Being a Foreigner

18 Sep
Angel de Independencia

Angel de Independencia

Because I tend to have a general attitude of “I don’t give a fuck”, for the most part, I don’t mind being a foreigner. That’s not to say I go around playing music loudly at night, or littering in public places. I’m conscientious. But I don’t take myself too seriously, and I don’t like when others do. You only have one life, so why sweat it? If I have to smile and ask a waiter, “I’m sorry, I don’t know what that is. Can you explain?”, I don’t mind. I don’t blush and swell with excessive pride. I have done this being a foreigner thing before, and I know that sometimes you just have to accept that you look different, sound different, and generally don’t know your way around (at least at first).

I don’t want to be someone who feels especially special and unique by virtue of the fact that I am foreign. When you’re 20 years old and studying abroad during junior year of college, you content yourself with knowing that if anyone wants to know how that is said in English, or what it’s like in America, they can go to you. There were times when I studied abroad in Spain when I would be the only American in the room, and I felt special. One should absolutely accept that being a foreigner offers a unique perspective on things. But it is not all that is unique and special about you. That’s to say that when I go home to spend the holidays with my family, I know that there are aspects of my identity that are more important to who I am than my exoticness, my otherness. I think it is people who have difficulty separating the two who have a tough time readjusting when they go back home.

I also can’t forget that being a foreigner from any old country and being an American abroad are not the same thing. I’ve generally found that being an American in Europe and Latin America means being received warmly, perhaps with a sarcastic remark, and rarely as the first emissary of your kind to visit these shores. I have met maybe three people for whom I was the first American they had ever met. Being an American means you are never too far from familiar things; you turn on the TV and see the same actors with unfamiliar voices; you see the same junk food in the stores, the same golden arches and half-bitten apple at the mall. Here in Mexico, you see hamburgers offered at a lot of restaurants. Breakfast menus often include “hot cakes” (although it seems that someone came here in the 1950’s with that name and it stuck; nowadays we call them pancakes). I try to balance out consuming familiar things, such as the jar of peanut butter that I have at home, with consuming things that I know I’ll find only in Mexico, like eating a $5 lunch that includes soup, appetizer, entree (enchiladas, taquitos, fish), and a modest dessert. As I write this, I sit in a café where the soundtrack and the ambience could be lifted straight out of Valencia Street in San Francisco’s Mission District. It’s almost too familiar. I want something disorienting, different, exotic.

But then again, I think about how much I stuck out like a sore thumb today at lunch when I ate at a fonda near work (one of these homespun restaurants offering a menu of the day that is typically only open for office workers during lunch hour). Sometimes it’s thrilling to not look like anyone around (although let’s face it, with my Lebanese Mexican looks I rarely blend into my surroundings), and sometimes it’s tiring. Sometimes you just want to go unnoticed. Again, you don’t want your identity to rely too heavily on being a foreigner, but sometimes you have to embrace the fact that you’re not from here. At the very least, I feel safe. I know that it’s entirely possible that I could wind up in the wrong neighborhood or the wrong taxi and all of a sudden being a foreigner is not cool, it’s an invitation to victimhood.

All in all, I mostly feel happy. Still a bit disoriented- I’m still learning streets in my neighborhood, and then I’ll work outward from there- and still a bit lonely, as I don’t know many people yet, but still very grateful for this feeling. Being a foreigner here makes me feel deliriously alive.

Crickets

24 Aug

A croak, a chirp

The rubbing of skinny legs together

Like bow on violin

Marks the steady rhythm of the night.

All around all is black, velveteen

Punctured by a thousand frosty dots

Just night, cricket song,

The moon and the stars

Peaceful evening far removed from the city

When the Lights Go Down in the City

21 Aug

Tilting at Windmills by the Sea

21 Aug

Windmill

Windmill

As I spend one of my last nights in the city I love, San Francisco, I can’t help but think of how this city has been such an integral part of my life for the last five years. In almost every neighborhood I walk through (thanks to Muni I visit all the neighborhoods), I see places with some special significance to me wherever I go. From the HiDive Bar on the Embarcadero, where I saw Hunter Pence whiz by on his scooter as I enjoyed beer on the patio, to Java Beach Cafe by Ocean Beach, where I would sit and sip coffee with my last boyfriend, who lived just blocks away. The city imprints itself on you, and you imprint yourself on it.

