Faith Gong: Dispatch from the West Coast

I’m writing this at the dining room table of my brother- and sister-in-law’s home in Orange County, California, on the final day of a weeklong visit with family on the West Coast. From where I sit, I see the clear blue sky that hasn’t changed all week; the Southern California weather has been perfectly sunny, warm, and dry. I see the red tile roofs of neighboring houses in this suburban development, where nearly every day we’ve walked a few steps across the lawn to the neighborhood pool. I see a row of palm trees; despite having spent five years as a California resident myself, I never get over the palm trees.
The six cousins – my four daughters plus my niece and nephew – are happily playing video games in the next room. This sojourn in Orange County has been my daughters’ introduction to video games, since we have neither a game console nor a television in Vermont, and they’ve loved it. But they’ve hardly spent the entire time in front of a screen. In addition to the pool, we spent an afternoon at Huntington Beach, where the smooth sand stretches endlessly and the waves are surfer-perfect, a far cry from the rocky Maine beaches we’re used to. We spent one day at Legoland, where, miraculously, not a single child had a meltdown. We’ve wandered around a couple of massive Southern California shopping malls, which are often sprawling, open-air complexes with fountains, outdoor seating – and, in one case, a merry-go-round and Ferris wheel. We exhausted the kids with an hour at an indoor trampoline park called “Get Air.” We visited Irvine Regional Park, where peacocks roam freely under the coast live oaks, and where we rented a six-seater “surrey bike” for a pleasant pedal across cactus-strewn arroyos under rolling brown hills.
There’s also been plenty of time at home with the cousins. These six haven’t seen each other in over a year, but they’ve packed a year’s worth of play into this week. They built an enormous box fort in the living room. They crafted scuba suits for themselves out of cardboard and plastic buckets, and went “shark watching” around the house. They co-authored a series of graphic novels about dragons. They played hide-and-seek, laser tag, and board games. They created a restaurant and overcharged the grown-ups exorbitantly for play food.
Despite spending most of every day together for a week, they have not fought. I have no way of explaining this, except to say that our entire visit seems to have been wrapped in a haze of golden harmony. Perhaps this is the same sunset-hued West Coast siren song that lured the first settlers across the Continental Divide – and that hasn’t ever stopped.
Everyone wants to live here, it seems. The housing developments are nestled together in a sprawling suburban quilt. The population is able to support a dizzying array of shopping centers, many boasting restaurants and drug stores that remain open 24 hours a day (almost unheard of in Vermont.) They are widening “the 405” — the busiest interstate in the nation — increasing its current 14 lanes to 16. One byproduct of this sprawl was the black veil of smog that our plane passed through on our descent into Los Angeles, and which was also obvious in the haze we saw if we looked down either side of Huntington Beach. One of my daughters observed, after seeing the native Southern California landscape around Irvine Regional Park, “The only nature here is where nobody’s living, and everyone’s living where there’s no nature.”
Still, everyone seems to want to live here, and I can understand; I half want to live here myself. After a week, I could already feel the lure of never having to think about the weather, of being able to go to the beach or the pool year-round, of not having to drive an hour to go shopping, and of having nearly every food in the world at my fingertips.
In just one week, we ate dim sum and sushi, Mexican and Vietnamese, plus a couple of massive meals at The Cheesecake Factory. We were introduced to new desserts, like Hawaiian “Shave Ice” – flavored shaved ice which can be eaten alone or covering ice cream, topped with a dollop of “Dole whip” (pineapple flavored ice cream.) At Drilled, they can “drill” various kinds of cereals or snack foods into your ice cream – literally, with a giant spinning drill. (The “Hot as Hell” option drills red hot Cheetos into your ice cream, with additional Cheeto crumbs sprinkled on top.) The latest beverage trend, having recently arrived on these shores from Taiwan, is “Cheese Tea,” which combines tea with something called “cheese foam.” Vermont dairy farmers might want to take note.
Many of the restaurants we visited had large flatscreen televisions mounted on the walls. “I can’t focus!” wailed my youngest daughter during dinner at a Vietnamese pho restaurant, as a reality show called “American Ninja Warrior” played out on the wall. Our hotel breakfast room featured two large-screen televisions, plus smaller personal televisions mounted on the wall next to each booth.
“Why is the news never good?” one daughter asked, eyeing the regional updates on one of the large televisions one morning. We then launched into a discussion of the news concept of, “If it bleeds, it leads.”
“Nobody would care about a news headline like, ‘The Gongs had a really nice time in Orange County,” I said, by way of example.
But it seems that I’ve just gone and written that story. Because, at the tail end of the summer of 2019, the Gong family had a really nice time in Orange County.
Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, four daughters, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her “free time,” she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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