Recently, my Google Photo app notification reminded me of four years gone by, a compilation of pictures dawning with my first few days on campus. In one photo, wrapped in my first official Cal sweater, I was jumping on Memorial Glade with Doe Library and the Campanile in the background during my first campus visit. In another, I was hugging my dad in front of Beverly Cleary Hall after move-in, saying our tearful goodbye.
With two months left until graduation and a month before my 23rd birthday, these pictures made me realize how quickly time escapes me and reflect on my journey as an international student at Berkeley. I ask myself: How has Berkeley changed me?
I left Japan’s suburbs and flew across the world in search of personal freedom. The extremity of highly disciplined, rudimentary high school life felt like a prison: Uniforms with a set length of skirt and socks, shoes of “appropriate” design, each of which were checked every morning by a teacher at the school’s entrance. My hair was kept from dying or curling, and even the slightest makeup such as colored lip balm was noticed and scraped by our instructors. My life was obsessively organized and highly monitored with classes and cram school sessions that ran late into the night. This robotic, military-like Japanese high school life left me very little time to be just myself and consumed me in constraints that were forcing me into the mold of an exemplary student.
In those seemingly hopeless days, Hollywood movies I watched on weekends were one of the fleeting times of escape—seeing unrealistic, dream-like college life in movies. Inevitably, escapist thoughts of actually moving to the US flooded my mind. After deciding to apply to some schools in the US, especially UC Berkeley, I laid every night in bed and let myself dream of scenes of me walking on a beautiful campus, my skin soaking in warmth under the California sun.
After endless studying and college applications, I found myself living out my late-night dream — I was finally on that Berkeley campus, the place exactly like the one I always imagined.
The first few years, though, were a blend of excitement and confusion. Living out my high school dream, every day was filled with new findings and a sense of euphoria. As someone from a highly organized, racially homogenous country, everything and everyone — class handouts written in English, classrooms with arbitrarily organized chairs, and people of different races and identities, hair types and color, and fashions — was new to me.
New things, I’d come to learn, can be both exciting and terrifying. I was flustered every time random people on the streets talked to me, or the cashier asked how I was doing—neither of which were a custom in Japan. I was self-conscious about not knowing American “slang” which somehow made me conspicuous, sending the message that I’m not from the state like everyone else seemed to be. When I was talked to in a fast and loud manner at Super Duper burger asking me if I want ketchup, mustard, bacon, and onion, I froze for a second and said yes to everything, though I only wanted the last three.
In order to cope with my constant uneasiness in the crowd, at some point without realizing it, I began my effort to “fit in.” Wanting to dress like everybody else, I squandered my money on crop tops, tank tops and damaged jeans. Wanting to share something in common with classmates, I rapaciously followed movies, music and pop culture gossip that were in season.
In order to cope with my constant uneasiness in the crowd, at some point without realizing it, I began my effort to “fit in.”
Pretending to be a “normal” student — which now I realize was only in my head — meant that I had to intentionally disassociate myself from my background. I hate the question “where are you from?” as it makes me disclose that I am not from here, thus making me someone rather hard to find commonality with. Every time I said that I’m from Japan, some excitedly showed interest in the culture or shared their travel stories, while others looked flustered, dismissively commenting “nice,” seemingly not knowing how to respond to my random fact.
“Fitting in” also involved the assimilation of my personality into the crowd. Though I am a rather introverted person, seeing everyone having so many friends already at the start of the semester made me force myself to put on an extroverted facade, constantly reaching out and having dinners with different groups of people. I pushed myself to engage in conversations I did not understand and followed up with whoever asked me to hang out even when my schedule or social capacity didn’t allow for it. Though I used to hate to complain or take issue with anyone, much like everyone else, I tried to stand up for myself during phone calls with banks and shops.
Constantly having this insecurity of being an outsider, though it pushed me out of my comfort zone, was not sustainable. I constantly found myself exhausted from putting on a fake facade in Berkeley, and every time I went back home during holidays where I surrounded myself with family and close friends, I felt more like myself. Contrary to my expectation, receiving comments that I had become somewhat “Americanized,” made me anxious rather than proud or reassured, as if I was wearing pants in the wrong color and size.
It wasn’t until my junior year spring that I finally realized the problem with my misconception. During my study abroad semester in London, in a global city where people come from all over the world, the school was filled with international students. Rather than being ashamed and hiding their background, people seemed to be proud of where they come from, and each had their own blend of identity, which was accepted and respected. This, I thought, was what I was getting wrong: “Fitting in,” at least in the Berkeley context, is not necessarily acting like a Californian, but it’s about being yourself and being proud and comfortable with it.
Thinking back, however, the message that Berkeley has been offering me all along was exactly that. Coming from a Japanese high school classroom filled with sameness and control to a Berkeley campus of multiculturalism, I was suddenly exposed to a variety of unexpected multidimensional identities: Renowned professors with tattoos and hair color on a rainbow spectrum and students with varying interests enjoying social life — fashion and sticky-floored partying — while still excelling academically. A sense of healthy disorganization was always in the air, with students sitting or sleeping in a variety of postures in classrooms, sometimes getting snacks and speaking up anytime interrupting lectures. They leave exams once they’re happy with the answers they’ve given, and when I sneeze during midterms, people take the time to say “bless you.” All of this is unthinkable in the Japanese classroom and would be regarded as deviation met with consequences.
However, I got a different message from “assimilation”: you can be deviant, American, Japanese, both, or anything. You don’t have to push yourself into a mold and become just one thing. You can be everything and anything all at once, assimilating into an abyss of possibility.
You don’t have to push yourself into a mold and become just one thing. You can be everything and anything all at once, assimilating into an abyss of possibility.
With that, I was finally liberated from the “mold” — what constrained me from the outside in the form of rules and uniforms in Japan and in Berkeley with an internalized form of ideological identity. Realizing this, my senior year has been much easier mentally. I no longer pretend to be anything other than myself, and I’ve learned to embrace every part of me. I did become a bit more extroverted and vocal in opinions, but still reserved some time for myself and people I’m comfortable with. I began to dress in whatever I feel like, sometimes in Korean style streetwear from my favorite K-Dramas and other times casually, much like Californians. I brought a large stock of miso soups and all my favorite seasonings from Japan this time around, restocking constantly at a nearby Japanese-owned supermarket. I do often talk about Japan, as I cannot tell my story without it, but I don’t let it consume each of my conversations.
After all, I’m not “Japan” or “America,” I’m just me, Eriko.
Spending formative years of college — transitioning from a kid to an adult — away from Japan, during which I was busy with the overbearing “fit in” project, did shape me significantly. It’s a feeling like coming back from time travel; every time I come back home, my parents point out that I do not know “Japanese manners” — how to pour drinks to play up elders in a work dinner setting (most of whom are men) or how to write a polite email, etc. — some of which I wish I knew, others I’m glad that I’ve forgotten or not bothered to learn. Instead, I learned to develop my own philosophy, taking my favorite bits and pieces from Japanese, American and other cultures and people whom I had a chance to meet and learn from.
The environment does shape a person, but instead of getting entirely swallowed in it, confronting it and generating a new “self” out of it is the part of adulting I learned in the four years at Berkeley. Breaking away from the chain that kept me in a one-dimensional mold, I finally learned how to be everything and anything all at once.