On Being a New Yorker

gawain
4 min readJul 10, 2023

Even though I never lived there

I think I was in high school when I asked my mom where she thought I would live when I was an adult and settled down. Would it be in Southern California where I grew up? Or Boston where I went to college (!)? Or somewhere else?

She said, “I think you’ll live in New York City.”

Which makes a kind of sense because, fundamentally, we were New Yorkers even through my parents hated New York and fled West the first chance they had. Actually, they had been forced West when my dad was stationed in New Mexico during his short stint in the Air Force. My parents had just graduated medical school in New York City and my dad enlisted to avoid being drafted. Two years and out. He got posted to Holloman Air Force Base in southern New Mexico and my parents drove cross country to get there. My mom was very pregnant with me and they thought I might be born in a cornfield in Kansas.

Mom got a papoose for my newborn sister.

But the experience was transformative to them — especially my Mom. She LOVED New Mexico. The desert, the sky, the stark and unforgiving beauty. She connected with the nearby Mescalero Apache Indian reservation and volunteered at a clinic. She loved native culture, pueblos. Our house growing up had kachinas and sand paintings which they carried first to New York, then San Diego.

Me, 2 years old, at a pueblo in New Mexico (probably Acoma, probably 1968)

They were New Yorkers, but not by choice. They returned to New York to finish medical residencies, then tried to come back out West. It was their escape from New York. It was 1971 and they wanted out. They wanted to go back to New Mexico, but couldn’t find appropriate jobs. So, we ended up in San Diego, my dad in a tenure-track position at UC San Diego medical school and my mom working as a general practitioner at the student health clinic on campus. And they’ve been there ever since. No regrets and very little nostalgia about New York, where each of them spent their formative years growing up.

For me, born in New Mexico, then a few pre-school years in New York, then landing in San Diego, I adopted my parents’ perspective. The West was beautiful and wonderful, but also exotic and strange. And, at some deep level, we didn’t belong there. Real Californians were tan. They surfed. They didn’t have anxiety and neurosis. They were friendly and easy going. They weren’t Jewish. They had no culture and often very bad taste. Also, not to be impolite, they weren’t worldly and maybe not so smart.

All this wonder and snobbery I adopted, although quietly. Admiration, but also condescension for California. I should note this all applies to anglo California. Mexico and Mexican culture were quickly embraced by my parents and we spent a lot of holidays over the border, my mom learned functional Spanish, and she filled our house with Mexican handicrafts and art.

The point, though, was that my family oriented as outsiders. We enjoyed California and appreciated it, but also felt we were strangers. My parents got a little thrill when I did things that Californians did, like surfing or spear-fishing off the beach. They thought it was great that I was picking up local culture.

Growing up in Southern California in the 1970s and 80s was strange. An old friend recently contacted me and I was remembering when we were best friends in 3rd grade, sun-kissed memories of going to the beach, divorced families, bumper stickers for Hussong’s Cantina. There were moms who sunbathed for hours drinking Tab Cola. I discovered outdoor showers, OP shorts, garages full of surfboards. Even as a kid, I enjoyed the sociological insight it gave me, as Jewish refugee from New York City.

Me and my Sis in grandpa’s car.

Having an outsider’s perspective has stayed with me. Both a longing to belong and a willingness to invest in community to earn it. But also, always, a kind of distance from wherever I am and a sense that it could all be taken away or turn against you. I consider it a gift, a perspective that offers insight and appreciation, if also a bit of alienation.

When people ask me where I’m from, I say California. But to myself, I know that California’s just a place where I grew up, it’s not where I’m from. We’re New Yorkers.

ENDS//

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gawain

I'm a human person, working in policy & advocacy in international development, gender rights, economic justice.