Southern California – to a 22-year-old Irish college kid these are not merely two words but a term that describes not just a geographic area but an idea, a culture, a unique people and way of life. It conveys sunshine, sand and silicone, dogs on surfboards and bonfires on the beach at sunset.
I am here on a summer student exchange program: a J-1 visa, known euphemistically as “doing a J-1” at home. It was introduced by the U.S. government over 40 years ago as a means of giving foreign (mainly European) college students an opportunity to experience firsthand the country most only knew as their protector should Soviet tanks cross the River Elbe.
Back then, Ireland was unrecognizable from its modern self. There was net emmigration (the country’s population had been in constant decline since the famine of the 1840s when more than 1 million died and another million emmigrated out of Ireland, mainly to the United States). College kids came here in those early days of the J-1 to earn money, working construction in New York, Chicago and Boston.
Now we enjoy free tuition, so not as much emphasis is placed on earning money. Ireland’s future doctors, bankers, business consultants and lawyers can afford to come to more diverse places other than New England and prioritize enjoying themselves in an alien climate for four months, from late May until September. What better place to see the “real” America than here in the “real” Orange County?
So what have I done with my time between schmoozing with celebrities on Main Street and perfecting my barrell roll between working shifts at the dream job of bussing tables at beachfront hotels?
I have met, for the first time, Americans who are not tourists in a foreign country (the only type most Irish people ever meet), but who are in their own cultural context and I am the outsider. Indeed I have met people who are among the friendliest and most cordial I have ever met.
However, and let’s not pretend this comes as a huge shock, there are people who are glaringly oblivious to not just the outside world but also domestic issues, which they should rightly be concerned about, an ignorance that I find quite astute.
From talking to various locals, I feel that Irish media devotes more column inches and airtime to the ongoing conflict in Iraq than its American counterparts. Cities such as Fallujah, Baquba, Mosul and Kirkuk are familiar to me, and the Irish military is not even involved in Iraq. American media seems to be fixated on human interest stories and devotes less time and space to the conflict than what it rightly should. The stories that are published show a soldier being awarded a college degree posthumously or a young Iraqi girl being “rewarded” with plastic surgery in the U.S. to cover her disfigurement following a bomb landing on her school.
After I tell people I am Irish, and after they tell me how cool it is to meet an Irish person (and that they’re a “quarter Irish”), they ask me something like, “What music is popular in Britain at the moment?”
I then explain (for the tenth time) that Ireland is its own country, it is an independent member of the European Union, and we have a seat at the United Nations General Assembly (between Iraq and Israel), and that it is Northern Ireland that reamins part of the U.K. – to the disdain of many.
Closer to home, when asked what the population of the United States currently stands at, a new American friend of mine estimated it may be about 60 million. But even I know the population of California alone is close to 40 million (before taking illegal immigrants into account) and a recent headline in USA Today declared that this country’s population has now topped 300 million.
I am thoroughly enjoying my time here in “Surf City, USA.” Americans are not what I expected them to be. They are easy-going and genial, friendly and generous. However, ignorance of the outside world and even internal American affairs could convey an underlying preoccupation with one’s self, which may not be an innacurate summary of O.C. Or perhaps I’m just another ignorant British college kid.
Mark Eiffe is a guest writer studying law at University College Cork in Ireland and is living in Huntington Beach for the summer.