In June of this year, both my body and mind were in strange places. My body, in Thailand: racing through bustling Bangkok traffic, where the only apparent rule was that there were no rules. My childhood friend (let's call him Derek) and I were packed into the back of a rickety tuk-tuk; the air we breathed was a mix of street food and smog.
My mind was in an equally odd situation. In this small tuk-tuk, Derek and I had been asking big questions — about where we were, where we were going, and where we came from. We discussed blurred realities from our pasts and blurrier dreams for our futures. Amid all that blurriness — or maybe it was the car exhaust — Derek asked a clear question, which clouded everything: "Would you raise a family in Palo Alto?"
That simple question twisted my mind — more than a recent Thai massage had twisted my hip flexor. Years ago, my answer would have been a resounding "Yes!" But at that moment, the answer was not so simple.
Derek and I both grew up in Palo Alto. After graduating from Paly in 2013, we landed at respective liberal arts colleges: Derek at a prestigious New England school, and I at Kenyon College in Ohio. Today, our post-graduate paths are ready to cross again: Derek works at Facebook as a software engineer, while I research anatomy and biochemistry at Stanford and SLAC. The two of us celebrated our impending adulthood by traveling through Southeast Asia in June. That was where I faced Derek's familiar, yet perplexing question.
"Umm..." was all I could muster. "I don't know."
I wasn't sure which confused me more: the question itself or the fact that I couldn't immediately answer in the positive. Like so many of my schoolmates, I grew up revering Palo Alto and Silicon Valley. We took pride in our top-ranked schools and global reputation. We gushed over local celebrities, from Steve Jobs to James Franco to Jeremy Lin. Even our problems fostered pride — unaffordable housing made it impressive that our parents could, indeed, afford homes. The city was too good to be true.
Too good to be true. Maybe that's why Derek's inquiry was so perplexing. Like the subtle incongruities of dystopian worlds, something just didn't feel right about settling down in Palo Alto — something I never felt as a child but do now.
A few weeks after the trip, I was into my postgraduate rhythm and beginning research at Stanford. Every morning, I went running through familiar neighborhoods. I would shower, eat, then drive past childhood schools on the way to work. But still, something felt off — something I couldn't figure out. Until last weekend.
At a local cafe, I met another high school friend for breakfast. We talked about her artwork, my religious life and everything in between. As I put forth Derek's inquiry to this friend, a voice cried out: "No way!"
We turned in surprise to find an older woman staring back.
"Sorry to interrupt, but I overheard your conversation. I've lived in Palo Alto for 50 years and raised my kids here."
So why the interjection? She did live in Palo Alto and had for five decades. What could be her issue?
"It's a totally different place now; it wasn't always this way."
The woman explained herself: For many today, Palo Alto feels more cardboard than community; more ideal than reality. I believe this sentiment was the source of my original unease. For example: I'm a social person and care about my friends and family. But I don't even know my neighbors' names. How could that be?
A few days later, I explained my conflicted thoughts to Derek over dinner. On the one hand, I have deep bonds here — a Stanford Christian fellowship, my family and my friends like Derek, to name a few. On the other hand, I long for a community that functions as an organism: composed of different organs and limbs, yet co-dependent and integrated. I feel as though my organism is scattered about — its dismembered parts coalescing into smaller, isolated pockets. The heart and lungs have common goals but are uninterested in the foot's agenda. The brain respects the kidneys but considers them "work friends."
Oddly enough, I feel more attached to Knox County, Ohio (where Kenyon is located), than I do Palo Alto. Somehow, this man-bun-wearing biochemist feels more connected to a Central Ohio community — which heavily supported Donald Trump — than one that shaped his own political and cultural views. I've just uttered the Trump buzzword, so I might as well utilize that example.
The custodian in my Kenyon dormitory was a 60-year-old Trump supporter (I'll call him Jeff). We represented wildly different backgrounds and political views. Every day, Jeff informed me of the latest right-wing Hillary Clinton conspiracy, and I told him his sources were untrustworthy. I'd ask why he was so riled-up over guns, and he'd expound upon his cultural attachment to firearms. Rarely, if ever, did we see eye-to-eye.
My Facebook echo-chamber spewed rhetoric about the racism and ignorance of all Trump supporters — I had many reasons to ignore Jeff. Jeff had cleaned privileged students' vomit and trash for over 30 years — he had every reason to think me an entitled brat. But we existed within a community. That community gave reason to breathe, feel and think as part of a larger organism. There was argument, yes, but also unity. Therefore, our differences were not divisive; they were instructive. I came to know Jeff as a caring and humble man who wants to save women from sex-trafficking. He came to see me — a man-bun-wearing kid from California — as a good friend.
I see fewer unexpected connections like that back home. Had Jeff and my differences arisen in Silicon Valley, we might have simply ignored each other. We might have checked our phones for the latest Tesla news. No longer would differences have become opportunities for deeper unity — at best, they'd foster mutual indifference.
I'm under no delusion that Palo Alto is made up of isolationist, unfeeling automata. I'm aware that this beautiful place holds compassionate, kind beings. Palo Alto is full of teachers, nurses and people who care about one another regardless of title.
That is exactly why I voice my troubling uncertainty — uncertainty regarding Silicon Valley's culture, which has placed blinders over our collective vision. That culture is fixated on status, not service; on power, not people. We might benefit by pulling those blinders back. We might come together in unexpected ways, by engaging our community as much as we do our work — or, God forbid, our phones. Assisting in a homeless shelter or understanding another's worldview might benefit not only the community but also ourselves.
Today, my answer to Derek is still: "I don't know." I don't know if Palo Alto is my ideal home. All I can say is that I — and many of my peers — feel something is twisted (other than my hip flexor). We see striking inequality across U.S. Highway 101 and crowded loneliness back home. I'm no longer in a tuk-tuk, blinded by car exhaust, but observations like that still make my mind uneasy. Now, I'm asking us to clear our vision, remove our blinders, and refocus on what matters most: community, people and love.
Aldis Petriceks is an anatomy scholar at the Stanford University School of Medicine, and an LCLS (Linac Coherent Light Source) research assistant at SLAC. He can be reached at [email protected]