolor fall foliage that’ll make you think you’ve landed in New England. A bit farther east, above Bass Lake (and the snow line), Far Meadow maintains five additional properties in the Sierra National Forest: a new A-frame was added this season alongside a log cabin, two outfitted trailers, and another A-frame. From late May to November, you can swim, fish, and hike your heart out. After that, these five solar-powered accommodations remain open, but getting there gets more complicated. In winter, after the road closes, they’re accessible only by snowmobile or snowcat, and guides will take only the adventurous in—to cross-country ski, snowshoe, make snow angels—with a friendly reminder to stay safe. As manager Kris Roni puts it, “This is the High Sierra, and we are, always, at the whims of nature.”

Best time to go: November if you’re adventurous, or June for the Sierra’s sunny, clear-sky days.
From $220;

Point No Point Resort, Shirley, B.C.
It exists: that private waterfront cabin with front-row views of the crashing Pacific, crackling fireplaces, and nary another tourist in sight—for less than $200 a night. So why haven’t you heard much about Point No Point before? Perhaps because it’s on Vancouver Island and Canadians have somehow learned to keep these sorts of special places a secret. The decidedly un-resort escape is the best of both worlds—seemingly on the edge of civilization and yet still accessible, just 40 miles west of Victoria. Point No Point’s 25 simple log cabins were built on a cliff, some in the 1950s, but there have been gradual improvements over the decades, such as new two-person showers and, most recently, a hot tub on almost every wooden deck. Shaker-style furniture, bright red Adirondack chairs, and warm cedar walls give the cabins a timeless feel, as does the winding country road, which you can follow from rugged beach to beach, back to your own empty stretch of sand, complete with a covered firepit to keep you warm. When it’s time for dinner, you can continue up the path to the intimate on-site restaurant. One of Vancouver Island’s best, it has walled-in windows so you can scan for otters, whales, and dolphins (binoculars are on every table) over locally caught salmon and seared scallops. It’s the kind of place that fosters loyalty, says Sharon Soderberg, who’s owned Point No Point with her husband, Stuart, for 32 years. “We’ve watched children grow up here,” she says, “who now come back with their own.”Best time to go: July through September for sunbathing on the beach and your best chance of spotting humpback whales; you can see orcas and gray whales year-round.$$;

Dolores, Colorado
Dunton Hot Springs

Log onto Dunton’s live web cam and the scene looks straight out of the 1800s: a cluster of hand-hewn Lincoln Log-like cabins scattered across a meadow at the foot of the towering San Juan Mountains—a tipi here; a wagon wheel there; steamy natural hot springs everywhere. But if you actually make the trek to this restored ghost town in remote Southwestern Colorado, you’ll find full on 21st luxury. The kind of riverfront “rusticity” that runs you a thousand dollars a night, where both fly-fishing and reflexology are fair game, and the “Saloon” is more like a local, gamey French Laundry. (Slow-roasted elk tenderloin, anyone?) Though Dunton recently erected eight canvas tents in its new Cresto Ranch, four miles downriver, its 12 cabins, originally built out of aspen and cottonwood in 1885, have been sought-after escapes since 2001, when they reopened with outdoor rainshowers, ready-to-light fireplaces, and Rajasthan wedding beds. Couples come from all over the world to hike and ride horseback— and amble around in robes in between 107-degree soaks, as the odd elk or moose or black bear stroll by. Before falling asleep to the sounds of silence; so quiet that at least one city slicker had to download a white noise app on his iPad. Dunton ain’t cheap, but as one guests said, “Three days with the love of my life was worth every penny.” From $600,, 877/228-4674

Best time to visit: Right about now, rates are lower and, of course, the water’s warm… .

Big Sur, California
Glen Oaks Big Sur

Let the luxury hotels on Big Sur’s dramatic coastline have all the glory— in-the-know Highway 1-road-trippers would rather keep Glen Oaks to themselves. (Though, says the manager, it’s already poached a few Post Ranch and Ventana guests who’ve realized they can spa and sup, but save a significant amount by sleeping here instead.) What this 1957 adobe motor lodge-turned eco-mod retreat lacks in sparkling ocean views, it makes up for with the kind of rare, woodsy quiet that only comes from cozying up under a Pendelton wool blanket, by the crackling fire, beneath 300-feet-tall, thousand-year-old redwood trees. With radiant heat floors and cast iron stoves and ready-to-go-s’mores—it’s a little too easy to hunker down instead of hike. The new Roadhouse restaurant is just steps away too, which means you can feast on grass-fed steak and stumble back to your bed, instead of cooking in your (albeit cute) kitchenette. The main lodge has 16 rooms, but it’s the seven renovated cabins and two cottages along the babbling Big Sur River that are the most coveted. None more so than the Big Sur Cabin, with a private patio, outdoor fire pit —and two side-by-side clawfoot soaking tubs, under the stars. (Though, really, you kind of only need one.) From $275,, 831/667-2105

Best time to visit: September and October aka Big Sur’s summer. But if you actually want to score a cabin, winter’s your best bet.