I think about how much the city will change while I’m away. Today while walking down Valencia, I passed a new condo development in the works. I have long been a proponent of adding more housing to San Francisco, but I fear that only adding housing for millionaires will only lead to increased inequality in the city. I fear that my friends who are successful professionals and would be able to afford a home in any other part of the country will either have to keep renting or move far from the city they love. My love for San Francisco remains, but I fear that it will only become a playground for the ultra rich, a simulacrum of a once thriving creative city. I hate to admit it, but part of me hopes that the bubble bursts, and soon (but enough on my thoughts on the sustainability of the sharing economy!).

Condos

Condos

The prevailing stereotype of San Francisco is that it has always provided a home to the searchers, the poets and dreamers who have reached the tip of Manifest Destiny and remake themselves here at the edge of the continent. From the Gold Rush to the Beatniks to the Hippies, this was mostly true. Is the city still a haven for dreamers, or is it becoming out of reach for all but those arriving with a Stanford degree in hand? I think San Francisco is lucky to have the enviable problem of having so much wealth; Detroit we are not. But there are undeniable changes afoot in the city, and my friends and I sense it. You feel lucky to not be unjustifiably evicted from your rent-controlled apartment. You breathe a sigh of relief when the car alarm outside your window turns out not to be yours (that one is the experience of a car-owning friend near USF). You feel increasingly lucky just to still be here, eking out a living.

And yet one should feel lucky, and feel enormously proud to live in a place that is still a city of unrivaled natural beauty, home to people who are by and large a kind and helpful bunch. It is not for nothing that San Francisco united last year to realize the dream of young cancer survivor “Batkid“. I found the response to be typical of San Francisco and its residents, coming together to help one of their own. I have witnessed countless small kindnesses here in the city. It is not Coit Tower, or Sutro Tower, or the Bay Bridge that make the city unique and worth living in. it is the people who come here from all over and make San Francisco their own. It is them that I’ll miss the most.

Begin Again

30 Jul

It is fitting that I recently saw the movie “Begin Again”,  a charming musical starring Keira Knightley and Adam Levine. The music stayed with me for days, but that title has really stayed with me. It comes at the perfect moment. I, too, am about to begin again.

Where to begin? In late April, I wrote the post How to decimate company morale, and two days later I quit my job. It was a scary thing to do, because although I had been looking for a new job, I never thought I would make that leap without the safety of a new one waiting comfortably for me when I departed. I was glad to be gone, but scared out of my mind. Did I have enough money to live on? What would I tell potential employers when I was no longer gainfully employed? More importantly- what would I tell my family? So initially, I freaked.

And then I remembered My own reasons to love Mexico City, and I began to think about moving there. Because, if not now, when? I hesitated…I continued applying for jobs in San Francisco, though I found my eyes glazing over as I read each new job description. Same old shit, I thought. The idea of living and working abroad began to appeal more and more. I kept thinking of a former colleague, a Mexican, who once assured me, “You’d get a job in Mexico right away.” Professionally, the idea of moving to Mexico City appealed to me.

Personally, it had its appeal as well. I have been happy in San Francisco these last five years; it took time for me to make friends, yet slowly but surely I made friends here. And yet I hesitated to buy a home or make other serious commitments to this city. All I could think was, what if I get a home and then get an opportunity elsewhere? There was always a part of me that didn’t want to be tied down to the city. I wanted to be able to leave, just in case. I have no mortgage, am not married and have no kids. Why not pick up and leave?

So, egged on by my friends, who encouraged me to go for it, I began contacting people in Mexico City in my industry. Sure enough, I got a bite or two. Potential employers who wanted to meet me in person. In the first week of July I went to Mexico to interview with them. During my brief stay there, I spoke with people who asked if I was sure I wanted to leave such a wonderful place as San Francisco. They asked if I really wanted to deal with the traffic, the noise, the pollution. I began to have doubts. But during my last days there I spoke to other people. Those who said that they loved living in the city, that they loved what it had to offer. I walked around, admired storefronts and restaurants and parks. And I saw myself living there and being happy. I was offered a good job, and I accepted it.

