Saturday, January 20, 2007

Pictures pictures!

The maple trees in Berkeley stood out to me immediately as I started walking down the streets. The trees are all in different stages of shading, which make them so beautiful. Some are in the shade of red, some bare, and some maple crowns have gradient hues from red to yellow.

The white building with the dome on top is International House. This is where I am currently residing and paying about US$1000/month for. It's a lovely place in terms of its social culture. There are 600 students from all over the world here.

Our dining plan is compulsory to get the residents to sit down with each other. Everyone complains about the food, that it is awful, not authentic and always the same. But I love the international fare I get for the three meals a day here and appreciate the effort that has gone in to include food from so many countries. They even have chok (they call it 'juk' here) at breakfast every morning, condiments like tau you (soya sauce) and sweet and sour pork. People think I'm weird and naive for being so in loved with the food. They tell me it gets worst as the semester goes on. It was through this food issue that I found out that Singaporeans weren't the only ones who loved complaining. There are some human traits that cross all borders.

There are many free and subsidised activities organised for us. For example, there are free coffee hours on Wednesdays from 9-10pm where people just hang out and meet new people, free salsa classes on Mondays, free Yoga classes on Mondays and Wednesdays and many others that I can't list out from the top of my head now.

This is my regular double room (the cheapest available at I House) and that is my Korean roommate, Sylvia (or rather, Eun Ha). In I House, almost all double rooms hold members of different nationalities. One thing I did notice is that the room allocation stuff seem to put Asians together. I guess this is to help minimise culture shock, but even then there are still new things to learn about the other Asian... Perhaps I'll have another entry on the roommates themselves.

I sleep on the top bunk simply because I moved in later than my roommate. She got to choose the lower bunk, all the top shelves and drawers, the table lamp that isn't spoilt and the chair that doesn't rock. The first couple of nights sleeping 2 metres above ground level was frightful, but I'm pretty used to it now.

Here's my bagged lunch! I pack this during breakfast. I scan my meal card for a bagged lunch and they give me that brown paper bag where I put in a sandwich. It's a bit like Subway where you can choose your meat, cheese, veggie toppings, sauce etc. Then I am entitled to a fruit (banana, apple or pear), a small carton of milk and even a cookie!!! The cookie was yummie. I took this picture in the middle of my lunch today.. The cookie should have come after my sandwich, but I couldn't wait.

Check out the funky trees. The white gate in the centre is Sather Gate, more or less the central area of UC Berkeley where all the major events take place, I believe. I walk this route everyday. Those trees are specially pruned to give them those stumps with no leaves. The guy in sunglasses facing the group is a member of the student council who was bringing us foreign students on a tour. He is a Singaporean who has sold his Singapore accent for the American slang.. Quite a put off, considering that he has only been here for a couple of years. He didn't even switch codes when he was talking to us Singaporeans alone. One of the West-worshippers, I guess.

This is a photo of the same area, but during term time. It's bustling with activity. All the CCA booths are out and there are mini protests going on too.. something about saving the oaks and seeking justice for a staff hired to help handicapped students who recently had been fired.

A couple of police officers lurk near the area too (front, left).

This is the Harry Potter-like main library. Pardon the poor lighting. You can click on any of these photos for a blown up version.

I went for an I House residents' retreat at a creek. It got close to zero celcius at night. They actually have a functioning fire place! These guys were huddled around the fire place roasting marshmellows and s'mores after our night session.

There really are Washington apples!

Yes, I know I'll never make it to become a troupe member of Crazy Horse, but these leggings that I wear under my jeans really hold those fats in place. Hahaha... It gets quite cold here at Berkeley and most of the Singaporeans here (5 of us + 2 China Chinese students from NUS) are quite ill prepared for the cold. I bought this pair in desperation on my way back from my second day of school.

Ah.. those funky trees against the setting sun.

It's not quite safe to walk alone at night. Berkeley actually has a "Bearwalk" (I don't know where the Bear fits into Berkeley, but it's part of the brand name of Berkeley. The university websites are called bearfacts, telebears, calbears etc.)service where you call a number to get some uniformed volunteer with the local police to walk you home from wherever you are within a 5 mile radius of the campus after dark.

It's finally the weekend. I'll be heading to San Francisco city tomorrow (Saturday), less than an hour away. Till the next time I start bursting with things to comment on!

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Greetings from UC Berkeley!

I'm having a really good meal now of ang moh poh piah -- a burrito. I don't know what's inside, but even if it's dog meat, it tastes real good because I'm eating it HOT and in my own space. I can gobble and make all sorts of digestive noises I want. It is about two in the afternoon now and this is a rare time that I get my own personal space in this room at International House which I share with a Korean roommate. I have class at 4pm but I thought it was worth the hike back up slope to savour some peace with my dear left-behind self.

I apologise for not updating everyone earlier. It's my second week here at the University of California, Berkeley, and have not had much time to myself. Lessons just started this week too.

My mind is in a flurry right now so forgive my incoherence.

