20 years ago, I spent a couple of months on a “cultural exchange” to the United States. My mother was recently doing a clear-out and found a letter I had written to my family in January 1993 from my host family’s home in Orange County, California. Here are some excerpts from this five-page piece of snail mail…
“I’ve just eaten a huge slice of chocolate pie – everything is pie here. Today I had pumpkin pie for breakfast and for afternoon tea!…This morning I watched Young and Restless! Britt’s mum and aunt (Shirley and Cindy) are fascinated that we get all the US soaps (in Australia) – they have been really helpful explaining the TV Guide because they get 52 TV Channels!! Anyway, Nicky and Victor are still having trouble, but I think they’re back together… Saved By The Bell is so popular here – it’s on twice a day – repeats, and the new series… They’ve asked me all sorts of questions about Australia like, “Do you have pizza in Australia,” and “Does the Queen rule Australia”. When I asked for a white coffee in a cafe, the waitress just gave me a blank look. You have to ask for black coffee with cream. Weird… Britt’s mum says she hates Southern California because it’s basically miles and miles of freeway with shops etc all the way to San Francisco, you just can’t walk anywhere. And Cindy doesn’t do freeways… They tell me this is a safe area. Some of Britt’s friends who live in LA have said that no rioting ever happened in Orange County. It was all in LA county. Britt’s Uncle Dan told me that Orange County is the most expensive county in the world because you have to earn $100,000 pa to live comfortably (he told me this as soon as I met him.)… Britt’s mum says when we stay with her in Las Vegas next week, she’s going to show us Liberace’s house, and Sylvester Stallone’s mother’s house!… Britt’s father lives in Montana which is a long way away, north west. She has a 14-year-old sister called Misty. Misty is in Montana for the Christmas Holiday, but I’ll meet her when she goes back to her mother’s house in Vegas… Shirley can’t believe I know so much about American culture, because they only Australian thing they’ve heard of is Crocodile Dundee. But last night I made Vegemite sandwiches for them and they really liked them! I hope they don’t eat the whole jar before I give it to Christine (my penpal from Pasadena)… Anyway, I’ll say goodnight now, because I’ve got a big day tomorrow – a beach party at Newport, if it’s sunny, or shopping if it’s rainy!”
So you can see, a significant exchange of culture took place during my stay in California. I experienced first-hand the impressions of America I gained from the TV I watched growing up. And my host family learnt, that as well as Crocodile Dundee, Australia has pizza, a prime minister, and only five TV channels. But despite enjoying Disneyland, Universal Studios, and lots of pie, I still didn’t get that “LA feeling” I thought I’d feel when I got there – I realised that as an “exchange student”, I had to get to my dreams in other people’s cars, according to other people’s timetables. The closest thing to living my dreams were pre-purchased tickets to TV talk shows and days out at theme parks, little glittering lights of excitement dotting the night-sky of reality around LA’s endless freeways.
What is the “LA feeling”? It’s a fantasy I projected onto this city of Angels, this web of villages, linked by grey snaking freeways that couldn’t live up to the expectations of a wannabe starlet/creative type who was there with a university group on a “cultural exchange”. I wanted to be an LA Woman, in LA. But I was a Bondi girl in Orange County, living much the same sort of life I did at home in Sydney. Shopping Malls, Oprah, Thai Takeway in front of a video on a rainy day, chatting to family, and going to church (well, at least it was Robert Schuller in the Crystal Cathedral from the religious TV show Hour of Power!) – not my idea of LA excitement. To be an LA Woman, to have a hope of getting into that LA state of mind (which I get when I listen to Billy Idol), I would’ve had to take a giant leap and try to break into the entertainment industry and really live LA, not just dream it.
Instead, I took the sensible route. I finished my Arts degree. Sensible girl that I am. The History and Philosophy of Science and Technology? Anyone? That course where I learnt about Stonehenge and stuff… Yeah, that’s the reason I didn’t try to make it big in LA. That, and my fear of dieting.
Do you remember your first big trip away? What were your impressions?