‘I’m not American, I’m from Berkeley’

Hopping the Pond

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After living in the U.K. for my whole life, you can imagine the confusion I experienced when a few Sundays ago I found myself, for reasons well beyond me, sitting at a rodeo in rural Arizona. My very British existence felt aggressively incongruous with the baking sun on the red mountains. I had never seen a desert before, never encountered someone unironically wearing a cowboy hat nor had I the foggiest idea what 105 degrees Fahrenheit meant. However, my red face indicated that it was a bit warmer than your average London afternoon.

“Give us a cheer if you’re from California!” The gentleman in the ring shouted into a microphone. My housemate cheered. A lonely whoop floating on a silent, denim sea.

“Welcome to the United States of America!” he replied. Said denim sea erupted; my housemate’s face turned a shade of crimson deeper than mine. This was saying something considering they grew up in Las Vegas.

The irony is that my housemate will profess that they moved to Berkeley to escape such an “America.” However, I came to Berkeley on an exchange year for the entirely opposite reason. I wanted to get inside of “America.” I can clearly remember the way my home university advertised my exchange year: Live Your American Dream pasted in corporate Helvetica over a pixelated image of a plane. It felt like military conscription propaganda designed by an intern. 

Nonetheless, the sentiment was there. The choices: Berkeley, Seattle, New York City, Los Angeles and Boston, among a few others. These cities were glorified to exchange students — cities where I would be able to play pretend at being American for a year.

Therefore, it came as a surprise when I heard a Californian friend justify his move to the East Bay: “I wanted to move to the most un-American place in America.” Another quipped (albeit self-admittedly pretentiously), “I’m not American, I’m from Berkeley.” 

Until moving here, my outsider’s perspective saw Berkeley’s culture as no less “American” than the rodeo town – simply a very different “American.” So why is it that these Americans came to Berkeley to flee America and I, as an outsider, came here to find it?

Before the growth of air travel, when outsiders made a seaward journey to the New World to realize their American Dream, their first step was (fortunately) never in a rodeo town in rural Arizona. This was geographically impossible. The most accessible “American Dream” was found on the coast in port cities such as Berkeley. 

Rather less seductively, I came here via British Airways as opposed to the Victorian steam liner. However, my outsider’s preconception of Berkeley as “just as American” as a rodeo town was still informed by these relics of geographical accessibility.

This partially explains why foreigners such as myself see Berkeley as “American” but it does not explain why locals see Berkeley as “un-American.” Yes, Berkeley is international but not all international students are as belligerently British as me. Some, unlike myself, are bestowed with the blessing/curse of an American accent, or knowledge of Trader Joe’s existence prior to their arrival. 

It is slightly superficial and awkward to measure “Americanism” by the number of international residents. 

For me, the historical association of counterculture with the area is perhaps the most obvious reason for Berkeley’s “un-Americanism.” It is no secret that Berkeley’s outward reputation within the United States tends to go against the grain. Free Speech Movement Cafe’s namesake was, in part, triggered by a House Un-American Activities Committee subpoena issued for a UC Berkeley student. It is in the name; the very idea of “un-American” is synonymous with Berkeley.

My perspective changed after arriving as well. I — an actual “un-American” — found myself assimilating into these sentiments of proudly “un-American” Americans. 

We bonded over our shared disconnection from rodeo-ship. It seemed that this — and a rudimentary grasp of U.K. Love Island — were the only two conversation ingredients needed to make a decent friend. For so long, I had looked inwards at America from the outside. Yet now that I’m across the border, it seems that I am still not “in” America. I am in a Berkeley bubble on the inside, looking outward at America.

This is a common phenomenon globally. The U.K. felt un-European, resulting in Brexit. Scotland felt un-British, resulting in Indyref. Even London felt un-English, resulting in a minor independence movement. 

A think tank found that London residents are less likely than anyone else in England to introduce themselves as “English.” I am a culprit of this. When asked where I am from, I naturally respond that I am a “Londoner.”

At the heart of this issue is our propensity to homogenize identity. In our desperation to place ourselves, we ignore the variety that national culture permits. 

We must understand that to be American, or to be British, is to be both cog and engine. You can be simultaneously a Londoner and a Brit, a Berkeleyan and an American. The two are not mutually exclusive. 

Let’s say, in a fleeting moment of acute cognitive dissonance, Free Speech Movement Cafe decides to host a rodeo attracting small-town Arizonan attendees. You can trust that I will be there, ensuring they are warmly welcomed to the United States of America.

Stanley Stott-Hall writes about finding his Berkeley bearings as a Brit.