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Archive for May, 2012

Since moving back to the US, I’ve been living in the San Francisco Chinatown. It’s been interesting in a lot of ways. In some ways it’s very familiar to me both from my US and my Chinese experiences, but in others it’s still a little bit alien.

Traditional Characters

One welcome feature is that everything is in traditional Chinese characters, and sometimes English, too. Even after my 20 months or so in Beijing, I still read traditional characters with more ease than the PRC simplified forms. After all, I did live in Taiwan for most my 20’s.


Unfortunately for me, “Chinese” doesn’t mean Mandarin here. It means Cantonese. Every single one of my neighbors speaks Cantonese fluently and, as far as I know, natively. That isn’t to say that Mandarin isn’t useful. It is! None of my neighbors has ever said anything more than, “yeah”, “hello”, or “okay” to me in English. About 1/3 of them can speak enough Mandarin to chat with a bit. Shopkeepers are a bit better. I’d say half can speak at least so-so English, and probably 90% can also speak Mandarin.

Sadly I’ve spent only a total of 10 days in HK, and I only know about 50-100 words. Basically I can tell people, “Hi, my name’s 小馬. Can you speak Mandarin? No? Uh ah, uh where’s Waverly street? Thanks. bye-bye!”. It was useful once or twice when I first showed up, but I’m not learning any more and I don’t think this is a good place to learn since it’s such it’s in America and I’m not Chinese-looking. I may get a subscription for Pop-up Cantonese and listen to podcasts at some point, but it’s not a priority.

…Hong Kong?

Based on the prevalence of the odd combination of Traditional Characters and Cantonese, I kept asking myself, “Why doesn’t this feel like Hong Kong?”

It’s kind of hard for me to explain, but it really doesn’t feel like Hong Kong. It’s super hilly and it’s full of tourists, but it feels less free-wheeling. There are a lot of restaurants, but no alleys full of food stands. Also, people in Hong Kong struck me as very short and very fashionable. I haven’t really seen either of those trends here. Not that many people seem to smoke or drink here, either.

Also it’s way cheaper to live here! This area has the cheapest rents I’ve seen in any safe area of SF.

The weather

It’s really not what I had in mind when thinking of “Summer in California”. It’s fairly warm in the day, though not as warm as anywhere else I’ve ever lived, and it’s cold at night. Even wearing long pants and a fleece jacket, it’s a bit chilly when walking home from tech events.

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

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.

The Environment

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 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.

Free Beer

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, 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.

Social Ills

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 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.