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The Best Year Of My Life
- Stefan Aleksic
2017 was a year of good people and amazing adventures.
I woke up a sleeping security guard at the airport in Beijing, telling her that I have to get to my gate as I had a flight to Hong Kong in 12 hours. She was startled and told me that Hainan airlines will give me a free hotel. I was confused since I thought I needed a visa to leave the Beijing airport but I just went with the flow.
Going through immigration, the immigration officer’s camera holder fell because of how tall I was. It was not designed to be used in that extreme of an angle. She stamped my passport and I was on my way.
I asked a Hainan airlines employee a question, translated with Google translate (in traditional Chinese… I was an idiot back then) where I need to go for the Hainan airlines hotel. He responded to me in English.
I asked a customs officer where I need to go, he replied in a typical Texan accent. I was a bit confused but didn’t think too much of it because of how worried I was trying to find how to get to this hotel.
A Chinese woman saved my life, telling me to follow her to the Hainan airlines shuttle as she was going there, too. Her son had just graduated from Northwestern University in Chicago and she was on the same flight as I was.
After sleeping in the hotel, I was about to miss the shuttle going back to the airport until a Chinese graduate student from the University of Waterloo who spoke English told me that the shuttle had arrived.
When I got to Hong Kong, I sat on a park bench. An old woman kept talking to me in Cantonese. I didn’t understand her so I just smiled. She kept on telling me to sit next to her. I finally did. That’s when I realized she was telling me to sit in the shade and not get the sun in my eye.
I was greeted by people all over the world when I stayed at my first hostel in Hong Kong. I met a Russian man living in the UK who was quick to criticize nationalism. I met and had amazing conversations with international high school students who stayed in the hostel instead of going back to their respective countries because it would be more economical. I met an American woman who was doing remote work for a company in Seattle while traveling the world. (How amazing is that?!)
I saw amazingly beautiful things and experienced insane adventures.
After a week, I stayed at another hostel. Here, I met a French man, Adrian, who had recently come back to Hong Kong. Check-in wasn’t until later and we were both waiting in the lounge area of the hostel. He asked me if I had dim sum before. I never did. So we decided it would be good to get some for lunch. I got the most delicious dim sum I ever had in my life that day. I saw the American woman while I was waiting in line, small world, right? I met a really cool German guy, Erkan, who stayed in the same room. We went to super poor areas of Hong Kong to experience what it was like actually living there, instead of being a tourist. We also went to this super awesome island called Lamma Island where they don’t have any cars. I even met a guy who goes to the same university as me, once again, small world, right? It was also at this time that I met my friend Lishu, it turns out, goes to a university 1 hours away from mine in New York!
I had a crazy adventure where I went to Tai Tam Park, drank both of my water bottles, and was basically lost with no way of getting back to civilization. I stopped to look at the breath-taking views but I was really worried about making it back to somewhere with a bus station before dark. An American man told me to take a trail that will take me to Stanley. That was my original destination but I had to hike past two mountains and I couldn’t do that. This trail, though would avoid the mountains. I tried going to that trail but saw a sign saying “Danger, flash floods. Do not proceed” with a skull on it. I decided that was probably not a good idea. When I went back to where I saw the man, he was gone. I went a 3rd way and saw absolutely stunning views of the reservoirs. I kept on going until I asked a French man for directions. He didn’t speak English but we could understand each other well enough. He told me where I needed to go and I was on my way. I got to the bus stop and went back “home.”
Most of my time in Hong Kong, if it wasn’t spending time in hostel lounges having amazing conversations with travelers, it was spent walking to weird places by myself. Exploring everything the city had to offer. The amazing thing about Hong Kong was that you could be in the most bougie mall in the world and take a short bus ride to the most beautiful hike ever in the mountains.
I met up with my amazing friend Basy who lives in Hong Kong. It was short-lived, though. I was so sad since I wanted to hang out with her more but my ear started hurting really badly. I had to go back to my hostel because I couldn’t take the pain. The next day, I went to a pharmacy and they just straight up gave me antibiotics. That’s not something you’ll see in the States. After the first hour of taking the antibiotics, my pain went away.
I went to Tokyo, Japan, the next day.
The customs officer was suspicious of my earplug container. After pointing at my ears, he let me go.
I met some Australian guys drinking beers next to the train going from Narita Airport to the city. They were the antithesis to Japanese societal norms. They were drinking, yelling, running around the train, and causing almost a panic. It was actually incredibly hilarious to see these two cultures clash so abruptly. I managed to find the capsule hotel I would be staying at. It was located in a super bougie area of Tokyo called Ginza.
