What Do You Get When A Midwesterner Moves to Silicon Valley?
A muy confused human. In other words, here’s my take on the culture shock that I didn’t anticipate coming.
Shortly after I became old enough to buy alcohol legally, I packed my bags, hugged my roommate goodbye and boarded a plane to San Francisco.
Saga 1: Ads, Ads, Ads
From a quick glance, San Francisco International Airport doesn’t seem too different from your standard metropolitan hub. The floors are super squeaky clean, despite thousands of dirty shoes trodding back and forth, not to mention suitcase wheels and the gunk of who knows what stuck on their rims. The restaurants churn out delicious smells, with their signs boasting all sorts of adjectives like organic, cage-free, non-GMO. Bright signs point out terminals, baggage claim, ways to escape, security checkpoints, all those things, while reminding you that if you leave through this door, you may not re-enter. So don’t do it.
And as soon as you get through that door, you’re bombarded with ads. Adjectives that with letters replaced, nouns with z’s attached to end. Salesforce, Grubhub, Lyft, the list goes on.
I turn my head away, knowing that I’m entering the Golden City, the epicenter of this thing that has infiltrated almost every single fiber of its being.
Before the objections start, I must say, Silicon Valley is not just San Francisco. It spans the peninsula and engulfs the Bay Area, whether people like it or not.
The ads are just one thing. The voices are another.
“Oh yea, it’s almost there.” A man in a hoodie and a rimmed sports hat chats hurriedly on the phone as I wait for my luggage. His jeans sag a tiny bit, he’s wearing sneakers. His glasses are thick and his hair looks unkempt, hence the hat.
“I just need to push my changes to staging so that it can make it in before the production build tonight.”
My ears perk up and I heave a big sigh. And so it begins.
Saga 2: Money Starts Flowing Out
The first of the month comes around and I get out my checkbook (yes, I still have one and use it). I make a check out in an amount that’s five times the amount of rent I paid back when I was an undergraduate and write “Rent” in the memo. Signing my name, I couldn’t help but let out the tiniest little whimper. The number gets me every time.
But nevertheless, I walk my check down to the leasing office and hand it to them, receiving a receipt in return. I make a note in my head to not silently weep the death of my bank account as I lug my cloth insulated grocery bag to Target for the umpteenth time. Mostly because I forgot to buy something yet again. But the story of my struggles to adjust to life as an adult are to be left for another time.
I’m sitting with friends in the Presidio, enjoying one of the last Off The Grid picnics, where food trucks line a square of (probably fake) grass and a bar is set up smack dab in the middle. The square is a slant up a hill and overlooks a very nice view of the rest of the park and the water. That day, Karl the Fog decided not to rear its ugly head and instead, to be nice.
We’re surrounded by chatty Millenials, most of whom are dressed like paper clones of each other. Faded denim is making a comeback. Heeled leather boots, hats, classy jewelry pieces and leather jackets finish ladies’ outfits. Men don sweaters, flannels, Patagonia vests and Oxfords. The stereotypical Valley accent doesn’t just seem like a myth anymore. I hear it all around me, taking place in conversations that seem very flat and unexciting.
“What’d you do this weekend?” “Oh, we went hiking in the redwoods. It was gorgeous. Oh my gosh, let me show you this picture I posted on Instagram…”
We pay for 12 pieces of fried chicken between the three of us. The line was apparently 30 minutes long. I wouldn’t know this firsthand though, because I was stuck waiting for a bus that never ended up coming and ended up being well over an hour late after taking a Lyft that cost me $20.
We also bought some cocktails to go along with our delicious meal of just…chicken. $10 for a small glass of rose. I don’t think twice until I put the piece of plastic back in my wallet and furrow my brow in slight disappointment of myself. Christ, that is expensive. But my credit card is incentivizing me to spend a couple thousand dollars in exchange for airline miles and I need to buy plane tickets back to Cincinnati at some point but oh my goodness, that was expensive and…
The most eyebrow-furrowing moment from the picnic happens just shortly after we all resume our places on the blanket.
A well-dressed young man walks up to us, holding a recorked, barely tapped into bottle of red wine. It looks more than 80% full.
“Do any of you want this? We’re not going to drink this.” he says as he hovers over us, looking longingly to be rid of such a possession.
“I’ll take it.” I said. I’ll take anything free.
But later, as I’m holding this bottle in my hand, that my friends nickname Josh because the winery’s name is Josh (literally, I kid you not), I start to puzzle over how I should feel about having this expensive bottle of wine now. On one hand, I’m pretty darn happy, because it’s wine. On the other hand, my eyebrows furrow more about the fact that he just gave it away.
At this rate, I might get premature wrinkles.