At age 33, I feel truly excited to start this new chapter. In these last few weeks in San Francisco, I am seeing the city as if with new eyes, enjoying its hidden (and not so hidden) gems. I am enjoying the company of dear friends, assuring them that I will be back to visit (and it appears I will have a lot of visitors when I’m there). I am excited about this new direction in life, and confident that I’ll be happy in my new country and city. And so I begin again.

 

Pharrell’s Happy in Gaza

19 Jul

Where to Eat in SF by Neighborhood

16 Jul

I’ve been asked before by wide-eyed tourists, many times, “What is your favorite restuarant in San Francisco?”  And I am flummoxed. What to answer, what to say? There are too many answers! I just usually reply with, “Well, what are you looking for? Do you like seafood? Mexican? Which neighborhood?” It’s easier to classify best restaurant by different categories. So now I’d like to sort out which restaurants are truly my favorites. A word of warning: pretension is not rewarded in this list.

  • Best pizza/Potrero Hill: Goat Hill Pizza. Crispy, puffy sourdough crusts,and a house specialty I love- Hilda’s Special (goat cheese, diced tomato, and pesto). Not your average droopy pizza, Goat Hill makes flavorful pies with simple ingredients on a solid, thick crust.
Satay Chicken Pho at Great Saigon

Satay Chicken Pho at Great Saigon

  • Best pho/Chinatown: Great Saigon. My former coworkers and I would often say that when it was cold and overcast, it was pho weather. The satay chicken pho is to die for- overflowing with flavor, with mint, thinly sliced zucchini, tomato, crushed peanuts, onion and of course a thick tangle of clear noodles, strips of mostly white chicken, and a hearty broth. The best.
  • Best pupusa/Mission: Balompié. The Mission has a lot of fancy new restaurants with valet parking, but there is also a lot of great home-style food that will fill you up for very little money. Balompié serves not just delicious pupusas in a variety of styles (I prefer loroco, a green vegetable native to El Salvador), but also fried plantains with black beans, fried yucca, and to perfectly accompany it, a tall glass of Cola Champán, a sugary sweet Salvadoran soft drink.
Nutella Latte at Castro Coffee Company

Nutella Latte at Castro Coffee Company

  • Best hot beverage/Castro: Castro Coffee Company. This is a new discovery. After trying a heavenly Nutella latte recently in Washington D.C., I was haunted by the memory of that sweet, slightly salty, chocolatey taste. Lo and behold, I found that the dime-sized Castro Coffee Company serves the Nutella latte, just as delicious as the first time I tried it on the East Coast. Plus, service is very fast and friendly.
  • Best beer bar/FiDi: Irish Bank. Walk right by on Bush Street and you’ll miss this nearly hidden bar in an alley. But if it’s late on a Friday and Saturday night, the noise of tables full of patrons drinking beer should call your attention. I have a thing for spots that are hidden in plain sight (see Bourbon and Branch, below), so that is one reason I love The Irish Bank. The other is that the service is friendly, the beer list traditionally Irish and European, and the blue cheese fries are the perfect snack to go with your pint of Guinness. A great place to run into old friends and meet new people.
  • Best burger/Marina: Super Duper. There is a lot of debate about which is the best burger in San Francisco. Besides the In n Out in Fisherman’s Wharf, there  is the L.A. transplant Umami, Roam of Pac Heights, and Super Duper, with outposts in the Castro, the Metreon and the Marina. The bun is lightly toasted, retaining crunchiness, so there is no wet bready disintegration. The meat is juicy and well-done (yes, that’s possible), and the pickles, lettuce and tomato are all fresh and flavorful. Oh, and your order is not complete without a chocolate shake.
  • Best dumplings/Outer Sunset: Kingdom of Dumpling. There are two phenomenal Shanghai dumpling places within a block of each other here in the Outer Sunset, so I hope I am remembering the right one. The one with crisp, juicy green beans covered in garlic sauce. The one with light, delicate soup dumplings bursting with rich, broth and tender pork. The place is tiny, there will be a wait, but it is very worth it. Forget Chinatown, this is where you can find delicious, authentic Chinese food.
  • Best cocktail/Tenderloin: The Citizen Cane at Bourbon and Branch. I find whisky, scotch, and bourbon revolting. I like a sweeter drink- not necessarily daiquiri sweet, but sweet enough. The Citizen Cane has cachaça, egg whites, cinnamon and is altogether delicious. Pass through the bookcase to the secret library, and enjoy this sweet, sweet libation.
Ploy II

