A Love Letter to Pho New Saigon

Unassuming and nestled between a boring UPS store and a Roundtable Pizza, you have a special place in my heart.

From the day I discovered you and your #56, to the 56th time I’ve devoured this one-plated feast with an extra egg cake entirely by myself, you’ve continued to deliver the same satisfying taste and generous portions through the last three years. Pandemic or not, dine-in or take-out, you were quick to bring out the food and accommodating to my indulgent add-on’s.

Pho New Saigon is the kind of mom ‘n’ pop places that feeds the neighborhood. On any given day, I see families, construction workers, policeman and women, tourists, office workers, all enjoying their conversations, solitude, or meetings over a meal. It’s a hub, In an otherwise isolating suburban city forced apart by concrete and asphalt, people from all walks of life are united by beef broth and fish sauce. It’s a comfort zone of serendipity.

As a fan of Vietnamese com dia or rice platters, I love it above even the more popular pho. The variety of juicy, savory, salty, fatty, and sweet meats overwhelm my mouth in a nuclear explosion of umami. With a simple spoon, I can combine any given number of these ingredients and create variations from bite to bite. It’s a buffet of flavors on a plate.

But com dia is, for some reason, hard to find. Perhaps it’s just underappreciated, or perhaps it hasn’t been “discovered” by “the mainstream” yet. I hunt for it and even then, many of them are unreasonably expensive or disappointing in quality.

But Pho New Saigon, oh you and you. Your #56 puts everybody else to shame. Have you not realized how large and juicy your thicc pork chop is? Did nobody tell you that no one else serves fried shrimp cake in 4 plump chunks of tenderness? Oh, don’t even get started with the generous portions of fried pork skins. The fattiness, beautifully infused with a thick layer of rice powder coating, is a whole experience of naughty sensation as it wraps around each bite of rice. And the Chinese sausage is just a pure indulgence of delicious salty cured pork, pushing you to a dangerous new height that no pho-slurping neighbors in the restaurant understands.

And I always, always want your egg cake added on. Always warm, and always big. The chonky slice is a soft landing after every fish-sauced filled climax. It’s light, fluffy, and full of crab and egg flavors to soothe your assaulted taste buds and ready them for the next attack.

Your restaurant is roomy, clean, and unassuming. Not intimidated by pretentious high-end interpretations that often make me feel like an outsider in my own culture. Not tarnished by the unsavory attitudes and interiors like some neglected establishments. It feels like home, even 30min away from where I live now.

All the utensils, napkins are self-serve, allowing myself to really make myself comfortable. And for me, that means a fork and knife to cut the pork chop, and a spoon and a pair of chopsticks for plate-to-mouth delivery. Two of them to the left of the plate, on a clean sheet of napkin. And two of them to the right of the plate, also on a clean sheet of napkin.

It’s a whole thing. A ritual. An experience that comes with a process, a process to my liking, without having to badger the staff repeatedly for extra utensils.

None of these things, ingredients or service alone, are probably “the absolute best” if you scrutinize hard enough, but nobody else serves them in this perfect balance of portion, taste, and price. As we always say in the user experience industry, it’s not about the individual features, it’s about the holistic experience.

Please realize how beautiful you are. And yes, a #56 with an added egg cake please.

What is an artist in the DALL-E 2 Era?

Recently, DALL-E 2 made headlines everywhere: an AI illustration program that turns descriptions of images into actual ones with believably good results.

For example, if you type “an astronaut riding a horse,” this is one of the options DALL-E generates for you:

With DALL-E, it is suddenly possible to ”express one’s ideas” without mastery of any artistic technique. So, that got me thinking: in a world where hyperrealistic and artistic content can be “commissioned” simply by uttering words of imagination, what will happen to artists in the future?

Or more precisely, what will be an artist?

I consider an artist to be someone who combines creativity and technique to create art, which is something that evokes a visceral response and consequently impart a message. At least this is how I interpret these two words.

One could argue that DALL-E is not unlike photography. Photography first appeared to have replaced painting, but it soon became clear that photography, by offloading the job of documenting people and things from painting, actually elevated its essence: artistic expression.

It feels to me that tools like DALL-E 2 can evolve in two different ways, which ultimately is a matter of perspective.