I didn’t really meet anyone in my capsule hotel experience. I feel like hostels are more likely to attract people who are willing to talk to strangers and have a bigger culture of doing things together.
The first night, I took my antibiotics while in the hotel. However, I learned that if you take those antibiotics on an empty stomach, you can get severe stomach cramps. That worried me so I went to a random 7–11 and bought some pre-cooked hotdogs. Or as they are called in east Asia, “sausages.”
Every day, I would go to some ramen chain or another restaurant and try out Japanese food. I never had Japanese food before then so I wanted to see what all the hype was about. My favorite food, though, was from a place that sold “American Sandwiches.”
There were two incredibly interesting experiences I had while I was in Japan.
I wanted to go to a coffee shop to get some work done. I found a really fancy looking coffee shop that was highly rated on Foursquare and decided to walk there as it was nearby. Biggest mistake of my life. You know a coffee shop is too fancy when they seat you. I went into the basement and ordered an expensive dessert. I was working on my startup, Castile, at the time and was writing out what the UX flow would be like from a notebook I got at a nearby store. I was seated next to a man and a woman who apparently were either breaking up, or deeply in love. They kept on staring at each other’s eyes without saying a word. It was the strangest experience to witness. I tried to ignore it but it was just too weird to ignore.
I was walking through Tokyo and saw a sign for a restaurant with pretty good prices. It was in the basement. I went down there and said I wanted a table for one. I was hit by a wall of cigarette smoke. Unbeknownst to me, smoking indoors is legal in Japan after 6pm. I sat down and ordered some chicken skin and sake. It was incredibly awkward eating there. This was a place you would go with your buddies after work. Everyone was drinking, laughing with their friends, etc. I was just there chilling and drinking my sake. That all changed when the guy sitting next to me said some really long Japanese sentence to me. I replied with “Konichiwa! Watashi wa Stefan” and all of a sudden both the man and his friend said “ahhhh, stefan-san, watashi wa …” We talked for two hours after that. They didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Japanese but we made it work. I was showing them DragonBall Z, they were showing me Friends. I was showing them Piccolo, they were showing me Joey. It was the coolest cultural exchange ever.
Japan is the birthplace of anime, something that I loved to watch when I was in middle school and high school. It shaped a lot of my childhood and I recently re-discovered it. I had heard that there was a district in Tokyo that was all about anime. I had to go there. Akihabara was absolutely amazing. There were buildings with 10 stories full of arcade rooms. There were girls dressed up as maids (which I think is really messed up and exploitative), there was anime everywhere and it was incredibly colorful.
I heard so much hype about Tokyo Tower so I decided to go see it. I am really glad I did. It was so cool to see the beautiful views of Tokyo from such a high vantage point. The best part, though, was that I spotted a really cool temple while looking down. After I left Tokyo Tower, I had a really amazing time exploring that temple and taking it all in.
While I was walking around Asakusa, I found a ramen place that was rated really well on Foursquare. I decided to check it out. I proceeded to have the best ramen I had ever had in my life. Nothing compares to how delicious that food was. I have tried so many different ramen places in San Francisco but I couldn’t match how good that place was.
The one thing that I can say Japan is way ahead of the game on in the toilets. I’m serious, I have never seen such advanced technology being used in the bathroom in my life. The worst part of the toilets, though, is that everything was in Japanese. Which… caused some problems to say the least.
I went to some imperial gardens when I was in Tokyo. They were beautiful but not even close to Nan Lian Garden in Hong Kong. What was cool, though, was that there was a Japanese Tea House in the middle. I entered and got some traditional Japanese Matcha tea! It was really interesting as I had never had red bean before and only had super Americanized green tea.
I came back to Hong Kong and stayed in a private Airbnb room for the 3 days I was there. I wanted to relax a bit and get a few days of good night’s sleep. I met up with my friend Mei who was from Hong Kong! We went to the peak and saw beautiful views as well as taking some great Instagram pics at the best #insta places :p
After all of this, I was done with my Asia trip. I was on my way back to Chicago. The customs officers were confused that I only had one backpack and no other luggage after coming from China, but probably just thought I was some weird millennial, I guess.
I literally didn’t know anyone in the entire continent of Asia. I felt like my fallback support system was completely shattered. All of this made me a much more resilient person. I have so much more confidence in myself as a person because of this trip.
