I am a native San Franciscan?

In May of 2009, I moved to San Francisco after graduating from college.   It was a place I had only been twice in my life – once for an unremarkable pre-move trip and once as a kid traveling with my grandmother (and apparently everyone else’s tiger balm-drenched Chinese grandmother) on a Chinese bus tour of California. On both occasions, I wasn’t hit with an Allen Ginsburg-esque love for this fog-filled, hilly metropolis. All I remember was how cold summer could feel and how sequined my grandmother’s clothing was despite our daily hours-long activity of sitting in a charter bus full of unimpressed Chinese ladies.

Give or take the months I’ve spent away for graduate school, I have somehow hit my 7-year mark living in San Francisco. If the insufferable television series “Sex and the City” should be believed, it takes 7 years for someone to become a “native New Yorker”. Should this logic be applied to San Francisco – New York’s equally expensive, equally pretentious, and equally homosexual west coast counterpart – I will have reached my “native” status as of this writing.

If time is not an adequate indicator of being a “native” San Franciscan, I have another convincing measure of nativity. According to psychologist Robert Plutchik’s seminal theory of emotion, there are eight standard human emotions, which include fear, joy, and surprise. I would argue that San Franciscans have two additional standard emotions – “Exasperation over expensive rent” and “Terror induced by clueless Lyft Driver who is from Sacramento”. I acquired the former emotion the moment I moved to this city and developed the latter emotion this past Saturday night.

Thus, to mark my self-proclaimed transition from invasive species to native species of a city I have grown to love, I’m going to partake in a San Francisco tradition – complaining about insignificant minutia.

Rant #1: Why is this line so damn long? [Ice Cream Edition]

This rant has many iterations which include, but are not limited to “Lines! Coffee edition,” “Lines! Brunch edition,” and “Lines! Artisanal chocolate (?) edition”.

I chose to write about waiting in line for ice cream because ice cream is among my top five favorite things in the world. Anything that stands in the way of my ravenously consuming ice cream feels like a travesty of injustice.*

I grew up eating entire tubs of Country Vanilla, Neapolitan, and Moo-llenium Crunch Blue Bell ice cream, which is a practice that has recently fallen out of favor because of the possibility of death by Listeria. Now, instead of risking death via infectious bacteria, I now risk dying in the frigid cold as I stand in line at one of the many San Francisco handcrafted ice cream shops – Bi-Rite Creamery, Humphry Slocombe, Mitchell’s, Smitten and, most recently, Salt & Straw.

I’ve had to stand in line so often at these shops that it feels like waiting for ice cream is inevitable. However, I find that the bottleneck is preventable if people stop the practice of trying every single flavor available. I dislike the practice for two reasons – first, the longer I have to wait in line, the more likely I am to come to the realization that purchasing a 5-dollar scoop of ice cream when it is already cold outside is a fucking stupid idea. Second, the people scooping your 17 samples of ice cream are probably twenty-something English majors with rock star dreams who are a few scoops away from early onset carpal tunnel syndrome.

In an effort to save the wrist nerves and tendons scooping ice cream in this great city, I wanted to share my approach to ordering ice cream:

  1. Determine the number of scoops you would like. Anything more than 3 scoops is obscene, you greedy bastard.
  2. To determine the number of samples to try, double the number of scoops you intend to order. For example, if you want 1 scoop, try 2 flavors. 2 distinct scoops equates to 4 tries. Under no circumstance should you try all 32 flavors of ice cream available unless you intend to order 16 distinct scoops. If you are thinking of ordering 16 distinct scoops, please refer to my off-color remark muttered in step number 1, you greedy bastard.
  3. To maximize satisfaction in the flavor combinations you choose, make sure that roughly half of what you choose to sample is new, interesting flavors. The other half should be traditional and reliable. For instance, “I want 2 scoops of ice cream, so I’m going to try 4 flavors. My 4 choices are vanilla, chocolate, balsamic and raspberry-infused fermented trout intestines, and candied walnut with malted soy milk of Pikachu.”

As you can tell, the above 3 steps are a general outline of the philosophy in which I live my life. Feel free to use – it works!

Rant #2: For the last time, “Hella” is not a unit of measurement.

This section is directed to my partner – a true native San Franciscan – who has insisted since the inception of our relationship that “hella” is unit of time, quantity, size, and dimension. Examples include “hella expensive,” “hella dumb,” and, most infuriatingly, “hella whack”. Who has perpetuated this non-sense and tainted our beloved partners with these lies?

People, it is unacceptable to tell me that “hella people are coming to the party”. Does that mean 4 people (“hella people” to me) or does that mean 37 people (“hella people” to my partner)? What does it mean that it is going to take “hella long to get here”? Is this 6 minutes (which feels “hella long” because I am hungry) or does this mean 2 hours (because your Lyft Driver from Fresno has collided on the Bay Bridge with a Lyft Driver from Modesto)? If the situation is “hella whack,” do you mean as whack as waiting in a long line to get ice cream in the cold or as whack as the 2016 presidential election?

