base /bās/, n., v.

When I was younger, I’d play off my Californian-ness. I was born in New Jersey and lived there long enough to have at least one strong childhood memory from each of the four seasons and know that I loved the weather there. This was enough for me to declare, as a precocious child, that I was a Jersey girl.

Precious younger Courtney did not realize the implications of that statement, nor the naïveté of her love that overlooked frigid temperatures and humid thunderstorms.

As I got older and grew up (in California), my dad began a running joke with me. On certain occasions when I walked down the stairs—often when I was late responding to his or my mom’s calls or coming downstairs for breakfast—he’d sing the “Miss America” pageant song to my footsteps.

Washington Monument with cherry blossom tree in the foreground
Washington Monument | Photo by Courtney Cheng

I was “Miss California,” he declared, and I’d wrinkle my nose with distaste. I’d been away from New Jersey for too long to claim my wanted title of “Miss New Jersey,” but I also didn’t want to be “Miss California.”

The best explanation I might surmise is that my younger self strongly associated California with tall, blonde models and the glitz and glam of Hollywood. It wasn’t that I hated this part of California, rather I longed to belong to this aspect Californian culture and I knew—I just didn’t fit in. So, I rejected it whole-heartedly.

Fast forward to March 2019, my second trip to Washington, D.C. without my family, Candle Boy’s first time at our nation’s capital.

My last visit to D.C. had been during 44’s time in office. With 45 around and MAGA hats dotting the landscape, D.C. felt notably different from the Bay Area. It wasn’t just the weather, which rained and hailed on us for two days straight. It was also the expectations I’d realized I’d come to have about everything, from the diversity of the people I’d see to the brands of clothing they’d wear and the sorts of food they’d eat.

In my few days there, I’d argue that I saw more people of color than I would have in the same amount of time back at home. My Cal backpack was a dead giveaway of my hometown, but even without it, my Northface and Nikes screamed Bay Area next to everyone’s knee-length, puffy parkas and dress shoes.

When Candle Boy and I went out to brunch, I asked the waitress about their Mixed Grain Bowl. “What types of grains are in the bowl? Quinoa, farro…?”

“It’s mostly quinoa.”

When she left, I commented off-handedly, but not snidely, “Sounds more like a uniform grain bowl to me…” In California, you’d likely find quinoa, farro, brown rice, barley, purple rice, black rice—some combination of any of these grains in your mixed grain bowl. I was surprised at the lack of variety, and somehow, Candle Boy found my quip witty enough to quasi-immortalize on his Instagram Story.

I reshared it on my own Story and added, “my inner Californian is showing.”

Cherry blossoms in D.C.
Cherry blossoms | Photo by Courtney Cheng

Several other people also found it funny enough to send me back a “LOL” or a “HAHA” (some all-caps, some not; some with more syllables of ha’s, others with just the two).

I don’t typically find myself funny, so I appreciated the votes of confidence, but because everyone who’d replied to my Story also lived in California, I couldn’t help but wonder: how Californian am I, really?

I’m definitely Californian enough to correct with anyone who might suggest that I’m actually another state-ian (i.e. New Jerseyan), but how much of the California, or Bay Area, bubble have I actually adopted as my own? Am I “California or bust?” or just Californian enough?

On some days, these questions make me laugh. On others, they make me feel grateful. And on some more, they make me feel sad. How have we ended up so divided?

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