Scenario 1: artists will continue to evolve their skills as tools become more powerful, they will master new techniques that allow them to precisely control their artistic intent. In this scenario, “artists” are still an influential, “elite” group of people who have skills that most don’t. This group might even shrink due to its higher skill barrier.

For example, with DALL-E 2, an artist equipped with ML understanding can leverage it to generate and test out ideas, composition, palette, etc. quickly. They can then fine-tune its input parameters to create exactly what they envisioned before hand-painting over the nonsensical details that ML doesn’t understand. AI does 80% of the grunt work, and the artist elevates the piece to their unique vision with the last 20% of manual work. These future artists can output a larger quantity of content, supply to a larger base of audience, resulting in an even smaller demand for artists per unit of population, adding to the phenomenon of pop culture oligopoly.

Scenario 2: more and more people can express their imaginations with access to more powerful and more precise tools. “Thought → Result” becomes a reality, being an artist is simply an “activity” that anyone can partake with minimal experience needed. This is analogous to blogging: it used to take a programmer to publish a website, now any budding writer can.

In both scenarios, there will be an explosion of content. The net might be: both scenario 1 or 2 could be true, it’s just a matter of how you define what an artist is vs. what a remixer is.

You could argue that great meme gif makers are in an artist category of their own, even though their raw materials are creations from others. But then again, is any art truly independent of other people’s works? The best artists and musicians reference other sources for inspiration. Is DALL-E 2 simply a more efficient reference and brainstorming tool? Will DALL-E remove the burden of documenting ideas and let artists focus on expressions, like photography did for painting?

Bruce Barnbaum advocated the idea that what makes one an artist is their way of seeing, and an artist’s unique way of seeing is consistent throughout their entire body of work. Even if DALL-E takes away the laborious work of painting stroke by stroke, it would still take an artist’s eye to select the exact composition that matches the artist’s vision.

If we consider an artist to be not defined by their kind of technique or level of technique, then an artist is really about what happens in their head. Do they connect the dots? Do they know how to translate ideas into an artistic medium? If this is the definition, then the explosion of low-barrier tools paints an optimistic color for the future of art, where technology indeed unlocks the full potential of human creativity.

Incomplete Install

Have you used an older Windows PC running, say, Windows XP or 2000 before? You might remember that you had to use an “installer” .exe program to install a piece of software. Larger programs sometimes took hours to install. You absolutely must not disturb the process. One time I did, and the program left zombie footprints all over my disk drive that was almost impossible to clean out. Files would be littered everywhere but the program would only throw errors if you tried to start it. Of course, because the installation wasn’t done. There was no way to “uninstall” it either because, well, the “uninstaller” wasn’t compiled yet.

I have two incomplete installations in my brain. The Chinese language. And the English language.

It first occurred to me that my confidence in my mother tongue was no longer justified when I visited China after spending my first four years in California. There were expressions I knew perfectly how to articulate, and as I fluently layered one sentence upon another, I’d suddenly hit a nasty speed bump, a hit of silence that gives me a small identity crisis every time. The word lacked a Chinese equivalent. Not because it was untranslatable, but I just never learned that concept before I moved to the states.

The fourteenth year is a formative one, and so are the years that come after. My Chinese language installation was abruptly stopped. And in its place, a completely different language resumed its role, but did not supplant it completely.

People looked at me aghast when I didn’t know something that a six-year-old American kid does. “What kind of childhood did you have?” Their eyes were more honest. “One where I can’t even write with Chinese characters, because some of those names only existed in a dwindling dialect.”

It did not get better either. Year after year, I accumulated more knowledge and expressions in the English language, without ever knowing the equivalents in Chinese. To date, I still can’t pair up the names of fish I eat even though I’m familiar with all of the individual words. Is “catfish” 鳕鱼 or 鲈鱼? I don’t know, but I’ve eaten all of them and am confident that it’s not “猫鱼”. Last week, I sent out calendar invitations as a 28-year-old adult titled “greet and meet.” If Kelsey didn’t point it out, I’d probably gone for another ten years using it while people politely ignore my odd expressions.

I started learning English with English a few years after settling down here. It was a big linguistic milestone for me. Instead of relying on translations, it freed me from Chinese constructs and lit up a new circuit of thinking. But as the two languages grew apart, I got farther and farther away from the culture that I used to breathe like air. If I were a piece of software, I’d no longer be backward compatible.