Saga 3: Surrounded by (In)novation and (In)equality
I moved here not too long ago to start my first job as a software engineer at Twitter. I love my job. It’s challenging, the work is interesting and important, my coworkers are the smartest and most insightful people I’ve ever met.
I live near my work. In fact so near, that I just cross the street every day and I’m there. I’m immensely privileged to not have much of a commute. I’m also keenly aware that I could be saving more money. But when you’re looking for housing from halfway across the country, sometimes you just gotta put your foot down before the market moves ahead without you.
Where I live is also an interesting epicenter. One direction leads to Hayes Valley and Duboce Triangle, where a cup of coffee at a high-end roaster can go up to $12 a cup. Sitting in one of those reading my book, I often side-glance and observe awkward first dates, chitter-chatter about lesbian drama, the occasional entrepreneur talking about their last fundraising, someone chiding someone else for the technology stack they’re using for a pet project.
Another direction leads to the Mid-Market corridor, a segment in the center of the city that’s squeezed on both sides by wealth, without seeing any of its benefits. Sometimes I make a mad dash through it at night, because I often don’t feel safe (a friend and I were once trailed by someone for a while, until he noticed that my keys were wedged in between my fingers). Oftentimes I keep my head down in discomfort and unease.
Saga 4: Reminiscing About Home
I grew up in Midwestern suburbia, in southwestern Ohio to be exact. We drove everywhere due to lack of public transportation. My family rotated between eating at the three authentic Chinese restaurants in town and made grocery runs to the one high-quality Asian market. The town didn’t get an artisan coffee shop until after I had left for college, and it was still tied to a strip mall.
Nobody really said hi to their neighbors, except for the ones who looked like them. Political views were very decisive, sometimes a step back in time. By the time I had left for college, nearly 18,000 students were suffering the consequences of a failed public school levy. Amongst other cuts to the arts and sports and classes, not one high school student was able to be bussed to school by the district.
My experiences were shaped by people who often chided me for not speaking English at home, who slanted their eyes up when taunting me, who mimicked the language of my roots with “Ching chong, ching chongs”, who kept asking, “Where are you really from?” Granted, not everyone was like that, and I was incredibly lucky to have a diverse group of friends, as well as a fairly strong Chinese-American community, but these experiences happened more often than not. My parents mostly shielded us away from the nastier, more subtle interactions that happened in the corporate world, and navigated us through public spaces with indifference and dignity.
But regardless, I often think about home. I miss the smells of my mom’s cooking, the intellectual conversations that happen around the dinner table, the late-night mahjong games with pennies to wager. I miss the friends from high school that I still keep in touch with, with whom I often have deep conversations about anything on our minds that go late into the night. I miss having seasons, seeing leaves fall, going sledding, and even sneezing from allergies due to spring pollination.
Saga 5: Finding My Place Here
I’ve been to San Francisco before. I’ve interned once in the South Bay, where I suffered a 1.5-hour commute to and from work everyday on the Caltrain. I’ve interned again in San Francisco, this time at Twitter, where I walked four blocks to work every day.
At the time, I didn’t think much of it. I was only there temporarily. I was going back to school once I was done, knowing that I’d be paying cheap rent and getting free food from school events once again.
But this time, this time moving here, setting up a semi-permanent footprint in this bizarre and wonderful city, this time was different.
This time, I’ve become more aware. More in awe. And more confused.
This is the most open-minded, diverse, liberal city I’ve ever been to. I’ve received so much education here about LGBTQ issues, about women’s health, about the importance of intersectionality. I’ve been exposed to so many different groups of people. I’ve heard so many different languages, some of which I don’t even recognize. Even the bus spoke four languages, informing us not to sit in priority seating if someone needed it more.
This is the most beautiful city I’ve ever been to (save Seattle, the two are comparable). The beaches and the parks are absolutely divine (on a day with no fog of course). The view up top Twin Peaks lends itself to non-stop shutter-clicking.
This is also the most unequal city I’ve ever been to. In a matter of blocks, I also pass through extreme poverty to extreme wealth. I’m keenly aware that I’m a gentrifier. Yet, I’m conscious that my decision is made, that this is the best place for me to start my own career.
This city is beautifully complex.
The beaches, the parks, the landmarks, the diversity, the innovation, the collective brilliant minds that I have trouble not fangirling over, they paint with bright colors and shining lights.
The steel gates over windows, the grit on the sidewalks, the unpleasant smells in the subway, the tent cities, the cardboard signs, they paint with inequality, the consequences of a place with homogenous industry.
And as I try to find a way to give back, as I get more settled into my work and my new life as an adult, the city around me presents a daily reminder to always remember the lessons my family taught me. To remember that employment is a privilege not a right.
As the amazing Lin-Manuel Miranda once wrote, “Don’t forget from whence you came / ’Cause the world’s gonna know your name.” Or at least the name of the product that you’re helping to build.