Impressions of Life in California – America’s Golden State

Of the states in the United States that my wife and I have visited, California has become the home away from home for us through our regular trips there, usually for about five weeks each time. This is because our second son, his wife and daughter reside there. Their home is in the San Francisco Bay Area, which is less than 30 minutes’ drive form the delightful San Francisco city.

It is with unconcealed pride that Californians call it the Golden State. To them, it is the most livable state in the nation, if not in the world..If challenged, they would readily tell you that it has a mild climate, one of the highest per capita incomes in the United States, good housing and abundance of world-renowned scenic wonders and man-made attractions which others envy and would flock there in order to savour them. To crown it all, California offers the best hope of attaining the American Dream- with its unlimited business opportunities for the industrious, the enterprising and those with vision and determination to match.

One of the largest American states on the “Pacific Rim”, California would have ranked  among the top ten wealthiest countries in the world, had it been a sovereign nation. Dynamic and international in outlook, its major cities, like Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose and San Diego are cosmopolitan and thriving. The Silicon Valley, the renowned hi-tech centre, leads the world in cutting-edge computer and other related information technology industries. Stanford University, the cradle of computer wizards, plays a vital role in making this possible.

California has a diversity of races and cultures: less than 70% are whites and the rest are mainly of Hispanic, African and Asian descents. It is estimated that, by the middle of this century, the white population is likely to be in the minority. A hallmark of Californians is that they are casual, friendly and helpful to visitors. Their dress-code and lifestyle, whether at work or at play, generally reflect their easygoing way of life. One of their endearing qualities is their engaging frankness and penchant for straight talking. Its not difficult to get along with them after the initial cultural adjustment. Property prices, especially in the San Francisco Bay Area, which includes the Silicon Valley, and in the exclusive enclaves in Los Angeles are among the most expensive in the country; but they are cheaper than comparable properties in land-hungry Hong Kong, Tokyo or Singapore.

Suburban life is safe, comfortable and relaxing. Most middle income families have two cars out of sheer necessity and convenience for work or family needs. American housewives are highly efficient and busy with house work, buying groceries, taking their children to and from school and other activities and still manage to make time for the occasional social engagements. As a consumer society, the consumers are well protected by law against shoddy goods and unfair trade practices. Retail outlets will make full refunds without questions asked, if dissatisfied customers return the merchandise within the stipulated period. This has helped boost sales and bolster consumer confidence.

In my view the Americans are indisputably the most innovative and efficient marketers in the world. Their sales personnel are well trained and knowledgeable. This is amply demonstrated whether one is buying a piece of furniture, a dress, a bottle of wine or any other goods at department stores or elsewhere. The fast food industry, as epitomised by McDonald’s which enjoys phenomenal success globally, is another triumph for the American marketing know-how and management philosophy. Its modus operandi is to maximise business turnover by offering products at value for money prices. It aims at attracting the optimum number of customers into their premises continuously, and to turn them out in the shortest possible time in order to make room for the next group of customers. However, on the corporate scene, the employee cannot always take his job security for granted. Staff at all levels are routinely retrenched due to company re-organisations or adverse economic conditions. This, coupled with job changes for other reasons, frequently resulted in their being relocated to the other states with disruptions to family life and children’s education. An average business executive probably switches jobs at least four or five times in his entire career.

The fame and effectiveness of the American self-help groups is known far and wide and is worthy of praise. I was deeply impressed by the display of this during a massive power failure some years ago, which seriously affected many parts of California and as far as the neighbouring Mexico. For example, despite the fact that the traffic lights at all major road junctions in the Bay Area went out of order, and with no policemen to direct traffic, the Californian drivers, with commendable calm and civic discipline, took it upon themselves to self-regulate the traffic flow painstakingly and unselfishly, thus averting chaos and serious accidents which would otherwise have occurred. I cannot imagine such disciplined motoring behaviour occurring in other countries.

I was also moved by their humanity towards their disabled fellow citizens. Many special amenities are made available to them at considerable cost so as to enable them to lead as normal a life as possible. Those in wheel chairs can move about confidently on their own as there would always be people to help them whenever needed. Likewise, senior citizens enjoy numerous concessionary privileges in travels, hotels, transportation, food and entertainment outlets, hospitalisation and so forth, on a scale unmatched by most countries. The American society is perhaps the freest and the most liberal in the world. Freedom of speech is considered a cornerstone of democracy and a safeguard against tyranny. It is so deeply entrenched that an individual and the media can severely criticise, ridicule or even defame the government or any public figure, often with impunity. On the debit side, such a right, unless exercised responsibly, can lead to reverse tyranny by the unscrupulous and those with an axe to grind.

