No two days are alike in Berkeley. The sun comes out for two days in late spring and you think, “ahh, summer is coming,” until the next day greets you with rain clouds and chilly winds. In a state school of over forty thousand students, you’ll hardly pass the same stranger twice in a day (if you do, it’s fate).
As an international student, you’ll probably realize that America is not exactly what you expected. Depending on the type of media you consume, the America you have built in your mind is likely over-romanticized or dramaticized.
Berkeley is a normal college town, as normal as ‘normal’ goes. There are the dark, unlit streets you want to avoid at night, and there are the bustling ones that house the shops everyone loves. There’s the #1 public school and there’s the funding crisis. The EECS kids and the Berkeley goggles. The Berkeley pride and the “Please let me out of here.” It’s a pretty decent balance.
The blessing of grass is never taken for granted. If the weather is good enough, you’ll almost never come across a grass patch that is not being utilized. The glade is a campus favorite, and on Fridays, all it lacks is some live music.
These grass getaways are sometimes accompanied by weed, another token of Californian life. It was a sunny social on the glade where I first witnessed a blunt being rolled. It took a couple of seconds to truly internalize the culture difference between Land of the Free, America and an up to ten years of imprisonment and/or a twenty thousand dollar fine for possession or consumption. Even without intending to, you’ll probably leave Berkeley understanding shrooms and LSD, as well as everything they don’t teach you in school. And you’ll leave with a good tan and a built tolerance to pollen and grass.
Americans dislike silence. They’ll fill it with small talk and statements like, “Oh the weather today is nice” (which, actually, is a valid statement to make in Berkeley). I remember being very amused to know that even in the exam hall, you will hear sighs and the occasional murmurs. It seems like people really here don’t like being alone with their thoughts. Nevertheless, I would classify ‘small talk’ as an important tool for assimilating into the American lifestyle. It can feel tiring, especially if you’ve grown up in a “silence is golden” environment, but this is how you will build your community.
Pro tip: Shared suffering always brings people together. Stuck in a small talk situation with someone you share a class with? Complain about the extremely hard problem set. Or, for the optimist, share your joy over the amazing curve (but only if the curve is unbiased-ly, undeniably good and benefitting many, or you will not be making friends).
Having spent my first year online, cooped up at home with a sixteen hour time difference, I came to UC Berkeley extremely apprehensive. I was determined to make the best of my college experience – I wanted to feel comfortable, I wanted to find my people.
It felt like a lot to ask for, even more so as an international student. Things are different, no one can deny that. I had to learn and relearn. The accent switching is one of them. And every time I did something “American” instead of the way I usually would, it felt like I wasn’t being true to myself, like I was trying to be someone I was not. There’s this wavering identity crisis that can be hard to dissipate. But slowly, I’ve accepted that I am the product of my environment. That change is natural and only time will tell whether it was for the better.
As cliché as it sounds, everything will work out.
No two days are the same here. Every day brings different highs and lows. But when the sun hits your face just right and the wind edges past the leaves to sound like the ocean – if you close your eyes, it’s almost as if you are home.