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Learning to love the East (Feb. 96)

On a clear, brisk day late this November, a Californian friend of mine walked outside wearing shorts. He’s a freshman. I put a gloved hand on his shoulder. “I know,” I said understandingly, “the sun doesn’t work on this coast.”

There are as many Californians as there are New Yorkers on the Yale campus. We’re easy to spot. We’re the ones who arrive here without winter coats, or the ones who don Gore-tex and snowshoes at the first sight of a nimbus cloud. We blend in by January, but you can still spot us by our child-like wonder at the first snowfall. Although most of us have seen snow, we just aren’t used to having it where we live. One friend from L.A. celebrated by making naked snow angels last year. As a study break, she and a couple of friends ran out to Cross Campus in the middle of the night wearing nothing but their coats. No one saw them, but I wish I’d been there to drop down into a fresh blanket of snow and swing my arms and legs with pure joy at the sheer freedom of it.

We may be crazy, but remember that we are adjusting to a different world. I thought boarding schools were easy before I got to Yale (graduates of Andover and Exeter, please forgive). And there is no “old money” on the West Coast. Or maybe it just ages differently. It’s an evasive but tangible distinction. Imagine a sprawling, pink-stucco ranch house in Bel Air, Los Angeles. The pool has a waterfall, and the lawn is decorated with abstract sculptures. Then imagine an austere neoclassical mansion with columns and shutters. Somewhere in the difference between the two is the difference between West and East. I speak from personal experience when I say that nothing drives that contrast home like the difference between the redwood-covered open spaces and pale-colored buildings of the University of California at Berkeley, and the quadrangles and Gothic facades at Yale.

These differences between the coasts have become a part of my education. I still grit my teeth a little when East Coasters talk about living in California as if it were an escape from “real life.” (“Oh, I love California, but I could never live there. I’d be too far away from everything….”) But after spending a summer in Manhattan, I understand how it might seem like the center of the universe. The only real disadvantage is that home, and all of its unconditional support, is so far away. When I left for college, I thought I was much too grown up for those 3,000 miles to matter. Then on my first tour with my improvisational comedy group, a vicious, nasty flu knocked me off my feet. I trailed up and down the East Coast after my friends, shuttled miserably from car to car, infirmary to emergency room. On the sixth day, I called home, and the Exit Players deposited me at the nearest Holiday Inn. I fell asleep in my clothes on the bedspread, feverish and hacking up a lung in a strange city. Seven hours later, the door opened, and my mom walked in.

“Hi baby,” she said. With frequent flier miles and the maternal instinct, it’s a small world after all.

Michelle Chihara ’96 is is a senior English major whose East Coast address is Berkeley College.

Filed under 1990s
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