Work in progress.

Some things are broken round here.

  • The One About Scallion Pancakes

    I have a weird story about scallion pancakes. It goes like this.

    Around this time last year, I was walking down my street in San Francisco when a woman waved something at me. I thought she needed help with something, so I went closer. Instead, she clicked something (she was waving a torch, the kind you ignite gas stoves with), and she held the flame in my face.

    I had no idea what she was doing.

    She said, "I'm going to burn you!"

    "Why?" I was really confused.

    "Because you're Chinese."


    That's what was happening. Until that point, I had largely avoided the worst of that stuff. I had no idea what to do. A bus arrived. I got into it.

    As I was leaving, she kept pointing it at me, and she said, I'm also going to burn your dog! She is.. also Chinese!

    I know she wasn't well.

    I know that she needs help.

    But I didn't know what I would do when that happened to me, finally.

    Not much, maybe other than a lot of crying. I got to take time off work. I had therapy. I talked to a lot of people. I thought often of the moment, of what had happened, and I don't remember anything else about her now (I am face blind, that helps). If I saw her again on the streets (this happened around the corner where I live), I would not recognize her. But I remember the flame that she briefly lit, and how it changed everything about my life and my experience of the city that I had, up until that moment, thought of as home.

    I don't think of her very much now. But it comes up when I least expect it. For example, when I took out a package of Trader Joe's Taiwanese Green Onions Pancake.

    Now, it's probably a perfectly fine product for most people, but it's going to be forever remembered in my home now as The Time I Had Trader Joe's Scallion Pancakes and Absolutely Lost My Shit.

    Somehow, the act of eating a frozen scallion pancake had unearthed all kinds of.. feelings. Mainly, why the hell am I here? There's racism, and there's frozen scallion pancakes! I would never accept frozen pancakes for any meal back home! Least of all scallion pancakes with COCONUT OIL made for WHITE PEOPLE, that aren't even flaky or layered.. or good!!!

    I was inconsolable.

    My wife never buys them anymore. She calls it my crying pancakes.

    (We really like this one. It doesn't make me cry.)

    My pancake nervous breakdown, that probably wasn't really about pancakes, but about immigration, identity, immigration, anxiety, concern about the state of the world and my personal safety, led me to book a flight back to Singapore.

    More than anything else, I just needed to know that I was going to have the safety and comforts of home in my family house with my parents and with food I like. Where I was never going to have to eat anything frozen, ever. So I did that, shortly after my pancake breakdown.

    And the first meal that I had when I got there was a scallion pancake. From here. Freshly made. By hand. Not frozen. Available for breakfast. For a buck or something. It was really good, and I did not cry.

    But my parents could not understand why I so desperately wanted to eat a scallion pancake. It was not something I would crave, or ask for. It's not even really... Singaporean at all.

    I could not explain how: between two scallion pancakes, one frozen and one fresh, laid the entire spectrum of my sadness and grief as well as my happiness and joy. I get to be queer, autistic, and to be with the person that I love. But I also get fires in my face, and frozen scallion pancakes that make me cry.

  • Launch of Public Sector AI

    I've been busy. Over the weekend, I launched:

    The motivation for doing so is, I am noticing an increasing amount of YOLO and FOMO with regards to artificial intelligence. Government is at once trying to regulate, as well as to determine how to engage.

    I'm hoping my perspectives as the director of product management at San Francisco Digital Services, the digital arm of the City and County of San Francisco, as well as my personal interest in the ethics of and latest developments in artificial intelligence, can help my fellow public servants around the world make sense of what's happening and how we can meet the moment. Or not.

    Especially if your boss says, we need to use AI! Here are some questions to ask; here's what other people are doing, and what you need to know.

    For now, I'm envisioning the site to be a resource on 'what you can do' / 'how you can think about' AI' and for the newsletter to be on 'state of AI / public sector' (there's a lot of news about AI now, and a lot of hype. Which ones are relevant to you).

    Let me know if you have any thoughts, questions, feedback.

  • The Internet Walgreens Test

    I lived the bulk of my life outside the United States, where I have been for only 6 out of nearly four decades. There are many things I appreciate about the U.S.; San Francisco in particular, which gave my wife and I a wonderful place to build our home and welcomed us at every step.

    One thing that I am not used to though, is the degree of imperial insularity.

    Other than Fahrenheit and imperial units, I think it's the first time I've lived somewhere that is so totally detached from the rest of the world. I feel it in my soul as I realized, with a shock, that bars here play only American sports, American news, and on top of that, hyper-regional versions of all of that.

    I realized that I was not hearing about the rest of the world, except in very negative terms: like in wars or in other crises. This, I noted, is new. (I grew up in a city-state and I think I had to learn the exchange rate to all 10 major global currencies as a teenager figuring out eBay)

    I know it doesn't come from a place of malice. Most of the time, it just is. As the superpower of the world, that's just the way it is.

