For many, America may be a dream country for studying, working or even leisure, but the dark sides of one of the world’s largest countries is often overlooked. After Trump announced a temporary reopening of the federal government after a five-week long shutdown, I decided it would be the right moment to share some of my experiences of my trip to San Francisco in October 2018.
Through movies and documentaries on the US, as well as excessive news coverage on Donald J. Trump, school shootings, and the huge racial disparities in the US, many of us will develop an image of one of the world’s largest countries and quickly generalize this to the entire nation. And, in all honesty, so did I. From the very moment the plane touched down in San Francisco, I could not wait to see all these stereotypes in ‘real life’.
Through my exchange in Seoul, South Korea, end 2017, I met some of the most inspiring people from all over the globe, including my roommate, Garrett, a San Francisco Bay Area local. I was spending the first few days at his place before I took the train to San Jose for a 3-day business event.
Almost everywhere we went, I was able to confirm stereotypes which I had previously developed. If you would have asked me to describe how I see the US before I’d ever even been, I would tell you that everyone over excitingly says “hey, how are you?”, artists and dance groups perform on the streets and in the metro, each and every neighborhood is overly decorated with Halloween decorations (it was that time of the year, absolutely everything is super-sized, and every citizen owns a gun or flies a jet, let alone that huge racial disparities are clearly prevalent.
Well, on the very first subway (as they like to call it) ride, there was a dance group performing to the blasting music from a portable speaker they had carried along with them. I looked at Garrett and asked, “so, does this happen often?”. “Oh, yeah dude” he replied. Check, stereotype confirmed, I thought to myself.
Right after we got out of the metro, there were white police officers arresting a random, homeless-looking black man. There did not seem to be a reason for his arrest, but clearly the officers thought differently. Later on in the day I had seen a few similar occurrences, and was confident that also this stereotype could, sadly, be confirmed. Check.
Was it only because I had arrived in the middle of Fleet Week (a tradition in which active military ships dock in a variety of major cities for one week, often accompanied by air shows), or do Americans really fly fighter jets close to the peaks of some of the countries tallest skyscrapers? “No, this only really happens during events”, Garrett told me. Either way, the stereotype was, to some extent, confirmed. Check. Besides the ridiculous noise pollution, it offered some incredible opportunities to take great action shots.
Are things bigger in the States? Umm, yes, and not only things. People are too. And not just a little bit, I’ve seen overweight people and I’d wonder, how is it even physically possible? People so uncomfortably fat that they could just rest their head on the fat rolls of their neck and shoulders. But to come back to the question, yes, everything else is huge too, ranging from cars, roads and houses to snacks and meals.
The only thing that isn’t that big in the US, at least in the area I visited, is the average person’s knowledge of the world outside of the United States. The amount of times I was asked where I was from and I’d answer with “The Netherlands” or “Holland”, they had no clue. The magic word was “Amsterdam”. And even then, a handful of people would either ask where that is, or say something along the lines of “that’s in Europe right? or “Ah, Scandinavia, nice”. I guess I’m Scandinavian, and I come from Europe. Cool.
“Hey, how are you?” was really the most common phrase I had heard all week, whether it was San Francisco or San José. No matter where you go, anyone could ask you this question, but by the time you wanted to answer, they had most probably already asked a few other people around them the same question. At first I started responding to whoever asked, but turns out only the Uber drivers were willing to listen. I wouldn’t necessarily call it interested. Why? Because they’d usually just end up talking about themselves, and their ex-wife, 4 kids, and how expensive everything was becoming in and around San Francisco.
Stereotypes and confirmed stereotypes aside, San Francisco really is an incredible city. Within a few hours after landing, and having seen the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco at sunset, I was convinced that this city could be home for me. Just like the stereotypes, that opinion of mine from day one only got stronger as time passed. The atmosphere within the city, one of California’s largest, was unimaginable. Everyone could be who he, she or “other” wanted to be. No-one seemed to be judged by their surroundings, and every single person dressed, walked, and talked exactly how they wanted to. As if they weren’t feeling the societal pressure of having to fit in, which we have very evidently experience in the Netherlands. Not all the architecture in the city was my style, but some of the views made me forget how terrible some of the buildings looked. Standing on the top of Coit Tower, watching the sun set behind the concrete jungle of San Francisco as the final rays of light squeeze through, can only be explained through pictures. I remember telling Garrett I couldn’t wait to edit some of the pictures I took, and he laughed, “these won’t need editing, my man”. And damn, was he right.
Cycling up the steep roads of the city on rental bikes, and then racing down the busiest avenues, slaloming past busses, cabs (taxi’s for Europeans), and cable cars was an experience to truly never forget. I got mixed feelings of San Francisco, because as much as I fell in love with the vibe, the weather, and even some of the people, there were dark sides to it as well. San Francisco has a higher percentage of chronically homeless people on its streets than any other city in the US, and this was clearly visible. People walking around with shopping carts filled with their personal belongings, homeless boys stealing expensive shoes from a Nike store, and others seen using tools and all their strength to remove a security tag from clothing items. Of course, things like this happen in many cities across the globe, but nowhere had I seen it as extreme as in downtown San Francisco. And exactly that thought made me doubt whether San Francisco really could be home…
During a short road trip down south of San Francisco, we stopped at some of the most beautiful view points, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, spotted whales (no, not super-sized Americans, but the actual animal), sat on a beach and just watched the waves rip as we tried to scare the seagulls away from nicking our breakfast, and explored places where there was absolutely nobody. Unimaginable how peaceful it was, so close to a city like San Francisco. Such moments confirmed that I would want to live in California for a few years, but opinions and views still differ; is San Francisco really Heaven on Earth? Or is it just a great place to go where pretty much any stereotype about the US can be confirmed?