Pioneertown, California

Rim Rock Ranch Cabins

Surrounded by nothing but tumbleweed, cacti, and the twisted trunks of Joshua Tree National Park, this 10-acre retreat with four knotty-pine cabins (and one new rustic-mod ranch house) is all about the stars. Yes, Hollywood celebs like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, who used to hole up here, in Pioneertown, in the ‘50s, but we’re also talking galaxies, smeared across the expansive, dark desert sky. Which you can gaze at from your Adirondack chair, warmed by the fire pit on your private patio that proprietor-musician Jim Austin stocks with wood. (Want to get even closer? There’s an actual star observation deck.) This is the desert, which means daytime is all about sunshine, hammocks, BBQ pits, and the “cowboy plunge pool.” Built in 1947, with dated (but fully functional) kitchenettes and actual VCR collections, the cabins are decorated in vintage “desert eclectica” — as is the entire landscape. Austin considers Rim Rock his ongoing art project, where repeat guests see something new every few months. Say, an 18-ton rock heart for weddings or a bunch of antique skeleton keys dangling from a tree. As Yelper Jennifer A. puts it, in all caps: “This place is NOT for the resort types, people looking for a giant in-ground pool and spa.” Indeed, Rim Rock is a far cry from the Four Seasons. Which is, exactly, the point.

From $118,, 730/369-3012

Best time to visit: Early spring, when the desert wildflowers bloom.




In the Van with Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers

Kemmerer, Wyoming is the sort of middle-of-nowhere small town that doesn’t see many visitors. The closest major city is Salt Lake, two hours away, and its only claim to semi-fame is the J.C. Penney Mother Store, circa 1902. But for Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers, Kemmerer is a must-stop—one of 117 on last year’s tour, that had this rising country-rock band crisscrossing the country, ultimately logging a whopping 57,000 miles.

Home is technically San Francisco, but, really, this one-woman-five-man band lives in the van, in musty motels, at greasy diners. At the whims of the saloons, clubs, and festivals that book them, their routes are often illogical and backtracking is frequent. In summer 2012, they passed through Idaho Falls, Idaho three times in one month. Which is to say, this talented group understands what a road trip is all about: the off-the-beaten-path places—and what happens as you ramble between them.

On this warm summer evening, they’ve hightailed-it 340 miles from Bond, Colorado to roll in right on time to headline Kemmerer’s annual Oyster Ridge Music Festival. The vibe is more ’70s than 21st century—and not just because Nicki looks (and sounds) like a dead-ringer for Karen Carpenter. The grassy square is filled with camping chairs and coolers and a motley crew of locals who quickly become friends—gray-haired men in overalls; toddlers bopping on shoulders; a scattering of twirling hippie-chicks; even a real-life Smokey the Bear, wearing the same Wrangler jeans as Nicki. All congregating for corn dogs and Coors and the sort of free Friday night fun every road-tripper hopes to just stumble upon.

Except, the thing is, we don’t. In these time-crunched, overly efficient days, we’re too busy bee-lining from Yosemite to Yellowstone, Telluride to Santa Fe, to bother being carefree. The modern-day road trip has become more like a micro-managed death-march between big-name attractions, carefully choreographed to maximize a week’s worth of vacation time.

Not so for Nicki and her Gramblers. They may not have time for a guided tour of the Tetons, but so what? They know where to find cold PBRs and warm waffles for breakfast at 10,000 feet. A steamy hidden hot springs off the highway. The best places for a pit stop.

Their white rental van might as well be a wood-paneled station wagon, without the Are We There Yet? gripes and sibling squabbles and crackly 8-track radio. There’s no radio whatsoever, actually. None needed. Not with Tim on harmonica; Deren on mini-guitar; Mike banging on a drum; Dave clapping to the beat…and Nicki blowing your best car-karaoke efforts away, singing her heart out at 70 miles per hour.

Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers’ five million YouTube viewers of their wildly successful Van Sessions would agree: these guys just might be the last real road trippers.

Watch their Hall & Oates cover and you’ll hear the hallmarks of the young band: their soft harmonies and shaggy confidence, Nicki’s voice, soulful, outward-reaching. But listen closer, just beneath the music, and you can hear something else, something more familiar. A low, steady hum. It’s the sound of the open road.


“We’re kind of food snobs,” says Tim Bluhm, digging into a plate of braised short ribs, paired with pinot, at the Cascade Grill, in Jackson Hole, following a late afternoon performance in Teton Village. For once, the band is being fed—well. The night before, it was “the worst pizza I’ve ever had in my entire life,” as Tim put it in Pocatello, Idaho, as he tossed a piece of half-baked crust over his shoulder.

And the morning before that: It was Café Ritz, in Kemmerer Wyoming. Puffing on his tenth cigarette of the morning, Bob, of Bob’s Rock Shop, warns us Café Ritz is expensive. But at six bucks for biscuits and gravy, it’s not the prices that are the problem. It’s the service. Apparently, when you’re the only place in town for pancakes, turning tables is not a priority. Finally, the harried waitress brings over seven mugs of burnt coffee and takes a pen from behind her ear. But then a baby cries. “Uh, be right back,” she says. “I’ve got my two-month-old in the kitchen.” When she returns 20 minutes later with a hot pot of coffee in one hand and, indeed, a newborn—neck dangling—in the other, Tim Bluhm up and bails on his yet-to-arrive waffle. Mike the drummer follows him out the door.

“Tim calls it the Food Desert out here,” says his wife and bandleader, Nicki, digging into her scrambled eggs, which eventually arrive. Cold. “I think it’s the toast that took them so long,” says guitarist Dave Mulligan, holding up a flimsy piece of un-browned white bread.


A four-row passenger van crammed with six band members (half of whom hover around six-feet or taller) and manager, Scotty, behind the wheel, can look pretty lived-in pretty quickly. But apart from paper plates with leftover tamales from the lady in town; a jar of raw cashews in the center console for snacking; and a few Sierra Nevada empties rolling around (consumed during a game of Frisbee when the van broke down in Wyoming), the Gramblers are a relatively clean crew.  Not to mention, mellow. It’s more like a roving college dorm (of 30-and 40-somethings) than a raging party. Conversations over the seats take as many twists and turns as the roads themselves. On one eight-hour drive, they’ll cover everything from polygamy to making pizza to missing their moms to the contorted facial expressions made by Olympic divers mid-air. (Google it. Very cool.) But Van Time also doubles as Quiet Time. Nicki points out all the pretty horses along the side of the road while writing thank you-notes (“I heard Alison Krauss does that, and I thought, that’s so nice.”) Tim reads a book written by his childhood friend Mark Sundeen, Car Camping: The Book of Desert Adventures.  (Apropos as the band was soon headed to the Southwest.) Deren logs onto Facebook before sharing the good news, “Guys, we just broke 16,000 Facebook fans!” (Now, a year later, they’re pushing 30,000.)


They haven’t made it to the Chateau Marmont (yet), but occasionally the Gramblers do luck out, with a room with a hot tub in Teton Village or an Internet fan’s horse ranch in Washington. More often than not, though, “It’s a Priceline Night,” as Nicki puts it. Which means they wing it, scrolling for affordable rooms on their iPhone app, as they roll into town. (“$40 at the Red Lion Inn, in Boise! Who cares if the elevator wasn’t working, the lobby bartender was.”) It might be a local motel decorated in ceramic owls. Or, the supposedly romantic Black Swan Inn in Pocatello, Idaho, where the band gathered for après-show beers in Tim and Nicki’s “Enchanted Forest Suite,” among faux leafy trees and murals of unicorns. The Applegate River Lodge in Southern Oregon was “idyllic.” But, once in awhile, accommodations are downright disgusting… As Darren recalls: “In Oregon, I once spied a bunch of Saltine crackers mixed with hairballs on the carpet. I called my dad and said, ‘I’m going to law school.'”


