I lived in Silicon Valley for over a year (2016-18). Like all humans I developed opinions about my new environment; I want to record them under notes-to-self. Before proceeding, I'll lay down the disclaimer: these are just my views and you're totally entitled to your's. Though I try to be reasonable, absolute logic isn't just impractical but is inapplicable since feelings about one's environment are always rooted in emotions, upbringing, habit, etc. but never in logic. I'm just weighing up the odds from my angle. Life in other states, or even cities might seem a lot different to what I saw. Also I don't like, dislike or hero-worship people of any particular nation for I've seen good and bad ones in all groups and isms.
I take the metro to work; more than two hours a day with John Q. Public. During my commutes, one of the first things that struck me — silly as it might seem — majority wore clothes of the same few shades: black, grey, white and sometimes blue; mostly sober colours. There'll be some woman, never a man, in red, but that's infrequent; perhaps once a week. Sure, it's for work, but almost everyone seemed to follow some unwritten rule; seemed strange. You might break the rule, but the norm isn't that; it's uncommon.
American food is quite bland; involves thawing a frozen patty for the most part. Americanized Mexican, Indian and Chinese are probably better; they're not as insipid. The dishes are definitely well-served, but the flavours in them definitely leave you wanting more. As for the variety — of tastes themselves and not the dishes — you get bland, sweet or tangy. I don't see much of hot, bitter, salty or astringent. Sure, if you go to a place of a particular cuisine and ask, you'd perhaps get what you want, but naturally those aren't indigenous here. Mind you, this is California, which, people assured me, is the most global of them all. Apparently other states are far more American; I have to agree since I also visited the tri-states, Oregon, Washington and Arizona.
When in India, I've seen a lot of men, let aside women, wearing red, green or yellow to work casually; business goes on as usual. It's mundane and never becomes a thing. As I drove past along tech. parks I used to see the same mix of a wide gamut of colours I saw elsewhere in bazaars and streets. With food, rich is the word that comes to my mind, as it did for the vibrant clothes. I've tasted a dozen different flavours under the same roof. Another thing to notice is that food is mostly ordered piece-meal in India, while in the US it's mostly a complete meal; the main, the side and the drink are established when ordering1. In India, it's common for guys to hit a restaurant, just order some sides, finish up and leave; no main course. Again, there's this convention about ordering in a restaurant. People seem to love having rules and follow them fairly well. This is definitely a good trait in most2 situations. I'd be nice if people do the same in India.
Decorum and Decency
One thing many returning Indians keep praising (almost bragging) about US is how well-mannered people are; be it in the way doors are held or seats are offered to others and so on. The major complaint about India, by Indians, is that people run and grab seats like “they've never seen ‘em before”. Sure, I agree. But wait, if you've observed this much, have you gone further to realize this? When you've an abundance of something, giving that up
- is not going to hurt you
- will gain you a false sense of moral high ground through a perceived “sacrifice”
Here, even after giving up seats, people end up getting a decent one. How about in situations where there's real dearth for resources? Such is the state in my everyday commutes where I've seen no one offering anything. Why is that now? Sometimes politeness is a luxury (the link gives real life examples). In fact there were times when people forgot all about queues and it morphed into a fish market in a jiffy.
This is an example when people openly broke laws when resources were limited3. In India we just notice it often because the difference is well-pronounced but that doesn't change anything. On Thanksgiving I saw how scalability was a joke in the US as well. When many started breaking the rules, it's jungle law all around. In addition, it showed their network's efficiency in handling congestion; the mobile signal went down because there were too many people in the same area (mall). This was the amount of people I see regularly in a decent mall in India. With lesser population and more resources it's mostly easy to put on a good show; but scalability starts rearing its ugly head only when it's the other way around. This is a common problem in engineering; we observe its manifestation both in India and here. Should we turn a blind eye when it happens here? If we continue to portray this happens only in India, of course young Indians will stupidly parrot the famous “huh, we live in India, right!?". I think not telling the truth is doing a disservice.
The ratio between resources and the number of people that compete is amply skewed between the East and the West. I've seen Indians and Chinese be covetous even when there's an abundance, yes, but that comes from the fact that their origin perhaps had less resources than the people around; old habits die hard. This can be viewed as a downside of a very social culture, if you have a materialistic eye.
Americans probably didn't have this problem: there were times when the land they had was so much that they'd to keep races to give away pieces of land. Ever heard of terms like Sooners or land runs? 😃 However, when courtesy comes in the way of their work, they forget all about it, just like people of other nations do. Nothing wrong in that, nothing to be corrected here; survival of the fittest isn't new, is it? If anything, it's just one's perception that “they are always courteous” needs correction. No one is always something; it's the situation; like everything else it depends. I'm just refuting the image perpetuated by returning Indians. People who have never been to, or are new to US, think it's a la-la land, when it's not; it's just another nation with its pluses and minuses. Should we paint a rosy picture to boost our own ego based on where we live?
