01 September 2008

California Culture - A Personal Evaluation

During one of my language classes in another country, we had a day dedicated to talking about their culture. To illustrate how difficult it is to succinctly describe a culture, the teacher asked us to try to describe our own. Yikes! I ran out of time, and only got to one small part of what I grew up knowing about California. Forget about all the hype, there is so much about life here that most people don't even put into their mental picture of the state. So, I've been thinking about this off and on, and thought I'd take a stab at it here. I'll probably miss a lot even now, but it will be the beginnings of a picture.


California, with almost 156,000 square miles, is the third largest state in the USA, and is about 8 times Costa Rica's nearly 20,000 square miles. It is the southernmost state on the West coast of the continent - the Northern section is usually considered part of the Pacific Northwest region, and the Southern section is usually part of the Southwest region.

On September 9, 1850, California became the 31st state in the union.

By population, California is more Democratic than Republican; however, political maps (http://nationalatlas.gov/natlas/Natlasstart.asp) and voter registration by county (http://www.sos.ca.gov/elections/ror/60day_stwddirprim_08/hist_reg_stats.pdf) will show that it is sharply divided - urban areas are more Democratic, and rural areas are more Republican.

Very few states have such a high non-religious population. California's Religions are as follows:
- Protestant ~ 40%
- Roman Catholic ~ 35%
- non-Religious ~ 19%
- Muslim < href="http://www.answers.com/topic/climate-of-california">http://www.answers.com/topic/climate-of-california)

California experiences several types of natural disasters, including earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, multi-year droughts, summer fires, and winter floods. Freezing temperatures are so rare in the Bay Area that the news broadcasts a "frost warning," including advice on how to keep your plants and pets alive. Even inland, I've seen lowland snow 5 times in 40 years - from "melts when it hits the ground" to "enough for a 1-day snowman." Tornadoes are even rarer, and hurricanes are unheard of.

California has an extensive public university system, with 10 University of California campuses, 23 California State University campuses, and over 100 community colleges. These campuses are highly regarded, and are on the "recruit from here" list of many major companies. There are also many private universities - well-known rivalries are between Stanford and UC Berkeley, and between UCLA and University of Southern California.


The name "California" comes from Califia, the mythical queen of an island of Amazon women. When the Spanish explorers found the land, it seemed so much like the golden island described by mythology, that the name stuck. There are other theories of the origin, but this is the one I grew up hearing (in the California school system).

The "49er" is a cherished ideal of California. It refers to the folks who flooded into California when gold was discovered in 1849, and evokes the rough-living, hard-working, and - ultimately - lucky loner. You can still see people panning for gold in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains (this is Spanish for "always snowy"). And, in fall, you can see the San Francisco 49ers playing football :)

There is an inter-state rivalry joke (told in Oregon, of course): The Oregon trail led West. At the point where it branched, one sign said "Oregon trail this way," and another simply had a picture of gold and an arrow pointing South. Those who could read, kept going West into Oregon...

Of course, gold comes in many forms. The state flower is the Golden Poppy, and grows wild all over the state.

State flag symbols
- the grizzly bear on a patch of grassy land represents great strength in a rich land.
- the single red star is modeled on the Texas lone star, and can be seen to represent individualism, and self-reliance.

State seal description (http://www.library.ca.gov/history/symbols.html)
- The Roman goddess of wisdom, Minerva, has at her feet a grizzly bear and clusters of grapes representing wildlife and agricultural richness.
- A miner works near the busy Sacramento River, below the Sierra Nevada peaks. The Greek word "Eureka" meaning "I have found it", probably refers to the miner's discovery of gold.
- Near the upper edge of the seal are 31 stars representing the number of states with California's anticipated admission.

Cultural areas:

California has many wildly varying cultures, and residents usually exhibit elements of several.

One stereotype of life in California is of the hippie in a commune, eating sprouts, tofu, and avocado, doing yoga and meditating in a tree. Certainly, each of these things can be easily found. In fact, I regularly lunch with people who routinely order avocado turkey burgers, and veggy tofu quesadillas, and who meditate and do yoga. And I used to work with someone who did live in a commune - not anymore though; now she is married - with grandkids!

You will also find a lot of outdoor enthusiasts, running, biking, skiing, or hiking through the various mountain ranges, enjoying the parks, beaches, and deserts. And they will stop for a coffee at Starbuck's or Peet's on the way :). Take a look at some of my other California posts, and you will see a nice set of examples.

Many (if not most) visitors expect to see the Hollywood scene. It definitely exists - the movie premieres around Westwood (Los Angeles) are huge parties, "People" magazine seems to be read avidly by everyone in L.A., Oscar night is an event not to be missed - whether it is a party at someone's home, or the ultimate experience of attending. You regularly see movies and TV shows being shot - I once got my hair cut in a mall while a show was shooting across the aisle. Everyone noticed, commented, then got back to work - just another day in SoCal. But even in California, we laugh to see movies portraying "normal American households" so caught up in red-carpet drama. Like everywhere else, some are fascinated by stardom, and some just aren't.