How do I say “density” or “gender-neutral bathroom” or “cross-functional collaboration”? I don’t know. Is “坦率” the same thing as “forthcoming”? Sounds like it. While I know that “底片” is “film negative,” I’m not sure how to say “film advance lever.”

I continue to struggle to explain my life in front of my relatives. But hopefully, word by word, I’ll painstakingly stitch the two worlds back together one day.

Guilty for not playing

From Wired last week:

I want to quit. I need to quit. But I also feel like I should be getting stuff done, even in my entertainment, and if I abandon a game before I’m finished with the story, it’s lost time, a failure. What do I have to show for the hundred hours of my life I’ve already put into this?

Sometimes It’s OK to Give Up – Wired

It’s cute that Wired sometimes just publishes articles like this. Relatable, anecdotal, but still on brand. I don’t know if you’ve played or finished The Breath of The Wild. 120 hours later, I still haven’t finished it. And I haven’t touched it for 2 years. But my reason is completely different.

Sure, I get bored of games easily. Beside a short list of them, most of them never interested me enough for a second visit. But it’s not that I don’t enjoy games that I find interesting. I play Splatoon with my friends every other week. I finished 80 hours of Fire Emblem: Awakening during my summer internship commute. I played more rounds of Age of Empire then I can remember. It’s relaxing, rejuvenating, and I almost never regret it. But yet, I never seem to want to play games when I have free time unless it’s a prearranged social event. And even when I get started by myself, it’s super easy for me to fall out of it.

Friends around me talk about their childhood binges of various Pokemon games. I was allowed to play games on the PC for one hour a day on the weekends. And the never-ending and overly reactive crusade in China against gaming addiction also made me instinctively distance myself from such “bad influences.” Gaming just wasn’t a super big part of my childhood, for cost reasons as well.

I’m not sure if those are the reasons.

BotW is the longest I’ve ever played of any game. It was so good that I actually felt hooked for three days. And interested for a few more months. I liked it so much that I actually kept delaying the main story line. And now I just feel guilty for not playing it. Not because “I don’t feel a sense of accomplishment” or “I’ve already sunk so many hours into it,” but rather, it’s such a beautiful piece of narrative art that it’d be a waste if I didn’t appreciate all of it.

It’s ok to give up, for sure. I think I’ve practically given up on finishing BotW.

But I still feel guilty. And I’m not entirely sure why I just don’t feel like picking up the controller nowadays.

Formalism and that scripted class I’m still bitter about

Beijing launches campaign against obsequious behavior by requiring party cadres to study leader’s remarks on ‘formalism and bureaucratism’

Xi Jinping’s Eager-to-Please Bureaucrats Snarl His China Plans

I highly encourage you to speed read through this piece on WSJ. But if you don’t, the summary is: centralization of power causes every cadre to be accountable in one direction: the top. And when everybody is trying their best to appease their bosses, their work becomes more detached from the actual people they serve.

One thing I’ll insert here that is not a part of this WSJ piece: I think the key catalyst of this ossification is reduced attention span. In a decentralized system, even the highest officials are only accountable for a part of the whole. In China’s case, everything goes up to Xi. And under him, everything in each division goes up to their respective highest officials and nobody else. At any point in this hierarchy, information flows through a single, narrow tunnel, as opposed to many tunnels in all directions in a decentralized system. So the content of that information has to be highly abstracted as bandwidth is reduced. Home visits become stamps of trip completions. Inspection reports become lists of scores. That’s the only way to centralize power without making the planet spin slower: delegate, and rely on abstraction.

I remember that in middle school, when there’s a provincial inspection of teaching quality, we’d rehearse a scripted 50-minute class over and over until we can perform perfectly in front of the officials. This might be unimaginable for some: 40 or so students, each have their own line, acting as if they were in a real class. Everything from when and who would raise their hands and what questions they would ask, to what they’d write on the blackboard and what “conclusions” and “insights” they would draw, were completely rehearsed. The most ridiculous part was that for each question that my teacher asked, there were designated “fake hand raisers” to make sure that students looked curious and eager to participate, but they were never called to answer because, of course, they didn’t have the line.

And we nailed it in front of groups of important people. Perfectly. And my teacher won some award or something. But what the fuck did we learn?

