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Jan 10

Year in Review (Part 2)

This is the second post in a series. The first post is here.

2. Getting to know some very interesting people

The most valuable thing I got from Stanford was the contact with so many interesting people.

Starting with my coursemates, I had never been exposed to people who were nationals of so many different countries in the same place before. The admissions committee did a great job of getting together such a diverse group of people. And what was remarkable was that everyone was nice. No one really had an ego, and I’m really sensitive to people with overblown egos.

Sure, on the first day when everyone met some were a bit edgy. People were unsure of what to expect, so there was a bit of grandstanding and competitiveness as they tested out the waters. Some conversations were an exercise in keeping face. For example, one person would say, “So I was just in Paris last summer at Cornell’s law program, and I found this great restaurant in the 6th arrondissement” and the person they were speaking to would jump in with, “Oh, well I actually speak French and I lived there for a year.” (This isn’t a real example because I can’t remember exactly what was said, but they were things of this flavor. My favorite answer to these conversations was, “Well I only speak English and I’ve lived in the same city for my whole life, maaaaaate.”) Amusingly, people organizing social events would write emails in formal language, as if they were being sent to clients and were organizing a deal closing. And people actually turned up to these social events on time.

But pretty soon everyone realized that no one was insecure about themselves, and people relaxed. This allowed people to open up and talk about things they had done or achieved without someone else feeling defensive or like they needed to prove themselves as well. Unfortunately, this also meant that punctuality went out the window.

I learned so much about other cultures, just by hearing about how people got to where they were in life now, and just in the way I saw certain cultures interacting with others. The multi-kiss greetings of Europeans versus the hands-off approach of the Chinese. The early meal times of Australians versus the late meal times of Brazilians. The undying fascination a sex-obssessed European had with the conservative practices of a Muslim middle-easterner. The varying political viewpoints among the Israelis. The propensity for certain cultures to slip back into their mother tongue, against those who did not (I once witnessed three Germans having a spirited discussion in English, even though no one else was listening in). The tendency for certain cultures to clump with others. I remember sticking around after a class, only to realize that discussions had broken up into three groups of people: three Japanese, three Brazilians, and myself, a Canadian, and a Kiwi (three Commonwealthers). I found that national identity asserts itself the most overseas. Patriotic sentiments people never knew they had sometimes bubble up to the surface. I found myself introducing myself as being “from Australia”, as if that would explain everything.

I learned how each of us viewed the American culture, and although homesickness is a universal trait, I think that some cultures are more prone to being homesick than others based on how dissimilar America is to their home country.

Interestingly, even though as time went on, people stopped prefacing names with “the Brazilian guy”, or “the Chinese girl,” nationality remained such a big part of people’s identities. I think for people living overseas, nationality is the biggest part of one’s identity, maybe rivaled only by their occupation. This is all a positive thing when the differences introduce diversity and expand perspectives, instead of promoting discrimination.

On the professional side of things, the value of having an international network of lawyers is clear. However, to say the LLM is a good networking opportunity really cheapens things, because these people aren’t just a network of acquaintances, they become really good friends. The LLM program acts as a great leveler, and everyone, whether they were a judge, a partner, or a junior associate all become students again. I struggle to find any other context where (at this stage in my career), I could get to know a partner well enough that they would offer to lend me their car to help me move apartments.

It wasn’t just the people at the law school, either. The law school is tiny in the whole scheme of things – 550 students out of 15,000. Take for instance where I was living.

Most graduates live in on-campus housing. The largest of these settlements is called Escondido Village (known locally as EV), which is a mixture of different 40-50 year old buildings, arranged in all sorts of configurations. You had high-rise buildings with 1-bedroom apartments, studio apartments, 2-level 2-bedroom apartments, and so on. As the average age of people in my program was about 29, most were at a stage in their life where they couldn’t tolerate living in a dorm, so most people opted for studio apartments. I went with one of the 2-level 2-bedroom apartments and found myself in a part of EV called “Area 51”. It was called Area 51 because there was a peculiar structure in the middle of the neighborhood looked like a landscape architect had tried to breed a sandpit with a skateboard park. It had no practical use and questionable aesthetic value. Its purpose was a local mystery, hence the name Area 51.

