I was standing on the side of the stage at the Make-Out Room last Friday at Riders with Drinks when our emcee Suzanne brought up four members of the audience to tell their own Muni story. As one of the audience members began to tell a story about an Asian (Chinese?) woman bringing a live chicken on the bus, I cringed. The story sounded uncomfortably familiar.
In the story, the bus driver tells the woman that live animals are not allowed on board. NonplussedUnaffected, she snaps the chicken’s neck and boards the bus.
Minutes later another writer in the audience approached us and echoed my discomfort: This story sounded remarkably like an urban legend she had heard before. When it was time to give away a prize to the best storyteller, the audience chanted, “Chicken! Chicken!” I felt even more uncomfortable. In the chaos of running an event, we did not have a chance to intervene on stage, but the “chicken story” stayed in my mind all weekend.
A little internet search showed that various forms of the “chicken story” has been circulating the city for a few years. But if an audience member said that she witnessed the story first-hand, isn’t that the end of story?
Not for us.
There are two main reasons this story made us uncomfortable. First is the fact that many people believe this story to be an urban legend. Actually, Muni regulations allow non-service animals in a closed container on the bus during certain hours. But it is plausible that the bus driver could have misstated the rules (we’ve sure known this to happen). The story has been retold on the internet at least a dozen times (like here, here, and here). But that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, right? I think it is impossible to “debunk” the chicken story, and that isn’t the purpose of Muni Diaries, anyway.
Veracity of the story aside, the racial stereotypes perpetuated in the story bothered us more. This story is usually told about the 30-Stockton or other lines that run through Chinatown, and the woman carrying the live chicken is usually said to be Chinese (never mind that this probably meant she looked Asian. Buying live chickens is a tradition in many Asian cultures, so she could have been Vietnamese or any other ethnicity). The selling of live animals in Chinatown has been a contentious issue for a long time. Animal rights activists say that the animals are not being treated humanely, while Asian American advocates say that this is a cultural tradition. The controversy was still in the news as recently as this March, when California considered banning some live animal sales. Stories like this, whether they are true, further the idea that Chinese American immigrants mistreat animals and that they are offensive and heartless.
Whether to allow stories like this on stage or on our site is a decision we face more often than you might expect. While we cannot fact-check stories that riders contribute to the site, we realize that our credibility is at stake when we publish a story some consider to be an urban legend. And when a story has a negative racial element, we have to consider whether Muni Diaries could become a vehicle that perpetuates stereotypes (our biggest nightmare) or simply a forum that reflects urban living (our goal from Day 1).
Race, gender, sexual orientation, and age are sometimes — but not always — relevant in a story, but they are descriptors that should be used very carefully, and perhaps sparingly. As moderators of a mostly user-generated site, we want to respect the voice of contributors while maintaining a healthy, respectful discussion. We hope it’s clear that stories submitted to Muni Diaries represent the views of the contributors, not the moderators, and that this makes you feel comfortable in contributing your own views, whether in stories of your own, or comments.
In San Francisco, we live in close quarters with people of different races, sexual orientation, age, and economic class. And for the most part, we get along. When I was faced with a story at our own event that made me feel uncomfortable, it only served to remind me that I am part of a forum that represents a wide range of views, including those that I disagree with. And in this forum, like everyone else, I am free to express it.