I have a secret to tell you. It embarrasses me to say it, but…
I have never lived in Elk Grove.
I know, I know. When we first met and you asked me where I lived, I said Elk Grove. I told Patty this when we first met. The truth is, where I called home for most of my childhood sat just blocks away from the Elk Grove/Sacramento border, but technically in South Sac. Outside of the house, I spent most of my time where my friends lived and where my schools were - on Fruitridge, where I witnessed a kid on his bike get jumped by a gang and get nearly beaten to death by aluminum bats; on Florin, where a 30-year-old-man in the arcade at old Florin Mall wanted to beat my 10-year-old self for "looking at his girl," who happened to be a cashier at the mall hot dog stand where I'd just ordered a corn dog; on Stockton, where a party I was at got shot up and I got pepper sprayed in the face because the police decided everyone was a suspect, even though I'd never touched a gun in my life; on Elder Creek, where a kid I tutored and who taught me origami got killed in a drive-by.
So yeah, whenever I met people I never wanted to say I was from South Sac. I was always from Elk Grove. I was always from the suburbs. I was always from a place where prostitutes didn't prance openly in the streets, where you could play basketball in a park without having to run when someone talked too much smack and the other guy ran straight for his car to grab who knows what from under the driver's seat, where guys didn't reach into the waistline of their pants to demonstrate their toughness when you shaved your head and wore the wrong color to the wrong party. I didn't want South Sac to define me because I didn't want to start out at a disadvantage.
Now, I live in Roseville, nearly as far away from South Sac I can be while still being within driving distance of my family. When I tell people I grew up with that I moved to Roseville, many of them smirk and make faces and think that I must think I'm better than them. "Don't become one of those stuck-up d-bags" I've heard on more than one occasion. I've heard jokes about being white-washed. I've heard how uncomfortable they feel as minorities when they go to The Fountains. They say it as though I've now become one of "them." I've been asked why wouldn't I have chosen to be around my family? My friends? Questions sometimes true, sometimes veiled as an accusation. Telling them about property values and schools and starting an independent life only makes me seem more like that white-washed d-bag. When I tell people who I've come to know more recently about living in Roseville, I don't need to say anything. They nod their heads and say things about houses keeping their value during the recession and safety statistics. What they don't talk about is how your scenery, your environment, changes you.
It happened so quickly. A couple of months ago, I happened to be at the Goodwill Superstore on Franklin and Florin. I hadn't been at that shopping center in a decade but remembered the shopping center clearly. The anchor used to be a Mervyn's, where I'd go with my mother when it was time to buy Christmas gifts. There used to be a Mexican restaurant there, too. Costa Azul. I remember seeing it as we drove by, hearing the drumbeats spilling onto the street at night when it transformed into a club. I always said I'd go there when I was older but I never did. Across the street there used to be a thriving Auto Mall, and now there's an empty lot, surrounded by a chain-link fence. The adult store, Suzie's, is still going strong, though.
I'd been at a nearby family party and decided to stop in to look for some books. But everything else distracted me, even just parking the car. Gum and dead cigarette butts and empty soda cans littered the parking lot. The shattered remains of a smashed beer bottle glinted feebly near a tree that looked like it hadn't been watered since I was a kid. The oily handprints all over the glass entrance doors. The dirty tile floors. The boxers of teenage boys who wore their pants too low. The general malaise of the shoppers' facial expressions. The sloppiness of many of their outfits. The ease with which strangers cursed in public.
In Roseville, we spend some of our free time at The Fountains, a somewhat "upscale" (but not really) shopping center across the street from the Roseville Galleria. There's a Mikuni's there that we love, and a Zocalo's, and on the cooler summer nights they have bands that play hits from the 50's and crooners that sing Sinatra. My first impression of The Fountains was: this is exactly why third world countries hate us. At the entrance, a large fountain sprays water into the air 24/7. At the main crossing, there's yet another fountain that shoots water to music, like a mini-Bellagio or something. My first trip there I felt misplaced. I didn't see many people with my skin color. I didn't hear anyone using the slang language I had grown up with.
It reminded me of the first time I set foot in El Dorado Hills, which is where Patty grew up. I'm still astonished when I think about how Patty's graduating high school class was 95% white. Seriously? I couldn't believe there were actually places like that because it wasn't my reality. On our way to her mom's, we stopped at the supermarket to pick up some bread and I, once again, felt immediately Other. No Filipinos, no Mexicans, no African-Americans. I was certain people were staring at me. They knew I'd come from somewhere else and didn't belong. Later dinner parties where people joked about the cultural tendencies of their Filipina hairdressers only served to confirm this bias, as did the way matter-of-fact way people spoke about the lives of those in the lower socioeconomic classes, as though they actually knew what living like that meant like.
