The right amount of danger

san francisco wells fargo nick ang blog

I’ve been in the San Francisco Bay Area for the last 10 days and have learned a lot about the city and the East Bay and South Bay cities. The thing that keeps coming up? Danger.

Coming from Singapore where danger is literally nonexistent, the Bay Area feels almost too dangerous.

But I’d argue that Singapore is not heaven compared to SF.

Virtually guaranteed safety in day-to-day life has a way of making you complacent and incapable of living fully. There, I said it. I’m complaining about the city I grew up in being too safe.

It may sound ludicrous that someone might be unhappy with living in a place that is “too safe”, since first of all, does such a thing exist?

I’d argue yes, a place can be too safe, just as life can be. We’ve all heard the phrase “playing your life” followed by “too safely”, and possibly “you only live once!” Live too safely and, the critique goes, you might end up not having lived at all.

That is Singapore for you. It is too safe. Our streets are clean, both literally and figuratively. There is virtually no trash, and there is almost no crime. Walking around anywhere in the city is danger-free.

Nobody in Singapore pauses to think that they might need to hide their jewellery to prevent a burglary, and practically everyone leaves their laptop at the desk for toilet breaks.

The bad thing about this level of safety is that people are not kept on their toes. Deliberation is not a thing because it’s not needed.

Like a penguin with wings but cannot fly, people in Singapore live in such comfort and safety that we become unable to fully engage with our environment. Our minds focus instead on the menial things, finding fault in them. And everything becomes something we don’t experience and live but merely pass by.

Takeout dinner in Singapore

In Singapore, I’d ride my motorcycle out to get dinner. Because there is absolutely no need to worry about my safety (except of course the possibility of falling off my motorcycle), I often pick on things like the weather to feel miserable about.

When I queue to buy my mixed vegetable rice, my mind is already thinking about what I’m going to do when I’m home. That unresolved argument with a friend, or that obstacle in my project, or whatever. I can do that because there’s nothing in the immediate surrounding that worries me, that forces me to stay engaged with it.

Takeout dinner in San Francisco

Based on what I’ve seen over the past 10 days, I’m certain that going out to get packed dinner is not such a breeze in cities in the SF Bay Area.

First, there’s the point about the weather. It gets really cold here some days, and you either prepare for it or get sick. Maybe even die of hypothermia or something. (Again, no such thing in summer-year-round Singapore.)

Weather aside, there’s a good chance of one of a few bad things happening to you:

  • Get hijacked by a mentally unstable person asking for money, who will more likely than not shout at you if you don’t oblige.
  • Have your car window smashed (it frequently happens even in daylight).
  • Get robbed of your wallet and other valuables at gunpoint.

This isn’t hyperbole, by the way. Ask anyone who lives here and they will tell you the same thing.

This, of course, is a less than ideal way of living. It’s so dangerous you can never let your guard down – something bad is likely to happen when you do. That’s just tiring.

So perhaps it’s not preposterous to think that there might be a “right” level of danger for us to live fully. After all, death is ultimately the only thing that keeps us working harder and loving others. Without the potential to die, I’d probably just watch Netflix all day long for 100 years, and the programs probably wouldn’t be all that good, since filmmakers probably can’t be bothered either.

The right level of danger is somewhere in between Singapore (not dangerous at all) and the San Francisco Bay Area (too dangerous). That’s all I can tell for now.

Intro to Web Development Workshop in San Francisco

Today was interesting. Despite being a tourist, I got in touch with the right people and put together an Intro to Coding workshop (it was probably more like intro to web development) for a small group of NUS Overseas Colleges (NOC) students. I learned a few things along the way.

But first, a little about the workshop. It was a 2-hour long crash course in web development – how the Internet works, what is HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, and how they all come together to form a web site/app.

Being an alumnus of the NOC, I knew that not all students in the program are technical, and that could be potentially inhibitive for their work in a place like Silicon Valley, the mecca for software engineers. So I reached out in hopes that I might somehow be able to be useful to them.

With a quick poll, I got a sense that most of those who turned up wanted one of a few similar things:

  • To be able to converse with their developer colleagues at work
  • To appreciate what’s going on behind the apps that their company is working on

Since the workshop was free, why not just show up, right?

So that’s the workshop and the premise for hastily putting it together with the student leader (thanks, Xin Ru and Ken!). On to some of the lessons I gleaned from doing this.

