San Francisco

San Francisco gives me all the feels. I look out from my sister’s floor to ceiling glass windows towards the bay, where a hint of orange is just starting to creep through the muted blue, rendering the horizon into the ambiguous shade of purple that gets a little murky in the evenings, but is pure brilliance during this early morning hour. Between two buildings I see a sliver of Bay Bridge, where the headlights of cars coming into the city glisten like tiny stars. It reminds me of my first apartment in San Francisco, where in the early days I would lie in bed listening to the city wake up because I was filled with too much desire and energy and jet lag to sleep, and when I finally give up sleeping I would pull up the curtains, and if I find the exact angle and Carl was not around, I would also be able to see a tiny sliver of the bridge, where I imagined cars ferried people and their dreams to this amazing city that I could now call mine.

All the feels is probably something I would only say in San Francisco. I first visited on a beautiful Thanksgiving weekend because of a boy. Maybe it was due to the rose colored glass all young lovers wear, I fell so hard for this city and could not imagine another place I would rather be. Years later I realized that in my inability to detangle my love of the city and my love of the boy, I had been trying too hard to save one when I could have spent more time savoring the other. By then love had become complicated, as it often does when one enters adulthood, and for the first time I no longer saw the city as mine, and imagined life elsewhere.

I finished the book Hope Lab on the plane ride here. I hate people like Hope Jahren. I hate how she can be so brilliant as a scientist and then turn around and write a book that so eloquently recounts her story and even makes botany sound interesting with all her analogies to life. I hate that I had to find out how much she had to overcome to become who she is and realize how my struggles pale in comparison. I hate how she forces me to recognize that I am not content with where I am, and motivates me to do more, and be more. I also love her for all of those things.

Like I said, love is complicated when you are an adult.

I arrived Thursday afternoon at 5:30, not 7:30 as I erroneously anticipated. I contemplate making dinner plans, mentally going through the list of people I would love to see who would also potentially have time meet me for dinner so last minute. I sadly found that list to be too short to even make an attempt. During the first few quarterly visits after I moved, my schedule was packed and every meal was reserved and I had to apologetically promise people I would see them next quarter. Then people moved out of the city, moved on with their lives, or just moved on from our friendship, which is completely normal, but still sad to think about every time Facebook resurfaces a “On This Day” photo from more carefree times. 

I decide to go to dinner at Ippudo, because it’s across the street, and because it’s not so weird to eat by yourself at a ramen place. I get seated almost right away and try to keep a smirk down walking past people with friends still waiting in the crowded lobby. I sit down next to another solo patron with a stern expression intently staring at his phone, slightly disappointed because his demeanor did not invite conversation with a stranger. I don’t fear solitude, but I am often in the mood for serendipitous conversations. I order a simple shiromaru with firm noodles, and reminisce about the first time I visited Ippudo in New York City. I was there with a friend from college, and we waited 3 hours in the wind. It was possibly the first time I ever waited that long for food. I still remember we ordered the pork belly buns and shishito peppers for appetizer and they were delicious, but it was probably due to the fact that we waited 3 hours and any food would have been delicious. My friend later moved to the Bay Area but we slowly drifted apart because she moved to Oakland, and even though that’s only a couple more stops on BART somehow proximity overruled history when it came to friendships. We had only met up once since I moved away and I only recently found out she was having a baby on Instagram. This is why I would never give up social media because it gives me an avenue to reconnect, or at least cheer from afar, when big things happen for old friends.

When I lived in Shanghai there was an Ippudo in the mall about 10 minutes from the office, and I often met friends there for lunch. Ippudo was not that special in Shanghai and there was never a wait. As such it became no longer special to me and I had never tried to come to this Ippudo when it opened in San Francisco. San Franciscans love ramen but they are extremely fickle, and I remember so many conversations with friends about yet another new ramen place that was “the best” until the next new ramen place came to town. I haven’t tried all these places because I swore off waiting in line for food. There was this one time when we put ourselves on the waitlist for a ramen place on Yelp for 2 hours, and when we got there we ended up still waiting for another hour before getting seated. I didn’t even think the ramen was that good despite all the rave reviews. This Ippudo has only 3.5 stars on Yelp, and I tend to only go to restaurants when they have at least 4 stars because that’s when the stars turn from this blasé orange to red, indicating their elite status. When I took the first bite of my shiromaru ramen I realized how much I missed Ippudo’s firm noodles and I loved how flavorful but not overpowering the soup is and how the pork belly was tender but not too greasy. And I started thinking about all the 3.5 star restaurants and wonder how many good ones I missed out on because they didn’t have red stars, and how pretentious it was for me to be a “Yelp Elite” even though honestly I don’t even care that much about food.