What’s the difference between a road-tripper and a rock star? No one cares whether you show up, but when Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers roll into town, people are actually expecting them. After a big drive, they can’t just grab a pizza and go to bed; they’ve got to play—sometimes to a sold-out crowd, sometimes to a near-empty saloon. But every time, fans swoon. After the show in Kemmerer, a grown woman in pigtails pulls up a barstool and starts chatting with the band like she’s known them forever. A gaggle of tweenage girls gives Nicki a hug when they see her strolling down the sidewalk. A gray-haired man in overalls walks up to tell her: “You did good.” In less than 24 hours, the band has become local celebs, only to move on to the next town and do it all over again. “We meet cool people,” says Nicki. “Most of the time.”


Being on tour is like being on the anti-Grand Tour.Yellowstone is out. No time for a hike in Grand Teton National Park either. Instead, sightseeing is more happenchance, fun found en route. Like, say, in Kemmerer: “Look, it’s the JC Penney Mother Store!” says Nicki, snapping an Instagram pic of the circa 1902 store. “Let’s see if they sell swimsuits.” (In the heat of the summer, oddly, they don’t.) Instead she finds a hot-pink “Pretty Woman“-like number in Lava Hot Springs, an Idaho vacation town taken over by bikini-clad tourists toting inner tubes. The next day, the van creeps along Highway 20, as Tim hops in and out between mileage markers, hunting for this secret hot springs among the roadside brush. Finally, he finds it—not a sole in sight. And no bathing suits required.

The San Tung Addiction

It’s Monday afternoon, 4 p.m.—purgatory in restaurant time—and San Tung’s 100 seats are full. Asian-American families sit tweezing spicy green beans and slurping handmade noodles as pods of college kids pile in for pot stickers and old men shuffle out with their walkers, soy sauce stains on their shirts. “I don’t get it,” says manager Frank Chu, sipping black tea. “If they eat now, do they still eat dinner?”

Given the feast that is San Tung, probably not. Anyway, as insiders know, it pays to come off-peak to avoid the sidewalk swarm. On Sunday nights, even takeout orders can take two hours. The kitchen often gets so backed up that the staff just takes the phone off the hook.

Which is why Mrs. Chu—Frank’s mother and the owner of the 25-year-old Chinese restaurant—tends to eschew the media. “She’s turned down all the big Chinese newspapers,” says Frank, who dropped out of college at 18, after his father had a stroke, to help run the Irving Street restaurant that his parents had opened after emigrating from Korea. “We just can’t handle it. We’re too busy as it is.”

Mrs. Chu, who at 60 presides over the register, keeping tabs on the till and her 17-person staff, would rather the focus be on her son. “Take his picture, not mine,” she says, nodding toward Frank, who is 39 and will inherit San Tung when and if she’s ready to retire.

Last year, Mrs. Chu’s youngest son, Charles, opened San Tung #2 next door in an attempt to capitalize on the original restaurant’s overflow. Her other son operates So, in SoMa (and myriad cousins run East Bay restaurants). Neither, however, has achieved the first San Tung’s cult status. “The food is similar, but they’re fancier,” says Frank, “with dim lights and stuff.”

Fancy, San Tung is not. Servers wear white button-downs and bow ties, but the ambience is all fluorescent lights, worn carpeting, and deafening din. One thousand diners a day don’t come here for the atmosphere. They come for the food—though why, exactly, remains a mystery to Mrs. Chu. “Honestly, honestly, I don’t think our food is that good,” she says. “We’re just lucky.”

Back in San Tung’s early days, the dumplings were the draw, so much so that Mrs. Chu and her sons would work until 2 a.m. every night making them. “We’d turn on the radio, make dumplings, and talk,” she recalls. “They were teenagers. They hated me.”

Today, she hires other people to do the cooking. About a dozen staffers toil in the sprawling kitchen (which, Mrs. Chu says, is still too small). Three women pinch dumplings and pull noodles, and three cooks toss woks. And, says Mrs. Chu, one lone man fries, donning a hat, a mask, and gloves to burn through some 700 to 800 pounds of meat a day for San Tung’s signature dry-fried chicken wings.

“Yes, I’ve heard they call it crack,” Mrs. Chu says, smiling when I mention the nickname for the chicken, which is crisp, sticky, and covered in spicy-sweet sauce. “It’s kind of a compliment.”

The sauce used to be soggier, but one night a regular complained that it was too wet. So Mrs. Chu took out some of the water and added sugar. The customer couldn’t get enough of it—and soon, neither could anyone else. Today, Mrs. Chu hears of copycats all over town. Several years ago, she actually caught one of her employees trying to teach her recipe to the owner of the restaurant across the street. “That employee still works here,” she says. “It’s OK—we all have to make a living.”

