Disclaimer: I live in Palo Alto and even though I make frequent trips to San Francisco, San Jose, Berkeley, and the surrounding cities, a lot of things I mention below might only apply to Palo Alto.
It’s always fascinating for me to get out of Silicon Valley. I have been there for so long that I have almost forgotten how ridiculous it must be like to people outside the bubble. Even though both London and Silicon Valley are multiracial, they are like two different worlds.
People in a bar
I was sitting in a pub with a friend when I saw a group of 3 women in their 40s, drinking, dancing and having fun. I was looking at them for a good 10 minutes then I realized why the scene was so intriguing. I would never see this in Silicon Valley!
First of all, there wouldn’t just be women sitting alone in a pub. Second, they wouldn’t be in their 40s. I turned around and half of the pub’s population was above 40. That’s how the world is supposed to look like. People in Silicon Valley are just ridiculously young. According to a research by StackOverflow, the average age for developers is 28 years ago, and you know where they live. On top of that, it’s the college-aged population of Stanford, Berkeley and a dozen other colleges around.
Charlie, the British student I had met on a Goan beach the summer 2 years ago, was showing me around London. We were on a tub–that’s how people here call their train–when the American guy standing and holding onto the pole next to me made a joke about working the pole and I told him I wouldn’t mind throwing some coins his way. Charlie looked at me, mortified.
When we got off the tub, he told me: “Talking to strangers on a tub, that never happens in London.” Another night, Mien took me out and I, in search of the perfect aphrodisiac British accent, chatted up the waitress and the bar owner. Mien whispered: “Please don’t do that. You’re weirding people out.”
People here can appear cold and unfriendly. They don’t smile and they don’t make small talks with strangers. If you get lost on the street, you’d better open GPS or find a map somewhere rather than asking for the way. Silicon Valley is the opposite. Everyone is super smiley there. Strangers exchange small talks in a shop, in a bar, on the street. I suddenly feel so happy I chose to study in the US instead of the UK.
Topics of conversation
I was having lunch with Mien and Kew, my cousin who is living in London. The whole lunch, Mien, and Kew exchanged talks about some new musicians in the BBC proms, about the musicals they want to see, about some upcoming art auctions and the works of Damien Hirst and the likes. I tried to keep up but I realized I haven’t had this kind of conversation for so long I don’t have anything interesting to contribute.
“That’s all people talk about in London: arts and culture,” they told me.
When it was my turn, they asked me about what I studied. I told them I studied Artificial Intelligence.
“I thought you studied Computer Science,” Mien told me.
“Oh, AI is a track in Computer Science,” I said.
“What’s it based on? Physics?” Kew asked me.
“What I study is a bit Math-y,” I said.
“Do you have professors of that major in your school?” Kew asked.
I was shocked for a second. In Silicon Valley, everyone is always talking about Artificial Intelligence, so much I was tricked into believing that it’s the only thing that matters and what I know is general knowledge. AI, obviously, is not general knowledge. The rest of the world has so many more interesting things to care about.
Kew, my cousin, is only 20 years old. The last time I had seen her was in Vietnam before she left for England in 2013. This time, I almost didn’t recognize her. She painted her eyebrows, did her hair, put on layers of makeup in a way that made her look at least 5 years older. “I have to make myself look older else people wouldn’t take me serious at work,” she told. She had temporarily dropped out of school to work as a project manager for an education company. The ageism here is opposite of the ageism in Silicon Valley. In Silicon Valley, for people to take you seriously at work, you have to look like a goddamned antsy teenager.
It’s a given that if you live in Silicon Valley, you drive. You either have a car or have access to car rental services like Zipcar. In London, nobody drives. Londoners’ life involves around their trains’ schedule. Nicolas and I were planning on going to Canterbury, a city 60 miles away from London, when *one of us* overslept and missed the train. As naive as I was, I suggested that we took a Zipcar, and Nicolas just laughed. He used to live in Silicon Valley so he knew where I was coming from, so he gave me a long lecture about how nobody drove in London.
Nobody asks for your ID when you go out drinking. In my 3 days in London, I went to around 5 bars and pubs, and I had never been carded. In London, they only card you when you try to buy alcohol at a shop.
My God, people here smoke. No smoking zone is not really a no-smoking zone, it’s more like a polite suggestion. Cigarettes here are not even cheap so everyone just buys tobacco and rolls it themselves. I keep smelling tobacco when I walk on the street. Whereas in the Bay Area, I haven’t met a single smoker.
I met Nick, a guy I met in a San Francisco 3 years ago, for dinner and the first thing he did was to stop by an ATM to get some cash. Everyone has cash on them in London. You go out with friends and everyone just conveniently has money to share the bills. In Silicon Valley, or at least among my social circles, no one ever has cash. I haven’t had dollar notes on me in ages, except when I need to get something from the Thai cafe. You go out with your friends, one person pays the bill with card and the rest will be like: “I’ll venmo you later.”
Crossing the road
Jaywalking is not illegal in the UK and people here sure take advantage of that. They cross the road anytime, anywhere–most of the time they just run like hell across the highway. Unlike in Silicon Valley, in London, cars don’t stop for pedestrians.
“The United Kingdom does not formally describe priority regulations for drivers and pedestrians at road junctions or other locations, except with respect to marked zebra crossings where motorists are required to give way to pedestrians under defined conditions. Elsewhere, the Highway Code relies on the pedestrian making their own judgment on whether it is safe to cross based on the Green Cross Code.” – Wikipedia
As expected, a lot of people die from crossing the road. Pedestrian fatalities make up 25% of all road casualties in the UK, while this number is only 14% in the US.