Uncle works in some chemistry laboratory in a southern country town — he is my only relative in the States. After two hours of waiting in line with him, we finally made it out into the traffic on the floating freeways amid the San Francisco skyscrapers.
In front of me, the blue bay beneath the benign sky was presented in a Californian way, and I had a somewhat vague idea that the hills across the Bay Bridge are probably where Berkeley lies.
By the time I arrived at the Foothill student dorms, dawn was already breaking free from daylight. After having to carry my two suitcases and my uneasiness in face of direct uncertainty up four levels of staircases, I arrived at my first encounter with my randomly assigned roommate Gabriel. Behind him in the room were his parents who drove him up from LA, and behind them lay three large window panes.
Through the glass, there was a vivid projection under daybreak, an overcasting view of the great bay — from the northern towns in peculiar mists to the Golden Gate Bridge, to the stretching city of San Francisco behind which the North Pacific waves collide, to the gathering architectures in the center of Oakland and Berkeley.
Gabriel’s parents left with him, probably bringing him to eat. Uncle had driven away. I unpacked — surprisingly, I didn’t bring much from home. Besides clothing and the necessities, which I prepared minimally, I only had a laptop, some paperback Chinese poetry collections and a set of watercolor paints. I placed them on the desk next to the window.
After that, I came down to walk on campus, wearing a brand new watch mother bought for me shortly before departure, and not knowing where to head to.
In retrospect, that was a point of life in which I should’ve been more confused than I was: to start an important life stage without anyone’s support, to move into a foreign setting, to try to find friends in a much more diverse crowd and to continue the old hobbies in ways subject to cultural reinvention. Berkeley’s hilly setting helped a lot because it reminded me of my “hometown” — not the international city I grew up in, but the misty mountain town where my mother was born.
I remembered the time she took me there, and it was several years ago. The town was full of meandering stone-made paths connecting to different sides of the mountains. Somehow, that thought calmed me down.
The barrier an international student faces has everything to do with this leash-less confusion and nothing much to do with anything else: you can chat with famous professors, join charity or business clubs, fall in love, struggle with housing and homework and enjoy the Californian sunlight just like pretty much anybody else in the school. You can do all these as long as you realize that the new and in some ways support-less lifestyle that seemingly sets you apart from everyone else is just like the watch my mother gave me — you wear it, you forget about it, and soon it becomes part of you, not new anymore. This is what I had to realize, and it was out of great luck that I came to this realization on the first afternoon proceeding my arrival.
Things became much easier after that.
I met two hallmates that afternoon who later moved in with Gabriel and myself after freshman year. I had an almost overnight conversation with Gabriel that night. I became friends with Liam in my upper division math class, who I still would often get an early saturday brunch with. I finally found someone who read the same books as I do: We would sit on the glade and talk about David Foster Wallace.
The early spring of next year, my uncle came to visit. He asked me about my transition to Berkeley. I told him I recently had found an intramural soccer team. Then, I brought him to set foot in the city.
The countless coffee shops along the crowded streets often have comfortable couches: they provide a precise view of the school.
From the large window panes of the coffee shops, one can see Evans Hall or Doe Library surrounded by green grasses, and in so many ways the parts of the city would randomly remind me of my home far away and on the wooden doors next to the windows there would be signs placed horizontally and as thoughts fade away I would slowly look around while submerging into the soft jazz music being played in the background until my eyes refocus onto the signs on which matching the sky’s color is the word “Welcome.”