After a quarter century of working almost every day, Mrs. Chu is living what most immigrants would call the American dream. “We’ve passed the money-hungry stage,” she says with a smile. “I think we did all right.”

Frank worries, though, about the day that his mother finally retires. “It’s a lot of pressure,” he admits. “It’s one thing to build a successful restaurant from nothing. What if I take over, and it slows down?” Mrs. Chushrugs.“Keep doing what we do now,” she says. “Done.”


So You Want Your Kid To Speak Mandarin?

Elizabeth Goumas’s top criterion in choosing an elementary school for her kindergarten-bound son, back in 2009, was that it be within walking distance of her house. “If there were an earthquake, I wanted to know that I could get there,” she says, half joking. School leadership, diversity, and a supportive community were all close seconds. What wasn’t a priority, whatsoever, was a language immersion program. “My husband and I had totally ruled out immersion,” says Goumas, a blond, blue-eyed former software sales executive. “We thought it was too complex, too much to take on.” Chinese immersion wasn’t even on her radar.

As it often goes, though, with the San Francisco public school lottery, the Goumas family didn’t get anything on their wish list. Instead, they were assigned to De Avila, a closed school in the Haight that was due to reopen as a Chinese immersion K–5 elementary. “It was also across from a head shop and kitty-corner to the free clinic,” says Goumas, laughing. “We were like, oh no.”

But then they joined a summer playdate with other newly accepted families and saw their son hit it off with two bilingual Chinese kids. “Our biggest worry had been, how is Nicolas going to find his best friends? Will he be able to find them in those four or five kids who speak English?” Social concerns allayed, they decided to “take a leap of faith.” They also decided not to mention the Chinese thing to their son. “The first day of kindergarten,” says Goumas, “he came home and said, ‘Mom! My teacher didn’t speak any English!’”

Six years later, Goumas’s son (now in fifth grade) and daughter (in third, and about as tall as her Chinese teachers) are fully proficient in Cantonese; De Avila is one of the most sought-after public elementary schools in the city; and Goumas is throwing Chinese banquets out of her lower Pacific Heights home—despite the fact that she herself can’t understand a lick of the language. “Sending my kids to De Avila has been a transformational experience,” she says. She marvels as her nine-year-old chats up Cantonese speakers all over town, from the fiftysomething women fondling fabric at Britex to the waiters at Chinese restaurants. She says, “We feel connected to our community in a way we never would have.”

In 1981, the first Mandarin immersion school in the country—the private Chinese American International School (CAIS)— opened on Oak Street in San Francisco. West Portal Elementary followed three years later, becoming the nation’s first public elementary school to offer a Chinese immersion program. Since then, as China’s role in the world economy has grown, so has the number of non-Chinese parents (and second-, third-, fourth-, and fifth-generation Chinese-American parents) who want their kids to learn the language spoken by 1.2 billion people.

This fall, San Francisco will have a total of 14 Chinese immersion programs. Eleven are public, most at the elementary and middle school levels. Half are Cantonese, half Mandarin—and all are in high demand. Some operate as a separate language program within an otherwise conventional school; others, like De Avila and Presidio Knolls, a private K–8 Mandarin school launched in 2012, are full immersion. All in all, roughly 2,700 students are enrolled in Chinese immersion programs in the city.

And more are coming. Alameda County got its first Chinese public immersion school, Yu Ming Charter, in 2011; it receives four applications for every available spot. Next year a public school in Redwood City is introducing Mandarin immersion, and parents are clamoring for Mandarin immersion schools in Menlo Park and San Jose. In total, there are about 50 Chinese immersion schools in California, most of them in the Bay Area.

A majority of their students, not surprisingly, are Chinese-American or have one Chinese parent. While these schools are international and multicultural in obvious ways, they are not exactly bastions of diversity. At De Avila, 63 percent of students identify as Asian, 18 percent as white, 4 percent as Hispanic, and 1 percent as African-American. The demographic breakdown is similar at CAIS, where 38 percent of students are Asian-American and 41 percent multiethnic, 19 percent Caucasian, 1 percent black, and 1 percent Hispanic. The student body at a public K–8 immersion school, Alice Fong Yu, is 66 percent Asian and just 5 percent white. (Because they speak the language, some Caucasian students actually self-identify as Chinese.)

