I’m a Northern California boy, through and through. I grew up ten minutes north of Berkeley, went to college at Davis, about forty five minutes away, and then was fortunate enough to have the industry I went to school for bloom around me. I spent my post-university career living around the Bay Area, the last four years in the Mission in San Francisco. I am attuned to things that are uniquely San Francisco: burritos, surly Asian women serving me pho, co-workers into fringe politics, passive-aggressiveness.
And then a year ago I decided to move in with the guy I had been dating two years long-distance. He received a grant to open up a movie theater in Miami, and since I was between jobs at the time, I decided to test the theory that freelancers could work anywhere. Next thing you know, we’re renting an apartment in Miami Beach, a block from where they filmed Miami Ink and four blocks where that guy killed Gianni Versace. If a project manager from KISSmetrics can write a post about his experiences living in San Francisco, surely I can do the same with my time in Miami. Right?
So, taking the cue of what I’m basing this post off: consider this the guide I wish someone had given me when I moved to Miami.
1. The Will Smith video is kind of accurate (but only applies to Miami Beach and not Miami)
So there’s a scene in Will Smith’s Miami video where two girls are in a convertible, and one of them is Eva Mendes, and they’re all “Bienvenido a Miami” while the camera pans out and they’re driving over a causeway. I drive that causeway to my co-working space. Then there’s the scene where Will Smith’s posse is walking in front of a bunch of art deco hotels, and then I realize that it's two blocks from my house. There are Brazilian models, Italian families of five arguing with their hands outside of the Starbucks where you buy your morning coffee and a Russian girl who nearly pushes you aside because she can and she’s wearing a fur coat because it’s 70 degrees and when else is she going to wear fur?
You get surrounded by so much ridiculousness that your baseline for what is low key gets completely screwed and you think yourself, “Well, I can wear these white shorts, because it’s not as ridiculous as that German guy who is on the corner over there with his mesh top and the magenta hot pants.” And then your friends back home see your photos on Facebook and they’re all, “He’s changed so much already.”
But all of this isn’t Miami - Miami is over the causeway and is much larger in area, mostly working class, and necessary to traverse by automobile, like Los Angeles or Houston. Most people I know in Miami don’t like traveling to Miami Beach, mostly because parking here is awful and seriously, who would be caught dead being seen with people wearing white shorts?
2. No seriously guys, the weather.
People give you hints that Miami is warm during the summer, and that humidity is an issue. But if you’ve lived in a place like, say, San Francisco, where the year low is 68 degrees and the year high is 72 degrees, you don’t really have a proper warning until you’ve actually lived through it. Miami in June is about 90 degrees, but it’s like, one billion percent humidity.
To give you an idea: imagine wearing glasses. Easy enough for me, I’ve worn glasses my entire life. Imagine working in an air-conditioned home or office, or riding in an automobile. Now, step outside that apartment or building or automobile and watch your glasses completely fog up. Take off your glasses and walk into a potted plant or off a curb while you wipe the condensation off your glasses. Nod quietly as your traveling companions comment about how sucky that must be every time you go out.
Repeat the experience every moment you go out. Daily. For five months.
The thunderstorms are something you don’t have in California either. There was exactly one day last year that there was a pretty intense thunderstorm in San Francisco, where lightning hit the Bay Bridge. I knew about this across the country because my Twitter and Facebook feeds had standard status messages like “THUNDERPOCALYPSE 2012!” and there were really stylish photos of puddles on Instagram and Flickr.
My boyfriend looked at my social media feeds over my shoulder and scoffed. “Please!” he said. “That’s like a Tuesday.” And when the thunderstorms do hit here - and for a couple months a year, they are daily - everyone just walks under an awning or a bus shelter, because the storm will be done in seven minutes and the sun will come out again, as if nothing ever occurred. Until the cycle repeats itself 16 minutes later, anyway.
3. You will become paranoid about stepping on lizards and cockroaches here.
Summer days in Florida bring out all sorts of animals. The lizards I’m okay with, because they are mascots of surfboards and ice tea beverages.
