Each week, Jeremy Rosenberg (@LosJeremy) asks, "How did you - or your family before you - wind up living in Los Angeles?
Today we hear from from Charisse L'Pree Corsbie-Massay, Ph.D
"I grew up in White Plains, an urban suburb of New York City. I like to call it the Pasadena of New York. I went by "Charisse Massay."
As an only child, I spent hours in front of the television. With enough money, anyone could reach into my home at any hour of day or night and convince me to buy or believe something I had never considered. TV taught me lots of things, and shaped the person I wanted to be. I wanted to be pretty. I wanted to be popular. I wanted to be an all-American girl.
I graduated from high school at 16 and went to MIT. Being a New Yorker in Boston was interesting. I rooted for New York teams and delighted at New England accents. I earned 2 B.S. degrees in Brain and Cognitive Science and Comparative Media Studies. I learned how my mind integrated stories and images from television into expectations of reality, and I used these social schemas when thinking about myself, interacting with others, or attempting to make sense of the world.
When I graduated from college in June 2003, I did not know what I was going to do. I knew what I wanted to do; I wanted to talk about media, and write books, and be brilliant and famous. I wanted to be referred to as simply, "charisse" (all in lower case, like bell hooks or danah boyd). But how to get there was less clear. I shopped a book proposal to publishers in New York, but received no reply. In a critique from one of my advisors, I was chastised for "writing something so naïve;" he said, "I thought we taught you better."
Broken hearted, I applied grad school. I was accepted to a Ph.D. program at UC San Diego in Communications. It was a perfect program, with a lab dedicated to the psychology of communications and media, and they offered me a full fellowship. I was also accepted to the M.A. Program in Critical Studies at USC, but they did not have funding. The choice was obvious, and I made plans to move to UCSD in La Jolla.
But when I awoke on April 15, the deadline for responses, I realized, "I can't move to La Jolla. I need to move to L.A." Something drew me to LA, a need that I couldn't explain, but one that I couldn't deny. Even without funding, I decided to move to L.A. and begin the next chapter in my life.
To me, Los Angeles was a fantastical world of clichés, where people believed that their dreams could come true. I had seen movies like "L.A. Story," "Troop Beverly Hills," and "Clueless." I understood L.A. It was full of pretty people, trying to do big things, and I was ready to be a part of it. I was twenty-two-years-old. In the eight months after college, I lost 60lbs and went from a size 16 to a six. I was ready to live the dream.
I flew from JFK to LAX on a one-way ticket. Reverend Al was on my plane.
I distinctly remember the feeling of finality. I had no immediate plans to return to New York. I adopted "Charisse Corsbie-Massay" for all my official documents, but went by "charisse" for personal correspondence. The signature on my email simply said "peace; charisse," in hopes that the rhyme might encourage people to pronounce my name correctly.
I moved to Downtown Los Angeles as soon as I arrived. It was familiar: the buildings, the public transportation, the people. I lived in a little New York set, a tiny soundstage with skyscrapers. It immediately felt like home and I have never considered living anywhere else.
I loved my home, and I loved watching the antics at The Standard Hotel across the street. In 2005, I was introduced to the world of Young Hollywood. The Kid's Cotton Club, a jazz club managed by Danny Masterson of "That 70s Show" fame, started around 11 p.m. on Sunday night, and ended at sunrise on Monday morning. I was living the perfect L.A. life, or at least what this New Yorker expected of L.A. life: late night parties with celebrities and beautiful women. It was awesome.
Telling industry people that I studied media for a living led to several interesting conversations, but school was secondary. It kept me busy and paid the bills, but it was not the focus of my life. When my two-year M.A. program ended, I wasn't ready to leave L.A., and I wasn't prepared to write a book. I applied to grad school again, but this time I had a plan. And at the end of it, I was going to be a doctor. I got a tattoo of a single star to celebrate the occasion.
With my Hollywood urges out of the way, I was eager to experience a less stereotypical Los Angeles. Like an ethnographic study, I immersed myself in the city. As I had once been a New Yorker in Boston, I was a New Yorker in L.A.; I was an outsider embedded in the community and the culture, and this gave me a unique perspective on the city, its residents, and the culture. Most importantly, it gave me unique insight into myself.
I spent my 20s in L.A. I arrived just before my 23rd birthday, and will leave just before my 32nd. Los Angeles has been my home for nine years, and in that time, every part of me has been challenged: my gender, my race, my nationality, my research, my education, my zip code, my area code, and more. I have felt like a fish out of water at every turn, but this only made me stronger, more secure, and happier with myself.
Growing up, I wanted the all-American life: two parents, siblings, pets, and a standalone house with a backyard and a hallway. I wanted to live the life that I saw on television. In comparison, my life seemed abnormal, and it upset me.
My mother emigrated from Guyana to the United States by herself in 1974. Instead of attending summer camp like most American children on television, I stayed with my grandfather in Guyana every year. In total, I spent over two years of my life living on a chicken farm in Soesdyke. Although I loved it as a child, I know now why my mother left. She didn't want to be a poultry princess. She wanted to get a college degree. She wanted to be an American. She wanted me to be an American.
I wanted to be White, blonde, and thin. I wanted to live the life of a young, cosmopolitan urbanite. I longed to be the all-American Single City Girl, in the history of "Breakfast at Tiffany's," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "Sex in the City," and even "30 Rock." But I was not White, not blonde, and not thin, but I believed. I ran around the house screaming, "I have long blonde hair," when I really had a kinky afro. I gave up on being blonde after a bleaching disaster, but I kept the dream.