What is ‘Asian’ anymore, anyway?” asks Beth Weise, a former parent at Starr King Elementary and the author of A Parent’s Guide to Mandarin Immersion, published in 2014. “My daughters’ dad is Asian, so they are half Chinese, but they are being raised by two white lesbian moms.” Jeff Bissell, head of school at CAIS, agrees, pointing to the number of mixed-race couples in the area. “San Francisco is a wonderful mishmash,” he says. “The term ‘Caucasian’ is becoming less and less relevant.”

Semantics aside, interest in Chinese immersion education is on the rise, say administrators like Bissell and De Avila principal Rosina Tong. Parents are drawn to it because they want to stimulate their kids’ brains (being multilingual has cognitive benefits, studies show) and prepare them for the working world. Not surprisingly, a big draw is the traditional Asian emphasis on academics. Chinese immersion schools are invariably high-performing, which makes them attractive. “Take a closed or under-enrolled school and make it Mandarin, and test scores go up, enrollment goes up. You get a socioeconomic mix, and you attract parents who might otherwise go private. Waitlists form,” explains Weise. “It’s a win-win for everyone, the district and the families.” She adds, “I’ve never heard of a Chinese immersion school where it isn’t considered cool to be smart.”

It’s also become cool to be global. Linda Vann-Adibe, admissions director and parent at CAIS, says that what’s attracting parents today is the hope of creating global citizens in an increasingly globalized world—and the desire to give their children a competitive edge. Those goals, she says, were less evident 13 years ago, when she was a kindergarten parent—or even 6 years ago, when she started working in the admissions office. “Parents are more sophisticated now. They used to think: I’m not Chinese; why would I learn Chinese? The new parent thinks: It doesn’t matter whether I speak Chinese. This is the future.”

Patti Huang, a Taiwanese American who is married to a white man, says that she chose Starr King to prepare her kindergarten-age daughter for the competition that she will eventually face from the billion-plus Mandarin speakers around the world. Huang also wanted to spark in her daughter a general love of languages. “The heritage thing is a perk,” she says. “And there’s an element of wanting to make grandparents proud.” The desire to connect with their cultural heritage continues to be a major factor for many multiethnic and Chinese-American parents. “I have always wanted immersion,” says Kim Wong, who is also married to a white man. Their six-year-old son attends a traditional public school and takes Saturday Mandarin classes because he didn’t get into an immersion program. “I regret not knowing how to speak Chinese,” Wong says, “and there’s a loss of heritage. I want my son to at least be able to talk to my grandma if I can’t!”

For Weise, it’s also about creating opportunity. “I’m not telling my girls, ‘I want you to become biotech moguls in Singapore or software engineers in Shanghai,’” she says. “I’m just giving them tools. Maybe they’ll decide to become potters or open a restaurant. Learning Mandarin is about options.”

It’s also about rote memorization—and ridiculously difficult. To be considered literate, one must learn about 3,000 Chinese characters. And when it comes to learning those characters, the younger the better. Prime time is kindergarten and first grade, when children’s brains are like sponges and everything is new—washing hands, tying laces. Why not tack on Cantonese, too?

And these assimilated days, no one has a leg up. Most kids in the immersion programs, whether Chinese-American, multiethnic, or Caucasian, are starting from scratch. Some may have attended Mandarin preschool, but about 90 percent of families who choose Chinese immersion education, Weise estimates, don’t speak the language at home. Families who do tend to be more concerned that their children master English, so they choose all-English programs. And newer immigrants may not even be aware that immersion programs exist.

Income levels skew somewhat higher at Chinese immersion schools, Weise adds. In 2012, for instance, the number of Chinese-immersion students who qualified for reduced-fee or free lunch was around 34 percent, versus the district-wide 61 percent—at De Avila, it was only 17 percent. But that’s by no means universal, says Weise. And for parents who view private school as the pinnacle, getting into a Chinese immersion program is a “golden ticket”—they get an academically strong school without having to pony up $25,000 in tuition.

That’s not to say that everyone’s a happy customer. Some white parents just want a more multicultural experience for their kids—and then are shocked by what being a minority in middle school can actually mean. Back in 2003, long before Mandarin was trending, therapist Samantha Smithstein and her husband purposely sought out immersion—any immersion. “Spanish, French, Korean, Chinese…we really didn’t care which one.” They ended up at Alice Fong Yu (AFY). The first few years were wonderful, says Smithstein. “The kindergarten and first-grade teachers were warm and good at gestural communication—my kids loved it. They just soaked up the language.”

