It has been three and a half years since I first came to San Francisco to work on the career aspect of my life. Things have gone according to plan, I’ve settled into a routine and time has gone quickly. In fact, this is the most time I’ve spent in once city in the past decade.
This past month I was fortunate enough to be able to visit the cities in Asia and America I call home in rapid succession. My reason for doing so were simply to remember what life is like over in various cities and to think about the future. The one problem with moving from city to city is you always miss the ones you’ve left and there is always a sort of pull beckoning you to go back. It was this voice that I wanted to quiet a little as well as determine which world would be most suitable for the future.
When one is away from any city for a long time, the image of that city is continually built up in the mind and may make it seem better than it actually is. My mind especially reinforces the good aspects while negating the bad. I had to return to put it all in perspective.
Further, it is the experience one remembers and not the city as it actually is and not all experiences will be the same. However, I also believe that one has the power to physically change any experience simply by choosing how the mind will perceive it. This is why some will have negative experiences while others enjoy the time of their life even though they are experiencing the same city.
I went on my trip as one returning home and not as a tourist. I simply wanted to revisit the places and neighborhoods that were my home at one time.
Therefore, I thought it might be wise to write down my thoughts while they are still fresh and to share my experiences in these vastly different places.
Tokyo is a city that could be described as a futuristic place in the present. It is clean, orderly and crime is almost non-existent. The technology is very advanced and returning to San Francisco, I can’t shake the feeling that it seems 10-15 years behind!
My neighborhood in Tokyo runs from Ikebukuro up to Kawagoe and westward along the Yamanote line to Shibuya. It was here that I ate at my favorite restaurants, had coffee in places where I used to study Japanese and had some beers at my favorite hangouts. It seemed as though time had not really changed things and I could easily slip back into that world.
Yet, it would not be the same world if I were to return. I was there as a student and English teacher and did not have to fight the crowded trains day in and day out. My Japanese is good enough to live in that world.
If I were to return I would be faced with the monumental task of improving my Japanese to native level which would take many years and dedicated nightly study. One part of me finds this to be difficult. Yet, whether something is difficult or not simply depends on the mindset when doing it. There will be peaks and valleys but with the right attitude there will be more peaks along the road.
The tougher aspect would be integrating into a mostly Japanese world. Before, I spent a lot of time with foreigners and achieved a very comfortable level of life. Going back I would have to integrate 100% which one can never really achieve since Japan is a homogeneous society and I would always be an outsider. However, with the right attitude one can get very close and become “accepted,” even if becoming completely “Japanese” is not possible.
In regards to integration one will have to become part of various groups. These groups are the people you work with, the neighborhood and even society at large.
One must then abide by all the rules of these groups which inhibits individualism. Here in the USA we are individualistic and pursue our own goals in which we can sometimes bend rules. It reminds me a bit of the movie “The Matrix” in that Neo has the power to shape his environment as he wants it to be. In Japan there are no bending of rules and the Matrix is as it is with the individual having no power to change it. One must simply keep trying to accomplish what they will in a static fashion and various opportunities are spaced farther in between. One must pursue the aims of the group over the individual.
To put this in greater perspective, I left Japan Airlines (great company) due to my own aims and career goals. In Japan, this would not be a normal thing and much harder to do. In fact would almost seem like a betrayal and perhaps seen as a negative on the resume.
The positive aspect to moving back here is that my faculties would be awash in the culture and language. It would be like a child exploring an entirely new playground even if he knew how to navigate a select few of the obstacles. My Japanese would improve tremendously and I would have to keep myself more alert in order to advance.
Here in San Francisco it seems I rarely need to think at all and could sleepwalk through most days. It is as if the current of life has picked me up to carry me along the way and all I need to do is float. In Japan I would have to tread water pretty quickly at first and watch out for the boulders in the stream to keep advancing.
In short, Tokyo would be a great place to return to but life would take a lot of effort. But again, it is only as difficult as my mind tells me it is and if I regard it as simple and fun then so it would be.