On the other hand, California has the dubious distinction of being the home of bizarre religious cults, hippie-ism and hotbed of racial tensions; San Francisco had its Flower People, the devastating Rodney King racial riots some years ago took place in Los Angeles and the Heavenly Gate mass suiciders ended their lives mysteriously in San Diego in the past decade. American cities have to tackle a multitude of social ills, and the Golden State is no exception. Foremost among them are high rate of crimes and drug addictions. Apart from hardcore drug addicts, more and more American youths are drawn to marijuana or other drugs due to peer pressures or simply out of curiosity or boredom. The institution of marriage is being dangerously eroded. It has become increasingly fashionable for young people to cohabit outside of wedlock. A significantly high percentage of marriages have ended in divorce. Single-parent households are now commonplace and it has been proven that children from broken homes are more likely to succumb to dire social problems.

An anti-establishment mentality among many younger Californians is clearly discernible. This is reflected in markedly falling church attendance among them and their rejection of the traditional American values of hard work and thrift. Despite a booming economy in recent years, it is a common sight to see able-bodied men and women, sometimes with a child in tow, begging for money to buy food. Homeless people sleeping on the sidewalks or in parks have ceased to be a novelty in this land of plenty. In addition, many are being cared for by welfare and self-help organisations when they should be working. Be that as it may, it will be fallacious to judge Americans and their value systems from an Asian standpoint, given the differences in our respective cultural, social, economic and political backgrounds and developments. Nevertheless, some of their remarkable achievements and character traits are worthy of emulation by others. At the same time, one should avoid certain of their pitfalls which have adversely affected the cohesiveness of their society.

What draws Singaporeans and other Asians to set up businesses, to seek employments or to emigrate to California? I spoke to two Singaporeans about their impressions of life there. Elaine, a California-educated computer graphics designer who and her husband have worked in the Silicon Valley for many years now, said:

“We like it here because of the enlightened and positive attitude of the people – open and supportive of innovative ideas and would readily impart skills and knowledge to newcomers. They are not so set in routines, and superficial fashion trends and brand-name consciousness have less importance to them than people back home.”

Elaine simply adores the varied recreational activities there to satisfy all groups. For the young, there are the world famous theme parks, the health-minded will be thrilled by the considerable variety of national parks and sandy beaches and those with cultivated tastes can make wine-sampling trips to vineyards or participate in the vibrant arts scenes.

“On the minus side, its difficult to relate to the people here, most of whom have lived a childhood and teenage experience entirely different from ours. What we miss and yearn for most is not being able to share joys with close family members and friends and to partake in simple everyday activities together.”

Having lived in five different states in the United states, Elisabeth feels most at home in California. An arts graduate from a famed British University and a freelance theatre designer, her work takes her to San Francisco and other parts of the country.

“Geographically and culturally, Asia is never very far away here in the Bay Area. Historically, California, particularly San Francisco, has had the highest percentage of Chinese residents in the United States. The cultural mix here is diverse and there are places where I could almost imagine myself in Singapore.

“San Francisco offers world class opera, ballet and symphony concerts. Theatre ranges from Broadway shows to hole-in-the wall experimental companies where patrons take pot luck. Oddly, despite the Bay Area’s counter-culture history, tastes in the arts tend towards the conservative like back home.”

To Elisabeth, the attractiveness of California also conditions its drawbacks. “This is a state of quakes. Both geographically and culturally the region is a constantly shifting, volatile and a hotbed of activity, erupting with the latest cultural fads one moment, swallowing whole buildings the next.

“One learns to let go of dependence on stability here. Silicon Valley companies are notorious for frequent cycles of hiring and firing, triggered by an almost neurotic sensitivity to market changes. Change is revered here rather than history and tradition. For those with the courage, savvy and good fortune to survive the cataclysms, life is a heady adventure; the homeless who litter the landscape bear testimony to those who do not.”

My wife and I had just returned from a five-week stay with our second son and family in California. Time really flew as we were so lovingly welcomed with homely comfort and care, enjoying delicious Chinese and Western food expertly cooked by our daughter-in-law and travelling together at weekends to various interesting places. There was always much laughter at meal times, with our little US-born granddaughter holding center stage! We and the rest of the Lam family in Singapore very much look forward to their home-coming in December. The entire family will then have a week-long vacation at a beach resort in the region, just like we did in December 2007.

When our granddaughter was born, My wife and I were there intending to give a helping hand to our son and daughter-in-law during their initial period of parenthood. As it turned out, they both were well prepared for it. They managed to shoulder almost all the childcare responsibilities smoothly and efficiently between them. One week after the baby’s arrival, our daughter-in-law was already on her feet again doing the normal household chores, with the rest of us giving whatever support whenever needed. Fortunately for them, their professional work can be done at home in this computer and Internet era and with flexible time schedules. They live in a cosy three-bedroom bungalow, and the spacious rear garden has a variety of fruit trees. A part-time domestic helper comes in once a week to tidy up the whole house.

Our three-year plus granddaughter is pretty, smart and energetic. She was toilet-trained when younger and the parents have moulded her into an independent-minded and self-reliant little girl compared with most kids her age back home. She can feed herself, and has already learned to ski at the Lake Tahoe ski site and also ice skating at the neighbouring ice skating rink. She is particularly adept at playing the educational computer games, having been tutored by her computer engineer father. She can also draw quite creatively, a gift inherited from her artistic jewelery designer mother. But, like all kids her age, she can be awkward at times but have been taught to apologise when her usual cheerful and chatty mood returns! She has been attending kindergartens for some time now. Two days a week she goes to a half day English language one and the other two days she switches to a full day Mandarin-speaking class. She takes to these two kindergartens like fish to water, and gets on famously with the kids and the teachers. Her parents are hoping that she will become bilingual and not forgetting her Singaporean roots.

Our recent visit coincided with the deepening of the most severe US recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s, brought about by the follies, greed and complacency of those in charge of the large financial institutions. It will take quite some time before normalcy prevails again, despite the premature optimism articulated by some leading Western politicians and financial experts that its end is already in sight. To the more astute observers, they were merely whistling in the dark, to use an apt English expression. The IMF has refuted this misplaced optimism and warned that the economic turmoil still has some way to go.

The following statistical information, gleaned from the leading US national newspapers, make sombre reading. National unemployment had reached 8.5% at end March and would escalate further to 10-11% by 2010. In the Golden State itself, it had already exceeded 10.5%. Insolvency, retrenchments and foreclosure of properties had attained a new height and those fortunate enough to retain their jobs would invariably have their pay cut. Seven out of ten Americans had debts of one kind or another to pay, and some 15% of them had no health insurance coverage whatsoever as it is very expensive. Homeless people were multiplying fast and had become a common sight. Many had, perforce, resorted to begging in order to survive in this land of abundance.

How did the average Americans cope with this economic turmoil? Based on random media surveys:

  • 60% are under stress, 31.5% seriously.
  • Many of the above have become depressed.
  • They cut back on vacation and eating out, spending less, even postponing seeing doctors or go for medical tests, save on children’s extra-curricular activities, don’t change cars and avoid buying big ticket items.
  • Many American Dreams have been shattered.
  • An increasing number of naturalised citizens had either returned to their original home country for better job prospects or have plans to do so.

At the shopping malls, or shops elsewhere, shoppers were few and far between despite substantial reductions in normal prices. Many shops had already gone out of business and more will follow. Upmarket restaurants were even more badly hit, but fast food joints were still doing brisk business. We went to a popular theme park for children on a Sunday and the attendance was much lower than during the happier times.

What was incredible and so blatantly irresponsible was that, in the midst of this financial tsunami, several Fortune 500 corporations of international reputation, who had to be financially bailed out by the Government with enormous public funds, had taken it upon themselves to pay out hundreds of millions of bonuses to their CEOs and other top executives who had grossly mismanaged their companies and had brought them to the brink of collapse!

In the face of such adversity, life goes on as usual in the part of California that I was in. The man on the street was still as courteous, civil and welcoming to visitors as I had experienced previously. Those I met were utterly outraged by the gross corporate misdeeds caused by the stupidity and rapaciousness of those in charge and by the horrendous crimes perpetrated by the disgraced financial tycoons who had defrauded the public out of their hard-earned life savings. On the brighter side, they spoke highly of the new Obama administration and pinned their hopes that the newly elected president will get the country out of its current mess and restore it to its former prosperity and glory. I am confident that the United States will survive this financial crisis, given its tremendous economic, industrial and technological base and the resilience of its people. It will, in my view, emerge wiser and economically more robust than before. This will be good for the rest of the world too.

Finally, I wrote a commentary piece in 2000 on the dot.com. bubble of that time, which had contributed to a milder US recession that followed. It was published in the Bilingual Commentary Column of Singapore’s leading Chinese language daily, Lianhe Zaobao. I now post the article, entitled “What Makes Silicon Valley So Successful and Unique?” immediately below for the interest of readers.

Lam Pin Foo
25.4.2009

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