In May of 2019, I found myself in an unfamiliar place.
I had flown with about 20 other eighth-graders from my school to Washington D.C where we were having a good time so far. Our Northern California bodies were not accustomed to the sweltering humidity of the East, but that was okay becausewe were in D.C.!Which, by my google search, is only a 4-6 hour car ride to NYC, so you couldn’t convince me otherwise that we weren’t on the east coast. Even though it has only been three years, many memories of that trip have faded. I vaguely recall stumbling through Smithsonians, snapping pictures at memorials, and cackling during a production of “Shear Madness.” However, there is one memory that stands out and it still lives in the notes app on my phone.
One of the evenings in D.C. we found ourselves in Alexandria, a wealthier city in Virginia that was fifteen minutes outside of Washington. We wanted to get some dinner after a long day of sightseeing and then take a nighttime ghost tour before heading back to our hotel. We arrived a couple of hours before our dinner reservation, so our teachers decided to break us off into groups and gave us the freedom to walk around, and told us to meet back up at a fountain at 5:00 pm sharp. While we all split up into separate groups of three or four most of us had the same idea -- to head to the ice cream shop down the street. It was there that I purchased the most expensive ice cream I had experienced in my life thus far.But I didn’t mind, I was in D.C.!Eventually, dinnertime arrived and we were seated in a cute southern-style restaurant. We grabbed our plates full of food and sat down, hungry enough to devour the whole plate, but also slightly disgusted at the thought of eating heavy food in even heavier weather.
During dinner our conversations were lively. We were all hyped up on the adrenaline from being in a new place while also trying to conserve as much phone battery as possible. We couldn’t afford to waste valuable percentages scrolling through Instagram. One of my friends, Ryan, was speaking about the culture shock we were all experiencing during our time there. He was from Texas and slightly more used to the “culture”. Most of us had never heard a real Southern accent,nor tasted authentic sweet tea apparentlybecause a waiter came around with glasses for all of us to try. But it was a totally surreal experience realizing that we were the outsiders here. We were the ones who sounded different. As soon as we opened our mouths and started that first drawn-out California valley vowel, everyone instantly knew where we were from. Our voices were often met with an eye roll or an occasional chuckle.
This conversation about accents sparked an even more interesting hypothesis,what did people think about Californians?
We started with our waiter, a kind gentleman with a thick Southern drawl who said that he imagined Californians as chill and laid back. We were amused and also a bit surprised at his cliché response. But then again, we were the perpetrators. Five minutes prior we had all (with the exception of Texas Ryan) spit our sweet tea back into our cups proclaiming its unreasonable level of sweetness, questioning how anyone could drink it. After a while everyone seemed to drop the topic, but my friend Alaina’s curiosity latched on and from there the two of us hatched a plan.
We had about an hour to wait before the start of our ghost tour. So after a quick trip into CVS to purchase Haribo twin snakes and lime Perrier, we were ready for action. We decided that we would post ourselves in front of a busy fountain seating area and ask people what they thought about California natives. If they gave a response, we’d record it in the notes app on my phone. If they declined, we’d say thank you and move on to the next person. It gave us some leeway as we weren’t video recording or asking for money; two things that unfortunately tend to turn most people away from speaking with you. But we received some very interesting responses, which I have compiled for you here.
Who are Californians: The Alexandria Project
Care about labels
A lot of Asians
People with dogs
Excessive happy hour
Rich snobby people
They’re all famous
We recorded stranger’s answers verbatim. I do not have any viable proof, so I guess you could argue that I’m making it all up, but you’ll have to trust me on this one. Most of the interactions we had with people were predictable; confused at first, then willing and excited to play along. Some simply gave a one word answer. We walked away feeling satisfied and maybe a little bored. But some of them went on elaborate spiels. The woman who gave “excessive happy hour” proclaimed that all Californians were borderline alcoholics because they had access to the Napa Valley. We had a good laugh after that one. I’m not sure what I expected to learn from this experiment, besides breaking my parents' cardinal rule of “don’t talk to strangers”.
But it reminded me of the implicit regional bias that we all carry. And as embarrassing as it is to admit, we were the walking stereotypes the strangers were describing that night. My friend and I walked around with our May tans, having already experienced a full month of California summer. In D.C. we complained about the lack of Dutch Bros coffee after remembering it’s really only exclusive to the west coast. We were teenagers surviving on Perrier and Luna bars, giving our overzealous California grins to cashiers and expecting the same level of enthusiasm in return. Alaina and I understood that anything said that night was based on exaggerated stereotypes. It was easy to not take anything to heart, but it’s impossible not to recognize the fact that people did carry these thoughts, and it was an eye-opening reminder of how much people can say with such little information.