Never far from home: An experience of a Californian abroad

Illustration of person in swimsuit standing in snow
Olivia Staser/Staff

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“When you meet someone when you’re out of the U.S., how do you identify where you’re from?”

Me and 13 other UC system students were asked this during the first week of our Dutch culture and language program, a precursor to the months of studying abroad in Utrecht, Netherlands. Every Californian’s answer was immediate and identical.

“Californian.”

“I’m from California.”

“Californian.”

“Ditto.”

It was almost comical going around the room, hearing each person confidentially assert that they were a Californian before anything else. The next question we were asked was why we didn’t say American. This wasn’t hard to answer either. Even though it was our first week in the Netherlands, we were already familiar with the initial negative reactions that come when a European realizes that you were from the United States. Why would we tell people we were American, which inevitably invited questions like, “Did you vote for Trump?” and “Why do you guys like guns and McDonald’s, but hate universal health care so much?” 

Saying you were from California was just way simpler — people only ever reacted positively. It was a way of dissociating ourselves with all of the baggage that comes with being from the U.S. and, instead, associating with wonderful California – the place where the sun always shines and people surf to class. Often, I found that Americans were lumped into one big stereotype – most of the world doesn’t realize that each state, and even city, is different. But everyone knows about California and their views on our beloved state were way more positive than their views of the country it resides in. 

I’ve lived in California for nearly my entire life. So, I found myself bonding myself to the other Californians over our joint unfamiliarity with snow, naiveté to the wonders of thermal underclothes and the shared experience of being from the same, glorious state. Even after I made new international friends, I found that when my Californian friends were all together, we seemed to amplify one another’s Californian qualities. I found myself saying the words “vibes,” “dude,” “sweeeeet,” “bro,” “hella” and “stoked” way more often than I normally do at home, and my use of the shaka (or call me) hand emoji increased tenfold. Whether it was my friend claiming he could totally shred the waves below the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland, having arguments with my NorCal friends over the proper way to say freeway names (it’s THE 5, not I-5!) or complaining about the high price of avocados at Dutch grocery stores, we were often exactly what the stereotypes said we were.

Through a stroke of genius, the joint birthday party for me and my friend while abroad was California-themed. Our Facebook cover photo was a badly photoshopped screengrab from Saturday Night Live’s “The Californians,” with our pouting faces covering Kristen Wiig’s and Fred Armisen’s. The real Californians dressed up as amplified versions of themselves, but it was how everyone else dressed that truly impressed me. We had a Steve Jobs, a Billie Eilish, a member of BROCKHAMPTON (from Texas, but we’ll count it) and a Paris Hilton show up, and not to mention lots of flip flops, sunglasses, Patagonia jackets and beach attire. It was a time to see how people around the world perceive us, a celebration of what makes the Golden State unique, and it was educational for the other international students on American college party traditions and California beer pong rules.

In the Netherlands, no one wants to see an overly loud and proud American, but no one really minds a Californian. Besides, we have a lot in common with the Dutch. California and the Netherlands are considered to be the most “liberal” places in the United States and Europe, respectively, we’re both commonly associated with marijuana and both places place importance on moving toward more environmentally sustainable practices. We are not, however, totally the same. While the Dutch have a public transportation system that puts AC Transit, BART, LA Metro and Amtrak to shame, California is much larger and has far better weather, Mexican food and boba shops. 

If you ever find yourself out of the country, immerse yourself in the culture of the place you’re in, but never forget your roots. You can’t change who you are, and the best people you’ll meet are the ones who are excited to learn about where you’re from and respect you for it, Californian and American quirks and all.   

I went abroad to get away from California. I had been here too long and was losing sight of what makes it such a great place on Earth. Studying abroad is a time to make friends with people from all around the world and experience an entirely new place. While I was able to experience that and more, I somehow found myself 5,000 miles away, feeling closer to home than I ever had before. While I’ve caught the travel bug, and I’m already planning my next escape from this state, I learned something important while I was away: The Netherlands stole my heart, but California holds my soul, and I’m never getting away — there’s way too much traffic.

Sunny Sichi is an assistant blog editor. Contact Sunny Sichi at [email protected].