Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Random Culture Shock

The romantic partner of La Professora is from a different culture: the Midwest. There are some culturally based things -- activities, behaviors, experiences -- in California that confuse and/or aggravate the poor Midwesterner. I try to explain; California is its own nation with a corresponding culture, and a great one at that.

Okay, so La Professora is a Californiana -- a California nationalist -- and proud of it, with good reason. The CIA World Factbook ranks the GDP per capita of all the world's countries; for 2009, the United States is listed as being 10th, which is a reflection of the impact of the economic downturn as the country, at its highest ranking, was 5th. Consider the Bureau of Economic Analysis chart of regional and state GDPs in light of the above ranking. California consistently accounts for 13 percent of the total US GDP. What that means is the Golden State provides enough economic activity to raise the US to that 10th ranked slot. Before anyone can scoff at a mere 13 percent, consider the fact that California is one state out of 50, which means that (a) if all states were economically equal, each would contribute 2 percent, and (b) 13 percent is the highest of all the states, with Texas (at 8.6%) and New York (at 8.1%) having the next highest.

If economics isn't your thing, consider the climate, the topographics, and the demographics. California has a "mediterranean" climate: mild year-round in most parts. There are mountains for skiing and beaches for sunning, but mostly there's more diurnal temperature change than annual change in the majority of the state. It is the people who make California what it is. We are a gregarious bunch, talking with strangers in the checkout lines at the grocery -- and there certainly are a number of strangers here: California is home to a large number of ethnic groups, each adding to the rich flavor of life. It is easy to understand that the state -- another word for a sovereign territory, a country -- given its physical and demographic characteristics, could be considered to have a culture that is unique and separate from that of the rest of the United States.

When I lived, briefly, in Colorado, I experienced culture shock. Just as some Americans do when they go to other countries, such as France, Thailand, or California, I found that my expectations of daily living were confounded by the native culture. Having lived at least two decades with earthquakes and wild fires, it seemed odd to deal with tornados and blizzards. The type of vehicles driven in such an area reflects the need to deal with the natural disasters that are prevalent there. My zippy little car from California had no hope of surviving many long, snowy winters. After two years, we -- my zippy car and I -- sped our way back to the land of warmth and earthquakes. I'd take moving earth over blowing snow any day. While there are an estimated million earthquakes each year, Californians do not worry about them; we know that any earthquake less than 3.5 on the ritcher scale isn't worth concerning ourselves. Snow and its cousin, Ice, on the other hand, kill regularly.

There are times when being culturally clueless can be advantageous. I managed to impress my then future in-laws by not "freaking out" when the worst ice storm in 20 years hit while I was visiting them in Ohio. It's easy not to freak out about something that one has no idea is a big deal. Being aware that ice storms and the resulting blackouts can lead to broken pipes and cold, flooded houses is a cultural thing; really, it is.

Driving, however, is a way of life in California, and Californians tend to be religious about their cars. The best known radio and print media personalities are the ones who report on traffic and car-related activities; Mr Roadshow, in San Jose, has a widely followed column. Knowing that I-405, in Los Angeles, should be avoided on any day, at any time, is ingrained into the Californian consciousness.

All of which brings this entry back to the poor Midwestern soul who moved to California just over a decade ago and who is still adapting to the Californian culture. The fires and earthquakes are dealt with by gritting the teeth and hoping for best, but the traffic just is a whole other ballgame. As we made our way down to Hollywood to spend the Thanksgiving holiday with family, my romantic partner bemoaned the slowness of the car in front of ours. "Relax," I said, "it's not as though the Lamborghini in the slow lane is going any faster."

A true Californian moment. And one in which, in the midst of a double take, the Midwesterner experienced culture shock.