The best part about Saigon are the people. I love the Vietnamese and regard them as very warm, kind and full of life. These people have been through so much yet it is very easy to find a smile in this city. Further, the expatriate crowd is extremely interesting as they come from all corners of the globe and usually have interesting stories to tell. I like the fact that I can walk into almost any restaurant/bar, converse in different languages and hear their story. The simple fact that they are in Saigon makes them adventurous and one can easily get a completely different viewpoint of any situation which simply doesn’t happen in the USA.
As for the Vietnamese, I don’t think I’ve every really met one that I didn’t like. Sure, sometimes there are struggles but I would be hard pressed to think of even one Vietnamese “sourpuss” if you’ll pardon the expression. When I encounter the service over there it puts a smile on my face and is very easy to be positive. Here in S.F. it can sometimes be a challenge to remain positive and keep that karma flowing.
Now, please don’t misunderstand, there are many great people here in San Francisco but there are also those that are not very happy with their life and it really drives the point home that money does not equal happiness. Even the street vendors offer a great smile in Vietnam where customer service here sometimes gives me the impression that I am bothering the vendor. I may be explaining this point poorly but my point is that it is very easy to be happy in Saigon where in S.F. it sometimes takes a bit of work (especially if you commute).
Yet, Saigon really no longer feels like home and that is due to the rapid changes in the city. Saigon has no recession, buildings are going up left and right and young people are finding plenty of nice office work. There is nothing that brings a bigger smile to my face then watching the young Vietnamese on a company outing with the same color hats and shirts on and their smiles simply beaming!! A beaming smile while working in S.F. is very scarce.
The Vietnamese are enjoying life at the moment and are definitely on the up and up. It is as if you can really see the people for who they are and nothing is hidden. And they are a wonderful people!! In Tokyo, the people are very polite but there is a distance between everyone. This lubricates the society but it takes a very long time to feel close or make good friends. In Vietnam this could be accomplished in seconds.
I have gone astray and must digress a bit to Saigon not feeling like home. The reason is that before, it was still a pretty small city and it seemed as though all the expatriates new each other. We attended the same events, went to the same bars and could theoretically attend every event going on in the city! Further, there were quite a few Vietnamese who also attended these sort of foreigner events and I knew most of them too.
Now, there are foreigners everywhere, many more functions and associations and it is impossible to know everyone. I really became aware of this when I first arrived at the airport. In 2004, I could shoot through immigration in 30 seconds as there were no lines and only about 10 inspectors. Now there are around 40 inspectors and lines!!
Further, I could not believe how many foreigners there were!
I was amused at the foreigners in front of me at immigration who were obviously new. The inspector rebuffed them due to some paperwork error and they seemed surprised that they were not being let in. Being haughty to the immigration inspector also does not get you in the country any faster and I was glad to bypass them and be let in immediately.
In town I also realized that a lot of my favorite hangouts were now gone and that there were many new hotspots in town. Dong Koi street is no longer the foreigner hangout it used to be and is now over behind the Sun Wah tower! Going into these places I only recognized between one and three people instead of the usual 10-15 as before. I did feel special as one of the bartenders gave me a free drink and called me “old meat” which meant that I was one of the old crowd returned instead of all the “new meat.” My friends which were still there also informed me that even they did not recognize most of the foreigners anymore since there were so many of them.
Finally, an enormous change has been the Viet Kieu which are the returning Vietnamese that left in various waves fleeing the country. They have also changed the face of Saigon and have brought money with them. I was fortunate enough to meet some really great Viet Kieu and none of the bad. The bad ones look upon foreigners as though they don’t belong there because it is THEIR country and can sometimes be rude. Fortunately, the ones I met were very outgoing and we had a lot of fun.