People don't tend to talk very much here. On some of my trips in the metro, for the entire hour, I've sensed pin-drop silence. This is impossible in India. It could be a bus, a rick or a car, people keep yapping about something or the other. We tend to discount this as something pointless and not give lot of value to this. In the US, people seem to like their privacy and prefer being left alone doing their own thing. Socializing is still a formal thing properly planned. A common sight in India that I glaringly miss here: a bunch of people chirping in a tea stall, laughing about nothing, making jokes and probably with little to no money on them. Sure, they've their problems, but psychological issues usually isn't one of them since they speak up. Don't believe me? Read on.
Here's a relevant excerpt; §6 The Human Need for Attention in One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way:
Some cultures have ritualized it [human need for attention]; some cultures seemed to have built it in. [ … ] I don't know about you but as a teenager, I was convinced, somewhere in the constitution, was the inalienable right to my own bedroom with a lock on the door. While we treasure that kind of privacy, the body has other needs that compete with it.
— Dr. Robert Maurer, Director of Behavioral Sciences at UCLA Medical Center
Research shows that the mark of the most successful, healthy minds is opening up when there's an issue; the one quality that's very important as a human is when you're troubled, you admit it, first to yourself, and reach out for help; share it with someone, you suddenly see it almost halved or gone. In India, the opportunities to open up and the amount of friends you could make4 are numerous. They don't differentiate with categories like friends, acquaintances, colleagues, room-mates, etc. You're either a friend or not. You go out to tea with someone twice, you're already their dhosth5. Here I've worked for a year in a very small, closely-knit office of 20, unlike in India where there were more than a thousand employees, and I don't know even one personally well. They strictly maintain their professional relationship.
Everyone has a schedule, a set routine for the entire week; people follow calendars actively here. Everyone loves a good routine; they say that living organized lets us do more. Here, one can clearly say, at a given point in time, where one will be, doing what; 90% of the times it's accurate. I've never been able to do this in India give how chaotic it could get; but in the US I live a very predictable life.
In India too there's some loosely-framed routine but nothing too rigid and it shows; people don't refer to their calendars often to know their future whereabouts. Does life have to be this formal for it to be efficient? And what are we chasing being so efficient6? I feel enjoying now is more important that saving for a rainy day.
I noticed that even kids7 have a schedule and are busy here. I've seen kids in India go to a neighbouring house freely without asking for permission or booking an appointment a priori like it's the doctor's office. In the US, kids play on a pre-planned play date. Since it's now formalized, meeting other kids and playing on the street isn't an established routine for people living in individual houses. Now, we as parents do want our kids to lessen their screen times but our busy schedules just tend to increase that. Well, grand parents aren't around to tell stories either. So to entertain them in-house, people tend to buy a lot of toys, which in turn tends to lessen their sharing abilities and heighten their possessiveness. Shouldn't it be less formal atleast for the kids? I think being a kid is all about being silly, goofing around, messing up and learning new things. They seem to live in a very controlled environment here; well-disciplined, behaving themselves. We want to beget creative humans we've to dial down on the disciplining part, otherwise we're grooming future bots.
In India, there's a clear distinction between cities, suburbs and villages; places teeming with a lot of floating population, bustling with activities is a city, while the other end of the spectrum is a village. In the US all of these are termed cities. However, places with lot of activities are called downtowns. So, even in a village, if there's a shopping district with lot of on going business, that is the village's downtown.
Now ask returning Indians where they live; the answer will be a big city like San Francisco, New York, Boston, etc. The truth is, more often people tell the name of the famous city nearest to the village they live in; they'd be commuting to that city for work. Nonetheless, they don't prefer telling you that they live in a village where one's to drive for a cup of coffee or a loaf of bread; just as you'd in an Indian village. If you press on, “What! Do you really live in downtown San Francisco?!", they'd go, “Well, I live in Fremont; I commute to work”. The natives call these places suburbs, where there'll be a few shopping districts and mostly residential area with little to no human traffic on the roads. Mind you, if you've lived in an Indian city — which mostly you've since tech. jobs are in bustling cities in India — then living in a village might be super boring. Most American bachelors share rooms and live in downtowns of these large cities, despite the sky high rents, exactly for this sake: it's very happening. In India, as a techie you'd be living in a city as the rents are bearable, while in the US even high-paid professionals don't find the big cities affordable. Even otherwise, they're not very safe at night; there're streets you'd be happy to avoid for anyone might have a gun. Suburbs are at least a lot safer.
