Snippets / The G Diaries

[note: this is part of what I wrote a while ago as an attempt to process the 1.75 years I spent at Google]

Of the whole team, we only had one ‘real’ American (M) and he joined the team a year after I did. M went to Dartmouth and rowed crew. He is very tall and very white and very smart. His girlfriend C is in her third year of medical school. We had them over for dinner just after I left Google, and they are a lovely couple. Almost everyone else on the team had originally worked at the Bangalore office, and had moved to the Bay Area in 2014. Initially I was curious about whether my Indian co-workers ever felt lonely or out-of-place. They assured me that they were even more well-connected to people that they grew up with in the Bay than they were back home! In fact, more of their high school friends were in Silicon Valley than not. Perhaps more significantly, they were incredibly adept at keeping their social connections alive, as well as at making new ones. I was constantly hearing about board game nights and drinking nights and birthday surprises and some less legal hobbies that they enjoyed together. My Indian coworkers participated in many facets of American culture — they purchased groupons for paint night, were fascinated by the election, and geeked out over Star Wars. But while they were quite happy to be assimilated into American/Bay Area culture, they didn’t display a strong desire mix with American people outside of a work context — or perhaps they lacked the opportunity to do so.

This is all especially striking to me because of my own background, which is somewhat parallel to theirs.

I grew up (for the most part) in Singapore. My parents are both Singaporean. Until I left for college, I never identified strongly with the notion of being ‘Singaporean’ or ethnically ‘Chinese’, simply because it didn’t occur to me that I could be anything else. All my friends were Singaporean, and most of them were Chinese.

There was a decent amount of ethnical prejudice and ‘othering’ that I was exposed to in Singapore, particularly surrounding immigrant workers and domestic helpers (“maids”), but I was completely oblivious to it while I was in school. Even the foreign scholars from China, Vietnam and other Asian countries in our classrooms were mostly excluded from our social structures, to put it bluntly. We called students from China ‘PRC’ (short for People’s Republic of China) — as in, “he’s a PRC” — and on hindsight, it’s obvious that this peculiarly anthropomorphic verbal gesture was a gross devaluation of both the person as well as their homeland. As if their person could never mean more than their country and their country could never mean more than other. Of course, all this time I was kept busy figuring out my future and developing all the potential that my parents and teachers saw in me.

And it was in fact all those hours of tuition and dollars spent on extracurricular paraphernalia, crucially intersecting with an abundance of opportunity and privilege, affording me access to people and places of so-called socially-constructed ‘prestige’ as well as genuine opportunities for learning and development, that landed me in an Ivy League institution in Philadelphia.

Honestly, I was terrified of white people.

In freshman year, both my hallmates were white girls (and now I know that one of them went to high school with Karl). I didn’t know what to say to them. They were like people from the movies — after all, my sole exposure to American culture was all the Lindsay Lohan movies plus all the Princess Diaries books plus Taylor Swift. They looked different, they spoke different. On my first day at Penn they asked me if I wanted to go out with them that night to a frat party, and I didn’t know what to say. A hundred thousand little negotiations and re-configurations were going on inside my head, and I didn’t know how to articulate any of them. I both accepted and resented the fact that they were treating me — too-kindly and too-self-consciously — as an International Student. I sensed and reinforced the power dynamic that was developing between us, and so I pleaded jet-leg and went to bed that night very homesick indeed.

This past week has been nerve-wrecking and frustrating. I was promised by the USCIS (United States Consulate for Immigration Services) that I would receive my EAD/AP (Employment Authorization Document/Advanced Parole) Combo Card within ninety days of my application for a Green Card, which I applied for on May 3, 2017. It’s been more than a hundred days. Essentially, I’ve applied to become a Permanent Resident here in America, and while they’re processing my request (which takes about one year), I’m not allowed to work or travel outside the country unless I have this Combo Card, which sounds an awful lot like something you would get at McDonalds, except it takes decidedly longer than fast food to prepare.

I asked my Indian co-workers how long it takes for them to get a work-based Green Card in the US.

