I left the US for Guatemala right after I graduated in 2002. A couple of months later I moved to Taiwan, where I spent 7 wonderful years. After that I spent a bit of time in Hong Kong, then headed into China and lived for a while in Kunming and finally Beijing. Though I visited the US a few times during those years, it took me nearly a decade to move back.
Having just done a stint at a start-up, working on a framework for educational iPad and iPhone games, I found myself drawn to California, more specifically the Bay Area. It’s been a shock in all kinds of ways, mostly good.
I couldn’t help but feel excited as the plane touched down. I don’t remember if I’ve flown through SF Airport on the way to visit family or friends in the US before or not, but this time was memorable. I knew I was at a life inflection point, returning with the intention of staying.
The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART)
As expected, the subway system was accessible directly from within the airport. It was sort of an odd experience. On one hand, everything was in English. On the other, it felt like I’d traveled back in time. The subway system felt horribly dated compared to those I’d used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore or even Beijing. When buying tickets, instead of a pictoral display from which to select the station I wanted, there was a paper subway map, a paper chart of station names and prices and a text only ticket vending machine. After seeing that a trip to Powell station would cost $8.10, I put in my $20 bill and then had to hit the -$1 button 11 times and then hit the +10¢ button.
Inside the trains, there isn’t a visual display showing what station you’re approaching or a map of where you’re headed. You’ve got to know the names of terminal stops and hope you can understand the garbled announcements over the loud speaker… or just ask random people until you get there like I did. People were surprisingly helpful!
The money has just gone weird. When I left, American money was green. Canadian money, monopoly money and other currencies were funky and rainbow colored, but real money mean greenbacks. I do have some recollection of some $20s that were blue-ish when I was visiting my ex at Dartmouth a few years ago, but it wasn’t enough to prepare me for what was waiting. Five dollar bills with a big, obnoxious purple 5 on the back! Ten dollar bills with HUGE Alexander Hamilton heads not reined in by any oval-shape frames! Dollar piece coins given to in change at multiple locations! I wasn’t gone that long, was I?
The weirdest thing happened to me, multiple times. As I was walking up to an intersection, I saw some approaching cars. So I slowed down. And they stopped! Multiple cars in different lanes stopped for me, a single pedestrian! In China I always had to kind of wait until there were 5-10 pedestrians waiting with me to cross in a group. Drivers really had a lot less patience for pedestrians there, crosswalk or not. This change is still catching me off guard now and then, but I’m sure I’ll adjust quickly.
In Taiwan it wasn’t too bad, especially out of the cities or up in the hills on the jogging and biking paths. There was some wonderful natural beauty. It was also unbearably hot and humid.
In Beijing, the air was absolutely terrible. During my first week there, I made the mistake of going out for a 90 minute jog in the Hutongs. I spent the half hour in a shower clearing out phlegm, all of it brown. I became well acquainted with bjair.info and learned to see any pollution index of under 200 as “pretty good”.
In San Francisco, it’s been great! The air is clean, the sky is blue, and the bay view is breathtaking from the hills, especially after climbing them! I feel like this is just a healthier life than I had in Beijing.
It seems that almost everywhere I go, there’s free beer being offered. The hostel where I stayed gave out free beer every night at 9:30. They had some kind of vodka company sponsoring them and the manager kept trying to get us to play beer pong with vodka shots. My second night in town I went to a talk at Adobe on mobile gaming, and got free pizza and beer along with some great talks, including one by the creator of the Corona SDK. The next night, at a SFJS meet-up, I got some organic burritos and free beer as I learned about the Meteor.js framework. Ditto for the Ruby on Rails hackathon I attended.
Also, it’s worth adding that not only is it free beer, but it’s free good beer, including stuff from my home state of Colorado– Blue Moon, Sunshine Wheat and others.
While the subways may have felt like a jump back in time, everything else feels like a huge leap forward. It’s absolutely stunning how many tech people are out here and also how technical a lot of random people working in other jobs are. A random lady I asked for directions on a train tried to recruit me to do mobile development for her ad agency. I heard coffee shop employees discussing the possibility of a 15″ MacBook Air.
On my way to a meet-up at Change.org, I incidentally passed the main offices of Adobe, airbnb and Zynga. I was looking for this when I moved, but I didn’t fully comprehend just how much different the concentration of smart technical people was here than in other places. Even compared with Boulder, CO, where I lived before, this is amazing.
Never before in my life have I seen so many homeless, desperate and just crazy people concentrated in one area as I did walking back to my hostel near Market Street from the talks at Adobe. I’ve seen poorer people, for sure. In Beijing, the high-end beggars may have been doing alright for themselves, but in Kunming there was a good deal of outright poverty.
San Francisco is different. Its neighborhoods are very granular. Walk 10 minutes in one direction from the financial district and you’ll be in the center of Chinatown. Walk further up hill and you’ll be in a very gentrified old neighborhood. Another ten minutes down another side of the hill and you’re in a street full of homeless, hopeless and mentally ill people. Another 10 minutes and it’s upscale tech offices. While I’m grateful that I’m not personally confronted by beggars outside my apartment and that I feel safe in my neighborhood, it’s still disturbing. I’ve only been here a week. I don’t understand the situation, its background or what people are doing to help.
It serves as motivation though, both selfishly to get a job and not fall through the cracks, and altruistically to gain the kind of power to help people who most need it.
Surprisingly here in the home of so many lucrative tech companies, I’ve met a lot of people here who genuinely seem focused on making the world a better place. In some other places I’ve lived, I’ve gotten a very strong sense that money rules. Here, despite incredible disparities in wealth, I’ve found a lot of people to be cooperative with potential and even current business competitors. A girl I met on the subway told me her dream of being a volunteer worker. Highly paid professionals collaborate to make free classes for those wanting to break into their industries. Strangers at every meetup.com I’ve gone to have gone out of their way to help me. I’m embarrassed to admit that having lived in Beijing even for a couple of years, I feel wary. I’m not used to such a high-trust society, yet. On the plus side, I’m feeling more inspired and more motivated than I have in quite a while.
This is probably just the beginning of a much longer adjustment, but so far it feels good to be back in my home country.