Clarity in language is important. How important? Hella. Don’t know how important that is? PRECISELY.

*Editor’s Note: Probably not a travesty of injustice.


I am where I am from.

Since the election, I’ve read quite a few articles instructing people of privilege on how they can better engage with those who are more disenfranchised. Save for a few thoughtful pieces on how people should learn to actively listen, I am generally against catch-all pieces of writing that forcefully instruct people on how to live, how to speak, and how to interact with others. I recoil when I am told how to be, especially if it is presented in a generalized manner. I imagine others would do the same.

However, I do believe there’s an interesting post-election story on American culture that must be discussed. It’s a story of American society, particularly the upper echelons of American society, feeling like a predominantly white experience – from our food to our social rules of engagement to the way in which we are expected to speak. If you’re like me – a person who grew up on the fringes of the white American experience – the expectation has been to conform to the more dominant, often white culture. Very rarely have people conformed to my experiences, my story.

A story:

As some may know, I grew up in the suburban stretches of Houston, Texas. There is a long, storied road in Houston named Bellaire Boulevard that runs from the city’s wealthiest enclaves and cuts southwest – past our museums, past Rice University, and into an amalgamation of Chinese and Vietnamese strip malls. The further west the road penetrates, the poorer, yet more ethnically diverse its surrounding constituents and buildings are. Until I turned 18, I lived near the final western leg of Bellaire Boulevard that was within Houston’s city limits in a neighborhood known as Alief.

At the turn of the 19th century, Alief was essentially farmland and, to date, I still drive several Farm-to-Market (FM) roads when I head home to see my mother. The area’s pastures soon became paved roads for wealthy white suburbs. By the time my parents cobbled together enough cash and signatures to purchase our first Alief home in the late 1980s, we were participants in the area’s next big transformation: white flight. Each year, I drive down Bellaire Boulevard to the same cyclical trend – the shuttering and grand opening of noodle shops, billiards with windows that become more heavily tinted with each drive, and grocery stores whose products and patrons reflect the Latino, Vietnamese, Chinese, and African American demographic of this 20th century community.

This is where my narrative and interactions with white culture begin – a childhood spent not really interacting with white people other than my teachers. My count of close white peers in my life from age 5 to age 18 is literally 7. If you add all 5 members of the Spice Girls and all of the tolerable characters from the Babysitter’s Club, perhaps you can reasonably bring the count of people to 16.

If race and socio-economic status are inextricably linked, here are some of the stories I told myself growing up in a neighborhood like Alief: Parents don’t have careers, they just have jobs like janitor, machinist, or assembly line worker. Non-Vietnamese restaurants, like Olive Garden, are fancy restaurants that you only go to after middle school dances, homecoming and prom. The term “vacation” meant heading 60 miles southeast to Galveston, where the shores of the Gulf of Mexico churned crests of not blue, but brown, salty water. A longer vacation would take you towards Austin or New Orleans, while a vacation for the “lucky” meant heading as far as the country’s eastern or western shores to New York or California.

Here are stories I had to teach myself as I fumbled my way through predominantly white spaces:

In college, where a vast majority of my peers were white, I learned that people engage in semi-serious conversation while eating dinner. Learning how to talk at dinner was significantly harder for me than learning how to engage in a college classroom. In my adolescence, dinner was consumed quietly in 30 minutes. Occasionally, a parent would yell at one of their two children in Vietnamese. One of us would slowly respond in broken Vietnamese or English. It was a contrast to the university cafeteria overlooking the Potomac River, where conversation went quickly, reaching into personal travel I couldn’t relate to, books I had never read, in English that I thought I had mastered fluently only to find that people can simultaneously speak the same language, yet not understand each other. I learned to love those dinners, but only after I figured out how to strategically enter those conversations.

I learned that there was a world beyond gossip and politics – the conversational topics of choice in my Vietnamese family – and that I will constantly feel like I am playing cultural catch up. Films were not just Steven Spielberg or Disney – they could also be noir, avant garde, post-modern, cult classics. Music went beyond what played on the radio – it could be taste and records passed down generationally from parent to child. There was a thing called “National Public Radio” that millions of people listened to learn about issues beyond the 36 square miles you grew up in. There were places to go beyond the United States and Vietnam. Time now feels very truncated as I try to get acquainted with an American culture I supposedly knew.

I also had to learn who Bon Iver is because, for some reason, all the white people I know liked Bon Iver.

I’ve learned to dislike well-intentioned conversational questions about my childhood. These are the kind of questions that attempt to bring someone in, but feels like a “this was our collective experience, now tell me about yours” conversation – like an anthropological study of otherness.

Most of all, I learned how to manage constant homesickness because my story is never the American story – rather, it’s the narrative of constant learning, always feeling behind, and relentless catching up at the expense of cultivating the cultural roots of the America I was once from.