Some Reflections on 2020

I haven’t been back home in Shanghai since January, and I wonder how much it’s changed since. By extension, I haven’t seen my parents in almost a year as well. If you had told me this a year ago, I’d probably be scared and surprised that I could’ve lasted this long. Even with calls and video chat, I fear that the next time I see my parents, they’ll have visibly become older and more frail. I suppose that’s a part of growing up, but it’s something I don’t think I’ve profoundly come to terms with it just yet.

Our last family trip was in January of 2020, when we went to Singapore and took a cruise to Malaysia and Thailand as well. I saw myself living in Singapore in the far future; the city itself is very urban, yet green and livable, and the culture is something I relate to. I subscribed to r/singapore earlier this year and read it occasionally to get a dose of what it’s like to live there.

Sambal stingray at hawker centers (Newton)

I could go on for days about the food in Singapore, but I’ll pick 3 to talk about. In essence, the food in Singapore is a modern blend of many regions. I had the most memorable boba in my life from Heytea’s pandan bobo shake, but I’m a little sad that it may never come back; I recently tried to order it for a friend but it was no longer available. I thoroughly enjoyed every dish at Candlenut, which serves Peranakan dishes that blend Chinese, Malay, Indian influences and topped with western touches and techniques. Lastly, I cannot forget about the street food: Laksa, Carrot cake, stingray, Char Kway Teow, crab…each with differing origins but all coming together in the melting pot that is the hawker centre.

I also have to mention the Jewel at Changi. That place is a man-made breathtaking wonder.

The Jewel
Hiking Fushimi Inari

After Singapore, I spent 4 days in Kyoto. I had been to Kyoto twice previously, but the city has always been special to me. Kyoto is a historic city that constantly reminds you of this fact. My trip was a blend of historic sites, food, and walking. I feel I gained a better appreciation for matcha after visiting Uji, and this probably explains why I got Nana’s green tea so much in Seattle. I hiked the entire Fushimi Inari this time, and visited Kiyomizu Dera, packed with tourists as always (the trick is to go early). As usual, the food was a huge part of the trip: I feel equal attachment for the 500 yen Sukiya gyu-dons and the Michelin 3 star bento at Kikunoi. As a non-coffee-drinker, I found perhaps the only coffee I’d voluntarily order at % Arabica. The bar scene in Kyoto was also noteworthy: one I’ve taken from L’escamoteur is the Zen and Stone, a sake base drink served with muddled kiwi.

Whisky tasting at Yamazaki factory — our unsophisticated palates couldn’t tell the difference in blind taste tests

I think of the start of the Spring 2020 semester as the calm before the storm. Everything was going normally one day, then a COVID case popped up in Berkeley and things hit the fan. I made a frantic run to Berkeley Bowl to stock up on groceries the day we learned that Berkeley had its first COVID case, and the store was packed. I remember a friend telling me one Friday during Wealth and Poverty lecture (fantastic class BTW) that this would be our last in person lecture, and he was right. Mid-March was a hectic time where nobody knew what was going on: we were all figuring out how to use zoom for online classes, the CDC didn’t even really advise wearing masks but instead focused on surface contact and washing hands, and as students we all had no idea if we would even stay in Berkeley.

Sunset through the rain at the Big C

The last few days I spent in Berkeley were particularly empty after everything went online. Campus suddenly became deserted and people started leaving frantically. The day before I left Berkeley, I decided to hike the big C for the first time, witnessing a beautiful and radiant sunset through the rain. I felt quite sentimental about the experience: it was a memorable yet bittersweet moment, just like how my time at Cal had come to an end.

The road to our stay in Portland — it’s truly rural out there

My parents arranged for me and my sister to stay at a family friend’s house, basically in the farmlands of Portland. There was nowhere to go without a car. I didn’t leave the house much during the 3 weeks we were there. In fact, I didn’t even really leave my pajamas most of the days. The days blurred together, also in part from all the work I had. During this time, the joys in life became much more simple: cooking a bag of instant ramen at 10PM, betting 10 dollars with my sister to see who would win a match of table tennis, or going to the park for the weekly walk where I would play Pokemon Go.

