California Appreciation, via Summer in New York City

Hello, Manhattan sunset! ūüôā

I love New York.

I realized this after I returned from visiting a friend in D.C. and was hit by an intense wave of comfort and relief upon stepping off my bus and into the familiar Manhattan streets. This city has managed to worm its way into my heart.¬†I love so many things about it. From the museums to the Brooklyn Bridge to Central Park to the efficient public transportation system we all love to hate, it’s begun to feel a little like a second home to me.

And yet, at the same time, there are a lot of things about this city make me realize how much I miss Southern California, where I grew up and have lived all my life. For those of you moving to this state as you begin your first year at Pomona, and for those of you considering the college at least in part because of its location, I present:

Things I Didn’t Know I Appreciated About California Until I Lived in New York

1. Soup dumplings (XiaoLongBao)

Sagehens in Chinatown, on our never-ending quest for Asian food.

I have to admit, New York bagels are the best bagels I’ve ever had in my life. And the pizza’s not too shabby either. But in the nearly-three months I’ve been here, I have yet to find any Asian (or Mexican) food that can compare to the food at home. It’s here, I’m sure, but it’s more expensive and less common. Here, I have to go out of my way to find good Asian food (and it won’t be cheap); at home, I can walk two blocks if I don’t like one place and I’ll run into another. And the saddest part, for me, is that I haven’t been able to find soft soup dumplings, the kind with skin that feels like paper, that burst in your mouth when you bite into them. I ache for good soup dumplings.

2. Nobody’s in a hurry

Before I got to the East coast, I was amused by the stereotype that everyone in California is laid-back and perpetually late to everything.¬†That’s not true, I thought. We do plenty of rushing! We’re not calm all the time! Just look at my mom when we’re late and stuck in traffic on the 210.

Fulton, the subway station across from my office. Luckily, I got out late and missed rush hour on the day I took this photo.

Nope. It’s true. Compared to Manhattan, Southern California “hurry” is a joke. Maybe it’s just because there are so many¬†people here, but it feels like everybody is running late to a life-or-death event¬†all the time. Surrounded by thousands of people who are always going, going, going so urgently, I sometimes find myself panicking (Am I late?! Did I forget something?! Will I make this train?!) without fully knowing why, other than that everyone else seems to be. I miss the relative calm of home, where dramatic sidewalk weaving, dangerously timed jay-walking, and smashing into other people without apologizing would raise — or crinkle — eyebrows.

3. People talk to you

Coming to New York, I was a little surprised to realize how surprised people were when I was actively friendly toward them. Once, I was even scolded by a kind man as we stood waiting for the subway. “I have a daughter your age,” he said. “We lived in California for awhile too, and I always tell her, ‘You need to be more careful about who you smile at, who you talk to.'”

New York gets a bad reputation for being an unkind city, but I’ve found that almost all New Yorkers are kind, friendly people — they’re just intensely self-absorbed. People who have driven in L.A. traffic might say the same of Californians, but I miss smiling warmly at strangers and having them smile back, or even stop to chat. I love the way the Trader Joe’s or CVS cashiers light up when I make small talk or ask about their days, but it makes me sad to wonder how many times they get treated like real human beings, especially during their long rush-hour shifts. At home, people who don’t know each other talk to each other all the time, and I miss that.

4. Produce is fresh

I understand now that all Californians are spoiled. Peaches spoil in less than a week here, bananas ripen in three days, and lettuce is just perpetually wilted. I keep eyeing my tomatoes worriedly, trying to figure out how long I have before they suddenly soften overnight.

5. The weather makes sense

Granted, maybe that’s because the East coast actually has weather, but to me, the correlation between how the day looks and feels is so simple in California. When it’s sunny, it’s¬†hot. When it’s cloudy, it’s cold (at least, by California standards). When it’s a mix of the two, you’re generally safe wearing jeans, or even shorts, and a t-shirt.

Central Park on a rare intuitive weather day.

