What The Census Taught Me About Myself

Life never really goes the way I expect.

One minute I’m eight and in the 3rd grade, telling everyone that I’m going to be the world’s best lawyer, and the next I’m 21, attending community college and cramming courses into my schedule so I can graduate with a teaching credential in less than five years. One day I’m playing make believe with my friends on the field behind my elementary school, and the next I’m bussing tables and holding out hope for a coveted server job. Sometimes when I get really stressed, I forget how lucky I’ve been, being born in to an upper-middle class family and living in two sheltered communities my entire life. This essay examines the two communities that I grew up in—Irvine, California and Littleton, Colorado—and how these communities affected my socialization from that playground prosecutor to the person I am today.

I was born in a suburb that was preplanned years before its first house was built. Known to locals as “The Bubble,” the city’s so protected that no house faces any major street, and the neighborhoods are divided into little communities with a park for the children and shopping centers within two miles. Low income housing is cleverly mixed in among the neighborhoods to protect the city from developing a ghetto. Every time a homeless person wanders into Irvine or a poor woman and her children try to sell roses by the freeway, they’re quickly “escorted” out of town by the police. Living in Irvine even means paying high association fees to insure that all the grass is watered and cut the same way. The image would be ruined if different houses had different colored grass, after all.

According to the U.S. Census, the average family in Irvine makes $111,952; this is almost double the national average of $63,211, and almost everyone in Irvine is really flashy with their money. Even people who can’t afford the nicest cars and houses feel the pressure of consumerism; there, if you don’t have a nice car or a big house or the latest cell phone, you’re inferior to your peers. Like me, you’d never guess that 4.4% of people living in Irvine live below the poverty line. Poverty, in much of the O.C., is hidden like a disease. If Irvine had existed in ancient times, poverty would probably be more untouchable than leprosy.

Parking my inherited 1995 Taurus in among the sea of silver Lexuses in my high school’s parking lot, I felt like a pauper. My best friend wanted to be original and “green,” so she asked for a brand new Prius for her 16th birthday. She got it. I think it’s because I felt poor growing up in Irvine that I’m really thrifty today. I hate spending money and feel like I always have to save money to survive, even though my family is actually relatively wealthy.

The one thing that keeps Irvine from being a Stepford community is its racial diversity. Only 56% of its residents are white, and 35% of the residents are Asian. Even though Irvine’s only about two hours away from the Mexican border, only 8.7% of its residents were Latino and only 2% of the population is African American. While Irvine is a particularly diverse community, about 97% of families are one race and most of the mixed race families are Latino and Caucasian. Most of my own childhood friends were Asian with first generation Asian parents. Since I’m white, and many of these Asian parents disapproved of anyone of a different ethnicity hanging out with or dating their children, I always felt I had to prove that I was a worthy friend and girlfriend. Sometimes I felt like there was nothing short of becoming a world renowned brain surgeon that would make me worthy enough to be become part of these families. I believe, for instance, that the family of one friend still blames me, years later, for the fact that their son decided to go into the military instead of attending college.

In Irvine about, 64% of residents have a bachelor’s degree. This is almost three times the national average of 27%. All throughout high school, we were pressured and told that the only way to be successful was to be accepted to and attend a prestigious four-year college. Everyone took at least a couple of AP classes and spent hundreds of dollars on SAT prep courses. Even the cheerleaders and football players were often in my AP classes with me. When I got accepted to and attended UC Davis, though, I learned quickly that the four-year environment wasn’t for everyone. After one semester, I dropped out and moved back in with my family to attend a community college. While I had been at UC, though, my family had relocated to Centennial, Colorado.

After about a year of pining for the O.C. and my friends back in Irvine, I began to grow accustomed to the lifestyle in Centennial. The average household here makes $74,433 annually, and so, when my family moved here, we went from being a struggling lower-class family to a wealthier upper-class family. Suddenly, my frugal ways, old cell phone, and “classic” car were a much better fit with my community. And here, when I offer to take my friends out to lunch, I spend far less than when I treated in Irvine. About 38% of the population in Centennial hold bachelor’s degrees, so, while it’s still above average, I don’t feel like I’m admitting defeat when I tell someone that I go to community college. Economic class is a little more noticeable here. People seem less appearances-driven than in California, so their homes and cars are a better indicator of their wealth, and 8% of families here live below the poverty line. Overall, I am much happier and more at home in the less shallow lifestyle of Centennial.

One thing that I still dearly miss about Irvine, though, is the racial diversity. In Colorado, everyone’s more ethnically homogenous. In Centennial, the population is over 77% white. I’ve noticed more and more how growing up around other races and, in particular, picking up Korean mannerisms means that sometimes I don’t know how to act without them. For instance, now that I am not constantly competing with the Korean sense of pride, I no longer feel the need to prove that I am a worthy individual through good grades and good study habits. I’ve noticed that my work ethic has diminished quite a bit. Also, it feels like my new Caucasian friends can’t sit around in silence the way that people of Asian backgrounds can. A lot of my new friends think it’s weird that I don’t always have things to say all the time. To my eyes, most of the 5% of people of Asian descent in Centennial act very “American.” So, strangely, even though I am part of the major ethnic group in Centennial, I feel like my racial class isn’t represented here.

Over all, the different classes and ethnic groups that I have grown up—and moved away from—have really impacted who I am. I am overly frugal because of the impact of feeling poor and growing up in a glitzy consumerist society, and I can be socially awkward sometimes, because my mannerisms are a little bit Asian and I no longer live in a heavily Asian community. Who knows what type of person I would be if I had grown up in Centennial and then moved to Irvine. Maybe I’d feel pressured to spend and show off my wealth if I had grown up thinking I was wealthy in Centennial. My neighbors might think I was loud and obnoxious instead of thinking I am quiet and shy. Who knows? The only thing I know for certain is that my social, racial, and economic class and the cities in which I grew up have had a huge impact on my socialization.