This social dynamic is really going to change things and it will be interesting to watch how the Vietnamese adapt to these new returnees especially when they have a lot of money. So many people left and so many are returning that it will have a very big impact. In Japan, there are few that venture outside the country but the ones that do might have trouble re-adapting since they might have a hit of “foreignerness” about them. I don’t really want to go into this and mention it just for comparison with Vietnam.
In conclusion for Saigon, I’m very excited that the young people are doing so well and the country is progressing. I do feel a little sad though that the Saigon I knew is gone but I am just one traveler whose time there has passed. This does not mean that I will not be back for visits however and I sincerely hope that I cross paths with Vietnam frequently. Yet, as for living there again it does not seem optimal unless a very large business opportunity were to present itself.
3. San Francisco
Out of all the cities in the USA (that I have visited) San Francisco is my favorite. The people are not as warm as the Vietnamese and the city is not as advanced as Tokyo but San Francisco is magnificent! The natural beauty and the talent of this city are unsurpassed. The people are also more laid-back then those down in LA except of course during their commute.
I love this city due to it’s walkable nature and its compact size. San Francisco can be taken in in its entirety yet there is always something new to discover. Tokyo on the other hand is overwhelming and one can only take one small area at a time which even then can never be fully discovered. San Francisco though is able to be digested in each of its unique neighborhoods over the course of a year or so. Further, the variety is astounding in that one could be snowboarding (Lake Tahoe) in the morning and drinking wine outdoors in 80 degrees (Napa) in the evening.
In regards to entertainment, even the small venues draw extraordinary talent. I used to believe that quality entertainment costs about $100. Yet, I have recently learned that it can be had for $15 and even great wine can be bought for $20.
The downside is that this city costs money. It is an adult playground but in order to play one must pay the fee. Further, it is not very easy to make friends without a lot of effort. In Saigon one makes friends whether they desire to or not. In Tokyo, many people are curious about foreigners and even though it takes a lot of time, with a positive attitude friends will come. Yet, in S.F. it succumbs to the “big city” mentality in that even though people can be friendly, one can only get so close before it becomes uncomfortable. Friends can be made but they must actively be sought out.
This could also simply just be my mindset as there are plenty of young adults around. Yet, I no longer go out to meet people but instead have set plans be it a restaurant or simply staying home and watching Netflix.
San Francisco is a great place to live if one can afford it and does not tire of all the activity. After three and a half years here I still enjoy a modest amount of activity but it is far from the nightly scene of Saigon.
My first impression about Columbus was that the people are extraordinarily friendly. I had begun to think that Americans were modestly friendly in comparison to the Vietnamese but that was my mistake and I had become to accustomed to San Francisco.
The atmosphere is much more laid back and I felt very much at peace there compared with the noise and activity of San Francisco. The main activity was going to a Blue Jackets game and talking about Ohio State Football. The politics also seemed much more reasonable and easy going than in S.F. where everything is a constant battle.
It almost seemed as though life was a bit slower and that my town of Grandview was like the fictional town of “Pleasantville.” People get along and are friendly but unfortunately Ohio State Football is more of a discussion topic than international affairs. This is not a slam in any way as I love Ohio but I miss listening to viewpoints I had never even fathomed (Saigon) rather than the usual opinions.
In Columbus, it seems to me that one could have all (or most of) the material things they wanted since living expenses are much more reasonable. A decent sized house, two cars, large T.V. and maybe even a pool table. The people are much more welcoming and friendly which really endears me to the Midwestern life style.
Yet, I feel I would miss the excitement of the international scene and any material items would soon become boring. I have always much preferred experiences to material things and I think it is too late to turn back the clock now. Yet, in terms of livability Columbus is very hard to beat in terms of raising a family.
In conclusion, each city offers distinct advantages while others would have to be sacrificed. It is so easy to simply coast along in life and let the current take you where it may. It is quite another deciding to get up out of the stream and place yourself in a completely different one, swimming like crazy until one is coasting again yet trying not to think of the streams they had previously left and if they would lead to a more perfect lake.