But the honeymoon didn’t last. By middle school, Smithstein’s twin daughters were miserable. “Many of the teachers were harsh. Some would publicly humiliate students, make them cry,” says Smithstein. “It was scary for my kids.” Her twins have since graduated, and her son, now in the seventh grade, is doing better than her daughters did. Still, she struggles to make sense of the experience. “I don’t know whether it’s the school or the principal or just a cultural difference. I’d heard stories about schools in China that are intense, and I’d think, is this the price I pay for sending them to a Chinese school?”

Sophie Wallace, a white French woman married to a white American man, has kids in the fifth and eighth grades at AFY. She raves about their experience, academically and socially. “The great plus is that the kids learn early on that they are not a majority, so they can’t be cocky,” she says.

But for Smithstein, AFY’s social structure was a definite minus. Many children have a tough time at that age, but her twins were outcasts. “There was a kind of racism at the school that was not addressed,” she says. “By eighth grade it became clear that the ‘in groups’ were the Chinese and mixed kids, and the ‘out group’ was the non-Chinese. By eighth grade most of the out group had dropped out—maybe only five or six non-Chinese kids were left. My kids told me it was the low point of their lives.”

Still, Smithstein doesn’t regret her choice. “When I step back, I know that it was a really cool experience. I feel good about the academics; they were exposed to a different culture; they are unafraid to plunge into new experiences; they traveled to China. They are two tall Jewish white girls who speak Chinese—so many positive things came out of it.”

One of the biggest positives? “We cannot help with homework,” says Mikhal Bouganim, a founding parent at Presidio Knolls. “And I love, love, love it.”


Pass the Pork Belly, and the Joint

SAN FRANCISCO — On a dark corner here in the Mission District on March 31, the doors opened at 7 p.m. for an under-the-radar pop-up dinner. Stationed at the entrance was a man who meticulously carded each of the 60 guests, even two with white hair.

Inside the bar, long tables were set with wineglasses, place cards and something you don’t see much of anymore: ashtrays.

Soon after the party began, smoke wafted through the chandelier-lit room. Servers passed kimchi mini-pancakes prepared by the evening’s chef, Robin Song, of the Mission’s popular ham-and-oyster bar, Hog & Rocks.

A university professor who arrived a little late slid into his seat, saying, “You know, you can smell this place from across the street.”

The dinner was the third iteration of the Luck Pot, a series of get-togethers intended for adult users of marijuana, sponsored in part by a rotating group of medical-cannabis companies based in Northern California. To get in, guests have to present a state-authorized medical-marijuana identification card, made possible by a program established in 1996 by theCalifornia Department of Public Health.

The Luck Pot was started by two 30-something friends who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing the hazy legal status surrounding the cannabis industry. (This, despite the fact that the event itself appears to be legal in California: The city’s public health department treats a private party at a public place as if it were in a private home, so medical cannabis at such an event would be fine, according to Nancy Sarieh, a spokeswoman for the city’s public health department; Robert Raich, a lawyer who specializes in medical-cannibas law, concurred.)

That night, a woman in a polka-dot dress welcomed guests with what looked like bar snacks: glazed pecans, pretzels, chile-lime peanuts. Unlike the usual nibbles, each came with a suggested dose. “These are what we call our ‘everyday edibles,’ ” said Lauren Fraser, a 29-year-old former mutual-funds manager and now the president of the Oakland-based Auntie Dolores, a company that specializes in cannabis-laced foodstuffs.

Mandi Bateman, a 38-year-old pony-tailed Pilates teacher who had driven in from Sausalito, Calif., seemed uneasy. “I guess I still have that lingering fear you could get arrested for smoking pot,” she said. Getting high with a bunch of strangers was not her main motivation for attending this night. “I thought I might meet some hot men,” Ms. Bateman said. “But then I realized, wait, I don’t want to date a stoner.”

Her odds were decent. The male-to-female ratio was roughly two-to-one, and this was hardly a scruffy “Dazed and Confused” kind of crowd. Tickets were $120 each, and among those in attendance were software engineers, organic chemists, lawyers, authors, Stanford M.B.A.s and tech types from Google, Pandora and Salesforce.

Also in attendance were several “potrepreneurs,” who seemed poised for 2016, when marijuana is expected to become legal in California. Among them was a co-sponsor, Mike Ray, 35, a former Wall Street trader who is now the director at Bloom Farms. Asked about the differences between finance and the nascent pot industry, Mr. Ray said, “The people are much nicer” in the latter.

