Like the rest of my family, I celebrate birthdays for a minimum of five days. This was one of them: Mark and I picked Amber up and headed to Tiburon to catch the ferry to Angel Island.

I got interested in Angel Island when I wrote two kids' textbooks on Chinese immigration. It's sometimes called "the Ellis Island for Asia"; like most cutesy taglines, that's a fast oversimplification. But thousands of Asian immigrants, especially Chinese immigrants, came through the immigration station there, and that's where we were headed.

Me and Amber, waiting to go. We thought the wind off the Bay would be cold -- it was supposed to be a high of 66 in San Francisco that day -- but it was actually quite comfortable, and we never needed our sweaters and jackets.

It still seems strange that this is the city where I live, this is my metro area. It'll seem strange until I don't live here any more, I guess. It doesn't have much time to get normal from here.

You can't read the writing from this picture, but one of those boats was called Ladyhawke, complete with the lettering like in the movie.

We docked at Angel Island. The ferries only ran once an hour, but as it turned out, that was approximately perfect timing.

The trail towards the immigration station took us up a flight of stairs and onto a lovely winding hilly road with views of the Bay and surrounding areas. There were more nature trails on the island, if we'd been feeling up to it and had had more time.

This was the mess hall for the immigrants who were waiting to see if they'd be allowed in or deported. Also used for German and Japanese POWs in the 1940s.

They put up a monument to all the Chinese immigrants who waited here (for an average of three weeks, whereas the average non-Asian immigrant didn't stay overnight). When we got done with the tour, a Chinese-American family featuring several teenagers were sitting outside looking at the monument and trying to translate the inscription. They sounded a lot like me puzzling out Icelandic. Only with siblings. ("That's not 'wai!'" "Oh, whatEVer, you know what I meant." And that's the kind of America I bother getting patriotic for.)

The immigrants carved poems into the walls to express themselves in their hours of confinement. I had known that, but somehow I had pictured them totally differently.

A recreation of the bunks used to pack immigrants into the holding rooms.

They were trying to recreate the atmosphere of the interrogation rooms where suspected "paper sons" (and a few paper daughters) got quizzed about their families. The wax statues were donated by the San Francisco Wax Museum, though, and they didn't give the Angel Island folks their choice. Which is why Mike Piazza and Marlon Brando are featured in this particular setup.

The guards regarded the immigrants' poems as graffiti and had no compunctions about trying to obliterate them, even cutting doors into unfinished poems. Thousands of the poems are still being recovered and translated.

They also had a bell.

There was a ship flying the Jolly Roger out on the Bay....