Cockroaches though, are all sorts of messed up. They’re common here, and people try to give them tamer names like the “Water Bug” or the “East Coast Non-Completely Disgusting Beetle.” But I’m on to it. And when one eventually scurries out from under the couch or under the dishwasher, I just usually just sit there and stare at it in horror, telepathically wishing it would just disappear without a trace.
My boyfriend looks up from his laptop. “Jesus, Ernie, again?”
“Make it go away,” I whisper.
He rolls his eyes as he reaches up, grabs a paper towel and comes down on the helpless insect. It makes a satisfying crunch as I fight my natural instinct to crawl into a fetal position.
“I’ve never seen someone so terrified of a bug,” he says.
“But it’s the size of my fist.”
He sighs, shakes his head and goes into the bedroom to work from there.
4. So yeah, about that tech scene here…
It would be unfair to compare the tech scene here to, say, the tech scene in the Silicon Valley, so instead I’ll say the following: It’s getting a lot better. When I first moved to Miami, I eagerly looked for co-working spaces, and my heart sank as the one co-working space I did find led to a disconnected phone number and a webpage that was overwritten with the Spanish word “cállate,” or shut up. There are now multiple co-working spaces here, including a really awesome one I found in the Wynwood district, The LAB Miami. There are hackathons here, incubation programs, talks of learning programs, opportunities to start big things in a small city and be known as the guy to bring big things in a small city, if you’re into that. Whereas before, a developer who grew up in Miami would leave for New York, California or Tampa (!) without a thought; now, maybe a little less so, although the city is still very much getting into its groove.
There has been a movement, if anything, for Miami to be positioned as the tech city hub for Latin America. Which leads me perfectly to the following thought.
5. Of course you don’t need to speak Spanish. But it really, really helps.
There’s a joke here: “The best part of Miami is that it’s so close to the United States.” This is true, Miami is a Latin city. More than half the city speaks Spanish as its primary language. You totally don’t really need to speak Spanish here, but people go between Spanglish so often - between Miamians and conversations between Miamians and tourists from Spain and Latin America - and it solidifies what my boyfriend has always known: that I am nosy as all hell and I want to know what people are talking about behind me. Especially when they say “Chinito.” (Jesus, especially when they say chinito.)
Before moving to Miami, my knowledge of Spanish consisted of the following: two years of awkward high school Spanish, before deciding that I should refocus on re-learning Chinese, because I thought it would be great if I could speak to my parents fluently in their native language; like the ending of the Joy Luck Club, except with just a little less estrogen. Also in high school, I went on a missionary trip to Mexicali, where I learned the phrase “lo siento” and a praise song we sang multiple times a day: “Yo tengo gozo, gozo, gozo, gozo, en mi corozon.” Which is great, because then I can go to Rodolfo, the handyman who works at the boyfriend’s theater, and I can declare to him that I have joy, joy, joy, joy in my heart. And then he could ask “porque,” and I would bow and shake my head and be all, “lo siento, lo siento.” I’m sorry, I’m sorry.
Which makes me uncomfortable, because that’s exactly what my mom does when she talks in English to people she doesn’t know: she shakes her head, apologizes all the time. And I’m all, I am turning into my mom.
So I’m trying to learn Spanish, or at least dipping my toes in it. I’ve been using DuoLingo, a website from the guy that created reCaptcha, so I’m beginning to recognize basic Spanish on the street, like how the car in front of me yesterday had the giant bumper stickers that said “COSTA RICA: PURA VIDA” and “TODO LO PUEDO EN CRISTO,” although I’m not sure how much of that is also flashbacks from singing songs about Jesus in Mexicali. I’m still pretty awful at conversing, though, so maybe some conversational classes will be in order this year. We’ll see.
6. There are a lot of Jews here.
To clarify: this is not a bad thing, of course.
There’s just a lot less of them where I’m from. Any Jews in San Francisco live in the Castro now, and they’re mostly Buddhist. Needless to say, more Jewish culture is permeated here: during the holidays you see menorahs with your Christmas trees, the synagogue truck is usually parked on Lincoln Road, a couple of blocks from the blood donation van, and you can usually give directions from Miami Beach to Miami by “making a right on Meridian Avenue, and a left at the really sad holocaust memorial with the giant cast-iron hand rising from the water with the bodies attached to it.”