When I moved to Los Angeles, I was ready to live the life I had only imagined. I got contacts and started wearing makeup. I bought a new wardrobe to go with my new body and my new life. It was dinner and dancing every night. Men were lining up at my door. My life was a sitcom, with the same cast of characters, the same locations, and the same jokes week in and week out. It was great.
I learned the gender game and developed a greater appreciation for the Marilyn Monroe School of Feminism, where it was possible to use your "God-given gifts" to accomplish your goals. I was fascinated by it, even if I wasn't good at it. Growing up in with my mother and my grandmother, I wasn't experienced at gender ploys.
But the L.A. dating norms didn't change me, which made prolonged relationships difficult in L.A. I was direct and honest in my personal interactions, traits that people claim they like, but not when you are being direct and honest about them. I was proud of my glasses, my research, and my life, even if it did not work in my favor. While in the process of hitting on me on a Tuesday afternoon, a young man at the Santa Monica Pier asked how I could go to the movies by myself. When I told him I was a researcher, he responded,
"Oh. That's why you're single."
My understanding of gender was shaped by these ridiculous interactions in the same way that it had once been shaped by American television, but this time I had a greater understanding of the dynamics, and delighted in the game.
My discoveries around race were not as humorous, but just as enlightening. In the suburbs of New York, race was salient, but to my naïve eye, it was not daunting. Growing up, racial identity was a valued choice, even if it meant actively identifying with the boundaries between groups. In New York, a city with a diverse immigrant history, identifying with immigrant roots was common and most of the people I knew were mixed or touted hyphenated identities. I know now that this explicit racial diversity, both within the community and within the individual, is a luxury. I learned that categorical race was an important component when completing college applications. I failed to fit in the provided boxes, and it added to my evolving sense of conflict with American cultural expectations.
In L.A., boxes became neighborhoods. This sprawling city with a tense history of residential segregation distances groups physically, socially, and psychologically. My choice to identify as multiracial often conflicted with people's perceptions of me. One man said, when I told him I was Guyanese, "You're awfully light skinned for an African."
Another woman informed me of my race after asking about my detailed heritage: "If your daddy's Black, then the seed is Black, and you're Black." And yet another, when learning that my mother was mostly Chinese, said, "Oh yeah. I can see it. You have a Chinese mouth." In her defense, she informed me that she was White, but she had a mixed race child, so she could relate I was constantly defending my identity to others, which, albeit exhausting, strengthened my sense of self and my research. One of my favorite projects is entitled, "Multiracial Identity Development: Brought to you by The Boondocks."
Los Angeles is also a city in transition, and as a DTLA resident, the renewal of Downtown was a part of my story too. I moved to DTLA because it felt like New York and I could use the Metro; much like Rome, all buses lead Downtown, and it is one of the few places in L.A. where public transportation works. I drove my car once a week to go out at night or to the supermarket (these were the days before L.A. Live and Ralph's). I quickly learned that not all fashion works when you take public transportation.
People were shocked to hear that I lived Downtown, and expressed fear and worry. People shared horror stories of muggings, the homeless population, and the isolation. But I loved it. It was quiet on the weekends. I walked all over Downtown, I fell in love with the one-way streets. I found historic buildings, and hidden shops. I got to know the bouncer at my local bar, and met my other Downtown girlfriends for brunch.*
On its face, Downtown appeared raceless, populated by a diverse group of young urban professionals, but the divisions around class were very apparent: yuppies living and working in renovated office buildings and warehouses, a large population of working class Latinos, and panhandlers on most corners. Again, this intersection of communities is common in New York and Downtown, but for residents of other L.A. neighborhoods, these interactions were unfamiliar and confusing.
Most importantly, I like the culture of public transportation. I like sitting next to people I would never meet otherwise. I like the functional cordiality that comes with sharing physical space, the casual pleasantries that urbanites employ to get through the days. We hold doors open, offer directions when asked, and acknowledge that there are other people who have an equal right to space. The truth is that the stranger sitting next to you is really a companion on a shared journey, but in my observations, Angelenos have not yet internalized this interpersonal balance. I look forward to the day that Angelenos realize that you have to let passengers off the bus or train before attempting to board.
L.A. has helped me realized that I am a city girl; not a "big city" girl, but someone who loves urban spaces. I like seeing different people go about their day. I like vertical living. I like being comfortable. I like wearing flats. I like reading my book on the bus. I like living in my own world, and I like the fact that this world has other people living in it.
In the past few years, I started using my first and middle name almost exclusively. After a lifelong battle with my own name(s), "Charisse L'Pree" discards baggage from the past and allows me to be as unique as I wanna be. Plus, it rhymes with "Ph.D."
Time moves fast in Los Angeles. In 2012, I graduated from USC with my Ph.D. in Social Psychology. The title of my dissertation was a haiku: "Racial and Gender Exclusion Affects Novel Group Identity." Inspired by my own life, I produced videos that systematically omitted certain demographic groups and measured how this experience affected mood and identity of viewers. I thought it was the culmination of my life's work.
But it was only the beginning. I recently accepted a faculty position at Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications as an Assistant Professor of Communications, specializing in group representation and diversity in media. Now all I have to do is talk about media, write books, and be brilliant and famous. It's a dream come true.
Although I never intended to make a life in Los Angeles, my time here has been more than just transitory. L.A. is another home. I spent my 20s in this city and it changed the way I think about my world and myself. Thanks L.A."
--Charisse L'Pree, Ph.D.
(as told to Jeremy Rosenberg)
Do you or someone you know have a great Los Angeles Arrival Story to share? If so, then contact Jeremy Rosenberg via: arrivalstory AT gmail DOT com.
**Jeremy Rosenberg works there and collaborated with L'Pree Corsbie-Massay on a climate change communication project.
Top photo of and courtesy Charisse L'Pree Corsbie-Massay