As a Californian who moved to the East Coast for graduate school, I've long thought that the Red/Blue lens so often used to look at the United States elides significant differences between folks referred to under the common banner of "coastal elites." There is an undeniable tendency among those from one coast to move to the other, rather than settling in the places disparagingly referred to as "flyover country."
Our experience is, nevertheless, one of moving between cultures. This is hardly a new insight--The Great Gatsby's narrator, Nick Caraway, mused on The East as an outsider, as did Joan Didion. She is particularly insightful here:
I am not sure that it is possible for anyone brought up in the East to appreciate entirely what New York, the idea of New York, means to those of us who came out of the West and the South. To an Eastern child, particularly a child who has always has an uncle on Wall Street and who has spent several hundred Saturdays first at F.A.O. Schwarz and being fitted for shoes at Best's and then waiting under the Biltmore clock and dancing to Lester Lanin, New York is just a city, albeit the city, a plausible place for people to live.
But to those of us who came from places where no one had heard of Lester Lanin and Grand Central Station was a Saturday radio program, where Wall Street and Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue were not places at all but abstractions ("Money," and "High Fashion," and "The Hucksters"), New York was no mere city. It was instead an infinitely romantic notion, the mysterious nexus of all love and money and power, the shining and perishable dream itself.Prior to 2006, when I began graduate school at New York University, I though of Wall Street as an abstraction, "Fifth Avenue" as words that followed "Saks," and Madison Avenue--well, I can't say I ever thought of Madison Avenue. My own final abstraction was the Ivy League, a group of institutions I knew nothing about for most of my life save the fact that Harvard and Yale were among them. As late as age 26, when I began looking at Columbia University for graduate school, I never thought of it as being in the Ivy League, nor did I put Brown, Princeton or the University of Pennsylvania in those categories. I'd scarcely heard of Cornell or Dartmouth until I moved to the East Coast.
But I quickly found, hanging around with a close friend who attended the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, that to be a young, ambitious person growing up on the East Coast is to obsess about educational institutions in a way I never remembered growing up in California, although I took advanced placement classes at a competitive Orange County high school where classmates attended all manner of elite colleges. As seniors in high school, my sense is that although most of my classmates were probably aware of Harvard as the biggest name school in America, a peer admitted to Stanford University would've commanded congratulations as hearty. Asked to name the most prestigious school among UC Berkeley, Brown, Cornell and UPenn, Berkeley would've won the day, except that one never would've been asked to make that judgment, let alone to internalize it.
The difference in mindset seems to me best illustrated by an anecdote I'll never forget. It concerns a friend from California who earned his undergraduate degree at UC Berkeley, and enrolled for graduate school at Columbia University at the same time I did graduate school at NYU. He lived in grad student housing with a roommate who attended an Ivy League college (note to East Coast readers: it wasn't Harvard, Yale or Princeton).
The three of us were walking late at night on Amsterdam Avenue, after drinking two or three beers each at a pub. My friend Michael, whose name is actually something else, uttered some thoughtless remark that struck everyone as particularly stupid--the kind of comment you good-naturedly mock a friend for saying during a night of drinking. We did that for a while, and then his roommate Dave, whose name I've also changed, softened his tone.
"It's okay Mike," he said, "we know you just went to a state school."
The remark was spoken as a joke. But it struck Mike and I the moment we heard it - we made eye contact, both of us thinking, "Whoa, the East Coast is different--I don't know whether it's weirder that they have a disparaging category called 'state school' or that they're inclined to put Berkeley into it, but it never would have occurred to me that there could be a joke like that."
The moment passed, neither Mike nor I commenting aloud. Nor did I think of the conversation again until a week or two later, on another night when Mike, Dave and I were walking together. Once again, Mike said something that practically demanded mockery. Being his friends, we obliged.
At the perfect moment, I turned to him, softened my tone, and said, "It's okay Mike, we know you just went to a state school."
All three of us burst out laughing. And then Mike said, "You know he's saying that to make fun of you, right Dave?" His eyes became wide. "Whoa," he thought, "it never would have occurred to me that there could be a joke like that."
On that night, Dave realized that the West Coast is different.