Also: if you see a group of men having dinner on an outdoor patio wearing yarmulkes talking in Spanish, and you are told that there is indeed a large Jewish Cuban community, do not ask loudly if you can call them “Jewbans,” as they will almost certainly hear you, and they don’t think you’re being clever at all.
Anyone who has been born and raised in Miami is all "no kidding, Asian guy” reading this, which leads me to my next thought:
7. Conversely: There aren’t any Asians here.
In the 11 and a half months I’ve lived here, I have met exactly six non-tourist Asians here. Seven, if you include my boyfriend’s Chinese-Cuban cousin by marriage. Eight, if you count her two half Chinese-Cuban kids. To everyone living in this city, the seven other Asians here in Miami included, this is a non-issue.
Coming from a place where the levels of racial political correctness are on ultra-sensitive levels, I had been properly warned before moving here. People ask me where I’m from, and when I say I’m ten minutes north of UC Berkeley, they do a chuckle and they go “nah, bro, where are you from?” And I imagine that I’m pulling down an imaginary world map and I point to where the Taiwan Strait would be. “So it’s China then, bro?” they ask? And I nod, even though my parents are technically immigrants to Taiwan from Mainland China, because I’m tired.
Although at moments like this, I wish I was from the Philippines, because that way I could at least use the word “archipelago.” It’s a neat word.
The question isn’t as offensive here in Miami, because I can at least turn it around and ask, “well, where are you from?” From there, they usually say “Colombia,” because duh, this is Miami, of course you’re Colombian.
At my boyfriend’s birthday party at his movie theater, a woman from the street - an artist, just wandering around the galleries in the area - stumbled into the lobby where the party was being held and walked in on a conversation I had with someone about being what I felt like was the token Asian person in the city.
“So let me ask you a question,” she said. “Why are your people doing such horrible things to the people of Tibet?”
I looked at her a couple of seconds, waiting for a punchline.
She continued. ”Their freedoms are being taken away, and they’re being displaced! And I read that they’re building a railroad, right through their homes!”
“Well… ‘my people’ come from California, so…” my voice trails off and I give an uncomfortable laugh. When she blinked back at me, I realized she wasn’t messing around.
I kind of enjoyed the sudden power of being the spokesmen of over one billion people in the People’s Republic of China; it was a burden I was willing to take to be the mouthpiece for my people.
“Well you know,” I said to her up close, as if I was telling her a secret no one else knew about, “Maybe building that railroad in Tibet was the best g--d--- thing that ever happened to them.”
And then I pulled aside my boyfriend and made him converse with her. All parties took that well, I think.
8. As a result, Authentic Asian Food is Nonexistent.
They opened a boba tea place two blocks form my house, in Miami Beach, on a Espanola Way, a super touristy block with outdoor string lights and Italian and Spanish tourists. When I went in I ordered a large almond boba, a box of mochi and almost burst into tears at the part-time cashier, an uncomfortable teenage girl. I asked if there were a lot of people that was coming in, and she told me that most people that come in ask if they serve chamomile, and why the drinks have funny dots inside.
Just this week, I went to the only Korean place in Miami I am aware of, Sushi Cafe and Shilla Korean food. It’s a sushi cafe first because that’s what people eat here - sushi. The Chinese and Thai food is served with sushi. A place in Midtown Miami branded themselves as a ramen house, charged $18 for it, and then quickly removed their ramen and served sushi instead, to be served with “sushi cocktails,” which apparently is sake blended with a margarita or something horrible like that.
The Korean food was alright, although paying an extra $8 for banchan is kind of a downer. At least the Chilean waitress was nice.
Let me be clear: there is plenty of Asian food here - but they cater to Western palates, or they’re fusion, where everything has coconut milk and a side of kimchi tater tots. The best way to get around this, of course, is just stick to what people know here - Cuban, Caribbean, sandwiches, fried stuff. You don’t go to China to have Italian food, right?
And I know all of this of course, but oh my GOD you don’t understand. Sometimes, I have dreams.