Think of giving, not taking

Giving lowers the barrier to entry to doing something like this. No hidden costs, just giving something valuable for no expected return.

If I had gone to the students here and just asked for contacts and to “buy coffee” for people, it would be a lot less fun and feel much more transactional. I actually had fun tonight.

Unlikely to happen? Take a chance anyway

I’m here for 11 days and asked my friend Agus (who works for the university) on day 2 to try and link me up with someone here.

Even though that meant that if things went through, the student leaders and I would have to put together a decent workshop in less than 8 days (we did it in 8!).

If things went through, the student leaders and I would have to put together a decent workshop in less than 8 days! (In the end, we did it in 4.)

What’s there to lose? I knew if I didn’t try, there would be an exactly 0 percent chance of it happening. With that mentality, I just decided to reach out and try it anyway.

intro to coding workshop in san francisco blk71
Some of the people who turned up at the Intro to Web Development Workshop @ Blk71 SF (That’s me, first on the left)

To be honest, I was ready for it to not happen on this trip. I thought that perhaps in the future when I’m in some other city (or San Francisco again!), it would be easier because I’d have linked up with the right people already. And that would be true, regardless of whether this particular trip’s workshop was going to happen. Baby steps!

People like to help those who help them

This is probably a truism by now, but since I’m experiencing it myself, I’ll reiterate it. People like to help those who help them.

Our workshop ended at about 8pm and we went for pizzas nearby after that. Over pizzas, I had an ask of everyone: “tell me about your company, and whether they’re currently hiring!”

That led to a series of wonderful stories about life at company X and Y, and most of them offered to refer me to their company (if I decided to apply) knowing that I was looking for a job in the San Francisco Bay Area. I’m incredibly thankful for their generosity.

I suppose this could have happened because I was charming or for some other inexplicable reason like I smelled nice (for the record, I don’t think I was either of those tonight).

But this helpful atmosphere does seem to have been created from the fact that it was an evening of learning something together and having pizzas and wine while doing it. There was nothing but helpfulness and intrigue throughout the evening.


San Francisco Bay Area – I’m looking for opportunities!

I’ll end off by declaring that I’m currently looking for opportunities to work in the San Francisco Bay Area and will be relocating soon! If you happen to work at a company that is hiring a full-stack software engineer, please get in touch at hello at nickang dot com. 🙂

Real news

I was in a Lyft ride in San Francisco city this afternoon when the news of the school shooting in Florida broke over the radio. Spawned from my ensuing conversation with my Lyft driver, a black woman in her 40s, about gun ownership, I started thinking about the way the news was reported over the air waves.

The reporter interviewed someone who knew the shooter personally and said person gave an account of the murderer that I’m sure most Americans have unwillingly become familiar with. Unsociable, always having trouble with all his teachers, and known to occasionally do weird things like throwing a rock through the classroom window for no apparent reason. I found that all too familiar, and I don’t even live in America.

But it got me thinking. What if this wasn’t really the case? What if a shooter is a really normal kid, with no visible angry undertones to his/her life, and is actually kind of popular in school when he/she opened fire? Would the media report as it is, knowing that it might unleash pandemonium, since even conventionally good kids are committing atrocities like this?

Let me be clear – I’m not saying that this particular shooter is not being accurately described for what and how he is. I don’t know that, and I don’t know him. All I’m wondering is whether such news will ever truthfully surface when it happens.

I’d personally find it a lot more disturbing and become much more concerned about gun ownership if the interviewee’s account of the shooter was like this:

“He was a perfectly normal guy. We just had dinner the other day and I feel like he’s just like any other student in our school. He’s happy when there’s something to be happy about, emotional when something is upsetting, and he’s never exhibited any violent tendencies.”

Wouldn’t that be scary?

I did notice my Lyft driver nodding and mm-hmming as she heard the person who knew the shooter described him as a socially awkward troublemaker. It reinforced her confirmation bias – the news is giving her what she wants to hear. I just hope that she, too, questions whether this is a representative account of the shooter. Because if it’s not, then obviously something else is wrong other than unstable students.

News must always be taken with a pinch of salt and a healthy dose of scepticism – in my opinion, that just bodes better for any society. As for gun ownership and the laws in America, it will take more than a 10-day trip to San Francisco to understand and evaluate.

