The wind carried the sounds of children laughing and ducks conversing as I stared out onto the lake. The parents either sat on the dock or near the water mindfully watching their children while exchanging recipes as fall was approaching. “This day will be my last day to gaze at this lake, to laze on this dock and to listen to the oaks and maples whisper as their leaves change colors. This will truly the last time to be here.” I saw the children on the other side of the lake playing barefoot in the lustrous, Georgia red clay; their water kissed faces painted with beaming smiles made me smile. The smell of the oak and pine trees with a hint of freshly baked apple pie floated in the air. “I wonder if California is really all what people make out to be.”
As soon as I landed at John Wayne airport, the unfamiliar scent of the ocean breeze excited me. I gazed at the azure sky, not a single cloud is in sight. This new world assaulted all of my senses. The people around me lived within the busy hustle and bustle of suburban life: cars rushed to destinations scattered throughout Orange County; people turned shopping into an art form; and sun burnt bodies headed towards for the beach. The myriad of onyx, beige, and occasional cerulean outlined by sharp, crisp lines swiftly passed me on one side while bold prints, flamboyantly orated, and branded figures passed on the other side. Why are they so dressed up? Why are these women dressed like that? Why so much makeup? Their backs erect, eyes observant, and knowing expressions piqued my curiosity. Business plans, lunch meetings, and a few celebrity names filled my ears. Cell phones glued to the ears of some while miniature, sleek, black nobs occupied the ears of others. What’s the rush? Why do they look so stressed? Why do they care what a celebrity is doing? No longer did I see my childhood home. My nose stung as the overwhelming sharp scent of gasoline invaded it. Tall, powerful, glass skyscrapers towered over me, forcing me to welcome the clear azure sky once more. I felt like a fish out of water. Is there a movie set somewhere near by? The more I took in, the more this new world confused me. The painted faces of the women covered their stressed faces and the cheery smiles of business men helped distract away from their tired eyes. Expensive looking clothes, clean cut faces, glamorous bodies, and the absence of birds worried me. Is this what people call “Cali Living”?
I had about two weeks to finalize my transfer with the nearest high school. Just like landing in California, the campus felt like a world of its own. There were no other schools in sight like how the schools were clustered close together in Georgia. I walked into the administration office in a comfy tee and relaxed jeans and approached a nicely dressed lady, dressed much nicer than administrators back home, busily typing away. She gave me a strange look and I told her I was here to finalize my transfer. She searched the computer in annoyance after I provide her with my name and when I had sent in my previous transcript. I don’t see you in our system. I told her that I was from out of state. Oh! You’re that Georgia kid. Then she immediately pulls up my file and tells me that I have to come back in a few days because the school was busy attending to the students that were already enrolled into their system. I walk out baffled. What did she mean by I’m thatGeorgia kid? I saw some students walking out from a classroom. They looked like the miniature versions of the painted women from the airport. Tight clothes, excessive makeup, and gossip were all I deduced from them. I looked at my reflection in one of the mirrors and it hit me. She thought I’m a red neck. She thought I didn’t know what I was talking about. Damn. At that point, I knew I had to adopt their style. When I returned to the office, dressed in some nice fitted jeans and fitted shirt with as little makeup as I possibly could wear while looking nice. The same lady greeted me with a smile and asked me how she could help me. I knew it. As time passed, I slowly and begrudgingly assimilated to how I was supposed to be as a California girl, specifically a “So Cal” girl. I had to educate myself in pop culture, fashion, what was “in” and “out” at the moment. When I finally got to escape back to Georgia for my sophomore winter intersession, I made sure to get dinner with the friends that I had managed to stay connected with after moving away. We went to one of the girl’s homes, her parents beamed after recognizing who I was. I felt welcomed. It felt like home. We sat together at the large oak table and devoured the fresh collard greens, moist pot roast, and tender black eyed peas. While we were exchanging how our first years of being a high school student were, I caught myself observing my friends. They were talking about the football games, future trips to Stone Mountain, and their boyfriends at the time. They dressed comfortably. No one had caked faces. Not a single complaint about school or hint of gossip left their lips. After eating and cleaning the dishes together, one of my friends pulled me and asked me what it was like being a “Cali Girl”. I looked at her strangely and asked what she meant. As she tried to explain her question, I felt like I was hearing my initial thoughts when I first landed in California. You’re dressed up. You never wear makeup or let you hair grow past your shoulders. You look stressed even though it’s winter break! I didn’t know how to reply to her because I was still asking myself the same questions. I reluctantly began to notice that my friends and people around my age were living in a different type of bubble. They were living in the comfort of the Southern lifestyle where their parents had their back, let them be “themselves”, didn’t care how they dressed or presented themselves, and they didn’t know what they were really doing with their lives. Some even questioned if going to college was even worth the time and energy. I suddenly felt alienated. How did my trip back home, Georgia, become so bittersweet? Then I thought about the type of people in California. It was crazy not to attend college or more. It was crazy not to look presentable. It was crazy not to “fit it”. People in California, for the most part, are ambitious. I laughed at the memory of sleeping in all of my regular and honors classes in Georgia while managing to get straight As. I could be so nonchalant about my academics in California because the consequences were too immediate.