When I arrived, I met my roommate who had already been living there for a year. Sonny was a half-Vietnamese half-Chinese American, who had grown up in a rougher part of LA. I found out quickly that he was a pretty skilled hip-hop dancer, having taught dance classes and choreographed for a dance group back in UCLA before. He told me that he had been trained by someone who had choreographed for Michael Jackson. Sonny was also working towards a PhD in Applied Physics, trying to build a better laser. How’s that for anti-stereotypes.

The majority of grad students at Stanford are engineers and scientists. My neighbors were aeronautical engineers from England, electrical engineers from Nigeria, economists from India, and developmental biologists from Venezuela.

The development biologist was Jose, and I came to know him through Sonny. They were both CAs for Area 51 – community associates. Their role was to trying and turn the agglomeration of buildings around the skateboard sandpit into a neighborhood by holding social events. (Given how difficult it is to get engineers and scientists out of their labs, and the general personality type of an engineer, they were pretty successful, even if people only showed up because of the free food and not because it was a chance to socialize.) Jose had an even more interesting background than Sonny. He grew up in Venezuela and more or less illegally ended up in Florida as a teenager, without a passport. He spoke no English, but luckily he was in a part of the US where Spanish was heavily used. He eventually got a job waiting tables, where he was forced to pick up English very quickly. He did that for three years, and during that time saved enough money for him to put himself through a community college and earned a 2-year associate degree. He then transferred into a university and completed a bachelor’s. Jose was then awarded a national scholarship which allowed him to start his PhD at Stanford. A pretty amazing story! In his spare time, he liked to take multi-day hikes through national parks and had a somewhat notorious penchant for Asian women (which he made no secret of!).

3. Getting fit again

Stanford is a well known sporting university, and a lot of prominent athletes have attended under a scholarship (Tiger Woods, John McEnroe, Kerri Walsh, Janet Evans, etc.). Apparently, Stanford had more alumni in the US Beijing Olympic team than any other university. Consequently, this means that us mere mortals have access to a lot of great sporting facilities at no cost. It would have been a travesty to not use them. The gym, swimming pool, squash courts, tennis courts, basketball courts, volleyball courts and golf course were all minutes away by bike. I spent a lot of that time on the golf course. It’s a beautiful, very lush and well-maintained course. Par 71 from the white tees. A round costs $25 for students, or $13 for a twilight start (where you can fit in about 12 holes). This is a real bargain by itself, but when you put it next to the non-student price of $130, it looks even cheaper. Fortunately, a lot of my classmates played golf as well, so I had no shortage of playing partners. (One friend even infamously turned up to Stanford with a repertoire of footwear consisting solely of a pair of flip-flops and a pair of golf shoes. This meant that he was forced to show up to formal events in a suit and flip-flops. This happened on more than one occasion.)

I hadn’t played regularly since my club days back in school, but over the last year I was going once, maybe twice a week. Starting with a score in the 100s, I slowly managed to whittle my average round down to about 90. On one blazingly good day – the type of day which keeps otherwise frustrated golfers addicted to the game – I shot a 76. I should have stopped playing then, because I have never been within a half dozen strokes of that score since.

The golf course was also interesting because of the people you could get randomly grouped with. Apart from students, the golf course was frequented by cashed up alumni who filled the car park with an array of flashy cars. We played with an array of people, from a football team coach, to a Google exec, to a very well-to-do Bay Area realtor. I know someone who played with George Roberts (the “R” of KKR, who apparently donated Stanford’s driving range).

I managed to attend an NBA, NHL and NBL game, but I can’t say I really enjoyed any of them except the basketball. The concept of baseball seemed similar to cricket, but I guess unless you were brought up on the sport, it’s difficult to acquire a taste for it.

I played a bit of squash, which is a great way to get fit because it’s so vigorous. The South Americans seemed to have that sport nailed down tightly, along with the soccer. It’s a great game though because you don’t need to be very good at it to have fun.

The other thing I should mention is the near-perpetual sunshine you get in this part of the world from Spring through to Fall. You get tanned just by walking to class (although the tanlines are pretty bad).

Continued in Part 3

  12:36pm  •  Life  •   •  Tweet This  •  Comments (2)

This post has 2 comments

1.  Pete

Pretty fascinating. Great to read your experience on the States. I’ve also been amazed at the similarities and differences. In my time here, I remember the first thing I noticed was that things are generally pretty common, just that yanks use about 25% more cheese on their food.

2.  Stuart Loh

And also, their cheese is orange.

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