At a summer camp in Massachusetts five years ago, one of my fellow campers lay sprawled out on the grass. “One day, I’m going to buy a plane ticket to California,” he announced, lazily. I bit my lip, not wanting to dispel his reverie.
People tend to view California as some sort of paradise. Since the Gold Rush days, the state has taken on an almost mythical quality as a land of glamour and opportunity. Sun! Palm trees! Hollywood! What’s not to like? Still, there are plenty of people who scorn what they view to be a land of superficiality. And although, to an extent, both opinions have merit, the perceived image of my home state is a far cry from most actual experiences of it.
Being a native has embittered me to many of these assumptions. I’m certainly not the only one who, upon telling an out-of-stater that I’m from California, has been asked if I’ve met any number of movie stars. Alas, life is not as starry here as one might think, and though I have caught a few glimpses of celebrities, it’s not like I stroll through red carpets on a daily basis (as much as I wish I did). Besides, it seems like when people think of California, they think only of Hollywood and starlets, yet Los Angeles encompasses merely a fraction of the state. Don’t forget Central and Northern California, guys.
Outsiders sigh, wishing that they could live in eternally mild weather and frolic every day to the beach. They speak of California in terms of sun and stars and beaches, which saddens me because it feels like I’ve not fully appreciated the utopia in which I live. This rosy picture also somewhat invalidates my experiences; how could I ever have any problems in such an Elysium?
Of course, inevitable stereotypes accompany this idealization. In dozens of movies and TV shows, you will see the caricature of the lax surfer or the airy Valley girl, as though all that’s required to live here is a dark tan and an annoying lingo. I can remember, as a child, staring at a swarthy, swimsuit-clad “Cali Girl” Barbie doll (yes, that exists) and thinking, “Is that what I’m supposed to be?”
If people could glance down the halls of our School or inside any office they would see that there is more to life here than simply lounging by the pool. Of course, every state comes with its own hackneyed burden—the obnoxious New Yorker, the drawly Texan, to name a few—but I found it difficult not to resent going through life with these representations everywhere I looked.
Many artists disparage California in general and Hollywood in particular as the death of originality, a swill of commercialism and a corrupting force. Obviously they ignore the art and music scene that coalesced here nearly 50 years ago and has hardly left.
Joni Mitchell’s exquisite 1970 album The Ladies of the Canyon whispers of the blooming creativity experienced by the Los Angeles music scene at the time. And while the film industry itself has definitely taken a turn for popcorn entertainment, you can always find an abundance of theaters that screen classic and experimental works of cinema, like the Castro in San Francisco and the Aero in Santa Monica.
For a while I believed I disdained California. Then I came to the conclusion that what truly irked me were the suppositions associated with living here. Writers often dub my home state as fake, a land of dashed hopes, the place where you “sell out,” and rather than forming my own opinion, I fell prey to their persuasion.
But then I read essays by Joan Didion that chronicle her life in the Golden State in the ’60s and ’70s, and I felt some of my worry and shame melt away. I saw how she crafted something stark and authentic and elegant out of the supposedly ingenuine state, not conceding to any one popular mindset. And I realized that my living here can mean as much or as a little as I want it to mean; I don’t have to fret about conforming to silly notions others hold.
So, although I could do without the constant barrage of sunny days, and despite the fact that my insatiable wanderlust will eventually take me away, this revelation has enabled me to accept the fact that I am and always will be a Californian, and maybe one day I can make something beautiful out of that.