Southern California has another side - the aerospace/defense industry. It has its own type of glamour - elegant 2-story satellites assembled for lift-off, high-rise buildings full of people figuring out how to make some exotic function work - often from a distance of 22,300 miles (geosynchronous altitude).

All this, and right on the beach! Southern California beaches are known for sunbathers, white sand, surfers, lifeguards (have you ever seen Baywatch?) - and crowds. Live there for just a few months, and you learn just where to park to avoid the "rent" for your car space.

The beaches of Northern California are quite different (with the possible exception of Santa Cruz)! If you come to Half Moon Bay in a bikini, you will freeze. These beaches are for strolling along in jeans and a sweatshirt. They are for watching the ocean crash against the rocks while sipping hot coffee. There are surfers (Half Moon Bay is home to Mavericks, a famous surfer beach), but they all wear wetsuits. The beaches only really get crowded when the inland areas get too hot - the beaches are usually in the 60s (Fahrenheit), and *that* is the best place to get your dose of cold in the summer.

While SoCal and NorCal are different in a lot of ways, probably the greatest difference between cultures within California is between the rural areas and the urban areas.

Rural areas have their roots in agriculture - California is the sole U.S. producer of many fruits and vegetables. Its production accounts for more than half the value of all fresh fruits, and almost 90 percent of U.S. tree nut production is harvested from California orchards. Agriculture is the largest contributor to California's product, accounting for two-thirds of the State's total value of production. Growing up in rural California, children are heavily involved in 4-H and the Future Farmers of America (FFA). Selling an animal at the fair is often the first "real" money earned. Experiences include chores, horseback riding, fishing, and pick-up football. Rural life usually means you learn to drive early (In my family, our first driving lesson - with a stick shift - was our most important 9th birthday present). The "ranch truck" is ubiquitous - this is usually an old, beat-up, fix-it-every-month, working truck. There is a certain amount of pride in just how beat-up it looks - it implies "real work." Rural teens, like teenagers everywhere, are always looking for excitement on a weekend. Often, this translates into "cruising" - driving into the nearest town, and circling the 10-odd blocks of downtown (in that ranch truck), hollering at friends, and usually looking for a party. Gate-crashers are just friends you don't know yet!

Urban areas see a greater influx of people, and a lot more turnover. Cities (especially port cities) are where most immigrants first settle, and so the cities are enormously cosmopolitan. On a day-trip into San Francisco, I once heard SIX (6)! different languages! Being surrounded by all these "different" people can have varying effects: a society can become fearful and generate a backlash against the "invading" group (for example, the US immigration code changes of 1882 - the Chinese Exclusion Act - that heavily restricted Chinese immigrants); or a society can embrace the influx and grow in new ways. San Francisco is an excellent example of a society that has grown up absorbing and reflecting diverse cultures - you see neighborhoods trying to retain their ethnic and social identity, and succeeding! Walk a few blocks, and you will see a variety of restaurants, shops, and peoples. San Francisco's Chinatown is now the second largest community of Chinese-Americans in the United States. Different cultures highlight different viewpoints, and open up possibilities - the status quo is no mo' (well, that is the recognized goal, anyway).

Largely because of this multicultural influence, activism thrives. Berkeley is known for its student demonstrations and its counter-culture. Los Angeles actors are becoming known for their involvement in AIDS awareness, Animal rights, and the Environment. Most cities celebrate Gay Pride day, glorying in their outrageous parades. These are communities that question. Some of the big questions: "Isn't this other way just as valid as my way?" "Should a society be allowed to restrict the rights of some people just because their way of life is different than mine?"

Diversity and activism also engender a compromise of cultures. For example, many cultures around the world enjoy eating horse meat. This meat was also sold in California. A few years ago, animal rights activists introduced a statute that banned the sale of horse meat for human consumption, and it passed. So, animal rights were preserved, but European cuisine was curtailed.

Urban areas also attract Universities and Technology. Once a center like Silicon Valley starts, it snowballs. More diverse thinkers come, sparking new fields of study at the Universities, and new inventions. More and more museums spring up, dedicated to technology (Exploratorium, Tech Museum of Innovation, Children's Discovery Museum). Soon, grade-school education - actual learning - is important. Children take French or Japanese language courses on Saturdays; they join junior engineering clubs and go to space camp. But this snowball can have a melt-down. Silicon Valley is known for its grinding workweeks as well as its exciting discoveries. It is not uncommon to see futons in the employee lounge, sleeping bags under desks, and small refrigerators in offices. There are jokes about "keyboard face" - the imprint you wake up with after falling asleep at the computer. The concept of the French 35-hour workweek is not even grasp-able by the people who regularly work 80+ hours. And these are *very* often households where both partners work outside the home. Don't ask me how anything gets done in "regular" life.