For Arianne Simone, 28, a Reiki master with a perfectly coifed Afro, the evening was a total surprise. “My boyfriend said, ‘We’re going to a dinner tonight with lots of weed,’ and I was, like: ‘Yea! Yea! Yea!’ ” Scott Samuelson, 42, a commercial television producer, said that he was there for the food. “I’d heard it was the Korean pop-up,” he said. “The pot was just a bonus.”

One of the Luck Pot’s co-hosts, clad in a blazer, welcomed people to their seats. “On your tables is the first of three joints,” he said, acting as a kind of pot sommelier. “Tonight we’re showcasing flower grown by a Sonoma collective of 10 farmers with a total of 150 years’ combined experience in artisanal indoor crops.”

A professionally rolled fatty lay in each ashtray. The first joint of the evening was a strain called Girl Scout Cookies. “It’s an indica-sativa mix, 59 days flowering,” he said. “You’ll taste sweet evergreen with light hints of pepper-spiciness.” He touched on an aspect that wine sommeliers do not discuss, the effect. “This should make you feel focused and relaxed,” he said. “A little heavy-headed. So spark up. Eat. Enjoy.”

As people wrapped pork belly in lettuce cups and blew puffs of smoke, they were asked to sum themselves up in four words. “Kyle,” the Reiki master’s boyfriend said. “I like Afros.” “Justin,” another man said. “I hate cancer.” “Husband home with kids,” said Celine Schafer, a 37-year-old mother of three.

The talk turned to how, exactly, they had procured their medical-marijuana cards. “I told the Skype doctor I had trouble sleeping,” Ms. Schafer said. “He told me to ‘hit the vape.’ ”

“Everyone says, ‘I have insomnia, I have anxiety,’ ” griped Andrew Bock, 34. “I’m like, ‘I have Crohn’s, I’m legit!’ ” The chitchat covered standard topics: bad UberPool experiences, soaring housing costs, the Bay Area versus New York. “I was miserable in Manhattan,” said the good-looking Mr. Bock, who was seated across from Ms. Bateman. Her glassy eyes widened when he said he lived in Sausalito, too. “I’m a block from the beach, I drive an electric carand I just bought a paddleboard,” he said, mocking himself as the California cliché.

“Please pass the joint,” the professor said, as if it were the pepper.

It was heartening to see that, even in these Purell-crazed times, people are willing to share joints.

The man named Justin didn’t want to give his last name, out of fear that he could get into trouble because, he said, he grows marijuana in the house he rents and sells it for recreational use, paying his unwitting 94-year-old landlord in cash. But in this smoky space, his career choice was not something he had to keep secret.

Michael Koch, 38, a father of two and the owner of an online advertising agency, spoke more openly. “I was an indica guy in college, when I’d just lie around,” he said. “But now that I have a job and kids and responsibilities, I smoke sativa. It works for me.” (Indica marijuana tends to have a calming, sedative effect on the user, while sativa is more uplifting and energetic.)

The servers began whisking away the plates. A panic set in. “Wait, is that it?” one guest asked. “There’s got to be more food,” the professor said. “It’s a pot dinner.”

People rejoiced when the second course arrived: a potato stew with pork neck and a joint made with a strain called Fire OG. “Twenty-one percent THC,” the co-host said. “It’s sweet and earthy, slightly woodsy. This’ll give you a mental uplift and a full body mellow.”

Perhaps too mellow. Suddenly, a chair toppled over. “Woman down!” someone yelled. Three guys helped the laughing lady to her feet. As dinner progressed, conversation regressed. “My grandmother used to use these for cashews,” said Mr. Bock, gesturing toward a glass-ridged ashtray.

“My grandma put al-monds in hers,” someone else said, pronouncing the first syllable so that it rhymed with “pal.” “It’s ahhl-mond,” Ms. Schafer chimed in. A number of guests began to chirp the word “almond” over and over again, and the table broke into hysterics.

Accompanying the third course was Holy Grail, the final pot of the night and the strongest. The co-host walked around with a Ziploc bag, distributing. “Does everyone have a joint that wants one?” he asked, like a preschool teacher passing out snacks. “Oh, my God, there’s actually too much pot,” Mr. Koch said, pointing to several half-smoked joints still in the ashtray. Ms. Schafer smiled and tucked one into her purse. “For my husband,” she said.

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