I digress. It took me exactly 20 minutes to finish my dinner, which seemed impossible given how many thoughts flooded through my mind during that time. This is what happens when you find solitude. It has been a long time since I traveled alone, and I must say I missed it. At midnight on January 1, 2014, I stood alone on a bridge in Sydney, Australia, watching the most beautiful fireworks I’ve ever seen with tears streaming down my face, and for the first time contemplated the idea of growing old alone. Over the next year I not only overcame the fear of the idea, but embraced it, which opened my eyes to so many exciting possibilities and ironically, led me to a life that I had desperately wanted but decided was ok to not have on that night. 

I headed straight back to my hotel room after dinner. As I stretch out comfortably in my king size bed, I feel a slight tinge of guilt at having left my baby at home with dad and grandma. But mostly I feel relief, and gratitude, for the opportunity to have this weekend to myself. I spent my first two years in the Bay Area living in hotel rooms, and even though I had always been an introvert, those were the years when I desperately sought to not be alone. I thought those days were behind me, but here I am again. I stuff the plushy hotel slippers into my suitcase, because no matter how much money I make I can’t resist taking free hotel slippers. I no longer take the toiletries though, because I don’t want to add to the single plastic container usage. I take at least 10 flights a year but make myself feel better by leaving the hotel toiletries. It is very San Franciscan of me. E.B. White once said “I get up every morning determined to both change the world and have one hell of a good time. Sometimes this makes planning my day difficult.” I feel both guilt and relief to have my struggle communicated so succinctly.

This quote surfaces whenever I’m in an uncomfortable situation where I am made aware of my privilege and feel like I should refrain from doing something but more often than not I do it anyway. Like the next morning when I stood 2 feet away from a lady making fortune cookie by hand at the famous Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory and stuck my iPhone 11 Pro in her face to document this unique experience. The tour was free, taking photos costs 50 cents. I tell myself it’s not a bad thing because she gets the tip and it is better than not getting a tip. She thanks me but does not smile.

It was Chinese New Year and my sister and I planned to make rice cake. But it was Chinese New Year so all the supermarkets in Chinatown were closed, and we were indignant to find that neither Trader Joe nor Whole Foods carried glutinous rice flour. Thankfully the Japanese only celebrate regular New Year. We waited on Market Street for 10 minutes before realizing the bus was rerouted on this particular weekend. The next stop is on Geary right past Union Square, and we see the 38R right next to us as we wait to cross the street. There was a demonstration in Union Square, apparently the Democratic Socialists of America were against the war in Iran. Twenty minutes later the bus we passed earlier was still sitting at the same exact intersection and we decide to walk. Walking is one thing I miss about living in the city but I no longer consider it relaxing. Every time I walk through the TL I am reminded of the time my 4’10 girlfriend got punched in the face by a 6’ homeless guy and the time when a crazy person chased my other girlfriend three blocks because she made the unfortunate mistake of eye contact. There seems to be more poop on the ground these days, and we are reminded of how humans feel more responsible about cleaning up dog shit than human shit. There’s also the fact that it was mostly uphill, and I am just glad I had the foresight to change into sneakers before we left. Lyft Line may take longer than walking but I don’t have to constantly stay vigilant about crazy people and poop.

Thirty minutes later we were almost at the top of the hill as five 38s zoom pass us one after another, mostly empty. At least I closed my move ring for the day. We found mochi flour at Nijiya and decide it was good enough. We planned to take the bus to the ferry building so I can buy some bread for J, who insists even stale ACME bread is better than any fresh bread he can find in Austin. Once again, that plan was thwarted by the politically active people of SF, as our bus driver told us to get off at Market and Powell. This time, it was the opposite end of the spectrum — people holdings signs declaring “abortion is murder” swarmed down Market Street. I feel my anger rise, only to be subdued by resignation, and perhaps fear. I am reminded of something I recently read in an article: “Fear breeds self-censorship, and self-censorship is more insidious than the state-imposed kind, because it’s a surer way of killing the impulse to think, which requires an unfettered mind.” I get my bread and went back to my sister’s to eat rice cake, letting my feeling of cowardice dissipate with the comfort of sugar.

My flight was early the next morning. As my Uber gets on 101 I am struck by how gray the city looks. All the people in their gray tech hoodies, gray Priuses on gray bridges, different shades of gray buildings disappearing into the grayness of Carl. I can’t decide whether it is the city that changed or just the eyes through which I’m seeing it now. I don’t know whether it matters. It is, and always will be, a city full of dreams, stories, and memories.

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