Bill first came to the SF Bay Area in Aug 2000 to witness the last stage of the
dotcom bubble. Acclimatized for only one year in the west, he knew nothing about
IPOs or stocks, however, and had no get-rich-quick plans. Amy, his wife, was
admitted to the bachelor program in the department of economics at the same
Canadian university where Bill was a first-year graduate student. As his
scholarship covered only his own tuition, money had to come from elsewhere. He
was lucky to secure through his professor a summer intern job at a telecom lab
in Burlingame, California.
The next task was, with his offer letter, to obtain a stamp on his Chinese
passport. Used to the red tape in his native country, Bill followed the steps.
The private SWAP (Student Work Abroad Program), however, rarely dealt with a
Chinese national applying to work in the US through a Canadian school. After
three months and a ton of paper work, when everyone lost hope as summer almost
ended, it felt like a miracle that he received a J-1 visa. The employer extended
the offer, the university adjusted for his leave, and he was good to go. Years
later, he couldn't find the SWAP on the Web anymore, which made the whole deal
felt even more like a mission-impossible.
Having lived only in the temperate and polar zones of the northern hemisphere,
Bill found the Bay Area exotic. The air was dry and the day sunny and hot.
Wind started to blow in the afternoon and it cooled down fast in the
evening. Tall palm trees stood shoulder to shoulder with cedars and pines,
claiming equal rights to be here. Birch trees, which in his mind should cluster
over hilly acres, happily lived next to desert cacti in people's backyards.
This was also the first time he saw giant eucalyptus trees, gracefully lining
along the El Camino Real. They were from Australia, food to the koala, and a
fire hazard when warmed up, he would learn later. Things were so different.
Every morning, he would walk on the overpass across the Millbrae CalTrain station
to his workplace, a modest one-story brick building facing freeway 101 and the
SFO on the other side. The air smelled chocolate from a factory nearby. The freeway,
four lanes in either direction, was always packed during the week. In commute
hours, it resembled a giant parking lot. Something big was going on. Bill felt
it but knew nothing on how to profit more from the boom. This did not bother
him, however. In four months, he would return to Amy and the northern tundra to
continue his study. Whatever the craziness was about here would have nothing to
do with him.
There had to be more to his life than financial gains, he often thought. His
education in the Chinese classics denounced material things. He had never
scoffed at that idea but reality seemed to insist on the contrary. From early
on, he had been a good student, not necessarily the smartest, but always
hard-working. His wins gave him the illusion that he could out-work
competitions. But where would his labor lead to besides the material? In his
late 20s, he sometimes asked that question and had no concrete answers.
Meanwhile, the salary of an intern was great. Four months' earning would pay for
Amy's tuition and a second-hand car. Of course, he would try to save every
penny. That was his life style anyway. Brought up in the rural northern China in
the 70's and 80's, he was extremely frugal. An apartment on the peninsula was
way out of his budget. For the first two weeks, he stayed on the company's dime
in a Travelodge near his job and lived on fast noodles and Wendy's burgers. In
the weekends, he rode SamTrans up to SF to hunt for cheap housing.
It was a typical sunny morning. The bus meandered north at its own leisurely and
unperturbed pace through San Bruno's hilly neighborhoods. Bill had never heard
of micro climates by then but somewhere along the route, maybe in Daly City, the
fog took over, visibility was reduced to a couple of blocks, and everything
in sight was rendered grey. The stop-and-gos suddenly felt monotonous and after
another half an hour, the bus arrived at a shopping mall next to the SFSU
southwest of the city.
The campus looked cramped, a deserted concrete jungle, and nothing like any
university he had been to. Bill was trying to find something like a Chinese
student association or at least a bulletin. The place was empty on a Saturday,
however, and there was no one to talk to. After walking around for an hour, all
he could find was a slip of paper pasted on a light pole. The handwriting looked
Chinese and it could take more than two hours commute to work. It gave a phone
number for a shared room in the Sunset district for $250 a month and that was
all he needed.