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.