I spent the first 20 years of my life in California, specifically Orange County, Santa Barbara and San Francisco. I was reading an article about how different it was moving from a foreign country to the US and was struck by how I similarly experienced culture shock after moving to New England.
Table of Contents
California vs. New England
New England Culture
New England Regional Vocabulary
Aside from having a strong accent to my ear, Rhode Island has regional vocabulary that still sometimes baffles me. Some examples (the Rhode Islandisms are listed first):
- sneakers = tennis shoes
- landscaper = gardener
- carriage= shopping cart
- bubbler= drinking fountain
- directional = blinker or turn signal
- soda = Coke
Also, a California convention that they don’t follow here is it to add the article “the” in front of the name of a highway. Example, take the 5 to the 405. Maybe that is because California’s highways are so massive and full of traffic they deserve an additional word.
A Differing Sense of Geography
California is a huge state with a lot of traffic. In spite of this, it is not a big deal to drive an hour to the beach (or skiing). If I drive an hour in Rhode Island, I will have left the state, maybe even another as well. In the time it takes to drive all of California, I would be in Canada. Despite their easy access to other states, Rhode Islanders are often disinclined to leave their small state. They like what is comfortable, what they know.
California’s Obsession with Appearances
The expectation to be physically ideal in appearance and wealth is much greater in California. In Orange County, your car is expected to be expensive, new and clean. I know more than a few people who are paying interest-only loans to live in the big house they are expected to have. Most coastal Californians feel they are expected to be in peak physical health, with beautiful hair and nails– always bathing suit ready. I knew few people who did not have both landscapers and house cleaners, even though they were middle class. Of course, the weather does make it easier to be active all year. This expectation also leads me to think about the differences in food.
Food in New England vs. California
It is much easier to find healthy foods in California. The fruits and vegetables are plentiful and offered in most restaurants, where people are more conscious about how foods are cooked. And the Mexican food is some of the best in the world outside of Mexico!
Rhode Island has mind-blowing Italian and Portuguese food and some unique food that I love, but they are not always good for you. Some examples:
- Hot weiners- an already bad for you hot dog, smothered with meat sauce, celery salt, onions (that’s a vegetable right) and mustard
- Pizza strips- pizza dough slathered with red sauce and a little Romano cheese
- Clam cakes and chowder- A cream-based clam soup and a large ball of dough containing clams, deep-fried
- Dough Boys- deep-fried dough, sprinkled with sugar
- Coffee Milk or ”shake’- like chocolate milk, but with coffee syrup. Historically, what Californians would call a shake would actually be called a frappe in Rhode Island.
The Definition of Diversity
California is a melting pot and most families are relatively new arrivals. My next-door-neighbors from growing up were from Barbados. One of our favorite places to visit is Olvera Street, a little Mexico of sorts in Los Angeles. My classrooms were filled with kids whose parents came from all over Asia. You can also find restaurants to get most international foods.
Rhode Island’s melting pot is mainly degrees of European- Portuguese, Italian or “swamp yankee”. There are a few places with people from the Dominican, but they are not part of my everyday life here. My kids were confused by people speaking different languages.
People don’t leave Rhode Island, or if they do, they usually return. Which is wonderful for families as my kids know their second cousins. We can drive past the restaurant where my great-grandmother ate dinners out as a teenager (even I am returning, 3 generations later) or the bakery that my husband’s family ran.
Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon
Have you heard of the game? By connecting who Kevin Bacon worked with you can find that he is only separated six degrees from anyone else in Hollywood. That game would probably work with any person in the US if you know how to connect them. In Rhode Island, you can bring that down to two degrees, and they are probably related. That is wonderful, because you feel so connected, but also scary as it can really minimize your privacy. If you are talking to your friend in a random restaurant, even 20 minutes from where you live, it is highly likely that the person at the next table will know the person you are talking about. It also means that going out into public brings a higher chance of social interaction. Great for an extrovert like me, but exhausting for introverts. The biggest way it affects people here though, is that it leads to them being so much more protective of their privacy. There are so many people in California, and so very little chance of knowing anyone or them caring to overhear your conversations.
State of Mind
The biggest culture shock I have experienced is the provincial way of looking at the world of New Englanders. Socially, Californians are fun-loving, free thinking people. Comfortable in the world and their own skin. New Englanders think through the social ramifications of their actions much more and not just in Rhode Island. In some way they are much more tied to their English roots.
Now I have been here nearly half of my life. I wonder how these things have changed me? I know although I miss my California peeps, its weather, food, diversity and beaches, I am glad to be raising my kids in an area where they are a bit more sheltered. We experience the seasons. They know their second cousins and interact with them. The pressure to be to be thin is far less apparent. However, I also hope that my free-spirited California outlook is still intact and that I can pass that on to them.