Except for these big cities, most other cities (suburbs in US lingo) look the same. I've travelled to the East and the West costs of the country. In every city I see that there's a shopping district and houses built around. Then there're roads connecting to the highways. If you've seen one city, you've seen almost all other cities, since the framework is pretty much similar, with some variations here and there. The cities are extremely well-planned and orderly.
There're these brands which you'll see everywhere. For shopping there are some 5 to 6 brands you keep seeing from coast to coast. It's too regular. The items you get and the models you see are extremely predictable. When you walk into two different stores of the same brand, you'd end up seeing the same stuff. They look so similar that at times I confused a shop in some other city for the one in my city! Monopoly is the name of the game. Even for food, you see a few chains dominating the scene. Thank God in San Francisco the small players are still a thing but that's the exception and not the norm; norm is that the small fishes are usually killed by the bigger ones.
Chaos vs Order
The system in the US is such that you've to live a planned life. Living unplanned would get you penalized one way or the other. Take travel; you've to (a) check on the climate — it's not a tropical country, the climate is erratic (b) workout the routes — without maps one cannot get anywhere owing to how many roads there are. You've to be organized even in that since you cannot freely make stops in the freeway so (c) make sure you hit the loo before leaving home. Oh even at a smaller scale, to change and take a different road (d) you've to plan ahead and change lanes, otherwise you will miss taking that road!
Throughout the article I've highlighted how these plans, rules and formalities in the West try to keep things in place; they're a means to avoid chaos; to devise a method in the madness. However, I feel that by living a very planned, organised life, we resist change, we try to avoid life take its course, in giving randomness a hand. Nevertheless both in India and the US8 life happily does its magic and throws us off our balance; for better or worse. Pleasant surprises and black swan events keep happening everywhere. What's the difference then? Well, it's just in the mind; how well you get to train it. By not being too rigid, the change affects you lesser; flexibility allows one to embrace change more gracefully than the ones who strongly resist. By that I'm not saying we've to live in anarchy, sure some planning is definitely needed, but driving it to an extreme is going to set us up for anxiety and suffer for perceived losses.
Let's say you've thrived in chaos, would you be able to do well in order? Of course, see how many Indians migrate to the US and do well for themselves. However, I'll tell you something about the reverse traffic. I've a friend who has coffee in the morning, everyday. We are worried going with him on a unplanned, random trip. Why? Being orderly, having a set routine only made it difficult both for him and us. Once you've a habit, it makes you dependant on multiple things; in this case the condition that we're not on road, that we get coffee decoction, that we get milk9 and that we're in a place that can provide these things. One, just one thing goes wrong, he'd not get his coffee, making him grumpy, thereby spoiling the day. However, the same place, not having coffee, might've had other things to offer like hot tea and delicious samosas, but since our friend is hell bent on coffee, he cannot appreciate those that're here and now.
People coming from the US to India carry so many things with them; everything has to be just so since you're used to a certain level of comfort, but that very comfort makes you not enjoy other things that a different place has to offer; they make you very narrow-minded and tunnel-visioned. Take elders; many people try to avoid having an elder at their homes. When you ask them why, they say, “well, if it's just our family we adjust and have what we have, but with elders you've to make sure everything meets their needs, else they're unhappy”. The more flexible you're, the more welcomed you'll be. We should be aware that rules and formalities are man-made and chaos is the reality. These man-made formalities are there for our betterment and not to deter us from being happy, not blind us from appreciating the now.
Have you noticed how Indian dishes are prepared? There'll be multiple levels of processes involved before food reaches the plate. It's not as straight as just cutting a few vegetables, some raw meat and tossing them on a bread. Have you also noticed that most characters in the Latin script are flat while most Indic language scripts are curvy10? An environment, I feel, having a lot of variety and depth to things with lots of twists and turns is more enjoyable, yes? Last I checked, many tagged routine as boring.
We're not talking about fast food joints present on either countries. ↩︎
There are times when you shouldn't blindly follow rules like a computer; challenging authority is an essential skill. ↩︎
On the Black Friday this year there was a mad shopping spree near my residence. ↩︎
Even a super-interovert like me ended up getting great friends with almost no effort. ↩︎
Hindi term for friend; commonly used in India. ↩︎
I'm only taking about Indian kids. I've not gotten a chance to observe American kids at their homes. ↩︎
Or any other country (or Mars) for that matter. ↩︎
Well, some can't drink black coffee, can they now? ↩︎
I could go on about music, sculptures and art too. ↩︎