It’s hard to believe, but time has flown by and I’m already done with half of my first semester here at Berkeley! Leaves that just a few weeks ago were green have turned red. The air, recently so hot, has quickly become colder. Fall is finally here.
I’ve been fairly busy since coming here, but as many have observed and remarked, that does not seem to have prevented me from publishing a fairly steady stream of posts. To that I retort that you can always make time for something that you love doing. But in all seriousness, however, with the second midterm season right around the corner, I’ll be quite occupied for the next two weeks. I had two articles planned- one on Politico co-founder Jim VandeHei’s talk at Berkeley and one on the results of the Japanese election- but I don’t know whether any of those will be published soon (hopefully the one on VandeHei at least!) In any case, I thought that it would also be good to just take some time to talk about what Berkeley has been like so far.
First of all, before I get into the introspective thoughts: I can say that I’ve had a good time since coming here. Is there an adjustment you need to make to college? Certainly, but I would also dare to say that so far it has not been as much as a pain as IB was (although I expect that to change fairly soon). I’ve been taking some pretty random classes this semester due to the fault in my enrollment time over the summer which meant many of the classes I wanted to take were full by the time I got to register, so I can say that I’ve been doing some things I didn’t really envisage myself doing in college: looking at archaeological sites on campus, peering through a telescope at Saturn and reading the historical chronicles of Japan’s founding legend are all good examples. I’m grateful for the time to do this, however, after the soul-sucking dryness of high school’s senior year.
Living in the Bay Area is also exciting. Is it weird to live in a whole new country without anyone that you knew from before? It definitely is, but you get used to it pretty quickly. Of course, there are some things that I still can’t get used to; for example, I still don’t know why in the world America insists on using Farenheit and miles, and I still have no clue how American football is more fun than ‘soccer’. I haven’t spent as much time exploring the Bay Area as much as I would like to, however; I’ve only been out of Berkeley a handful of times, meaning many of the sights of San Francisco remain unseen. I’ve still had time to do a lot of fun things however: watching Cal lose to USC (great!), wandering around Fisherman’s wharf, or relaxing in front of Lake Merritt…
And now for some deeper thoughts…
Taking a walk is something that I’ve always liked to do, as many of my high school friends can attest, and the large size of the campus means I’ve had plenty of opportunity to do that. UC Berkeley is an idyllic place, and it facilitates the deep thinking that is sometimes difficult on the steaming streets of Bangkok. Through this time thinking, I’ve come to the conclusion that Berkeley is a campus of contrasts.
The first contrast that I’ve observed is the result of the massive size of the university. UC Berkeley is a huge place: there’s no doubt about it. Coming from a school with a class size of 30 students to a university with a total enrollment of over 30,000 required some adjustment. I still remember the chats I got in response to a Snap I sent of convocation in Haas Pavilion from friends in Bangkok: how many students are in your damn class?! A lot is all that I can say. But what happens when a university is so big? Simple: the laws of economics states that when demand exceeds supply, there will be a shortage. And indeed, at times it can feel like there is a shortage of everything. It’s difficult to have enough professors, advisors, housing, funding, anything really, to serve such a large student body, especially at cash-strapped Cal. Even something like joining clubs resembles the university application process at times.
What I’ve noticed, however, is that even though the environment can seem to create some sense of struggle, it does not breed cut-throat competitiveness, which is somewhat the reputation that Berkeley has in online forums. All the friends that I’ve made here so far are some of the nicest people that I’ve met: people who are always willing to extend a helping hand to others. People are always there to support each other, and it’s something that I’ve come to appreciate about Berkeley. An example is the recent wildfires that engulfed northern California in the past two weeks. As some of my friends’ houses burned down, people quickly reached out to help, and it was a touching sight. It’s really true that a large university is like a city, and it’s important to find your own neighbourhood.
Another contrast is the friction between the university’s ideal of what it should be and what it actually is. UC Berkeley is one of the most liberal and politically active universities in the United States. It comes as no surprise that protests here are very frequent. Berkeley also happens to be the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement, and the administration very clearly still conceives of the campus as a place where free speech must be upheld. To this end, it spent almost 2 million dollars in security to allow Ben Shapiro and Milo Yiannapoulos to be able to speak at the campus despite the threat of significant disruption to campus life. Personally, while the cost is ludicrous, I did not see an alternative: as a public university, Berkeley is bound by law to allow these speakers to attend. There was, however, significant opposition to these decisions taken by the university administration. It is unmistakable: there is a significant gap between what the university administration conceives of UC Berkeley and what many students conceive of it.
The final contrast that I’d like to touch upon is a more general one regarding the Bay Area. Just yesterday, as I walked through downtown Berkeley- probably one of the most affluent areas of the planet- I overheard a conversation. One man stood yelling at a homeless woman sitting in a wheelchair on University Avenue. “How did you get here?”, he asked.
“I got myself here”, she replied.
“Why don’t you go home?”
“I would go home if I had a home!”
To me, that encapsulated one of the biggest crises facing the Bay Area: the housing shortage. The gap between the richest and the poorest here is staggering, and the amount of homeless people on the streets is concerning. UC Berkeley, with one of the best economics departments in the world, with economists devising solutions to some of the world’s most pressing issues of wealth and poverty, seems unable to do much to dent the inequality in its own backyard. This, to me, is incomprehensible. Homelessness is not a choice, and it is a dehumanising condition. Yet there seems to be no solution to this crisis. Obviously I don’t know enough yet about the policies of the city governments of the Bay Area and of the economics of homelessness to be able to analyse why no policy solution has been reached, or whether one can be reached at all.
These three contrasts have provided plenty of food of thought for me over the past three months. Berkeley is an immensely exciting place, and I’m sure that I’ll have plenty more to write about over the coming months and years. Now I’m off to do some readings on Japanese history…