The Incidental Tourist, Part 1

February 19, 2009

The best way I can describe moving to Los Angeles is to say it’s like moving to another country.

When people think of LA—like, say, Mexico—they think of extremes, of the plastic glamour of the Sunset Strip (or Cancun) and the gritty violence of South Central (or Ciudad Juarez). These are the places people who have never been here know about, the parts so over-represented in movies and music and TV. They come here on vacation, are careful to never go south of the 10, and spend all their time gawking at the beautiful people in West Hollywood and Beverly Hills. From this small part of this massive, sprawling city—region, really—they have all their suspicions confirmed and go home thinking LA really is just like the movies.

It’s easy to forget about the rest of the city. Of course that’s nothing new—we’re always more aware of the extremes. “Middle America” is, by nature of being the “middle,” supposed to be unexceptional. But in Los Angeles, the rest of the city if a very far cry from Middle America.

On Halloween I went to see Very Be Careful, a local band that plays a type of Colombian folk music called vallenato. The show was at a nightclub called Guatelinda, the type of place you’ve passed a hundred times but never thought you’d have a reason to go to. Inside were low ceilings, mirrors on all the walls, flashing harsh lights, bartenders in bow ties. It was a lot like going out in Mexico or Central America. Everyone in the very mixed crowd knew how to dance. Everyone had a good time.

That night a friend and I figured out that the parts of LA that remind us of other countries are great. They’re exceptional. They’re the parts that are unique to Los Angeles, where people from all corners of the globe cross paths and invent new, hybrid cultures that just couldn’t exist most anywhere else (yet, at least). The parts that have to do with the US—as in US pop culture—are the bad parts. That’s where the ex-pats hang out. As long as you don’t go too far west you’re pretty safe from it. The boundary is debatable but it definitely exists. I try not to cross it.

The thing that’s really interesting is that these hybrid cultures have very little to do with white people. Being here has made me realize just how much I see through a lens of whiteness. I understood “diversity,” without thinking about it much, as a mixture of white people and people of color. A “segregated” neighborhood had people who aren’t white. When there were too many white people a neighborhood was “gentrified.” As if white people are the engines behind all urban processes, as if everything is defined relative to me.

Most of Los Angeles is not about me. It wasn’t made for me and it doesn’t care about me and that’s a pretty foreign feeling, to be honest. I sometimes have flashbacks to one of my first days studying abroad in Costa Rica, trudging home from class through the mud on the side of the road while cars blew by going way too fast, occasionally swerving onto the shoulder to pass each other. The smell of diesel fuel mingled with burning trash. People would stare at me but never say anything. I couldn’t talk to them yet. I was an outsider. Way outside.

When someone celebrates their birthday at the Thai restaurant down the street the Thai employees turn off the lights and sing along to a recording of “Cumpleaños Feliz” to their Latino customers. The taco truck around the corner has an LED sign that shows the menu in Spanish, English, and Korean. The first time I went there thought it was Korean food truck. Turns out those exist too. So does a Korean taco truck where that sells short-rib tacos and, soon, kimchi-sesame quesadillas. You can eat Pilipino, Japanese, Vietnamese, Mexican, Korean, Thai, Salvadoran, and Halal Chinese food within a block of my apartment, plus donuts and pizza. There’s talk of naming this corner of the neighborhood “Little Bangladesh.”

Like Mexico, or India, or anywhere you’re not used to, LA is pretty amazing to look at, to wander around and think about and talk about. Things happen that I can’t really imagine happening anywhere else, things that are difficult to describe to someone who hasn’t lived here, or at least been here. And just like when I’ve been a traveler in other countries, the difference between looking at a place and actually interacting with it is huge.

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One Response to “The Incidental Tourist, Part 1”

  1. malcolm said

    With the exported culture/mythology and the most interesting portions being those that feel like another country, where me and my existence as a US-born white kid trying out the city are irrelevant, this post strongly reflects notes I’ve made while living in New York. I don’t ever want to stay here long enough that I become oblivious to this.

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