“Well done parents, pat yourselves on the back. You’ve done an amazing job raising your child for them to get here.” This is what my parents first heard at orientation as they were introduced to UC Berkeley.
UC Berkeley had been my top choice when applying to universities. From the amazing chemical engineering program to the location, I thought that coming here would be an ideal choice because I’d be exposed to new experiences at university while furthering my career aspirations. So, in August 2018, I packed my bags up and took the 15-hour flight from Hong Kong to San Francisco.
My first few weeks here were a culture shock, to say the least. I remember being told that everyone here was on top of their game, so getting a B or lower shouldn’t be a shock to anyone. Despite all of this, I could tell that the expectation was for you to understand whatever was being taught without much difficulty. My chemistry GSI would be dumbfounded whenever you would ask a basic question, which led me to believe this was not the kind of place where you could take a breather, ever.
Having been raised among studious Asian kids, I was used to high expectations and getting the highest quality of work done. I had never strayed from this, and I didn’t expect to just because I’d moved across the world, either. I got used to a life where I juggled my responsibilities every day, without compromising on any task or its quality. I did what I expected myself to do, which simultaneously meant putting everything above my mental and physical health.
So here I was, fresh off the boat, with this battle in my mind like you see in those cartoons where the angel and the devil argue with each other. For me, however, it was a mini toddler-me who told me to experience new things and try to relax when it came to academics. The other was the high school version of myself who told me that I needed to get my act together and sort myself out.
This internal dialogue didn’t stop in my mind, either. I saw it, and honestly still see it, whenever I am in Berkeley. From the meme pages joking about putting work off permanently to the gigantic signs advertising UC Berkeley’s many Nobel Prizes, I felt overwhelmed, frustrated and out of breath — a sensation that proceeded to follow me through freshman year.
I started sleeping less, eating less and even talking less. It was too much for me, but I felt like I couldn’t back down because it would look like I wanted the easy way out. While I was a mess on the inside, barely able to keep track of what I was doing and what I needed to do, I made it look as though it was as easy as making a cup of tea because everyone else did, too.
Keeping up my freshman-year method of putting everything before myself took a toll on both my happiness and my health. While every night was an all-nighter, and I drank coffee more than water, I convinced myself that it was OK and normal. I counted down the days until I could go back home. Escaping campus, or escaping my unhealthy habits whenever I was on campus, seemed like just what I needed if I kept this up for a little longer.
I went home for break, and it was a breath of fresh air. Without the suffocating atmosphere of prestige, it was like I could finally think again and put myself first. I did what I wanted to do instead of what I was expected to, and now I have lifelong memories with friends that are dear to me.
UC Berkeley is known for its very intense academic environment. From the beginning, I’d heard that I shouldn’t expect to be at the top when there are so many other high-achieving students and that it’s OK to not be doing as much as those around you. What no one considers is how everyone tries to race each other to the finish line, making you feel as though you’re doing something wrong if you aren’t on top of your game and sprinting to the end, too.
No one tells you that five or 10 years down the line, you’re going to look back on your college days and see a time when you ground yourself to dust trying to get where you are. No one says that you should sit where you are for a moment and take a breather. Calm down and think about what a future you, a decade down the line, would want to think about when reflecting on university.
I haven’t even finished half of my university experience yet, but it feels as though I’ve already ground myself to dust over and over again. My aspirations for the coming year are to make memories. I don’t want to do what people expect of me anymore; I want to explore what I love. University might pass in the blink of an eye, but your memories here will last forever.
“Off the Beat” columns are written by Daily Cal staff members until the spring semester’s regular opinion writers have been selected. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.