I saw my brother and sister which was a great feeling. I gave them all the gifts that I bought while I was in Asia and went to take the train to Rochester, where I go to school. I wanted to take the train because it was both cheaper and it felt like a really cool adventure! I missed the train by 5 minutes. I transferred my ticket to the next day and tried again. I saw a bunch of amish people on the train which was a bit interesting.
My friend Ian picked me up from the train station. I talked to him for a bit in my jet-lagged state and got to RIT. I got to my room and I just crashed. I was dead tired.
I was so jet-lagged that I couldn’t make it to my 6:30pm class for the whole first week of school. I sent many apologetic emails to the professor. I even almost missed a birthday dinner with my friend Jack. I fell asleep thinking I would nap really quick, without setting an alarm. He kept on calling me but my phone was on silent. He then got into my house, went to the second floor, and knocked on my door. I was feeling so bad that I almost missed his dinner and I was so glad that he knocked on my door, otherwise I would feel even worse. The dinner was great.
Suffice it to say, that was the best January of my life.
Brickhack #3 was happening. I had a really amazing interaction with Remy and Zach that lasted until like 4 in the morning when we all eventually became incredibly tired.
I set a goal for the school year — I would start every single assignment that I had, the day before it was due. This turned out to be one of the most stressful things I could have ever done. I ended up writing about 2000 lines of code for a data communications project and finishing it in one night. I ended up submitting it 10 seconds late and getting a 0% on it. But it’s a good story to tell, I guess :p
My friend Velizar and I were doing an entrepreneurship class building out Castile, a podcast startup. At this time, we would have meetings every week. I thought the class wasn’t really that great but I had fun during it!
It was around this time that Alexis Ohanian came to our university. He’s the coolest guy ever so I wanted to get dinner with him and some friends. We tried everything. Emailing him, Snapchating, Facebook message, Facebook status, and even Tweeting at him. He was a really nice guy and didn’t ignore our messages. He unfortunately had another event later that day in New York City so he couldn’t join us.
I ordered way too many calzones from DP Dough.
Live-streamed myself studying.
I found out about Code Golf. I implemented most things in Scala which was not really a golfing language but I created some cool techniques for reducing code size. I also wrote my first quine ever in Scala.
Started hanging out with my great friends Luba and Josh. We went to animal shelters, volunteered at some random garden, and participated in other millennial high jinks.
We tried doing more codeRIT meetings but it was a bit more difficult since half of the club that was active went one co-op :P
Went to Maryland with my amazing friends for Bitcamp. It was a terrible experience so after the first hour, we decided to go to a hotel room and explore Washington DC, instead. It was the best decision we ever made. Crashed a Sikh parade in DC with Luba and Josh.
Met the creator of the digital camera with my friend Velizar. He was giving a lecture on patents for our entrepreneurship class since he lived in the area. I ended up missing 70% of it because I saw my friend Kevin in the hallway with his girlfriend Anh. I haven’t seen him in over a year and we had a really good conversation.
I went to a Malaysian dancing/storytelling event at my school with my friends Tori and Manny! The music was my favorite part of it all.
Got an offer from Uber for a Fall internship. That was one of the best days of my whole year.
I was really bored so I decided to make a fake website for a fake startup. I made a thing at MHacks V called DataWave. My friend made a joke that it was actually Date-a-Wave, Tinder for Surfers. So I decided to execute on that idea :p http://dateawave.com
I went to Record Store Day with my friends Luba and Josh. Ended up finding out about all sorts of really awesome music and discovering Jesus Soap.
Had my school sponsor a trip for me and some awesome friends to go to OS Con in Austin Texas. It was incredibly amazing. I hung out with Akanksha, Solomon, and Allison. Went to 6th street, met some internet friends and had an amazing experience.
Spent my birthday at Buffalo Wild Wings with my good friends. In my friends group, there is a tradition to celebrate one’s 21st birthday by going to Buffalo Wild Wings :D
My flight to San Francisco was something special. I struck up a conversation with the woman sitting next to me. She was from Charlotte, South Carolina, going to San Francisco to see her daughter who was stationed nearby. She was one of the nicest people I had ever met.
Twilio Signal was amazing. It was my first ever tech conference. I got to see a person demo the rick roll hotline, which I thought was amazing. On my way back, I decided to walk along the Embarcadero. It was absolutely stunning. After living in SOMA for the past 2 summers, it was so great to be out of there.
I met up with a lot of people who either I only knew from the internet or who I hadn’t seen in a while. I had dinner with a different person every single day.
Saw Lil Yachty at Amoeba Music.
