Is African Californian a thing?
My first travel abroad experience was funny. Yup, that’s how I’d describe it. Not like “ha ha” funny (even though there was a whole lotta that too), but funny like “Ya know, I never really thought about [insert experience]. Funny.” I saw, learned, felt a lot of things I’d never really considered before. It changed a lot for me. What’s also funny is that I expected that. I knew I was in for a wild ride that would have a big impact on me. I just couldn’t predict the particulars.
The way you perceive yourself changes over time. Identities can morph and evolve–some come to the forefront at times, while others fade into the background. For me, I’d never actually thought about the fact that I’m an American until I was 20 years old and found myself in a whole other country for the first time. All of a sudden I realized that my passport being blue held real meaning and value on the international playground. WHO KNEW?! Not me, but as a black person, this was the first time I’d thought to myself, “Wow. I’m…an American.” African American? Sure. But American? That was new.
But you know what? Another funny thing started happening very shortly after this shift in my self-perception. As I talked to more people from other countries, I noticed that they were able to guess that I was from California specifically. It was my accent–the way I talk–they said. I’d never considered that there was a Californian accent. We talk a certain way, and it’s distinctive even in other countries! So much so that people from other countries who’ve never been to the U.S. can tell when they’re talking to someone from California. That’s not all, though! As I started to visit more countries and travel more over the years, I started to notice that the reaction people from other countries had when I told them I’m from California was totally different from if I’d just say I was from the United States. If I said the United States, it’d be “Aah, United States, okay okay.” If I said California, it was more like “AAAH CaliFORnia! Welcome to [country]! How do you like [country] so far? Good, good!”
Now, as a black man from Southern California, “Where are you from?” can illicit some charged feelings, but this was different. It was really interesting to me and I definitely caught on. In my experience, people like California relative to the U.S. for a couple reasons. For one, it’s sociocultural–California is…cool. It’s Hollywood. Beaches. Weather. Style. It’s fun. California is sexy. On the other hand, it’s also sociopolitical. California is seen as a progressive place, and in my experience, people in the countries I’ve been to tend to like that. Being from California has been like walking around with a hall pass. Nowadays, when I’m abroad and people ask me where I’m from, I skip right to pulling out my hall pass: “California!” Just like that, I’m cool. I feel like the Fresh Prince.
Basically, I went from not really comprehending my identity as an American, to suddenly and strongly identifying as such, to being very aware of my status and privilege as an American, but identifying as a black Californian. I think that says something about the United States in general, but the purpose of this post is to serve as a reflection on my identity as a traveller and how it’s changed over the last 7 years.
One thing’s for sure though. Say it with me, California: “Oh I think they like me.”