    To keep myself amused, I have come up with a test that I think reflects my past experience as a non-American, interacting online with Americans who are not aware of their insularity.

    On Mastodon, I called this the Walgreens test. I phrased it a little less well on Mastodon, so I want to post this here for posterity:

    When you are on the Internet, and you ask a question about where to get face wash or shampoo, what do people tell you?

    The people who say 'Walgreens' even when you've stated that you're not in America, are the winners of my Internet Walgreens Insularity test. The idea that your local drugstore is available elsewhere in the world is a frame of mind that I personally do not understand. The idea that you are surprised that there is no (insert your local business) in another country is one that can only occur in an empire.

    Other people had fun ideas too.

    • 'when I talk about wanting to read a book and someone tells me to get it at my local library. but there are no local libraries where i live'
    • 'that Pi Day is 3/14 and only in America'

    Personally, I was really surprised when I encountered a very educated person here who had no idea that other countries used other currencies, and that other countries used other electrical outlets. They had never seen an electrical adapter before.

    I say all of this not to bash anyone, but to really only note that wow, I live somewhere completely different now.

  • Bawling at Birdsong

    From a late night Mastodon thread about homesickness.

    Two years before I moved to the United States, I wrote something called ‘things I will miss when I have to leave Southeast Asia (because I am queer)’. I predicted that I would be deeply homesick, not for Singapore specifically, but for the entire region.

    Even though I was born in Singapore, I lived many years in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand.

    What I could not predict: that even watching videos of people in YouTube documentaries about Southeast Asia, the birdsong is enough to make me bawl.

    I have such a deep affection for and attachment to that part of the world. The weather makes sense to me. The languages make sense to me. And oh my god I miss the food.

    I’ve been lucky to have such a deep familiarity with so much of it. I went to a hippie run shop in SF the other day and they played ‘mor lam’ on their record player.

    It instantly brought me back to long overnight bus rides through Thailand with my mother.

    In San Francisco, there’s a neighborhood called the Tenderloin. Looking it up on the Internet will tell you it’s the worst place in the world; apparently a literal war zone.

    I live there. There are Thai people, Lao people, Vietnamese people. I walk my dog in my batik pajamas and sandals, just like I would back home. There’s fresh galangal in the grocery store. Sometimes a Vietnamese uncle goes fishing and I’m invited to pick some fish, with other Vietnamese aunties.

    Sometimes people ask me why I don’t live in a nicer neighborhood. But I struggle to think of how any neighborhood where I can’t buy fresh galangal, speak my languages, get free soy milk, buy the only tofu I find acceptably good, is possibly nicer in any conceivable way

    But mostly I am afraid that if I move, my yearning for home will give way to a bigger hole in my soul. Leaving Southeast Asia is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.

    My neighbors go to the food pantry every day. They don’t have money. They came here on a scary boat ride, all those decades ago. The trauma of war and that journey still haunts them in many visible ways. They also insist on giving me vegetables that they get from the food pantry. I tell them I am not poor and I feel bad about taking free food. They laugh and say, they just want to give me something. I am the only young person who still speaks to them in their language. They like that about me.

    With the benefits of community also comes the downsides. My neighbors nag at me as though they are my relatives. Don’t order food. It’s expensive. Get a house in Hayward. It’s cheaper. I help them set alarms on their phones so they can wake up to get into a shuttle to go to a temple in San Jose for Tết. They are surprised that I don’t know many traditions, like being vegetarian on the 1st day of lunar new year.

    I don’t know how to say, ‘my evangelical Christian upbringing robbed me of my cultural traditions’, in either Vietnamese or Teochew or Cantonese.

    Every Vietnamese American old person who speaks to me asks me, ‘why did you come here? Isn’t your country better? Cleaner?’

    I also don’t know how to say ‘my country doesn’t accept me because of who I love, so I am here’. In any of the languages that I know. Which is, quite a few.

  • Seven birthdays with my wife

    When my wife Sabrena and I first got together in early 2017, she said I was her early birthday gift. Not actually knowing her birthday, I asked her when it was: exactly two months from when we got together.

    You must understand, at that time I was a bit of a fuckboi and two months was a very long time for someone like me. I had no idea where I was going to be, who I was going to be with, or what I was going to do even two days ahead of time. Happily, things worked out: we have been together for seven years, and married for six of that.

    a photo of a beautiful woman wearing a very distinctive top. the photo is black and white and shot on film

    Happy birthday to the love of my life!

    In 2018, she agreed to marry me, and move to San Francisco with me, sight unseen. She'd never even been to the United States at that point.

    The life we've built together here is wonderful and comfortable; exciting and engaging; fun and full of laughter. Here's to many more birthdays together.