The most ironic thing about this whole farce was that everybody watching it knew that this was rehearsed. They had to. There’s no way a thirteen-year-old could answer some philosophical question with the poetic elegance of 鲁迅 (lǔ xùn), coherently without pauses or fillers. I suppose that they could now report happily to the central overseers about how great the teachers in their provinces could teach.

Even more ironic: for a class to participate in one of these was a privilege. Less prestigious schools or classes not designated as top-performers didn’t get to do this. After all, why embarrassing yourself in front of your boss with “inferior” results right? Oh I don’t even want to get into the amount of infighting among ourselves. Who got to stand up and say the line, whose group got to make the final presentation. Everything indicated how much the teacher liked you and how much power you held. Politics, at 13, that’s what I learned.

Bitter anecdote aside, it feels to me that centralization pushes the work of information filtering and processing downward in a hierarchy. And when that hierarchy’s scope increases and centralization calcifies, the lower you’re in the hierarchy, the less substance your work actually is.

Anyway, time to go to work. There’s an important presentation tomorrow.

No, It’s Not Better to Leave San Francisco

People have been rightfully protesting the high rents in San Francisco for many years now. With the pandemic as a catalyst, people have moved out of the area to save money or seek a different lifestyle as more companies allowed remote work. That’s great for everybody.

What’s really annoying, however, is this incessant and active persuasion that “you should leave San Francisco, too.” Because after all, look at me, I’m doing great here with my mansion and $8 gourmet pasta. It seems that to these people, as long as two checkboxes—cost of living and remote work opportunity—are ticked, they can go anywhere.

It is so, so arrogant, ignorant, and privileged.

Let’s start with family. You know what kinds of people can afford to live far away from their relatives without worries? Rich people. The American nuclear family model is enabled by wealth and comes with a host of social issues. Try living hundreds of miles away from parents who cannot afford to hire care for themselves. Or try getting free babysitting because you cannot afford a nanny and both of you have to keep working to make ends meet. Yea, I don’t think so.

Generations of families, especially among the low- and mid-income households, have built a strong support network in the Bay Area. Their friends and relatives provide the support that the privileged purchase with money. Their aunties are their therapists, cousins babysitters. They can’t afford several round trips per year just to gather. So they have to put up with the rising rents and shrinking footage. They have to put up with homeless camps and drugs and crimes.

But an even less obvious one is cultural support. No, I’m not talking about trendy clubs and Broadway shows. I’m talking about being non-white, or being a third-culture kid. To a white American who surrounds themselves by mainstream white American culture, it makes almost no difference to move from San Francisco to Austin. After all, both places offer excellent food and entertainment options. But who are those options for? Are they tailored to the 70% of white Americans, or are they for the 7% of Asian Americans?

All of these “why are you still in SF” bandwagons ignore an important fact: many of us thrive on multiple cultural upbringings. While every decently big city has a great Italian restaurant and yoga studio, only a small number of truly international cities offer enough variety for us to be connected with the other half of ourselves.

I’m a Chinese American who’s spent about half of my life in each country at this point, and I can’t imagine living in a place devoid of people with similar experiences or even just people who look like me.

And then the people around them — neighbors — started doing something strange. They brought cinnamon rolls and handwritten welcome notes.


That’s great for you, Mike Rothermel. But not everybody is gonna get that experience in places with less diversity or acceptance. We don’t have the luxury of neighbors welcoming us with cinnamon rolls wherever we go. We don’t even have the ease of mind that we’ll be physically safe in parts of this country. And the affordable places you’re talking about? Not exactly brimming with solidarity where we’d feel accepted and at home.

It’s not that I want to live in a Chinese American bubble, it’s about knowing that you’re not helplessly alone at a societal level. The feeling of belonging with people whom you don’t have to explain the dishes on a Chinese menu is incredible. It makes me more comfortable with my place in society, and counter-intuitively, it makes me more accepting, understanding, and explorative with other cultures.

To be clear, many US cities offer a colorful life for Asian Americans. And I’m not married to living in San Francisco or even within the States either. The point I’m trying to make is simple: for some, paying $4000 for a one-bedroom in San Francisco was all about the job; for others, it’s actually their best home. So please stop speaking for all of us because a decision is right for you. Less complaining, and more participating.