On Patty's first trip to South Sac, she didn't speak at all, and those of you who know her know how ridiculous that is. We drove down Florin to get her car serviced and I wanted to show her some spots from my childhood. She'd never stepped foot on Sacramento land south of Sac City. There was no reason to. I rolled down the windows, blasting Dr. Dre from the speakers, and I saw the sudden Otherness in her face. She didn't belong here. It was the same face I had when I was walking through that supermarket in El Dorado Hills, wondering if I'd see brown skin.
Both of our visits to our childhood neighborhoods were colored by things we'd heard in our own environments. Everyone in El Dorado Hills was white and racist. Don't go to South Sac because you'll get shot. Since that's what our environment said, that's what we saw.
When Time Magazine declared Sacramento America's most diverse city in 2002, South Sac would've been a perfect microcosm of that (though I certainly recall that our white neighbors weren't the same white people I'd seen on TV). El Dorado Hills might've been the antithesis. But if you walked outside my childhood home on an early summer day, you'd see kids of all races running and biking up and down the streets or playing ball on the neighborhood basketball court. You'd smell the flavorful odors of world foods and you'd hear the unique rhythms of foreign languages and you'd see families in different shades of skin and different cultural clothes and you'd think absolutely nothing of it. But still, as you got older, you grew cautious. To hear Patty tell it, they could go anywhere they wanted without fear. They played Midnight Flashlight Tag, running around the cul-de-sac and hiding in people's property until a flashlight shone on their bodies. They didn't lock their doors to their cars or their homes, no matter what valuables were held inside. There were no minorities in her neighborhood (though there are now).
This is all to say that our environments often trickle into who we are, which might've been what the friends and family I'd grown up with were so worried about happening because, hey, it did happen. After living in Roseville and going to South Sac, I always saw how dirty it was. I saw the homeless people. I found myself becoming more fearful around the people I'd grown up around. It was so amazing at how quickly Roseville became home, how quickly I became so proud to say, "We bought a house in Roseville" when people asked where we lived. It meant something. Like I'd graduated to something better.
I was wrong. We both were.
Sure, Patty understands that South Sac isn't the safest place to live (I certainly understand that). But she's been there enough to know that she can be comfortable. Not everyone is looking at her just because she's white. There's diversity there, a realness (for lack of a better word), that we might not find in El Dorado Hills or Roseville. All the stuff I said in the beginning of this blog? Yeah, those things happened, but great things happened, too. That's where my family grew up and where most still live, filled with success stories. College degrees, strong relationships, great jobs, a close family. Most of my closest friends are people I grew up with. South Sac is a place where the phrase "giving the shirt of your back" is literally not a cliche. People just help people there without having to be asked. And the diversity, can I mention that again? There might not be another place in the world that will teach you better about empathy, about learning to live in someone else's shoes.
And I know that El Dorado Hills isn't the most diverse place on the planet. But I also know that most folks there aren't looking at me just because I'm brown. And there are loving people there, too. People who care, people whose wealth hasn't transformed them into the elite snobs we like to think they are. We think of these affluent suburbs and think of cookie cutter stereotypes because almost none of us have ever gotten to know them. We often think so much about the barriers that, in essence, we help create and reinforce those barriers instead of bringing them down. Yes, there are other differences - socioeconomic class difference will do that. But we often get mired down in what we don't have have that we forget about the individual. We tend to judge people as groups - by how much money they make, how low they wear their pants, by where they live. If they live in El Dorado Hills they must be part of The Man! They must be racist! If they live in South Sac they must be uneducated! They must be "ghetto"! Any day on Facebook will show you people being judged for being a Democrat or Republican, a Catholic or Mormon or atheist, a feminist, a homosexual. We always forget that people are individuals, that people are people.
Having this understanding has made me view things differently. How quickly I noticed the Hmong, Filipino, Mexican, Indian, and Korean families just on my street. How quickly I noticed the minorities in the supermarkets at El Dorado Hills. How quickly I became proud again to say "South Sac" when people ask where I'm from. I visited that same Goodwill store two days ago and was astonished on what I'd noticed - the flowers near the trees, the small businesses nearby owned by local residents, the geniality of the guy with gold teeth who smiled as he held the door open for me. There's nothing inherently better about Roseville or South Sac or El Dorado Hills, just differences. But we decide how to privilege those differences, if we privilege them at all. We decide what to embrace, what to discard, what to allow to become a part of who we are. While our environments can have the ability to shape us, if two people from as disparate environments as South Sac and El Dorado Hills can be together, then maybe, in the end, it's about the people after all.