When asked, I tell people I’m from California, rather than America. There is an underlying thought that I may be immediately disliked if I announce the latter. But that’s not necessarily why I do it.
California seems to be universally known and loved for what it is perceived to be. People who can’t even name a city other than Los Angeles (our Argentinian couchsurfing host in Manly Beach was hilariously excited to discover how many other city names in California are Spanish) still know of the beaches, the movie stars and the apparent round-the-clock surfing parties.
There is a sunny, glamorous image of California that you might see presented on The OC or in People Magazine. And, at a very basic level, it’s true. California is a beautiful, exciting, interesting place with a million different things to offer a resident or traveler.
I say “I’m from California” to start a conversation with people I meet, and so far, it’s working. Just yesterday, I met two Canadian backpackers in my hostel in Cairns. When I told them California is home for me, one shot out of bed to a sitting position and exclaimed: “California?! That’s the BEST place to live! Do you go to Disneyland every day?”
Honestly, I expected responses like this. Even in college, friends would ask if I surfed to class in high school (always shreddin’ those gnarly Walnut Creek swells, brah) or lived next to Brad Pitt (“No,” I would sometimes say. “Just George Clooney.”).
But I wasn’t really prepared for the amount of travelers I’ve met who are confused by my answer. For example, a British guy recently heard where I was from and looked at me curiously, asking, “Why would you ever leave the States? You don’t need to go anywhere else if you live in California.”
Multiple people have responded with some form of “Ah, you’re so lucky! I wish I could live there!” or “California?! What a dream!”
Sure, it’s a dream. I’m in love with the Bay Area and will eventually settle and raise a family (or whatever grown ups do) there, if the housing market comes back to Earth. But we are also fresh out of water, have incompetent public transportation, a debt the size of Jupiter and cardboard boxes on city streets renting for $1,500 per month.
To be fair, these are things I don’t know (or notice) about other places. Surely, Melbourne has its own issues but my first instinct after a few days wandering was “yeah, I could see myself here.”
So maybe what I’m getting at is just the general belief that the grass is always greener on the other side (except it’s brown in California at the moment). I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t tell the folks who nearly fall out of bed with excitement upon hearing the word “California” to go visit (you’re welcome, economy), but I worry that our state’s globally-celebrated monopoly on cinematic and musical entertainment may be misinforming people.
California is a dreamland — a place to be visited by all who can (well, San Francisco at least…LA sucks, unless you’re really awesome and are there to watch the Dodgers) — but it doesn’t need to be the end-all, be-all of tourist destinations.
There are beautiful homes, coastlines and people all over the world, and I’m getting the impression every day that many who live elsewhere are happier people than many Californians anyway. The other day, I got another awestruck look from a Swedish traveler when I mentioned I live in California. Mere minutes after he told me how much he’d love to live there, we were into a discussion about Sweden’s free higher education, paid for by the government.
Anyway, all I’m saying is it goes both ways: California will always be there (well…). But will you be as satisfied seeing the Walk of Fame or the Golden Gate Bridge as you will sitting down to a traditional meal with a third-world family or hiking a volcano tourists rarely touch? Is the flashy, material world of California really more interesting than the pristine, untouched peninsula of Tasmania, just because you see us on TV?
Sometimes, I just want to shake the people who get all excited over my roots and yell, “YOUR HOME IS COOL, TOO. AUSTRALIA IS COOL, TOO. GO SOMEWHERE YOU’VE NEVER HEARD OF INSTEAD!”
For those who live in California, it can feel really good to get out of the comfortable, warm bubble. That goes for anyone who has made a longstanding home in one place, but everything just seems so easy in California.
I got out for four years in college and went from the suburbs of San Francisco to the wheat fields of the Washington/Idaho border. I got out for a summer on a ship around the Mediterranean. Now I’m out for \_(o.O)_/ with a backpack and a laptop, trekking through places both similar to home (Australia) and polar opposite (Southeast Asia).
Each time this has happened, I’ve found myself more engaged in daily life, more interested in meeting new people and trying new things (granted, each place was a completely new, solo experience), and actually appreciating where I’m from more than ever before.
It doesn’t hurt to get out and give Melbourne or Reykjavik or Tokyo a chance. It doesn’t hurt to be uncomfortable for a while, because you can make anywhere home for the time being, as long as you’re open and optimistic.
And, who knows? Maybe you’ll fall in love with a place you never even knew existed and forget all about sailing in Malibu with Ashton Kutcher.
I hope all the people I’ve met who desperately want to live in the States and move to California get the chance to experience the dream, even for a moment. But I also hope they step back and appreciate all the other amazing places in the world that may have even more to offer.
California will always be home, but we don’t always have to be home to know that.