My problems are mine to bear

sunset glowing horizon nickang blog
Somewhere in Oakland along Market Street.

I’m currently in the San Francisco Bay Area for a short vacation. It’s been a fun trip so far and it’s also quite fruitful as I’m meeting friends who are based here who are mostly working in tech.

As an outsider with my own cultural lens, I can see that Americans are indeed much more individualistic than people in most Asian countries (though I’m generalising a bit, but am probably not too far off). Individualism is the hallmark of American culture.

Openly disgruntled

I’d only been here for 2 proper days and have already encountered a number of Americans (they may not be San Franciscans) who wear their emotions unapologetically on their faces and channel them into their actions. This manifests as unfriendly and aggressive behaviour that is rare-ish in an Asian society, like Singapore’s. An example will help.

In Singapore, if a service staff is feeling overworked or tired, it would be uncommon for her to act like she’s entitled to “being herself” and anyone who interacts with would be better off learning to deal with it. Here, I’ve already had two interactions with service staff who just can’t be bothered and expect me to deal with their foul attitude.

In Singapore, although not as much as Japan, people tend to manage themselves and not let their negative energy spill over to their work and people whom they’re serving. The burden of suffering is for that person him/herself to bear – not for others to deal with.

Read that last sentence again. It is by no means a superior way of being a person and for a society to behave collectively. Keeping emotions pent up and unreleased will wreak havoc on people’s psychology and overall wellbeing. That’s why Japan has so high suicide rates and loads of unfathomably fantastical, dark, and morbid manga.

I’m merely pointing out and recording an observation while it’s fresh. I’ll be in SF for 10 days in total, and I know from experience that that is enough for enculturation and transforming my perspective.

For now, I continue to value being a team player, a responsible partner in a conversation or transaction. My sadness, anger, and fatigue is mine to bear, not yours to tolerate!

Irritability overseas versus at home

singapore roads viewed from overhead bridge
At Beach Road in Singapore

We recently went to Bali again. It was our 6th trip there this time. I guess you could say we’re a little obsessed with the place.

We really like the affordable and good food, cheap motorbike rental, friendly locals, long beach with people from all over the world vacationing in their own, differentiated ways…

Continue reading “Irritability overseas versus at home”

Getting my ear pierced

bali kuta beach sunset
Sunset at Kuta beach in Bali

The build-up was a full two days. And then I went and did it.

I’ve never thought about getting any piercings before. Always thought that I had too much of a little boy face to look good with one. (Not that I really thought about it much at all in the first place.)

Continue reading “Getting my ear pierced”

Work and money in harmony

hong kong MTR crowd

A lot of problems are bubbling as I try to find a way to make money while deriving meaning out of the job. If I saw them as separate pursuits I would well have a clearer head.

In order to banish the dizzying and often headache-inducing uncertainty, I should just get a job like everyone else. That would neatly split the problem into two halves and make them easier to wrap my head around and tackle.

But to obtain clarity of career this way comes at a cost. If I start seeing meaningful work to be something outside of making money, I would have only half the time left to do meaningful work! In reality it would probably be even less than half.

So the pursuit carries on, down the same path. Along with millions of millennials and those after us, I continue my search for a meaningful career that pays enough to live a comfortable, un-extravagant life.

Coffee quality affects mind quality

On a lighter note, I realised today something important about coffee. I drink coffee once every day. It destabilises my biochemistry, but that is a cost I’m willing to pay because the hour after a cup is always the most creative and productive of the day. Besides, it’s the richest beverage that exists other than Canadian ice wine!

The revelation is this: the quality of beans correlates with the quality of my post-drink high. At N1 cafe in Hong Kong earlier today I had the best iced Americano (black coffee) I’ve had in months! When we walked out of that cafe I felt renewed. My mind was alive and sharp. The difference between today’s caffeine high and that ushered from the 3-in-1 coffee I’ve been having at home is so palpable I swear I could have pinpointed exactly the part of my brain that was experiencing a neural thunderstorm.

In other words, $5 coffees made from arabica beans roasted and served by hipster cafes can at times be a worthy investment. I’m going to re-start making espresso based coffee at home when I get home. I just have to figure out how to calibrate my grinder without wasting 20 percent of every bag of beans. If you have any tips please leave a comment.