Ploy II

  • Best Thai/Upper Haight: Ploy II. This spot in the Upper Haight is hard to find. It’s a narrow staircase leading up to the upper floor of what was once a private home. The handwritten signs all over the place are a little…paranoid, but add to the uniqueness of the place. The tom kha soup is light and creamy, the pumpkin curry packed with veggies and served with lovely presentation. But the best part of Ploy II? Three words. Deep fried pumpkin. Because all vitamin-packed vegetables should be deep fried.
President Obama likes Tacolicious

President Obama likes Tacolicious

  • Best taco/North Beach: Tacolicious. Consistently delicious, whether you get the carnitas, beer-braised chicken, the fish taco, or the guacamole that is as light as air. It’s always good at Tacolicious. Tender meat, perfectly braised. Oh and did I mention that the guacamole is to die for? It might be Mexican food made by and for gringos, but it is damn tasty.
  • Best southern comfort food/Lower Haight: Memphis Minnie’s. The Lower Haight may be associated with freewheeling hippie values, but carnivores can find plenty to love here. Besides the mouthwatering sausages at Rosamunde, there is Memphis Minnie’s, which is a slice of the Mississippi Delta right on Haight. Walk in, enjoy the gaudy decorations on the walls and tables, the mix of classic soul music playing, and serve yourself a tall, cold glass of sweet tea. I personally prefer the fried chicken, though keep in mind it is only served on the weekends. It is tender white meat coated in crispy skin, and as one of your two side dishes, I recommend the potato salad, the mac and cheese…or the baked beans or the cole slaw. Each table has four different sauces available: Texas red sauce, North Carolina vinegar sauce, South Carolina mustard sauce, and a spicy hot sauce. Don’t tell any tar heels you know, but I prefer the mustard sauce.
North Carolina vinegar sauce at Memphis Minnie's

North Carolina vinegar sauce at Memphis Minnie’s

  • Best vegetarian/Pac Heights: Berkeley Bowl at The Grove. Sometimes one needs to detox, to drink a neon purple juice or consume something green and leafy to regain some inner equilibrium. When I feel this way, I like to head to The Grove and order the Berkeley Bowl. It’s a deep, wooden bowl chock full of fresh ingredients like arugula, spinach, tomatoes, cucumber, carrots, onions, chickpeas, all topped with a light, creamy ranch and served with thick toast on the side. Don’t think a bowl full of veggies can fill you up? Give yourself an hour and finish up the Berkeley Bowl. You’ll be satisfied and all detoxed.
  • Best food truck: Sanguchon. The lomo saltado sandwich is a hearty, delicious meal, juicy New York steak between two crispy buns, slathered in a tangy cilantro aioli. Oh, and the sandwich is stuffed with French fries. If the thought of a steak sandwich isn’t filling enough for you, get some soft yucca fries or crispy sweet potato fries on the side.
  • Best ice cream/Mission: Bi-Rite. Yes, the Mission gets to show up on here twice, because I can’t compile a list like this and not include Bi-Rite, the best damn ice cream around. Listen, I hate waiting in lines. But I’ll spend a sunny afternoon snaking my way through those red plastic ropes to make my way to that brightly lit, friendly haven of ice cream goodness. Sample any flavor you’d like. I prefer the seasonal créme fraiche, which is like the smoothest, creamiest vanilla with a slight kick of sourness. Simple, divine. If that’s not available, chocolate or strawberry will do.
Ice Cream Sundae at Bi-Rite Creamery

Ice Cream Sundae at Bi-Rite Creamery

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