We then moved to a different family friend’s house in the suburbs of Portland. I began taking daily walks after dinner around the neighborhood, and twice a week my sister and I would spend about half an hour to walk to the nearest Safeway to pick up some groceries (i.e. buy junk food we liked). I remember feeling so happy getting the fried chicken at Safeway with my sister and eating it on our way home. The fried chicken wasn’t even near good, but the food we ate at their house had no 油水 (oil, or ‘grease’).

Online class ft. David Card

Wealth and Poverty was not quite the same again. Professor Reich’s gravity lecturing in person was somewhat removed online, but he really did the best he could. I stopped attending all lectures except that one, since everything became online and thus recorded. I spent my days in meetings and doing homework, and used my nights and weekends to catch up on all the lectures that I missed through the week. I also completed my Economics honors thesis in Oregon. While I enjoyed the experience looking back, I feel that my largest takeaway from my thesis was that I did not enjoy research or want to do a PhD. Perhaps it’s just Economics, but there’s just so much ambiguity when you work on something nobody else has before, and it feels that any arbitrary decision could’ve drastically changed my observed outcomes.

Bar Quarantine in Portland

Before finals week, we flew back to Berkeley. We knew that we could not crash forever in Oregon with our family friends, and frankly were quite looking forward to go back.

I ended the semester well academically. I accidentally forgot to change my P/NP to letter grade for CS189, so I ended up with a P instead of an A. Elsewhere, I really enjoyed David Card’s ECON C142 (Econometrics and Public Policy, thought it really didn’t have any public policy), it really clarified my understanding of econometrics and resolved my pent up frustration and confusion of learning econometrics with Graham. ECON 136 (Financial Economics) was useful, but not something I found to be particularly intuitive or interesting. Lastly, Wealth and Poverty gave me a more holistic and ‘human’ sense of economic inequality today, outside of how I had studied it empirically through economics.

Shucking oysters at Pt Reyes, early summer

I hopped into summer without much of a break. In fact, I hadn’t had much of a break since January. Due to COVID, my Spring break trip to Iceland was cancelled (was really looking forward to that), and I ended up working through my thesis and catching up/preparing for the CS 189 midterm. Without any travel plans for the summer, I worked through the first four weeks before my internship with on-campus work. I have a hypothesis on why I’ve felt burnout much more this year: normally, I get a week every couple of months to completely unplug and travel. During this time, my mind is completely on other things: trip planning, what to eat, and my daily work becomes suppressed. However, since I’ve had no week-long breaks this year, the burnout comes much more frequently (not to mention zoom fatigue is totally draining).

That’s not to say I haven’t tried to go places during COVID while trying to be COVID-conscious. For the 4th of July weekend, a friend and I went to Santa Barbara, often said to be the best small city in America, and a statement I have to agree with. Santa Barbara is the kind of place where you want to own your vacation home when you want to leave the city but don’t want to be too far away from civilization. We drove up the One on our way back, which was beautiful even though I was asleep for like half of it. The weekend after, we went to Yosemite (which was my first time). We hiked for 20 miles that day starting from the Nevada/Vernal Falls to the Panoramic trail, then back down through the 4 mile trail. We gained more than 4000 ft in elevation(those cliffs are awe-strikingly massive), and it was the most intense hike I’ve ever done. At the end I literally felt my legs shaking, and I remember feeling not completely conscious running down the 4 mile trail to catch our bus back.

Yosemite

Over summer, I began my internship at BCG Gamma. It was a very positive experience that I thoroughly enjoyed, and one that defied all my expectations. I had expected consulting to be tiring and cutthroat (but you know, still worthwhile), I had not expected to to get much meaningful work done through the completely virtual format, and I really had no expectations for my case. I ended up with a very comfortable working schedule while working on some cool projects involving mass-scale experimentation using buzzy technologies that I had not used before. Everyone was approachable and nice. My mentor was probably one of the nicest people I’ve ever met, and a very supportive mentor. I felt like I really got to know him over summer even though I’ve never met him. One additional takeaway from BCG was how to communicate, which has been a department that I’ve been historically weak at. I learned about making effective slide decks, practiced getting out of my comfort zone to make agreeable conversation through coffee chats, and became more appreciative of these ‘soft skills’.