My friends Orens and Patrick came up from San Diego to visit San Francisco and hang out. It was really amazing! My friend Dan who worked at Facebook gave us a tour of the office. It was at that time that I knew I wanted to work there.
Went hiking with my friends Kyle and Jeremy (who I would later room with). We rented a car and went to Point Reyes. It was really amazing. I would do it again in a heartbeat.
I went to a Corgi Con with my great friend Payal who I knew only from Facebook Groups before we hung out a lot in San Francisco.
Went to some random networking event that was really gross, full of inauthentic recruiters. I met a guy my age and it turned out we had some mutual friends. He said he was going to some Hacker Noon party nearby. I tagged along. I saw Robert Scoble there. This was before any of the sexual harassment things that emerged. I was super pumped to get a picture with him. However, now, I’m really grossed out by the fact that I even talked to him.
Kyle and I found this really amazing jazz bar near his place on Market St called Mr. Tipples. We went there a bunch of times. It was so amazing!
Went to my friend Daniel’s housewarming party and ended up meeting some really great people. Met my friend Simon who I eventually went to Lake Tahoe with alongside my friends Luba, Kyle, and Adam. It was an absolutely amazing trip. It was very crowded and I was stressed, but I wouldn’t change anything about it!
I hiked Lands End with some people from Contrary Capital. It was a really great hike. I love that place. I even got to see a really interesting car!
Hiked Muir Woods with my friends Adam, Max, and Payal. Almost fell down a large hill but Max saved my life. Thanks Max.
I continued to get dinner with a new person every day. I met Gao at an intern Slack channel as she was interning at Lyft at the time! We would periodically get brunch together! It was awesome and delicious!
Struggling to find a roommate for September — December. I eventually got messaged by my friend Dan who I didn’t know very well at the time. He said he had an opening that fit my schedule perfectly. I accepted it right away. Best decision ever!
Went to the Manchester United game with my roommate and friend Sanket! It was absolutely amazing. It was the first soccer game I had ever seen live. Best of all, Manchester United won :D
Went to Napa Valley with some really great friends. Did wine tastings for the first time. It was so amazing seeing the beautiful views and learning about wine.
Got some amazing Chinese food with my friend Changbai. This food was so Chinese that they didn’t even have an English menu :p
I started getting really sick. I would be coughing 24/7. I had no idea why. I still don’t know what it was. But it was awful. I eventually bought a face mask in case it might be allergies. I consulted numerous doctors but they didn’t have an answer. Luckily, it went away in September.
Every Serbian Orthodox family has a family saint. Each saint has their own day of the year to celebrate them. Our family saint is Saint Elijah. His saint day is August 2nd. I asked for some time off to go see my family and celebrate his saint day with them. I had delicious Serbian food and more importantly, got to see my family after not seeing them for so long.
I created an app where you can store any kind of data in URL shortener services. It’s one of my favorite projects I’ve ever worked on.
I got an amazing haircut from Ken at the SF Barbershop. That guy is the best barber I have ever had. My friend Daniel tweeted about him which is how I found out about him.
My internship at Twilio was ending. It was such an incredible experience. I had learned so much about frontend and pushed myself as hard as possible. The best part about it was definitely the mentorship I obtained and my amazing co-workers.
I went to Honolulu after my internship at Twilio ended. The airplane ride in itself was an adventure. The two people sitting next to me presented a dichotomy. One was retiree from France and an avid traveler. He was going to Honolulu to rest a bit before continuing his trip around the world. The other was a kid from Charlottesville, Virginia who never flew before in his life. The retiree and I stood in some of the same places in Tokyo, according to the pictures we showed each other.
Honolulu was an absolutely amazing experience. I found out that the coolest people ever were staying in my hostel. I met a Portuguese guy, Goncalo, who we all joked was “the fastest” of us in getting ready in the morning :P I met a Swiss guy, Marco, who worked as a banker and decided to do a 4 month long US trip. How amazing is that?! I met Veronique who we had the nickname “very unique person.” She was from Quebec, doing PM work. I met Kristian, a super friendly and amazing guy from Sweden. He was looking to become a cooking teacher, and doing what he loves, I respect that so much. He viewed Basshunter as an embarrassment to his country :P I met Alissa who was doing Au Pair in the United States from Germany. I later found out she was not at all afraid of heights, hah. Finally, I met Mika, a Serbian guy who was vacationing in Honolulu! It was really great to meet another Serbian person in such a random place!
