You Don’t Look Like You’re From LA

This piece is part of Waterfronts, a series of personal essays that engage with the waterways of New York and/or Los Angeles, presented in collaboration with Underwater New York.

When people ask me where I’m from, I tell them, “Los Angeles.” But, if pushed to be more specific, I have to reveal I actually grew up in Pasadena. Some people get angry. “Pasadena is not in Los Angeles,” they say, seeming to accuse me of pretending I’m a real Angeleno. Pasadena is indeed its own independent city, not part of the City of Los Angeles and in pointing­ out my geographic vagueness, these people are also tugging at an old, deeply buried inferiority, the heart of which begins at the Pacific Ocean.

Pasadena lies twenty-five miles from the coast, at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains. When summer winds blow smog inland off the water, it stops in Pasadena, the mountains holding it in like soup. That’s when it’s best to escape to the beaches where the air is much cooler and cleaner. But try to reach the coast on a hot day and inevitably you sit in traffic, becoming the very thing that is causing the smog-soup that you are trying to flee.

Nevertheless, my family did make the journey to the beach a few times each summer. At some point growing up though, I became aware that the rest of the world views Southern Californians like some privileged, sun-bathed tribe that practically lives at the beach. I began to wonder where my own rights had gone, especially since my family had once lived at the beach too—in a neighborhood called Mar Vista. Even people who don’t speak Spanish know that name means ocean view. But when I was four, my parents forsook my foothold on happiness to move to what they thought was a more wholesome, landlocked city.

Pasadena summers were hot and a typical day was largely spent indoors in the darkened cool, with lots of TV watching. When I was ten, I became obsessed with Gidget, the 1960s TV series about a whitebread, teenage girl who was always at the beach and a huge surfer—even if the footage of her riding the waves was so clearly shot in front of a green screen. But the show’s fakeness was what I loved most: a perfect, unattainable Technicolor vision of what growing up in LA should be and therefore perfect fodder for my growing complex about living a life that was far from it.

In high school, I became friends with a girl who was a grade older than me and had a car. She had long blonde hair and unlike me, was very tan. We would often go to the beach together and on one of our long drives to the coast, my friend asked me if I could be only one thing—tan and fat or pale and skinny—which I would choose. I remember really considering my answer. I have the kind of skin that sunburns easily and I was incredibly self-conscious about it. Being tan was the mark of being from LA, part of the club. I would try lying out in my backyard in small increments, then check for any forming tan lines at night. But my skin would just sprout more freckles. Definitely tan and fat.

By the end of high school, my friends and I were into music and art, activities that were generally in opposition to a sunny, healthy Californian lifestyle. The last time I went to the beach before leaving for college was a school-sponsored trip for the graduating senior class. A caravan of yellow school buses ferried us out to the coast. It was a brisk, early summer’s day in June when the water temperature felt barely above freezing. It didn’t matter—we threw ourselves into the surf en masse. Our school was big and we must have numbered in the hundreds and to my surprise not a small number of my classmates were wearing t-shirts and shorts in the water, either out of modesty or because they didn’t own a bathing suit at all.

The fact is that the majority of students at my school did not look like Gidget—they were African-American, Latino, and Asian. Some of them surfed, but most of them didn’t and no one but me seemed to have a complex about growing up so far from the beach. Everyone was really enjoying themselves. The golden light sparkled in a thousand points on the water. A soundtrack of shrieks, then breaking waves, played in an endless loop. My obsession with erasing my inland-identity suddenly seemed small and, above all, stupid. Los Angeles is a huge, sprawling place and to limit it to the community that lives by the ocean is to ignore a massive part of its history and culture. In a few months, I would be thousands of miles away in a cold, New England city, but that day I was living the LA dream. Did my Pasadena roots give me any less claim to it?

In college, I got all sorts of comments when I told people where I was from. “You don’t look like you’re from LA,” felt hurtful, but I knew what was meant: I didn’t look like the people on TV or in the movies that were supposed to be from Los Angeles. I knew that if I clarified that I was from Pasadena, I would just be reinforcing the misconception about what true Angelenos look like. I thought about my high school and all the different people that call LA home—including millions of Latinos, a population that has been there since the city was just a pueblo on the river. “Well,” I would answer, “I am from Los Angeles.”

Annie Heringer is a documentary filmmaker and television producer currently living in Berlin, Germany where she feels more from Los Angeles than ever.