Some would say Bill had no life in those four months. One would expect a
well-educated young man visiting America in this day and age act differently
than refugees or fortune-seekers coming by boat. But he was just as hungry and
much more interested in gaining money-making skills than experiencing art and
culture. He had a new trade with the mindset of a laundry owner with a family back
in China to feed a century ago.
On a work day, he got up and crossed the street to catch the early morning bus,
in 10 minutes switched to the Muni N car at 19th street and Judah, got off at
the last stop to board the south-bound CalTrain at 4th and King st for Millbrae,
and walk the last mile to work. A round trip on a good day would take three and
a half hours.
In the beginning at least, Bill liked his commute as he got to see the city. Eastbound
and beyond 19th street, Chinese restaurants and grocery stores gave way to little
bookstores, flower shops, cafes, and bakeries. Young people dressed in dark carrying
coffee and suitecases trickled out of typical SF three-story wall-sharing houses, and
rushed to the bus. Many would get off 20 minutes later on downtown Market street
and disapeared into tall buildings. CalTrain was the most enjoyable part. He
loved its speed, assuredness, the smell and decor reminding of the past, and the
scenary out of the window. Riding, he could never focus for long on a book.
He was often too self-concious to talk to people on the road. When he did speak,
to sound smooth, he would prepare mentally the whole sentence before releasing
it. To him, a dialogue felt like a venture and he had to make sure that a
sentence, like a boat, launch perfectly. This strategy worked only for brief
text-book style exchanges, however. Attempts to convey humor, for example,
usually tanked, which often added to his insecurity.
The problem was more than grammar and vocabulary. Coming from a different world,
Bill started to realize that things he thought funny were often not in the west.
Exaggerating and likening a fire-alarm to a warning for a terrorist attack was
not funny, e.g. There was no need to feel insulted when being called a guinea
pig and pronouncing Doug as dog would win no laughs(It was usually degrading to
liken someone to a pig or dog in the Chinese culture). One rare occasion his
joke worked was when he told a friendly fellow passenger: "I thought everyone
wore flowers in their hair before I came here. So far, not a petal in sight." He
got the idea from the SF song which he first heard in the movie Forrest Gump.
English had become what he knew about his environment rather than exam skills.
He was young, alone, and simply too overwhelmed to worry about what to eat.
Breakfasts were often skipped out of laziness, but occasionally he would have
dim sum from a shop near his apartment. The steamed dumplings looked great with
mouth-watering shrimp meat under translucent rice flour wrappings. But they
tasted bland and a tad sweet and two or three killed his appetite.
Lunch and sometimes supper were Wendy's double cheese burger and fries. The
smell of grilled beef and caramelized onion was irresistable and the price
cheap. Bill heard bad things about fast food over the years but gave no mind.
After a meal at KFC when he was a junior in college, he was hooked. It was
considered a delicacy back then. Now that he felt rich working and had already
cut expenses as much as he could, nothing was wrong rewarding his stomach.
It was often past eight when he got back to his dorm from the chilly and foggy
streets. He would pull out a bag of fast noodles, cut some vegetables, crack an
egg or two, and make a hearty supper. For Bill, even the simplest cooking by
himself made a place home.
He couldn't take his mind off the future, which often felt just as foggy as the
city, which in turn killed his imagination and aspirations. A few blocks west
from where he lived was the popular Pacific beach but he visited only twice. He
never felt the need to set foot in Chinatown, Fisherman's Wharf, or even the Golden
Gate Park a few blocks to the north. On the weekends, he sometimes would still go to
Burlingame. Not that he loved working so much but he felt he had nothing better to
do. More often, he would ride to the Borders bookstore at the Stonestown mall to
read. There, he bought his first book since coming to the west, a $70 technical tome
on the workings of the Internet. All he thought about was to better his conditions
through hard work. If it were not for his new friends, there indeed wouldn't be
much to write home about.