As my high school career neared its end, I met a lot of unique individuals. I grew, fell, and grew some more mentally and culturally speaking. My Georgia friends were trapped mindlessly walking down a life path with no particular destination in mind. I began to accept there are benefits to being a “Cali Girl”. In Georgia, it was blasphemous to be a nice looking, opinionated, ambitious and self-sufficient female. All hell would break loose in the chauvinistic community in the South. The fact that I felt comfortable conversing with homosexuals, questioning politics, and developing a more critical mind is an anomaly to the majority of Southerners. At the same time, Caucasians raised in California were different animals than Caucasians raised in the South. The same applied to Asians. I think that my parents partially expected me to be able to relate to the Asian/Korean community simply because we supposedly shared a common culture. Strangely, even though we are of the same ethnicity, we are different beings. I learned that the Asians in my community were not “traditional” and were very “American”. Some Asians were defiant towards their parents, openly made a scene in public, disregarded their lives, and were ignorant towards their parents wanting only the best for them because they understood that life is not as plain and simple as a bowl of rice. Some Asians voluntarily ostracized themselves from the “American” Asians and kept to their own sub group where only their native tongue was spoken. Only they knew about the specifics of their origin country and no “American” Asian, or non-Asian, could relate with them. From a conservative small town in the dirty South, all the components of what I ascribed a community was supposed to be conflicted with the community I lived in. People didn’t share their problems readily as people in the South did. It is odd to tell someone that they were welcome anytime into another’s home. It is strange for one not to be in tune with some sort of social media, whether it is a reality show or celebrity gossip.
As I rummaged through the mahogany leather album filled with old Polaroid pictures, I see a little girl, a wrinkled white shirt and baggy, navy overalls protect her small body. She is carefully holding a metallic black box, her eyes glistening. It is a Polaroid 600. She’s looking up, towards the ceiling and a tiny, innocent smile glows on her face. This little girl is me. Suddenly a whole whirlwind of images burst into my head. The mysterious box I was carefully holding was my grandfather’s camera; I was looking at my grandfather taking the photo of me. I remember the smell of pine and freshly cooked rice lingering and the soft cotton wrapping around my small body. “A picture is worth a thousand words”, I think to myself as I close the album and look at the bookshelf above me. The adventures of driving down to several different beaches being able to see with my own virgin eyes the wonder of the ocean and the creatures that called it home, inviting the briny salty smell fill my nose, the sea gulls became the clouds, mollusks were the rocks, and rich, grainy sand became the clay that I dug my feet into. The streets of downtown Los Angeles, unveiled its magnitude of cultural diversity with its streets decorated with paper lanterns, walls covered in elaborate, vivid art, and the seemingly endless aisles of stores which held a unique character of their own. Moving to California was, and is still, a culture shock to me but, I will always be a Georgia Peach just like I will always be Korean, but I think I can be enjoy a few California rolls along the way.