Sky Trains: San Francisco and its heaven and earth conundrum

“Many successful tech workers living in the Bay Area regard themselves as idealistic missionaries of progress, rejecting the idea of them as agents of self-interested capitalism.  In truth, they are inescapably both.”

The quote above is fictional.  The words are actually lifted from a 1999 article in The Atlantic, entitled “Tibet Through Chinese Eyes.”  The original quotes goes as follows: “Many Chinese working in Tibet regard themselves as idealistic missionaries of progress, rejecting the Western idea of them as agents of cultural imperialism.  In truth, they are inescapably both.”

train2 bridge prayer flags

I’m not here to discuss the issue of Tibetan independence – most of you have probably heard about it already, even if you’re unaware of the nuances.  Nor am I here to make Chinese or Chinese-American readers uncomfortable, nor anyone in the world of international business with interests in China.  That might happen as a side effect, but it’s not my aim.  Rather, I want to focus on a phenomenon that’s been unfolding in Tibet over the last two decades (and especially the last eight years) that offers a lesson for anyone concerned with the now full-blown crisis facing the greater San Francisco area.

Of course when you’re talking about a people and a place, you’re also talking about culture and economics.  Given the specificity of San Francisco—a more wonderful, unique city that has no peer in the entire country and even possibly the world, San Franciscans might have you believe—how could anything as far removed as China and Tibet bear relevance or relation?  To see the connection, I’ll ask you to turn your gaze upwards…towards the sky.

Ah!  Gorgeous.  San Francisco’s famed “micro-climates.”  Inhabitants can experience a dozen different weather patterns within an area of measuring approximately seven by seven miles.  Now let’s look down for a moment.  How interesting!  The patterns on the ground are beginning to resemble the micro-climates above, for people are living radically different lives mere blocks away from one another.

There you’ve got several dozen folks enjoying $4 slices of toast and $200 jeans, comfortably earning $100-$150,000 a year with confidence that this amount will only increase.  Their only concern (outside of the universal problems of their own death, health and family drama) is how to invest this money so that when early retirement comes, they’ll have enough to spend.  Many of these people are kind-hearted, others are more, well, let’s just say gold-hearted.  Regardless, the majority of them aren’t great at noticing what’s happening directly around them,perhaps  because their jobs revolve around creating things that don’t really exist in the first place, or observing the commonplace only for the sake of finding potential trends.  So understanding and taking interest in the mundane world of plain old hardships and suffering doesn’t come naturally…making actual understanding not only pretty uncomfortable, but even the willingness to learn and change seem like a lost cause.

Next to this group, in fact under the same roof and often inter-mixing with them, are people who look a little sweatier, just a little dirtier.  They ride bikes that cost less than $200, use public transportation to get to work and parties, and manage to snag the occasional free meal or drink by knowing a friend in the back.  Their concerns are usually a multitude, which is probably partly why they look so frazzled and angry a lot of the time (or sad, because some of them are no good with anger and just go straight to depression).  They’re having trouble making rent, paying medical bills, dealing with student loans, and have probably been looking for love in all the wrong places (also an issue with the first group).  These citizens are diverse in age, race and educational background—the older ones are generally quieter and often attached to families, which is why you don’t see them grumbling as much as the ones who don’t have kids to support, or are living with their parents because they’re that broke, and fortunately have family living nearby.

Let’s take a break from this mess and hop over to Tibet, home to the highest plateau on the planet, where the earth feels like it might actually touch the sky.  Of course we can’t enter Tibet without interacting with its friendly overlord and liberator, China (I think Motherland is the preferred pronoun).  Tibet, aside from everything its people and their cultural mystique have to offer, is a land rich with mineral deposits and other natural resources (including lithium, gold, and let’s not forget that eight of Asia’s ten major rivers originate on the Tibetan plateau).  Because of these factors, and also because of the “frontier” aura it has always possessed for China, it draws thousands of Chinese settlers and tourists every year (as well as non-Chinese tourists of course), not to mention interest from major markets like the mining and hotel industries.  The “golden worm” may soon replace the goji berry craze, and if people love Himalayan salt, I can’t wait to see what happens when they realize how good yak milk feels in a bar of soap.

So, business is booming in Tibet.  It’s not my point, but it is an important part of the picture.  Can you think of anywhere else that’s been on a rocket climb of wealth-building and excitement?  Yes, you see it now, San Francisco and Silicon Valley.  But surely there’s more to it?  Enough with abstractions, let’s try and focus on something specific.