Most of the lifestyle in California is casual - you can generally walk into a restaurant, bank, or museum in shorts and sandals and never merit a second glance. But there are exceptions - there are locations and events that call for formal-wear (and of course, attendees of proms all over get dressed up). People use first names immediately (often not even sharing last names until they know you better). Table manners are a bit different too - you don't wait until everyone is served before starting your meal; you will rarely see knives and forks change hands; left hands are not often kept in your lap. There are just too many cultures with different "rules" to expect that any one will "win." So, the various rules, habits, and expectations are melded.

That is just one aspect of California's celebration of its diversity - California has no ethnic majority. It has become a way of life to listen for an accent or foreign phrase, try a different cuisine, mix (fusion) foods and seasonings, or attend an event sponsored by a different culture (the Chinese New Year parade in San Francisco is huge!).

Partly because of the diversity and the often attendant bigotry, people are sometimes judged by how tolerant they are (or how tolerant they appear to be). I knew a gay man who purposely "flamed" to ferret out latent homophobics - we watched as studly jaws dropped in astonishment. Flame-recovery - how long it takes, and the form that it takes, says a lot. Regardless of what you think of the approach (was it rude? was it necessary?), you have to wonder how many places in this world someone would even feel *safe* doing this. In everyday situations, many people in the Bay Area either just don't notice gay couples, or at least consider it bad manners to react to seeing a gay couple holding hands or picnicing in the park (well, this is probably true for straights, anyway).

You can't talk about California culture without mentioning the CAR. If the rural status symbol is a ranch truck, urban status is measured by flash - horsepower, luxury, sporty. But also - more and more - the "green" car - hybrids, electric, hydrogen... California does *not* have a good public transportation system. Many of the cities grew by leaps and bounds during the era of Suburban growth, and now the car is an essential part of life. To many, it is no longer just a transportation tool. It is a part of your personality (some would say it *defines* your personality). On my commute (yes, driving - one hour to get 17 miles), I regularly see what would be exotic cars anywhere else. It often seems as though every person of driving age has his own car. And heaven forfend it doesn't match what you think of as "you" (as in, "it's horrible! It's just not me!).

The car is not the only aspect of conspicuous consumerism in California. Flashy houses, boats, vacations, clothes, even faces - all seem to be required.


Some people think Californians - especially urban Californians - are unpatriotic. They see the demonstrations and the critiques; they hear those dare-to-be-asked questions, and say "Love it or leave it!" But I think Californians are some of the most patriotic of all. It is not a blind patriotism, where you are required to support whatever your elected representative does. Instead it is living, breathing, and *alive* with possibilities. It demands that we look at how to make our state and our country better. It asks the questions and looks for the answers. It makes you uncomfortable.

Current Issue and Soapbox:

While sexual orientation does not make up the largest California subculture, it does grab headlines once in a while. One of the issues in the recent news is gay marriage. A few years ago, the San Francisco mayor set up a court battle by approving gay marriages by city officials. This went to the California Supreme Court, which found that restricting marriage to only heterosexual couples was unconstitutional - gay marriage is OK! Now (of course) there is an initiative on the November ballot to change the California constitution to specifically ban gay marriage. What can I say? I'm a product of my society - I think this is simply hateful; to say to someone "I am going to change *our* constitution just so you can't get married, but I can." It's just so embarrassing that this even got enough signatures to qualify for the ballot. But it did, and that is another aspect of our "living, breathing" political process.

On the marriage and gay themes, here are two websites I highly recommend.
(1) A summary of various marriage definitions around the world (http://molly.kalafut.org/marriage/marriage-types.html) - very eye-opening, especially if were taught (as many of us were) that marriage is an ancient Christian concept. In light of the different types of marriages celebrated throughout history and around the world, should the legal device of marriage in any society be defined by the creed of a subset of that society?
(2) Stranger in Your Own Home Town (http://www.bidstrup.com/homo.htm), an autobiographical essay on the experience of growing up gay in America, and how it is different from the heterosexual experience in some really surprising ways. Scott offers a well-thought-out, reasoned explanation of some basic cultural differences that gays experience. His other essays make interesting reading as well.



One caution on resources. All material is subject to the author's experience and background. So, when the "Culture Shock" series was recommended for another country, I avidly read it. I began to notice problems here and there - statements about the country that I knew were wrong. So, I thought "who wrote this?" and "who fact-checks this series?" Further, I read "Culture Shock California" - wow! Errors all over the place. Basic things like geography - it stated that California's highest point was Mt. McKinley (which is in fact in Alaska. California's is Mt. Whitney.) So, CAUTION should be exercised - including whatever I have written here. It is, after all, based only on my experiences, which have an as-yet-incomplete reference point :).

No comments: