First Cultural Observations in the US

April 16, 2023

Back from my first trip to the US! I visited Stanford University and decided to spend a few days in San Francisco afterwards... The culture is really different from what I know from Europe. I wasn't expecting such a different vibe.

But after spending the last 7 years in Zurich, Switzerland, I felt it was time to get out of my comfort zone. Zurich has everything you could want, but I have this strong intuition that it is the right time to move to another country and expose myself to a completely different culture before the end of my 20s. And here we are. I will move to Stanford or Palo Alto in September 2023 and spend the next 5 to 6 years there. Crazy. Some observations I made along during my days:

  • First thing I noticed when I arrived in SF. Cars. There are cars everywhere. Fucking cars. The streets are much wider and there's an insane amount of parking everywhere. Lots of asphalt. But also a lot of trees! I feel like Zurich is definitely less green. Somehow I'm already familiar with the car vibes from all the movies I've seen and it looks exactly like I expected. No surprise in a way, but it still felt strange when I first arrived.
  • SF seems to be very culturally diverse. Lots of people with Asian backgrounds in their mid-30s and 40s. All SF tech bros? Can't say yet. I visited Japantown in SF and was blown away by the density of Japanese speaking people. SF seems to have many subcultures in different neighborhoods. The city is huge and so are the neighborhoods. Truly a world city. So much to explore here.
  • The doors of the cafes seem to be wide open by default. However, the weather was quite cold these days. There was a lot of rain and the doors were still open and people were wearing warm jackets & clothes inside the cafe. Bars seem to be a bit different, i.e. their doors are closed, but cafés have their doors open all day. I'm sure there are cafes in SF without closed doors, but I didn't come across any during my visit. There's always a fresh breeze inside. Maybe it's to increase volume/traffic/rotation of customers in the location and thus increase profits. I have no idea. But finding a comfortable place to work for hours on my laptop was pretty hard compared to Zurich / Berlin / Vienna.
  • There are a lot of people sitting around in public places, but they rarely sit outside and drink coffee. Because they are always working? That's what I've heard. The idea of a typical "European street café" is definitely rarer here. I think that is what I will miss the most. Just sitting outside and enjoying the street life in a car-free zone. In SF, people tend to sit inside because there are usually no chairs on tables outside. Maybe it's because of the rain, which comes down regularly for about five minutes every hour?
  • There's so loud music everywhere indoors. I’m glad I had my headphones with me. People already talk very loud but with this loud background music, they talk even louder. Maybe that’s just here in the SF area, but I haven’t encountered a single café without loud background music.
  • In all these days, I had not experienced a single meal with non-returnable dishes. There is only disposable tableware. Huge waste production. It's crazy. Are people always on the move? It doesn't seem so. Then I don't understand why. Are people too tired to wash dishes? Too much going on and no time to wash dishes? I bought a reusable coffee cup at the ferry building. Tried it instead of paper cups. The sad news is that everyone was very confused. Usually one person sits at the front desk and takes your orders while there are several people behind the coffee machines or in the kitchen. Passing this coffee cup to these kitchen people ended up being very messy. My cup was lost several times while I was given a paper cup for my order. And where is my reusable cup? Lost in the kitchen. Still not working, fellow Americans.
  • The standard coffee here is some HUGE drip coffee. There are definitely some good places, but I need to figure out how to distinguish good places from bad places. Even at Stanford. Never take a medium again. It's already way too big. I should stick with small as the default. Gets too big anyway. So how big is large? I don't even want to know. I should just order espresso from now on. Or macchiatto.
  • People talk a lot. I mean a lot. There is chatter and gossip everywhere and they talk fast and loud. I know this from my trips to Spain / France / Italy / Germany, but it's very different from, say, the loudness of Italian speakers. What I like is that there's a lot of random strangers talking to each other on the street. Even though it's just small talk, it's nice to see such interactions. I rarely have them in Zurich, and even I am an outlier, as my friends tell me that I am approached so often in the city because of my body language and appearance somehow.
  • Public transportation is not too bad, but without Google Maps I would feel completely lost. Bus stations have no signs or directions. Buses arrive at random with random delays. Sometimes they don't come at all (which has happened a few times recently while traveling through the city). And sometimes there isn't even a bus station. I just wait there because Google Maps says there's a station. So I usually wait about 15 minutes and there may be a bus or there may not be a bus, who knows. I haven't figured out how public transportation works here in SF. There must be some unwritten rules that I haven't figured out yet. I mean, even France is better here.
  • So many abbreviations in spoken language and on street signs. The shorter the better, and the cooler it sounds, the higher the cultural fit. Names that are too long don't sound cool enough. Maybe it's the English language itself that encourages this?
  • SF Tech bros everywhere. I mean, I wasn't really aware of it before, but there's this very strong stereotype of people who work in the tech scene here. Guys wear a black Patagonia fleece, some random chino pants (usually some "washed gray" color), Airpods Pro, and maybe a dark orange beanie for colder days. Literally the cheesy Patagonia hipster from some random Pinterest collection. Very different from the Berlin hipster. SF Level 999 is wearing shorts in February and walking with your dog and the street in one hand and a giant paper cup of coffee in the other. Moustache. The beanie. Tattoos everywhere. Dolores Park. That seems to be the vibe here.