Heard of something called the “Sky Train”?  That’s the Chinese name for the highest railway line in the world connecting China to Tibet—or the old East to a new West, as its visionaries probably thought of it.  Finished and launched in 2006, it provides an unparalleled level of comfort, safety and speed to anyone wishing to travel to Shangri-La.  Well, almost anyone.  Tibetans are increasingly facing difficulty using the train, especially if their destination is Lhasa, the capital of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR is a Chinese state-determined region that only includes half of actual Tibet.  The rest of Tibet makes up large chunks of Sichuan, Qinghai and Gansu provinces).

Excluding the unfortunate problems facing Tibetans, the Sky Train is there for whoever can afford it, because China is interested not only in money from tourism, but also the economic development brought on by new Chinese settlers or temporary migrant workers (“temporary” means a period of 5-10 years), who are given incentives for moving out West.  Tibetans also bring a little economic development of their own, but given that the illiteracy rate among Tibetans is approximately ten times higher than among Han Chinese, there isn’t much expectation or infrastructure set in place to accommodate wealth-building among Tibetans.


The features of the Sky Train certainly promote environmental cleanliness on the one hand – less cars on the road!  But let’s not forget this is Tibet we’re talking about, not an interstate highway.  No one in their right mind would start driving en masse to Tibet – you either fly or take the train.  And yes, building the train involved deforestation and a lot of time and money.  But China’s future as an economic superpower was at stake, as well as national pride—after all, then-President Hu Jintao cut the red ribbon for the ceremony marking the first train’s departure on July 1 2006, the 85th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party.  So what if it also paved the way for what some describe as “settler colonialism”?  What the heck is that anyway?

Putting on my professor hat (oh do indulge, it’s a dying profession), settler colonialism occurs when new people arrive in an area they have no historical connection, and live in the vicinity of people they have little regard for.  The two groups are generally distinguished by race or ethnicity.  The attitude of most of the new settlers toward the original inhabitants is one of curiosity at best (“Huh!  Would you look at that.”), apathy or disassociation at average (“I don’t see you”), or at worst, resentment-judgment-outright dislike and discrimination (“They’re so lazy-dirty-uneducated-unsafe.”)

Feeling little responsibility to the environment which they now inhabit, and even less sense of connection to the original inhabitants, the focus of these new settlers is on making money for themselves and their families, as well as securing their well-being and enjoyment in other ways (food, entertainment, and supporting private[1] or state funded security forces).  They are generally spooked by protests, because they believe protests will lead to riots, which leads to violence against the new settlers and their property.

The thing the new settlers don’t seem to realize is that there are solutions to the unhappiness of the original inhabitants, who have had their homes, culture, and livelihoods colonized in most senses of the word (even if not to the furthest extreme).  After all, if breaking the law is breaking the law, then partial colonization can still count as colonization, just as partly beating someone up still counts as a beat-down.  Yes, the punishment should match the infraction—but given how crowded China’s and California’s jails and prisons already are (the U.S. may have the highest prison population of any country in the world, but China has the highest execution rate…meet and shake hands, Hyde and Hyde!), can we find some other way to mete out justice and secure overall happiness rather than retribution?

I believe our answers lie somewhere between heaven and earth, and that implementing them require a meeting between these two profoundly important parts of our world.  Now for all of you non-spiritual, non-religious folk (or atheist or anti-religious, however you identify), take comfort…I’m not talking about heaven as God or the divine.  Heaven here is somewhat related though, in that it represents the realm of ideas – what wonderful things!  Ideas are what Silicon Valley runs on, ideas are the fuel of capitalism, the fundamental je ne sais quoi of democracy, the stuff Willy Wonka sings about!  Pure imagination.  How divine.

The new Google Bus design, a reflection of an iconic Mission neighborhood landmark that may soon disappear.

The new Google Bus design, a reflection of an iconic Mission neighborhood landmark that may soon disappear.

Ah…has it hit you yet?  Like a ton of bricks, we land back on earth.  How could that beautiful idea have failed?  What do you mean, you can’t just make it happen?  What’s wrong with you?  You must not be trying hard enough…don’t get distracted by that dirty, angry mob forming around you.  Just get on your Idea Bus or Sky Train, hire some private guards or paramilitary, have your meals delivered via drones if the workers are too angry to oblige, and go!  Make those dreams a reality!

I know there are many practical people working in Silicon Valley and the high-end companies of San Francisco.  And there are also many practical people working as servers, baristas, cooks, janitors, cab drivers, mail carriers, medical assistants, nurses and teachers.  And these practical people know, you can’t just live in the world of ideas and imagination.  You’ve got to be able to work with concrete elements, you have to know how to make change happen on the ground.

Some of these people, similar to some of the Idea People, are fairly skillful at bringing together heaven and earth, the idea and the material.  On both sides there are the hardliners, though…the Idea People who say, all you need is a great idea, that’s who should get paid the big bucks – someone else can make it happen.  But then you’ve got the Materialists, who say you’ve got build it from the ground up!  We all know cases like this…I mean, buildings for one.  Who ever heard of a building that started from the top?

Oh I’m being too linear now, am I?  The Idea Kings remind us, an idea isn’t about linearity, in fact the best ideas are often non-linear!  Please, give me the benefit of the doubt and understand I’m not trying to curtail creativity (which by the way, capitalist systems alone don’t get to lay claim to).  I actually believe what San Francisco-Silicon Valley and China are suffering from is the same ailment—namely a lack of creativity, too much of the same thing.


In the San Francisco Bay Area, that thing is an influx of Big Ideas that may look like they are liberal, progressive and modern—private busses help the environment and reduce the commute!  But these Big Ideas and their supporters have lost sight of the main objectives of these pretty forms.  The main objective of private busses serving tech workers was never about being supportive to public transportation infrastructures – if that was the case, they would have offered to pay to use public bus stops from the beginning.  And if hiring and supporting local workers and economies was a primary goal, security guards, cooks and janitors who work at places like Google would have health insurance and full-time hours.  Oh, and they could afford to live locally (i.e. near their place of work).  

Making and keeping profits, along with offering incentives to people not already living in the Bay Area to relocate here, has always been the main objectives of the big tech companies.  And that is their downfall, the same old tired strategy of self-interested capitalism they have been applying too much, and that is the thing that is tearing San Francisco and the surrounding area apart.  People can take a little capitalism, just like they can take a little colonialism, even if it’s unethical and damaging to others and ourselves.  But subject them to too much, and you have a situation on your hands.

But all is not lost.  Just like I firmly believe all is not lost for Tibet or China (how idealist this talk is becoming, after all the warning against the perils of ideology).  Every tech worker and employer has a brain, as well as a heart that goes along with that brain!  If even half of them can actually start exercising other parts of their brain (not just the money-making, mind my own business parts), amazing things can happen, especially if they start exercising their hearts as much as they do their brains!  But their hearts have got to be used for the benefit of others, just like their brains need to start thinking about how to help cultivate conditions for less stress and more happiness in other people’s lives.  Free meals and transportation for all wouldn’t be a bad place to start.  And if that isn’t financially possible, then we should all think about why the only people getting things for free are those who are in the positions to pay, and see what we can do to build real opportunity and comfort in the workplace for everyone.

You know who also have hearts and brains?  The rightfully disgruntled, scared or just overall unhappy, overworked and underpaid masses of the Bay Area.  Very few people are actually looking to go to war over this.  Not only because war and bloodshed are ethically questionable, but because their priority isn’t to hurt others.  It’s just to try and balance the work load, and the experiences of suffering we are all privy too but some keep trying to escape from on their private jets.

So what’s left is dialogue.  What’s left is non-warlike action.  As for the latter, many might find the direct action techniques used to stop the busses and yell at tech workers to be violent and war-like.  But just like any action and potential “crime,” you’ve got to look at it in terms of degree.  What’s the more important law to not violate, constitutional law or traffic law?  What’s more violent, damaging property or limiting and controlling opportunities for a decent jobs?  What’s worse, letting someone steal food from your kid or knocking the spoon out of the perpetrator’s hands?  Many of the exhausted, angry people protesting see the unfettered business models of tech companies as literally stealing food off their table.

Because the capitalist model always requires a worker, it will always require cheap labor, somewhere.  So even if most tech workers are compensated handsomely, someone somewhere who is integral to the San Francisco-Silicon Valley machine working, that someone is going to be massively underpaid, forced out or otherwise undercut in order for profits to be possible (and not just any mere profit, we’re talking Gold Rush money).

Change is possible.  Dialogue has been under-utilized in this crisis, because we all honestly have a hard time talking to each other.  Most of us went to very different undergraduate institutions (for the ones who went to college at all), and have since lived in very different circles.  If we don’t know how to socialize with one another, how on earth can we expect to dialogue and come to solutions over such messy, provocative issues together?  And it is precisely on earth that these conversations need to take place, not in the pretty heavens of Big Ideas.

The solution San Francisco is looking for isn’t going to happen through a text message or an app.  Nor will it happen at a protest.  Not that anything is inherently wrong or unproductive with either of these mediums, but they both are inhospitable to cultivating the conditions for the most crucial ingredient – heartfelt, intelligent conversations with each other, on the ground.  Try and start a conversation with that person serving you coffee (on their break, preferably, as they don’t get paid to get into emotionally charged conversations with patrons).  Try and keep your heart a little open to that rich-and-also-nice seeming techie you see every Saturday for brunch. Different backgrounds yet complementary personalities can do wonders for bringing a better future within reach.