I’ve been eating much more sweetgreen this year, and it started over the summer. According to their app, I’ve spent $829 this year. I need to spend $1000 to hit gold status, and it’s probably the hardest loyalty program to take on (with the least rewards I might add). $1000 a year is equivalent to like 80 salads, and don’t get me started on the $2500 a year black status. Sometimes I wonder why I’m even so committed to sweetgreen; it’s frankly unnecessarily expensive and I only like 3 things on the menu. Getting sweetgreen makes me feel healthy, and I mean this not just in the food itself, but also in the walk to get it: sweetgreen is on the other side of Downtown Berkeley, which makes a perfect mid-day walk to pick up my lunch. Sweetgreen has become part of my quarantine routine: recently when chatting with a friend, I realized that the brief 10 seconds I speak with the attendant is perhaps the only in-person interaction I get daily, now that I’m alone in my apartment (sad).

Summer went by pretty routinely and quickly. It wasn’t stressful and I enjoyed it compared to the semesters. Outdoor dining became available and we took advantage. At the end of summer, a few of us spent a weekend in Napa, a week or so before devastating fires ravaged the region. We tasted different wines at a castle based off designs from 14th century Italy, had Thomas Keller’s Bouchon (which was just alright), and had a pretty learning experience tasting olive oil in the groves.

Then school started again. Being a masters student didn’t feel really different as being an undergrad. My routine was similar and so were the people I worked with. Honestly, the one year masters program is basically just a reason to take some more interesting (perhaps graduate level) courses at Cal. I took advantage of it (as I should be, paying 52k a year in tuition alone): I was technically enrolled in 10 classes including an evening/weekend MBA class on pricing and a graduate level product management course. Looking back, these courses didn’t teach a whole lot: I feel I ultimately learned mostly frameworks to solve problems with, rather than grounded skills or concepts. For my technical coursework, EECS 127 was one of the hardest classes I’ve taken at Cal. It’s basically a math class in linear algebra that I suffered through, but I feel I’ve developed a lot more ‘mathematical maturity’ looking back. CS 294–082, Machine Learning on Multimedia Data, presented an alternative interpretation of machine learning essentially as a study of information theory and generalization. I didn’t really understand what was going on but it was interesting; I wrote a paper for that class about using instrumental variables for neural networks and got an A+ even though I frankly had no idea if anything I was doing was valid (research, I suppose).

Cooking Geoduck, a PNW special

My sister and I decided to stay with some friends in Seattle for almost a month in early September. They had just moved in to their apartment and the day we arrived we began by helping them assemble the couches that we would be sleeping on. Early September was the time when COVID was at its least significant stage since it had started back in March, so both indoor and outdoor dining were available. While in Seattle, we were on ‘vacation mode’: being price or health conscious sort of went out the window when it came to food, and we were going to new places almost daily. We hit up a significant fraction of Eater’s essential 38 in Seattle. A couple highlights include the ‘crack’ foie gras tofu from Kamonegi, the vegan ice creams at Frankie and Jo’s that surprisingly put ‘normal’ ice creams to shame, and the thoughtful omakase we had at Sushi Kashiba on my birthday. But since school was in full swing, My sister and I were really busy. I feel apologetic to my friends, who were much more free than we were (work-life in tech, I guess), as we couldn’t be more available to do things together.

Life resumed back to its insignificant drone once we got back to Berkeley. There is a great viewpoint from the top of the Campanile steps that looks all the way down into the bay and aligns perfectly with the Golden Gate Bridge. It is especially picturesque at sunset, although I feel the colors can never be truly captured on camera. If you’re lucky to see a full sunset, you’ll find that the sun slowly changes from bright yellow to orange, then to a dark red, and the clouds turn a beautiful pink. Seeing the sunset at the Campanile was relieving from all the different pressures of the semester, and a truly personal moment. I would stop looking at my phone to just stare out into the golden gate, letting whatever thoughts in my mind flood in. The routine never gets old, which is probably why I do it almost daily. Sometimes, if I had a meeting or class I could call in to, I’d take it on the go to enjoy the sunset.