Moving Forward in Place

If there’s anything I can be the most sure of, it’d be that I’m a very visual person. A new chapter in my life starts with a new place, a new office, a new classroom. It feels likes a concrete beginning. Like a new hardcover book.

After seven months of chaos and uncertainty, my girlfriend and I are finally moving. I’ve moved many times in my life. I moved between my relatives as a child. I moved to the US to start high school. I moved to Berkeley, and then moved again after the end of freshman dorm. Then Mountain View to start my new job, and two years ago San Mateo to begin a life with my girlfriend.

But this move is different. It’s much anticipated yet opportunistic and unplanned.

The quarantine has forced me in place, ridding of all dynamics in spatial transitions in my everyday routines. It began with a sense of solace—lost time rediscovered. Soon it was dread, filled with anxiety and angst. An undeserving kind of victimization. Guilt, anger, loss of drive. And everything in between.

All hopes were refracted and focused singularly on the most salient. The home I’m so sick of. Like everybody else, I wanted to get out, to move forward, to feel a physical change.

We wavered back and forth between moving and not moving. The risks and benefits evolved constantly. But at last, we found ourselves in a better situation to make that move.

But this move is different. Because I’ve already moved on.

Moving forward without beginning anything concretely new is a foreign concept to me. Seven months ago I couldn’t imagine starting a new job without a new office. Now, without any proper cues to associate the physical with the mental, I had to learn how to move forward in place. To induce change, to digest ideas, to seek inspiration.

I found a more inward-looking process. It’s not quite the same. It’s a lot harder to let things go. But I’ve managed to move forward, to let things go, a little bit at a time.

The new move doesn’t feel significant in the same way that I anticipated seven months ago. It feels cathartic, and reaffirming. It feels less like escaping and more like coming to terms with.

Coming to terms with and accepting the things I learned about myself. It was a like constant, loud swirl of an airplane engine in my head yet so quiet is this tumult. But it’s right there. And I think I found it.

100 Years of Life

I read “100 Years: Wisdom From Famous Writers on Every Year of Your Life.” It’s more of an experience than a story. An experience so familiar yet distant, so eerie yet comforting, so relatable yet alien.

I see cycles, patterns, peculiarities and exceptions. Some passages are lifted straight out of my own journal. Some are unlikely to ever come out of my mouth.

The book is a sensational experience, guided by the subtle typographical transitions, meaningless on their own but purposeful together. The lush gradients were juxtaposed with the sharp serif words and morph in your peripheral vision like those who come and go in your life.

It’s humbling. It arouses full admiration for living, and all of its complexities. It’s a mirror. You can choose to dismiss it. Or you can look deeply into another version of you.

I was twenty-six, I thought: this is maturity. This is civilisation.

Martin Amis, Experience

Tea and Teeth

I like brewing and drinking tea in the morning. Mostly Chinese green and oolong. Sometimes sencha, genmaicha, or black tea. If I feel fancy throughout the day, I might even make fruit tea.

I started brewing consistently since 2017. I don’t remember exactly how I started, but I think it started with a box of dahongpao from my cousin, gifted to me during my visit in 2016. Or 2017, I don’t remember.

Everybody in my family always brewed tea for ourselves and our guests. Most of the time we did it the fast way: leaves in a cup. You’d sip the broth over time and as the broth gets thicker and thicker. A one-cup hack to achieve the gradience of flavors. They have proper tea sets, the whole traditional table and stuff, but they were reserved for special occasions like Chinese New Year.

I wanted it to be a bit more of a ritual. Spend a bit more time, maybe an hour in the morning, to aid some other reflective activity like journaling, reading, or writing. I started with a tea pot, then moved to a kyusu, and now mostly using my glass gaiwan, fair pitcher, and a set of double-walled glass cups. A mini gongfu set. I wrote down tasting notes of different kinds of tea and observed the taste changes throughout different brews.

But slowly, it became more of a habit than a ritual.

At my dentist appointment last week, they confirmed that my long tea sessions are what’s worsening my gum health. Apparently, when one drinks tea or eats food, their mouth keeps an acidic environment. Typically the saliva neutralizes the acidity after the meal, but since I kept sipping and brewing out of habit from morning to noon, the acidity in my mouth corroded enamel and allowed more bacterial build-up. Yikes.

物极必反 (wùjíbìfǎn), from Master Lü’s Spring and Autumn Annals, means “a thing turns into its opposite if pushed too far.”

