The San Francisco Bay Area is a unique place. And like all unique places, it will leave its finger print on its natives — often so strongly that other natives will recognize the signs, even on the other side of the planet.
What is always a bit unexpected, however, is when you venture away from your native culture and discover that other parts of the same country are very, very different. Since leaving California four years ago, I have lived in New York City and am now settling into Austin, Texas. While it might seem unusual to some people, Austin is proving to be a great deal like my North Bay home. And as long as I can eventually get past the fact that there is no ocean nearby (and please, no comments about the Gulf Coast: I mean a real ocean, which can only be described as the Pacific, even the open Atlantic doesn’t count; an “ocean” that doesn’t have big enough waves to surf on is really just a Great Lake with salt), Austin is a place that I find vaguely familiar enough to relax and be comfortable with in a way that NYC never quite managed.
Of course, one of the reasons that NYC was a perpetually jarring experience for me is that, as a Bay Area Girl, I was constantly shocked to discover that stereotypes I thought were long since dead and buried were really alive and well in NYC.
1. The Charlotte York Stereotype
Prior to moving back to NYC in 2005 (my first time in NYC had been in 1995 as an NYU student for one year), I really believed that Charlotte from “Sex and the City” was a dead (or at least dying) sexist cliche poised as an archetype to demonstrate changes in women’s attitudes over the years. Never in my life did I expect to get to New York and discover that women did, in fact, come to NYC for the sole and express purpose of finding a husband, that they were only pretending to care about their career long enough to snag said husband, and that their life long ambition (after a big, white church wedding) was to move to Connecticut or Long Island and stay home with the kids while their husband brought home the bacon.
And, worse yet, because this cliche is as pervasive as it is, men assume women are out to snare them and therefore find themselves constantly tap-dancing to avoid being “trapped.”
2. The Uptight “Taboo” Obsession
After growing up in a very sex-positive, earth-mother/goddess, gay friendly, pot-smoking, vegetarian heavy, uber-hippie environment, I really believed that people were past the point of getting all hot and bothered about the idea of “sexual taboo.” It wasn’t until I got to New York that I discovered two things:
First, the taboos are so ‘alive and well’ that attempts to discuss anything even borderline are met with wide eyes and hushed whispers. And more often than not, references to even the things I consider the most tamely vanilla will include “apologies” and “excuse my language” type of disclaimers (especially from women).
Second, that they like it better that way, no matter how much lip service people may give to wanting to be more “free.” There seems to be a direct relationship between how taboo it is, and how much someone can enjoy it — which I find eternally bizarre, since I consider almost nothing “taboo” and don’t have any real baked in “forbidden fruit” inclinations.
3. Boys Will be Boys, and They Only Marry Good Girls… So Girls Better be Good!
Again, utterly stunning to me was the Tony Soprano-like double-standard that the man is the King of the Castle and should be able to get away with whatever he wants, but the woman is supposed to be the good “Little Missus” and do what she is told without complaint, and just accept her lot in life and be grateful for the high-priced toys her husband would bribe her with to get her to stop nagging. Even more shocking to me was that, not only do the bribes work, but getting them is often the goal behind “misbehaving.”
Good girls have to be good girls. For their parents, for their husbands, for their friends, and for their kids — but their “definition” of being good to themselves is to run themselves ragged taking care of everyone else, and limiting their self-TLC to material items, like over-priced shoes or the occasional trip to the spa. Pushing back on the bevy of people making excessive demands on them, or staking out their own time/projects, or refusing to be the care-taker for everyone around them (or, even more inexplicably, refusing to LET themselves be taken care of), or putting their foot down when it comes to being taken advantaged of (especially by family members, which always seem to be the worst offenders) is most definitely NOT something that “good girls” do.
The biggest amusement and frustration about each of these stereotypes, however, is that I married a New Yorker who swears that I am just about the only woman he’s ever met who does not subscribe to any of them to at least some degree. That routinely confuses him and horrifies me. (He’s joked for years that if he’d really known that there was this much of a difference between women from opposite coasts, that he’d have started dating “California Hippie Chicks” as a teenager.)
And while I’m sure that these stereotypes are not completely dead in all parts of California (which, I suppose is part of the freak show that is “The Real Housewives of Orange County,” and part of the amusement that is the white bread nightmare of a lifestyle that is the backdrop for “Weeds”), the fact is that is so far from my liberal, pro-choice, pro-gay rights, feminist, vegetarian, goddess-centric upbringing that it’s always a bit like watching a train wreck when I see living breathing cliches play out in front of me. I kept expecting to be interrupted for a commercial break, as if I were watching an episode of “Mad Men.”
What got me thinking about all of this, of course, was an article I read earlier today entitled “I Am Gay,” by Micah Baldwin. Like me, Micah grew up in the Bay Area, and like me he has since lived in other parts of the country, where his notions of what was “normal” (as defined by his upbringing) have been challenged by the sometimes disappointing reality that some of the values the Bay Area holds most dear are not always valued as highly in other parts of the country.
I didn’t really expect to find that when I left home for the east coast. But once I did, I realized something even more important: it doesn’t matter where I live, or how long I’m away. I grew up in the Bay Area. It left its mark on my DNA, and I couldn’t get rid of it even if I wanted to. Surprisingly enough, that thought actually comforts me at a time when I realize that it’s been nearly a year since I’ve seen the Pacific Ocean, the vineyards in Sonoma and Napa Counties, the Golden Gate Bridge and my parent’s party-perfect backyard — which is a record for me and I am homesick. But that’s ok, because you can take the girl out of the Bay Area, but not the Bay Area out of the girl.