Get used to it: diversity creates a cultural shift

August 17, 2011

When we moved to northern California as newlyweds some 18 months ago, we rented a house temporarily in the ethnically diverse city of Sunnyvale. I’ve lived part or full time in the San Francisco Bay area since 1984, but this was the first time I’d been in the ethnic minority in a community.

I loved it. Grocery stores featured large sections of ethnic foods and spices. Exotic smells emanated from screen doors, discordant music from car windows. Different languages — Chinese, Pakistani, Indian, Korean and more– formed a crazy quit of conversation at public events. Every night, families representing three generations would take after-dinner strolls, the women in their saris, the kids holding their grandmother’s hand.

We haven’t seen a single sari since we bought a house in a largely Caucasian part of San Jose. I miss them.

Silicon Valley companies recruit the best of the best: hugely smart people from every country and it makes for a rich and diverse living experience.

And yet, it’s not all rich.

Take Westfield Valley Fair Mall in San Jose. I’ve been shopping there for years, with a little break when I lived on the Monterey peninsula. My return to the mall in 2010 was jarring.

Kiosks lined the walkway of the entire first floor. Kiosks with people hawking wigs and hair pieces, specialty lotions, off-brand cosmetics, tacky jewelry, eyebrow threading ear piercing and more. It was like a caravan of gypsies had unloaded wares and set up a peddler’s camp.

There was no way to escape the assault of their hustles. They’d call out, aggressively and insistently, using different techniques.

“Hey, beautiful!”

“Can I just ask you a question?”

“Here, try this lotion free!”

It was like running a gauntlet, definitely not the local shopping experience I’d come to enjoy and I wondered why mall owners needed to squeeze ever drop of profit out of their real estate at the shopper’s expense. I realized also, though, that the sheer aggression of the hustlers was a result of the cultural diversity of our community and it was a result I didn’t like.

When I met my ex-husband for coffee last week, he’d just been shopping. He sat down, looked at me and asked “What country am I in?”

“Oh,” I responded. “You’ve been to Valley Fair mall.”

The other day hubby and I went car shopping. Like most people today, we did our research on the internet and discovered that some of the vehicles in the model we liked had a common flaw. A flaw that the vehicle enthusiast boards had covered in detail. Hundreds, maybe thousands of posts. Car and Driver and the New York Times had written it up. The manufacturer had issued a service bulletin. Not all of the vehicles had the flaw, but it was a commonly known problem.

We wanted the vehicle, but we wanted to talk through the problem and what the dealer knew about it.

“I’ve never heard of it,” said the salesman.

“I’ve never heard of it,” said the sales manager.

Many minutes were spent denying the problem.

“Surely, we can not be the only car buyers in Silicon Valley who use the internet before shopping,” we said to them.

“What, maybe you think I am lying?” asked the sales manager.

“Well,” I said, “you have to have been living in a cave to not know about this common problem with this model.”

As the discussion went on, it was obvious that the sales manager clearly did not like dealing with a woman who did not know her place.

We left.

“I felt like we were in the souq,” I said to hubby.

“It’s good prep for Morocco,” he said.

I looked online. The dealer had one star and many stories about terrible service. I talked to a friend in the car business. The dealership did not have a good reputation in the industry. It was owned and operated (and cars were sold) by Saudis.

Car negotiation is never easy, by the cultural issues we observed in our brief experience were going to make it too difficult.

We visited another dealership. One that had four stars. An entirely different and more honest conversation about the car problem. And that’s where we’ll buy our car.

We looked at a house last year in a city adjacent to San Jose. When Hong Kong reverted back to China in 1997, Chinese came to the Bay area in droves, bringing their money. A good many of them settled in this adjacent city, which is 63 percent Asian, according to the 2010 census. Their money has come in handy. When more than 100 teachers in this city were to lose their jobs due to state budget cuts, parents raised $2 million to save their jobs.

I am not kidding. Parents in this largely Chinese community wrote checks in the amount of $2 million to be sure their kids had enough teachers for what they considered a good education. Chinese students do extremely well in school.

Today, if you are not Chinese and look at a house for sale in that community that is owned by a Chinese owner, chances are they won’t sell it to you. Because you aren’t part of their “tribe.” You won’t do things their way. Like donate huge sums of money to the school district, among other things.

My California county is now only 47 percent Caucasian. There are more Asians than Latinos, but both have had huge influences on life here. Ballot pamphlets are now printed in at least seven languages.

My grandparents were immigrants from another country. Back in their day, assimilation was the goal. Here in the San Francisco Bay area, assimilation is definitely not the goal. Different ethnic groups are leaving indelible marks on the fabric of the community, some good and some not so good for those of us who do not want to buy our cars in a souk or be hustled when shopping in a mall.

How we feel about it is immaterial. A cultural shift is underway and the Bay area of 2050 is going to look way different from the Bay area of today. For good or for bad.

One comment on “Get used to it: diversity creates a cultural shift
  1. Anonymous says:

    What comment was needed? It did not provoke anything in me nor did it be to have anything said. It was an interesting read and it seemed accurate. Were you waiting for a XENOPHOBE to respond? HAHAHAHAHA


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