Bathroom bonding: A freshman year saga

Dorm Bathroom_Michael Drummond
Michael Drummond/Senior Staff

The college transition is understood in common discourse as the greatest change in a young person’s life — a chance for self-exploration and new beginnings. But this change is as much physical as mental.

The idea of home itself shifts from the comfort of the singular familial home to communal living in small spaces. Mothers and siblings are replaced with total strangers overnight. Adapt and socialize, freshmen are told — or else.

This is how the collegiate residence hall narrative begins. And if it doesn’t end with a horror story, it often ends with intimate friendships — a group of individuals brought together by circumstance and stuck together by common experience and affection. But how does this actually happen?

The close living atmosphere of the residence halls is an integral part of every freshman college experience. Perhaps it is simply situational: the exchange of first introductions or small talk in the hallways that gradually grows longer and less awkward. But what makes UC Berkeley’s unique? What really ties the floor together to form a tight-knit community of friends?

I believe that freshman-year communities are born in the dingy, clustered and much-dreaded co-ed bathrooms.

I am a freshman myself, living in one of the oldest residence halls on campus, Unit 3, after 18 years with a room and bathroom of my own. For myself and my peers, many of whom were so used to living in the privacy of our homes, learning how to live with a huge group of unknown people on a residence hall floor is a surprisingly drastic transition — like a never-ending summer camp.

As freshmen, we can learn to live in one of two ways: by restricting our interactions to obligatory hi’s and hello’s, or by simply befriending the humans who live just a few centimeters away from our personal space. While some linger in the hallway and leave their doors open to socialize, others choose to cherish the single private space they have and stay inside their rooms. But no matter how hard anyone tries to live apart from the communal residence hall environment, the one space that is common to all and cannot be avoided is the bathroom.

The politics of a residence hall bathroom are endless. Six sinks and shower stalls are open to use for everyone, but certain stalls are reserved for standing. This makes for many an awkward moment when a male floormate enters a sitting stall. If a girl needs to use the restroom but the sitting stalls are occupied, she is left with no other option but to use the bathroom of another floor, for which she’ll get weird looks from residents of that floor as if she had walked into a “Game of Thrones” convention wearing a Hogwarts robe.

Timing, poise and good humor are crucial to coming out on top in the bathrooms. The moment of inner relief upon entering the bathroom to a quiet and unoccupied space never lasts very long. No matter what time of day you walk in, someone will either already be in the space or follow in after you. Often, you’re left to guess whose shoes are resting quietly in the stall next to yours. Do you acknowledge your peers when they’re in a closed sitting stall or simply let it be?

In the first week of school, when names and faces were just as hazy as class schedules,  freshman Jackie Villana from Unit 3 Priestley experienced the forced intimacy of UC Berkeley bathrooms firsthand.

“I was taking a shower, and the guy in the stall next to me dropped his Cal 1 Card in my stall, so I waited outside his shower until he came out to give it back to him,” Villana said. “That’s how we became friends.”  

There is something about the living conditions in the residence halls that makes it difficult to feel homesick for too long. Because everyone is going through similar emotions when living away from home, it’s not hard to find something in common to bond over. Tammy Wang, a freshman living in Unit 3, was showering next to two floormates when they decided to turn the activity into a dance party.

“We were playing classic Disney songs from our childhood and got really into it,” Wang said. “It was such a great way to feel at home, even in the worst place on our floor.” The dance party resulted in a waitlist for the shower that night.

Wang’s floor doesn’t have a common lounge, so the bathroom is the main watering hole. Pedro Chinchilla remembers a time when almost the entire floor was in the bathroom to play 20 questions.

“We were asking each other some deep questions, like our future children’s names, while brushing our teeth,” Chinchilla said.

Adjusting to a new setting, school, schedule and social life can be a huge struggle for freshmen, but knowing that there are people struggling with similar issues can make the transition more bearable. Freshman-year housing at UC Berkeley is an experience that brings together people from all over the world to share moments of brushing teeth next to one another, mutual embarrassments of seeing a guy walk into a sitting stall and early-morning complaining about the struggle of 8 a.m. classes.

As much as we question our sanity as we return day after day to dirty bathrooms and loud floors, they’re a rite of passage and the base of our communities that we’d be more comfortable but less bonded without.

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