I met a girl in the dining hall a couple days ago who asked me where I’m from. “California,” I said, which led me to field the usual set of questions. Where in California? San Diego? Is that… northern? southern? Oh, it’s in the south, near the Mexican border? What’s the weather like? I guess everyone’s really liberal, right? (No, I say forcefully, not in San Diego, which is a military town and also has large populations of religious groups like Mormons and right-wing evangelical Christians, and whose urban area is far eclipsed by its suburban area.) After we talked a little about California geography and culture, this girl told me I didn’t look Californian. “You look very east-coast,” she said.
I laughed politely, but really, I can’t say I’m surprised. Shortly after coming to college, and realizing it was actually quite a lot better than high school, I disowned California with enthusiasm. Even out west, I’d faithfully read the local sections of the NYT and (most of) the New Yorker; through Facebook, I remained connected to the friends I’d made when my family spent a year in Massachusetts. As a dual citizen, I’ve always looked to Canada to welcome me when my home state in the US didn’t seem to. And so it was an easy transition to being a New Jersey resident, to buying sweaters and taking trains and finally, this past summer, switching my voter registration. I tell people on airplanes I’m from New Jersey now. I live here.
I suppose this isn’t really fair to poor California, which was my home for nearly 10 years before I came east. California’s tried its best, with its warm weather and San Francisco, and the wildfires and Prop. 8 and Arnold Schwarzenegger weren’t really its fault. And I know this is more about how soul-crushing high school was than it is about the biggest and most diverse state in America. I’m sure some people with similar mindsets to mine are perfectly happy even in SoCal. I’m sure many people even get through 10 years in the suburbs without considering dropping out of high school, and I’m sure on the other hand that quite a lot of teenagers have gone through a phase where they came home from school every day and lay on their bedroom floors listening to Pink Floyd’s The Wall over and over again.
I know, too, that I’m not being entirely fair to New Jersey. Extolling the virtues of the whole state when I only have the experience of living in an affluent college town is incredibly unfair to the cities in New Jersey struggling with poverty and violence which need attention and help. This state has its own problems, whether they be budgetary or race- and class-related or political-cultural, just like California. And yet, here I am, represented by the smartest Representative in Congress. Here I am in a world which looks to New York and Philadelphia, not the beach and the Bible, as arbiters of style and strictly-interpreted moral values. Here I am on the east coast. It’s going better than SoCal did, anyway.
A wonderful thing about (North) America is that so few of us are deeply rooted anywhere. I am a third-generation American on one side of my family tree and a third-generation Canadian on the other. My parents have lived all over this country and all over the world; I have lived enough different places that folks in San Diego (military town, remember) would ask if I’m a military brat. (No, I’m an academic brat, I’d say, and get blank stares.) I have no more reason to call the place I went to high school home any more than I do to call the place I was born home, but what is wonderful about (North) America is that I get to choose. If I am living somewhere I love, then it’s home, it’s “where I’m from,” simple as that.
So. Maybe I’m from New Jersey. Maybe I’m from Canada. I’m not sure. But now, every time I tell someone at school I’m from California, it feels increasingly like a lie.