Have you made a move and had a similar experience? Where do you feel is home- where you were or were you are?
Read more about my adventures in California and in New England.
20 thoughts on “Just a California Girl in a Rhode Island World: New England Culture Shock”
I really enjoyed reading this! I grew up in a big(ish) area in Virginia, then spent 8 years bouncing back and fourth between Florida and Washington DC, and I just recently moved to a small town in Maine with 3,500 people. While rural Maine is *very* different than what I’m used to, it was definitely less of a culture shock than Florida was to me. I mean, I’m sure you’ve read a million news headlines about all the crazy stuff that happens in Florida…it’s like that every day there haha. Florida is just so, so weird, I could go on forever.
It is harder to find healthy food up here, especially where I am. I’m a vegetarian and it is so hard to find a meatless entree around here. Most restaurants choose a quesadilla as their one vegetarian dish, so I’ve probably eaten more quesadillas in my 7 months here than I have in my whole life. And people take it so personally when I tell them I don’t eat seafood!
Amanda, Very funny about not eating seafood. There is such great vegetarian food in California!
You have captured it so well! I moved to RI 13 years ago after growing up in NJ and living in Manhattan. I LOVE that there is less emphasis on material things and physical looks. There is some diversity here but not in the suburbs and there is definitely a bit of resistance to things outside of RI from many native Rhode Islanders. It also took me a while to understand that if I was “all set” at a restaurant, it didn’t mean that I had everything that I needed, it means that I’m done and they can take my plate.
Tamara, Thank you for your comment. The “all set” is a new one to me. I always save my favorite thing to eat on my plate for last. I hope you didn’t lose all your favorite foods too often.
It’s pretty incredible how much variety there can be even within a single country. I live in Canada and the difference between the East Coast and the West coast are vast!
I have only visited the east coast of Canada. Need to get to the west!
It is amazing to think of the difference between the east coast and the west coast. Similar to Europe, in there are so many different cultures and languages throughout. It definitely takes some adjustment moving whether across the US or abroad
I play this analysis game with myself all of the time. I particularly do it with SoCal and Washington… and the South. We live in such different societies. We’re a weird country. 🙂
Rob, Were you always from Washington?
I think you might find some similar terms in India 🙂 Maybe I will do a post on this and share that on my blog 😉
That would be really interesting to read. Looking forward to reading it.
I can understand your experience, In India culture and language change almost every 100 miles, given the vast diversity of the country.
Hello! I’m from CT originally and have been living in Santa Cruz for three past ten years. We now have a 1 year old and are next week relocating to Portsmouth RI ! All our family still lives in the Northeast. I’m scared as hell about this move as we love California although Santa Cruz hasn’t been as great lately and we’ve never lived in RI. I don’t know if this is a good or bad decision and I’m hoping we can make some friends that are into healthy living like we are. We wouldn’t be moving back but with our little guy we feel like we should try and see what is like to be near family. I’m just all worry right now.
Portsmouth is a very nice area of Rhode Island. You will still feel at home by the ocean, but I understand how scary it can be.
I love this and it really made me laugh because I experienced the reverse in so many ways. I grew up in New England and moved to Utah where it was such a culture shock! Whenever anyone referred to tennis shoes I was always confused. You aren’t playing tennis, you are running they are sneakers! So many of these I just kept laughing.
I live in Stonington and I am smitten with New England (and Rhode Island). Thanks for this funny post!
P.S. I still call water fountains bubblers no matter where I live 😉
Katie- somethings are so distinct to even separate New England states too. I spoke of shots in a Awful Awful (that’s Connecticut speak for sprinkles) and the Rhode Islanders were stumped.
I’ve lived in California for all my 74 years, except for a brief four months in Seattle when my husband was on contract there. For me, the greatest culture shock is between California when I was growing up post WW2 and California today. Not only do I no longer recognize the area in Ventura County where I lived 25 years ago anymore, but the Los Angeles County I grew up in is no longer culturally what it was, nor is the town of Bellflower where I grew up. Cities are more crowded and more diverse. There is more crime and violence in the streets. I’ve seen crime increase more each year even in San Luis Obispo County in the 25 years I’ve lived here. We did not have gangs and drugs the way we do today 25 years ago. It seems California spends more today on making cities pretty than on making them safe.
I have visited many other states and Washington, D.C, but not in the past 20 years. All the states I’ve visited have their own special beauty.
Very interesting facts from a fellow Californian. Thank you for sharing.
In Connecticut now after 30 years in L.A. Hate it. Weather sucks, food sucks, absolutely no sense of humor to be found. People have their families and friends since childhood. No interest in getting to know anyone new. Grew up here. Forgot what a dismal place. Everyone wears black and grey..says it all.
It is very different than California, for sure.