If I talked about everything I did in Honolulu with these people, I would not sleep all night. I’m just going to mention some of the most memorable things.
Hiking the Pali Puka trail. This was an incredibly dangerous hike with no railings and was hugging a mountain. I was terrified the whole way through. Even worse, I was wearing my Diesel shoes. Those were definitely not hiking shoes. I slipped once but luckily caught myself by hugging a tree trunk. That could have ended really badly. But it was the best hike I’ve ever done.
Hiking Koko Head. This was the physically toughest hike I have ever done. The entire hike is literally just climbing up railroad tracks up a mountain. There is even a section where the railroad tracks act as a bridge so you have to be super careful otherwise you could fall about 15–20ft.
Doing a sea turtle tour with my friend Marco. It was absolutely amazing with breath-taking views. I had never seen a sea turtle before, and we managed to see about 7 or so!
I moved into a beautiful place. My roommates Dan, Jeremy, and Jorie were the coolest people ever! The place was really well put together and it was in such a good area!
I started one of the best internships I ever had, at Uber. I worked on the authentication and identity management security team.
Did my first ever SQL injection at a CTF with my friend Paul!
I went to a workshop where I trained my first ever machine learning model!
Published my first ever React component with my friend Max.
Implemented a Twilio app where I can control my apartment’s door locking mechanism with a website instead of having people call my phone when they are delivering things.
Implemented a Hue lights program with my friends Changbai and Max where we would match the color of my living room with the average color of the TV.
Went to see some really cool graffiti with my friend Changbai, in the Tenderloin. It was a really amazing experience.
Went to my first Golden State Warriors game with some other interns. At the end of the game, I met a guy who was selling his mixtape out on the street. I decided to buy the mixtape and listen to it when I got home. Then I realized I had nothing that would play CDs.
I reverse engineered a program for the first time in my life, using IDA. It was a CrackMe program that you were supposed to find the serial number to. After a bunch of thinking and big endian vs little endian, I managed to figure out what the serial number was!
It was at this time that I was watching the anime Berserk. I realized the true reason I love coding which gave me a huge confidence boost and a huge boost in understanding why I do stuff which is really important to know. This allowed me to do amazing at my interview for a Facebook internship which eventually got me the job.
I went to CalHacks which was kinda weird since I hadn’t gone to a hackathon in so long and I was technically a mentor. I tried to help out this group of students but I was more talking to them than actually helping them. I ended up leaving the hackathon after meeting up with a bunch of friends I hadn’t talked to in a while.
Had a “Friendsgiving” with my roommates and their friends who have become my friends! It was such a great time.
I accepted my internship offer at Facebook for next summer. It was the absolute perfect fit for me. I’m so excited to be joining.
Live streamed and built out a decentralized image hosting website on top of the DAT protocol and IPFS. Worked with my friend Louis on this one as well as implementing a general framework for all of our future apps on the web.
Picked my classes for next semester. I am going to have to take 6 classes so that should be pretty interesting!
Celebrated Halloween with my friends and with my roommate’s amazing cat, Bird, who we dressed up as Pikachu!
My friend Jeron came up to San Francisco to hang out and it was super cool! We went to see the famous zig-zaggy street in San Francisco which was so awesome! We then went all the way down to Santa Clara with my friend Changbai to get food from my country! I met the owner of the Euro Grill and the Euro Market. He gave me his business card and told me to come back any time, and give him a call, even if they weren’t open.
On our way to Santa Clara, we stopped by Santana Row. All of a sudden, memories began creeping up. I was in Santana Row only once before — 3 years ago. I was competing in PayPal’s BattleHack World Finals and they got a hotel for me in Santana Row. I thought back and couldn’t believe how far I’ve gotten and how many goals I had achieved since then. I called my friend Tony to show him where I was and we both laughed.
Finished my internship successfully! I am going to miss working with all of my co-workers and having really awesome conversations with them. I was so lucky to work with the coolest people ever!
Spending time on myself. Relaxing and taking time off. Watching a bunch of shows and anime that I wanted to see for a long time.
Chilling with my friends Ian and Changbai, trying out as many food options as I can before I head out of San Francisco.
I can say without a doubt that this was the best year of my life. This year had a lot of really stressful moments, especially in the beginning of the year, but I don’t even remember most of them anymore. That shows how trivial they were. I am incredibly proud of where I am today compared to where I was last year, today. I have grown so much as a person throughout these last 365 days.
I have changed dramatically, due to all of these experiences throughout 2017. I hope I can continue working hard and going on these awesome adventures!