Sunsets at the Campanile

It took me a while to adjust to daily savings time this year. There were busy days in which I had not left the house before the sky already turned dark. It was a little depressing. In fact, 2020 was probably the year worst for my mental health. There were moments I just felt incredibly burnt out. Some times I just sat on my Eames chair with a completely blank, depressed, and unmotivated mind.

A few other memories stand out. Before Thanksgiving, we got harassed by a mentally unstable (and oddly racist towards Asians) homeless person while eating hotpot with some friends, which led to us calling the cops. I realized through this encounter that I often subconsciously opt for the fight option when my fight-or-flight response is triggered. In addition, we stayed for about 4 days in Oceanside to get out of Berkeley mid-semester. There, I had the best broccoli of my life at Campfire, along with the most rich and tasty s’mores. I also eagerly voted more than a month ahead for the general election, and on November 3rd all of our attentions turned to it.

Samuel H Board State Scenic Corridor

For Thanksgiving, we went back to Seattle. We were very lucky the week I was there in terms of the weather: it was sunny often and there wasn’t much rain. The sunshine felt more shy in Seattle, partially covered by the overcast clouds, and was less direct or ‘yellow’ like in California. We took a few day trips to the surrounding islands and got take-out from classic spots that we had discovered from the last time we were there. I hitched a ride back to Berkeley for finals week with a friend down the Oregon coast. It was a packed 2-day road trip: we went ATV riding in the dunes, visited Samuel H Boardman scenic state corridor (probably the most scenic place along the west coast I’ve been to), and walked along an empty beach at dusk in the rain.

My finals week was relatively less intense but I felt pretty burnt out after my 1 final and research paper. I started playing League of Legends again, after basically a 4 year hiatus. Immediately after finals, I had days where I played 6 hours straight until like 4 AM and felt terrible after, but did it again the next day :’)

For Christmas, I decided to do a staycation in San Francisco. It was a necessary change in scenery, and probably the best I could do without being able to leave the Bay Area. I hit up a bunch of high-end restaurant’s take out offerings, including Rich Table, House of Prime Rib, The Shota, and Lord Stanley; I collected 5 michelin stars from that one trip. I also did a lot of walking in the city and discovered the not-so-secret Marshal’s beach in the Presidio, which has a unique side view of the Golden Gate Bridge and can only be accessed by foot.

Chirashi Box from YUBU by the Shota

Well, that’s my 2020. To be honest, when I first began writing I expected this reflection to be a tad more depressing and bland, but I’ve realized I experienced quite a bit this year. I’m thinking it’ll be personally valuable to write one of these every year to reflect, and it’ll probably also be an entertaining walk down memory lane if I read these in the future.

Here’s to an exciting and eventful 2021.

Some special food of 2020

Best sit-down meal — Campfire (Carlsbad, CA)

Best takeout meal — YUBU by the Shota (San Francisco, CA)

Best cocktail — Kyoto Gardens at L’Escamoteur (Kyoto)

Most memorable meal — Being assaulted by a homeless person while eating hotpot behind Hearst Field Annex B (Berkeley, CA)

Most memorable bite — Foie Gras Agedashi Tofu at Kamonegi (Seattle, WA)

Most regrettable meal — Buying and eating 60 cocktail shrimp just because it was on sale at QFC (Seattle, WA)

Something I’ve never had before – Stingray (Singapore)

Some random things from 2020

Best view — probably when I woke up on the bus to Yosemite and looked up to see the cliffs

Largest disappointment — Chantal Guillon closing

Favorite moment of small joy — relief from completing the insanely intense weekly EE 127 problem sets

Best purchase — Dyson cordless vacuum

Worst purchase — do options count? :’)

A skill I learned this year — how to make spherical ice containers (see picture)

Hollow spherical ice mold for cocktails

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