I am beginning to feel very overwhelmed. Although I technically don't have much on for my day activities besides going for classes, I am kept on my feet all the time as I feel my way around. I have to concentrate so hard in everything I do that I am exhausted when night falls. I feel like an infant all over again in this strange foreign system. That may sound cliche and may not help you understand my plight here so allow me to elaborate.

I am so outspoken back in Singapore. I can be loud and outstanding, or just weird. But over here, I am a mouse. The students here really speak out in class. They ask questions all the time. There is no fear of that loss of face thing we have back in our Asian society.

Yes, suddenly, it's not just Singapore society, but Asian society as a large. It's like us black-haired short-legged creatures against those big ang mohs. In my current foreign situation, I think I am mentally rounding up all those on my side. Singaporeans whom I'd never have spoken to in Singapore have suddenly become my best companions. Even Chinese nationals, whom I have never directly interacted with in Singapore because of my chino-phobia and basic language handicap, have become a joy to be around with.

Berkeley is so truly multi-racial that it's almost like a zoo. There are so many varieties of skin, hair colour, languages, dressing, accents, proportion of facial and of other bodily features. For e.g. the ang mohs have their eyebrows so close to their eyes while I look like a goldfish with puffy upper eyelids and eyebrows 2km away from my eyeballs. The Koreans have squarish jaw lines and fierce eyes. The blacks are really distinct in their accent and how they look (I kind of like them so far though. They are like the Malays of Singapore. Very relak and fun-loving). The Scandinavians are so pale-skinned and have translucent blue-green eyes. The Australians are often Billabong poster-boy quality with their surfer dude look. The Singaporeans, well, most of us just dress badly, mainly because we come from a non-winter wear country so our winter clothes are nothing close to fashionable.

The racial groups here are barely what I would call minorities. From the back of the lecture theatre, half of the heads are black-haired (i.e. Asians from China, India, Korea, Vietnam, you name it). I don't stick out in such a group. Most people don't notice me because of how I look like the way I stick out when I, as a small minority, tour a foreign country.

The greatest culture shock so far has been, ironically, the Asians, in particular, the Americanised Asians. It's scary and throws me off balance because they look so much like me, but they are truly so so different in how they speak, think and behave. I thought I was loud and bold, but these guys make me look like a mouse next to elephants.

Back to that infant analogy, I just don't know where I stand in such a society. The adjectives I would use to describe myself or the way I value myself as an individual doesn't apply here. I would say I can sing fairly decently in Singapore, but here, I won't dare make such a claim. As I mentioned, I thought I was loud, open and outspoken, but that all changes here again. When we discussed BGR issues, our small group of Singaporeans is well aware that we should keep our volumes down less the ang mohs hear our conservative values and find it a joke.

I speak relatively well in Singapore and teach English, but I wouldn't dare publicly admit that here (even though I know that I probably write better, having been brought up in British Singapore, than most Americans. I'm not being culturally chauvinistic here, but it has been observed and proven that Singaporeans' standard of English is even higher than that of British public schools).

Basically, I don't know what I am relative to everyone else here. It's not a matter of academic competition or moral self-righteousness, but simply knowing my place, where I belong, what people see me as.

I feel comfortable, naturally, with the Asian Asians because we speak a common language and we have similar backgrounds. It's funny how, by placing people in an even more foreign situation, previously differentiated groups can come together.

There is just so much to do here. I want to get a part-time job (it pays on average about US$10-15/h) for the experience and for a little surplus cash. Yet I am intimidated that I can't handle the locals and local knowledge, and I know I have so limited time here to do many other things. For example, spend more time interacting with people at mealtimes, truly master French enough to pass (I'm doing a level 2 French module which completely swept me off my feet on the first day of class because no one seemed to mind that the entire class was conducted in French from Bonjour to Au revoir). By the way, I found out today that my French teacher is my immediate neighbour at I House (we share the same wall).

The campus is very vibrant with all the CCA booths (of course they don't call them CCA here, but I haven't found out the equivalent term yet) and all the sororities coming after me. There are free dance and yoga classes practically any day of the week. I want to go swimming (yes, in this blistering cold). I want to go for a jog. I want to venture around and outside Berkeley. I want to take more modules (the lecturers whom I have encountered so far really know their stuff and they have an different perspective of things). I want to spend more time talking to other nationalities at mealtime (I live at the International House where there are 600 residents from all over the world).

I was feeling upset somehow earlier today as I spun around Berkeley campus not knowing who I was here or what I wanted to do. But my nice burrito and even nicer experience with the Filipino shop owner who had asked me where I was from (no one outside I House had ever asked me that since they probably assume I must be an American-Born Chinese or an Asian-language-speaking, funny-accented foreign student who's hard to communicate with). Just the short exchange with that man made my day. It sure helped that he had a dashing nice smile and a nice warm hand to shake my white-with-cold hands. ;p

But really, I am beginning to feel some loneliness creeping up on me. I am trying not to pay it too much attention less it get the better of me, but drop me a nice familiar note from a friend when you come by ok?