Here, the weather is so confusing that I’ve almost missed my morning train multiple times because I took one step outside and realized that what I was wearing wasn’t going to work. When it’s sunny, it could be one of several kinds of hot: bearable, regular hot; appears-bearable-until-you-start-sweating-and-realize-it’s-humid-and-stifling-and-you-made-a-mistake hot; hot (sometimes humid) that creeps up on you; and straight-up-humid hot. Alternatively, it could be a breezy and cool sunny day. You just never know. (Also, it rains, very randomly and with seemingly no relation to whether the day is warm or cold.)

6. Prices are (mostly) reasonable

Everything is at least twice as expensive here as it is at home. One of many, many examples: Shake Shack, the East coast equivalent of In-N-Out, definitely tastes fresher and lighter than the $2.35 cheeseburgers I’ve grown up on, but at $5.19 for a burger and $2.95 for fries I think I’ll stick with my preference for the West coast staple, thanks very much.

7. The environment feels like a priority

You may laugh, considering California’s reputation for being stricken with drought and clogged with pollution, but it’s true. When I did my first major grocery shopping, I lugged my roommate’s reusable canvas bags up and down the island (trying, and succeeding, in finding the best quality for the lowest prices — see above) and was taken aback to realize that plastic bags are more than commonplace here. Somehow it hadn’t fully sunk in to me that while plastic bags are uncommon–and close to being illegal–in California, on the other side of the country I would regularly be seeing them crowding up gutters or stuck in trees.

Pros of the dirty subway tunnel: Cool breezes on humid days.

Being from a state where we are incredibly conscious of our water usage, I also find myself getting legitimately angry at the number of broken fire hydrants I see carelessly gushing water out onto the streets. I don’t get the impression that people here actively¬†care about the environment — at least, nowhere near as much as most people do back home. It just doesn’t seem to be a part of their lives.

(Also, I just have to say for the record that I have never been anywhere as dirty as New York. California air may be dry and our magnificent sunsets may be the product of long-standing air pollution, but it feels clean in a way that New York doesn’t. The city feels grimy, in a way that you can almost forget as you get used to it. Almost.)

8. There’s “nothing to do”

Whereas I would always get defensive when I heard this from my non-Californian friends before, now it makes me laugh, because I get it. Nobody here ever stops or sleeps or takes a minute to just slow down and breathe and¬†be. When the whole city stays active and moving and there’s always so much to do and see, it feels like you just don’t have enough time to do everything you want to. Broadway shows! Concerts in the park! Museums! Free events! Today only! There’s never¬†not something going on here. 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Museums! (I love the Met.)

At home, there’s space. There’s sky. There’s miles of empty desert and Pacific Coast Highway and mountain trails. There’s also Hollywood and Disneyland and the Staples Center and entertainment, but the night is pretty much wound down by 1 or 2 am in even the busiest areas of LA, and pretty reliably between 9 and 11 pm everywhere else. You can do absolutely anything in this state — ski, surf, hike, laser tag, karaoke, concerts, ice skating, you name it — but depending where you live, you have to get there (see “there’s space”) and you generally have to be deliberate about it. I love this about California. I love that you have to actually think about what you want to do and make it happen, and I love that so much of what makes our state special is its dozens and dozens of activity hubs, spread out for miles and miles.

9. There are actually smells

East coast beaches: still beautiful, but different.

The parks here don’t smell like trees, and the ocean doesn’t smell like saltwater. Everything smells like a variation on what I can only describe as “city.” I miss home, where greenery smells sticky and alive and you can smell the coast long before you can see it. I miss the smell of mountain air and rain on dry pavement¬†(after it rains here, it doesn’t smell clean and open and bright with energy, it just smells like wet city).

10. Stars

Late at night, walking across Marston Quad to get back to my dorm room, I usually keep my eyes on the sky, where you can see sprinklings of stars lighting the way on clear nights. I have friends who scoff and say things like, “That’s nothing,” but in Manhattan, there really¬†is nothing.

I recently visited another friend in rural Vermont, and I’ve got to admit that the constellations are beautiful as seen from this coast, but they’re nothing like the night sky on my Sequoia OA. And, honestly, you haven’t seen stars until you’ve seen them from the California desert. The experience is so beautiful, it’s almost terrifying, and it makes it hard to take any stars for granted.