I felt like a foreigner my first few weeks at UC Berkeley. Everyone I met seemed to have mutual Southern California connections, and while my roommates talked about chia seeds and composting, I still used phrases such as “Cali” and “the BART.” I asked myself, “What are these green bins next to the trash on every corner? Where did everyone learn to code? High schools can have campuses? People really think 50 degrees is cold?”
The first day I talked to Max, he asked the usual question. After confirming that I was not related to F. Scott Fitzgerald, we entered the Golden Bear Cafe for the first time – a pivotal moment for any freshman. I swiped my Cal 1 Card, and the rest was history: Though my relationship with GBC soon soured, I continued to get coffee with Max.
He was studying abroad from France at UC Berkeley, and I was a freshman, meaning we were equally new and lost on campus. He asked for my number so that he could “borrow my textbook,” and it started off the way any relationship does.
We were dating casually and things were working, and his impermanent status in the country didn’t really come into consideration. Sure, he had never heard of “Parks and Recreation,” but he soon became a steadfast fan, and he made fun of American chains such as 7-Eleven, but he still showed up to class with his $2 coffee-and-donut deal. My friends liked him, and I liked his friends, and the expiration date of our relationship didn’t interfere with us enjoying each other’s company.
His impressions of UC Berkeley were similar to mine, and as we discovered this place together, we began to feel more natural on campus. He told me that the level of student activism impressed him, that it seemed as though everyone were constantly making art. He said his love-hate relationship with Caffe Strada embodied how he felt about the school: the multitude of personalities crammed together on every available surface, at once independent of one another and connected by their shared space, all drinking overpriced and downright terrible coffee.
His culture was different enough from mine to spark frequent debates, but not so different as to erect any insurmountable barriers. We were both interested in politics and talked frequently about issues such as the French ban on religious symbols in government-funded schools or the lack of data on his university’s demographic breakdown.
Once, he and I — along with his European housemates — argued for an entire Saturday night over whether it’s pretentious or protectionist to reserve the name “champagne” exclusively for the beverage made in Champagne, France (otherwise, it must technically be called “sparkling wine”).
Yet whenever I tried to pinpoint a real cultural difference, my opinions fell flat against the reality of the vastness of the United States. Any blanket statement I made applied only to my social circle, and we always agreed that we had more in common with each other than with most people from our own countries. Cultural differences manifest themselves in complex, almost untraceable ways in people’s temperaments, and I think it’s impossible to attribute specific personality traits in individuals to the society from which they come.
As our relationship became serious, so grew the pressure of its inevitable and unnatural end. It was strange to have no choice in the matter, to know that the date of his flight to Paris was the date we would no longer be together. It simultaneously felt arbitrary and undeniable. We spent all of our time together, yet his life was in France; we never had a falling out or a fight, yet we had known this would happen all along. Our relationship was cut off mid sentence by the Atlantic Ocean. We were saved a dramatic breakup, but that didn’t remedy loneliness or feeling robbed of something important.
I used to feel like a foreigner at UC Berkeley, and a French guy I met in my Arabic class became the least foreign person I know. A sense of humor or a conversation can overcome language barriers, and the distinctions people make between their communities are largely superficial. Nationalities don’t construct personalities, and compatibility and shared experiences carry more weight than a person’s place of origin.