Disney and ‘that bridge’ was the response I was met with after asking my British friend what she wanted to experience during her upcoming trip to California.
“I’m not sure … what can I do over there that I can’t do in the U.K.?”
I frantically thumbed through the mental encyclopedia of exclusively American experiences I’ve accumulated in the five months I’ve already spent in Berkeley.
Before arriving, California meant little more to me than Disneyland and the Golden Gate Bridge; in my friend I saw a glimmer of the Stanley of August 2021, and through this, a realization of how much I have become accustomed to since. I was excited for her.
Therefore, her response to my suggestions came as a slight surprise.
“You’ll have to eat this weird thing called biscuits and gravy in a diner. That’s pretty American,” I suggested.
A quick Google search prompted the reply, “So it’s just like a Yorkshire pudding with more sauce?”
She wasn’t incorrect. I tried another option: “There are parts of San Francisco with great thrift stores.”
“Like in London?”
I couldn’t deny this either. Militantly gentrified postcodes of post-industrial London bear an eerie resemblance to parts of San Francisco. The familiarity of overpriced corduroys and chronically millennial street art was something I had overlooked in the desperate game of spot the difference that most exchange students participate in.
I tried a different tactic: “The roads in the Marin Headlands are beautiful. But Californians drive recklessly. Lots of undercutting.”
“I’ll be fine. No one obeys that rule here either.” Even danger couldn’t exoticize California.
I was about to give up, but I had one last carrot to dangle before her.
“At the frat parties, they all drink out of those red Solo Cups. You know like in the movies, it’s exactly like that.”
“Oh, I purchased a stack of them at Tesco yesterday.”
It was in vain; the carrot was already digesting in her stomach. The fact that red Solo Cups were apparently now on sale at the most British supermarket in Britain cemented the fact that the presumed novelty of my new home just wouldn’t cut it.
At first, I thought her a tough crowd; these novelties had excited me when I arrived. But during the days following our conversation, I started to recognize more and more similarities between here and the U.K. They stacked up in my mind and the heavier this pile weighed, the more hollow the differences felt.
From the outset, it was a desperate hunt for juxtaposition. My home university advertised a UC Berkeley exchange as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to truly be absorbed in Americanism, so I had set out with the intention of experiencing difference.
I found myself, spear in hand, chasing contrasts. And when I snagged them, I dramatized their dissimilarity to home, like parading the catch of a quotidian weasel as if it were a prize lion. I projected my desire to experience change onto a wilderness that is fundamentally not that disparate to my own.
And after our conversation, I began to see the jungle from the trees; I recognized a sort of confirmation bias in my own scavenging.
There are some noteworthy and genuine differences. To name two, the humor and the weather. One is an improvement on the U.K. version, the other is spelled correctly in the U.K.
But despite these differences, the people here speak the same language, use the same social media platforms, hold the same political penchants and are taught the same syllabuses. I interact with these people using the same rulebook of social cues that I’m used to across the Atlantic.
I have come to realize that as I navigate the world, I orient myself with the compass of contrast. But this dial doesn’t point due North. Instead, it leads me into a maze, the mossy walls of which are built with logs of not only contrived but also potentially harmful differences. And before I know it, these palisades tower so high, there’s no knowing where I actually am.
The truthful lack of intense difference between Britain and Berkeley could be seen as a slightly disappointing and anticlimactic conclusion to draw. However, I maintain it is a valuable one. Instead of learning about a place’s differences, I have learned about my own subconscious desire for difference.
And to me, this is a more important lesson.
The twists and turns of Berkeley’s winding path feel oddly familiar. There’s a similar track back at home that I’ve walked a lot; my muscle memory guides me down this one here.
As a Brit, you probably already know the way. Berkeley isn’t the first place you learned your Berkeley bearings; you found them at home, too. Even though the sun is now shining and the jokes are now bad, have faith in these intuitions. Don’t unlearn them.
They’ll help you here, just as they always have across the pond.