“Oh, hmm,” they said. “About forty years.”
“What?!”
“Doesn’t matter. You can still stay in the mean time.”

And perhaps that is how we grow accustomed to wearing a status that is pending, that is in-between.

I’m aware that these people have reached what most people would call the pinnacle of the immigrant experience. They live in comfort and luxury, they don’t face overt racism, and they do significant and interesting work. But even for them, it feels like something is missing.

It’s difficult to have a stake in a community when you don’t belong to it.
It’s difficult to talk about change when you can’t vote.
It’s difficult to take an interest in a country’s people when its people don’t take an interest in you.

I ask them if they want to go back to India, and a lot of them say, probably.

My most valuable learning points from Google have nothing to do with technology, computer science or career advancement.

First, I learned how to operate an espresso machine. At Google’s campus, you are never more than a hundred and fifty feet away from one. It is a Rule. I once asked one of the microkitchen staff how much one of the units cost, and she said at least tens of thousands of dollars. Of course, being able to curate a cortado with locally-harvested beans has no immediate relevance to software development (at least, not that I’m aware of), but it seems to be entirely relevant to employee retention rates. Anyway, I learned how to make espresso by first making a blundering fool of myself. While I was fiddling with the attachment, I noticed a man waiting impatiently for me to be done, which only made me more nervous. Of course, I had no idea what I was doing. Eventually, he spoke up.

“I’m sorry—do you mind? You’re doing it wrong.”
“What?”
“You’re going to spoil the machine.”
“Oh no!”
“I used to be a barista. Here, I can show you.”

And he did. And I practiced every day. Rinse out the metal thingy so you don’t get the staleness from the previous brew. The right amount of coffee, the right pressure when you pack it in. The right degree of tightness when you screw the attachment on. How to make microfoam. How to wash each vessel properly. It was extraordinarily empowering to be able to make au laits and americanos for myself, and to impress visitors with my newfound nonengineering skill.

Karl was my most frequent visitor by far. We decided to make small alterations to his name each time he registered in case some system algorithm caught the fact that someone named Karl Li was visiting the San Francisco Google Office twice a week (and consuming a lot of the cookies). He would wear guest badges that said Kar Li, Karli, Karl Lee, Karol Lee, etc. It was incredibly convenient that he lived a short walk away from my office. At that time he was working from home, and so coming to the office at lunch and working together helped to take the edge off the loneliness a little (for the both of us). During lunch we’d take our food — something like miso-glazed pork loin with power greens, curried cauliflower soup and bread from a local bakery, a salad with squash blossoms — to the Embarcadero, near the famous ferry building, and gaze at the beautiful Bay Bridge as we ate. Did we know that only a year later we’d be happily settled in the East Bay? We probably didn’t have a clue. After lunch I’d offer to make him coffee, but more often than not he’d want tea, or his favorite drink: steamed milk with syrup.

I worked out of the San Francisco office three times a week. In my first year, I commuted every day from the Sunset to Google’s headquarters in Mountain View and back. I would wake up at 6:12am, take a shower, eat some food, dress, and speedwalk for twelve minutes—past the little Asian stores which were just beginning to show signs of life, in the freezing fog—to 19th & Kirkham, which is where I caught the shuttle. The shuttle took about seventy minutes. On the shuttle, I mostly did some combination of: texting Karl, texting my mom, reading, emails, working, listening to Switchfoot/Narnia/the Bible. The shuttle was always nearly full, and nobody ever talked to anyone else on the shuttle. Eighty percent of people were on their laptops, and the rest were asleep. The only time anyone said anything was to tell the driver that the wifi wasn’t working.

The shuttle ride home in the evening took anywhere from ninety minutes and up. I took the earliest bus home (4pm) and usually got home before 6pm. That’s three hours a day, or fifteen hours a week, spent being idle on a bus. No matter how I tried to optimize my hours on the shuttle, it felt like lost time. My eyes were too tired to look at a screen and longer, and so I uttered many desperate and incoherent prayers.

I believe God heard them all.

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