9. Miami Drivers are really bad as everyone says
Technically, that is something I did know before moving to Miami, so I won’t talk about this much. All I will say is this: just because you live in Little Haiti doesn’t mean you are allowed to drive on the opposite side of the street. With your lights off. At 11 at night.
10. Most - if not all - people here are completely disillusioned about local government.
This is coming from San Francisco where there are citizen led ordinances with cheery names like “the Sunshine ordinance” and a regular person who responds to tweets directed at the city. Not to say there’s no corruption in San Francisco (why hello there, Ed Jew!) but there’s a sense of trying their best to be transparent.
But here in Miami, no one even bothers trying. It feels like most of the city is used to corrupt city councils and accustomed to corrupt mayors. And if they’re not outright corrupt, they’re stupid. Why spend money on public transportation or city services, where you can build a giant, tax-payer driven baseball park instead with a giant concrete roof that moves when it rains? And then have that baseball park trade out all of its good payers? It’s safe to say that a lot of people are frustrated about the civic stuff, but people here - the young people as well as the old people - feel like there’s nothing that can be done. Why devote energy to something that can’t be changed in the first place?
Not to say that there isn’t any progress here, because there totally is, just through alternative means. There’s Emerge Miami, the progressive organization here, which ties into the Critical Mass movement here and the need for alternative means of transit. Kareem started his indie movie theater with the help of a grant from the Knight Foundation, a massive non-profit based in Miami. They gave grant money to the co-working space I’m working from, and Wynwood has transformed from a shady warehouse district where there were race riots to a scrappy gentrified arts district thanks to the work of private developers; the same type of developers that would get chased out, in a heartbeat, in San Francisco because it’s privatized. On that level, it feels like a frontier town, an outpost where the sheriff is relatively ceremonial, all the cowboys are Cuban, and I’m the world’s worst pioneer woman.
I had mentioned once to a new friend here that that being from California, I wasn’t used to living in a place with so much civic apathy or blatant corruption. He laughed. “It happens all the time in Latin America. Hell, maybe it’s a Latin thing. That’s just the way it is here; you get used to it quickly.”
And that’d be great, but I’m not Latin.
10.5 It’s tough to make friends here.
Ninety percent of the time I have a moment where I’m seriously thinking to myself, “why am I here in the first place?” - it’s because I’m missing my friends - my second family - back home. (The other 10 percent of the time I question why I’m here is when there’s a drunk couple fighting outside my third floor window and I have to call 911 because the guy just slapped the girl and come on guys, really?)
But this gets a half-thought, because saying that it’s tough to make friends here is just being whiny, and applies to any city that you move to. I’ve only been here a year, after all. But I’ve been told gets easier, and I look forward to that being the case.
On days where the homesickness is so great, I play different scenarios in my mind: searched for one-way tickets back to San Francisco, rationalized that living with my mom and my sister back in the suburbs wouldn’t be so terrible, and I could save some money that way. I could do simple web development work back on the Peninsula, have health insurance, tweet “THANK GOD IT’S FRIDAY” a lot. But Laurie, my friend and neighbor when I lived in San Francisco gave me some advice that I still keep close to this day, especially when he moved from London to San Francisco: instead of missing the cool things about your old city, take in what is awesome about your new one.
So, that’s what I’ve done: when it’s 10:30 p.m. on a Tuesday and I’m by myself because my boyfriend has a special event at work, I’ll take a walk on Ocean Drive, where the street is lit up by neon from the hotels and the headlights from the sports car rentals. The tropical warm air will hit my face and I’ll hear the house music coming in from the Clevelander, which is okay because I actually secretly love four-to-the-floor house music, and the sounds intermingle with the women from Brazil standing in front of the curbside cafes chatting away at tourists to sit down and have a $15 drink.
And at that moment, all is okay.
Ernie Hsiung is Principal of LYD Labs, a small business focused on front-end development for community based websites. He's the founder and editor-in-chief of 8Asians.com, a community blog for Asian Americans and for over ten years blogged about his personal life on his award-winning weblog Little, Yellow, Different.