A mindful activity turned into a mindless bad habit. It’s time to bring some intentionality back.

Becoming, Not Doing

This week’s newsletter from LOBSTER, titled “Becoming,” has something that I’ve been thinking about for a while.

Myamoto Yuto, a co-author of the newsletter, realized something about himself upon being asked by his friends: “what’s your vision?”


The reason I don’t have an idea of “I want to accomplish this” or “I want to do this by when” is because, in addition to the fact that I’m not naturally good at planning ahead, I’m more interested in “becoming” than “doing”.

At first, I thought he meant that he’s more interested in what he’s becoming (「なる」こと) than what he’s doing (「する」こと). Sounded like the classic struggle between goal vs. process. But then I realized that I was wrong:


One of my favorite stories is “Becoming an Adventure” by Nishimura Yoshiaki, in which he writes that the things that came out of the reckless advice he received from his friends and acquaintances ended up being much bigger epochs than the things he did.

And then, he quotes the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas:

「建築家として、常に私は自分が何を建てたいかを考えることを拒否してきました」と言っていた。えっ、あのコールハースも「自分が何を建てたいか」を考えてないの!? コールハースいわく「本当に面白いことは、建物を建てたい誰かと建築家との間で起こります」とのことで、すべての仕事が人と人の間で行われることを考えれば、建築に限らず世の中に存在する仕事や作品の多くも、実は誰かの「した」ことより、「なった」ことや「おきた」ことでできているのかもしれない、と思ったりする。

He said, “As an architect, I’ve always refused to think about what I wanted to build.” What? That Koolhaas didn’t even think about what he wanted to build!? He said: “the really interesting things happen between the person who want the building built and the architect”. If you consider the fact that all work is done between people, what he said doesn’t just apply to architecture, but applies to many professions and works in the world, which might not be the result of what someone else “did,” but rather what “became” or “happened”.

The architect pointed out something profound about the nature of serendipity, that the really interesting stuff comes out of the interaction between people, and that’s something you cannot control and “think to do.” At best, you can only foster, like you do with a garden, hoping the flowers will turn out a certain way, which are mostly out of your control.

As Miyamoto pointed out, many things in this world are indeed born this way: they just “happened” and “became.,” rather than being done by will. He goes on to say:


I think, to a larger degree than they think, people live in relationships and flow more than they do in will…Of course, it’s great to have a strong will and vision, and that person will become what we call a visionary. But even if not everyone becomes a visionary, the things that “became” or “happened” will continue to give birth to wonderful work.

Silicon Valley is obsessed with visionaries and entrepreneurs who have the will to bend the world. I was too struggling with this implicit expectation, that I too should be aiming to change the world, that this is the only way to achieve something of value, or perhaps, make your life worthwhile. It was suffocating, but I didn’t know why. I only knew instinctively that this wasn’t quite me, and I kept searching for something different.

Nishimura wrote:


In Western values, the individual’s will is respected. In both self-help books and the coaching scene, the first step is to identify the will. “What do you want to do?” Or, “What’s your mission?” But I ask, how important are those things?

Or, to put it in another way: how many people decided what they wanted to do with their life early on and just willed their way into that exact goal?

This past year and half of various circumstances have given me a lot of space for introspection and questioning. Why is it that the image of an infallible man of will and vision the only way to success in life? Why do we collectively downplay the extremely significant role of serendipity in our lives? Is this just what people wish to interpret how the world works?

The oversimplification of cause and effect, and the predictable impact of a man’s will are extremely alluring realities that just aren’t. The sooner I accept that I too am just another duck in the flowing river of history, the sooner I can gain some peace. And with this peace, I can align and guide myself with the currents, and stop trying to fight against them.

A lot of times, we really do find awesome things somewhere between “becoming” and “happening”. In happening, you do. In doing, you become.

Where my introspection arrived at, but much better described in the resonating words from Miyamoto, is:


I still don’t have a great vision, but one thing I try to do as a freelancer is to hold a lightweight state of mind that is able to jump on the wave when the opportunity arises. A good surfer never misses an important wave, so I want to use my lightness to ride a good wave.

I can’t force everything and everybody around me to be a certain way, but I can be fully prepared to ride the waves of opportunity. Be agile in mind and body, and flow in becomings and happenings.