In our Spanish class one day, we had an assignment to speak about what we wished to change about California. Students came up with predictable responses; less traffic, cheaper housing, better public transportation.
I said that if there was one thing I could change about California, it would be its people.
I was kidding of course.
But only partially.
What I meant was that I loved Californians for their friendliness, their liberal politics, their spirit of adventure.
But I hated them for their flakiness.
My Latin Spanish teacher exclaimed, “I know what you mean.”
A recent migrant to California, he has been astounded by the commitment phobia of Californians. Not having lived here long enough, he has not yet caught the local disease.
When he first came here, people always said, “Let’s do lunch.” He was excited by all these offers of lunch until he realized that no one ever pinned down a date or a time to actually eat lunch with him.
Why did they say it if they didn’t mean it, he wondered.
I knew why. They said so because they wanted to have the lunch option in case they found themselves bored or lonely or without any plans on that proverbial blue moon day. In the meantime, they wanted to keep their options open in case a better offer came along.
Of course it was unlikely that the blue moon would ever arrive, because people were always “busy.”
It is almost a badge of honor in California to be busy. To be busy is a status symbol. If you are not busy, you are not important. If you are not busy, you are a loser.
People go around saying how busy and overwhelmed they are. What is ironic is that some of these people do not have children or husbands or wives or even jobs. What is keeping them so busy, you wonder? Whatever happened to time management?
But it is not just a matter of being busy. There is something more at play here. Californians are mile wide and inch deep. It is difficult to form lasting relationships in the Golden State. People jump into a hot tub with you, and, sitting naked, tell you their entire life stories. Then they jump out, and you never see them again.
Intimacy here is an artificial construct.
If you don’t believe me, ask a new migrant from the Midwest or New England. He or she will tell you the same thing.
In France, when you go out to dinner, you do not pay for the food alone. You pay for an evening’s space at a dinner table. And no one stands around waiting for you to leave, including the waiters.
In Russia and Eastern Europe, the traditional way of life is to go over to your friends houses and spend entire evenings discussing philosophy, literature, art. Or simply playing chess.
If you live in Madrid or Barcelona, you join a group of friends at a restaurant or a bar at lunchtime, sipping coffee, eating tapas, and talking and talking and talking, for hours.
We in California, on the other hand, are always on our way to somewhere else. We are late for a movie or late for work or late for an errand.
Many Indians I know are flakier than their white counterparts. We used to have a South Asian writers’ group.
But at the last minute, people would always cancel. Or simply not show up without telling you. Make a plan to meet an Indian and chances are he or she will maneuver the situation so you will be the one driving the distance.
What is it about this golden land that makes people so superficial?
Is it all the New Agers who, in spite of their avowed spirituality, turn out to be some of the most hedonistic people on earth? Is it the climate, which tempts us to run to the beach, or just run? Is it the abundance of food, of nature, of culture and books and everything else that makes us put less emphasis on people? Or is it that we love ourselves so much that everyone else becomes secondary to our needs?
If you are an old soul like me, and by old I don’t mean in age but in psychological make-up, you are probably starving for deep, meaningful connections, for genuine friendships, for loving relationships that are ageless and profound.
If you are an old soul like me, you are probably longing to be someplace else.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not planning to move. But I do wonder if the hip California lifestyle suits me. When I first came here, Californians told me that they were the friendliest of the states. And I believed them.
People were certainly friendlier than in India, where people did not speak so openly to complete strangers.But in the last decade or so, I have traveled to states like Oregon, Washington, Illinois, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas, Colorado, Washington DC, Pennsylvania. And guess what, people are actually friendlier everywhere else. It feels like California has regressed on the friendliness scale while other states have progressed. The result is that we cannot boast of being so friendly after all. And the important distinction between friendliness here and friendliness in other states is, once again, the genuineness factor.
In fact, southern hospitality is alive in the South. In places like Chicago, people are just old-worldly friendly, perhaps because of the Eastern European influence.
Today, California is the place you want to be if you want to be different, if you want to run away from your past, if you want to be an individual. It is also the place you want to be if you want to be lonely.
My own solution is to simply screen out the flakes with my soul scanner. The result? Wonderful friends like my Bolivian surrogate family whose table I know my children and I are always welcome at; whom it is never too late in the night to call; who will always be there for me.
Ironically, where else would I find Bolivian neighbors except in California?
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED. Visitwww.saritasarvate.com