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How I'm Becoming American at Heart

San Francisco Narrative
by Esther Berthon Jan 21, 2013

Two months ago, I was on a direct 12-hour flight from Paris to San Francisco, leaning on my Asian Berkeley student seatmate, feeling so sick my body was falling apart. Then I realized we were somewhere above Oklahoma with still 4 hours to go and the shittiest in-flight movie Hollywood had ever engendered. I felt even worse. Imagining how hard it must have been to make Scarlett Johansson look like a country girl was not entertaining enough.

As far as I remember, as a kid, I would picture America as a real far, widespread, strange country, where people would eat MacDonald’s any time of the day, have nice big suburban houses, carry rifles, and go to dinners where the waitress would take orders roller-skating. In my mind Native Americans, cowboys, and the gold rush would somehow relate to 90s rock bands, extensive urban areas, and black people wearing huge winter jackets near Detroit. Eventually, I studied American civilization and got to read newspapers. The hazy idea I had of the US sort of disappeared in favor of tangible facts.

Nevertheless, most of the mythology still remained, nourished pop culture. The movies I would watch, the music I would listen to, and the food I would eat would carry American clichés that subliminally got stuck in my head. I met American students doing an exchange program in Paris and thought these guys were actually super chill. It was not long after they were gone I decided I wanted to go there, and finally face my own private United States.

So there I was, Bay Area, California. My first contact with the US could be synthesized by: How much food do you think you can eat? Right after landing, I had BBQ pork ribs and IPA beers in a huge UC Berkeley student house. (Soon I learned that my vision of “huge” was clearly biased by my impressionable European point of view). Going to get groceries the next day was just hilarious, so lost in front of the hundreds of different types of milk, mystified by the 3-gallon jar of Arizona Tea. There was more to come: When my friend took me to the Mission to have a burrito, it literally took me two days to finish it.

Another disturbing part was people’s friendliness. In Paris you could get arrested for smiling in the metro, like this guy. Needless to say, having strangers talking to me while walking in the street was a huge cultural shock. Of course, you’re unlikely to experience that around the Civic Center at 10pm, where “people’s friendliness” means not throwing themselves on top of the cable car, while smoking crack. But I guess this is just San Francisco’s folklore.

Day after day, I got less and less impressed by how huge everything is here — wailing firetrucks, buildings downtown, the price of organic vegetables at Whole Foods — and even found myself able to finish a Super Taco at 1am, figuring what type of beer to order out of the 23 different microbrewed IPAs available, remaining imperturbable while walking through the Tenderloin at 4am, or while hanging out at the Folsom Street Fair.

However, I clearly have the feeling that I am experiencing the Bay Area, rather than ‘America,’ since I arrived. Most people I’ve met: have a passion for yoga, describe themselves as artists, eat so much organic tofu that it could harm them, are under-aged Silicon Valley millionaires, or just are crazy meth heads wandering around the mummified ruins of Haight-Ashbury’s hippy past. This is clearly not like the rest of the US. It cannot be. I still have a long, long way to go before meeting the rest of the 49 states, but I’m on my way. I already bought a flag.

And as I finish typing this, sitting at a coffeshop in the Haight, a couple of people who did not know each other 10 minutes ago just did a human cinnamon roll. You figure that shit. [Editor’s note: This piece appeared in its original form at the author’s blog.]

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