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I ♥ Berkeley

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on May 7, 2009 2 Comments

A friend of mine, let’s call him Edinho, just sent me an article entitled Cities and Ambition by ace programmer and essayist Paul Graham. I think he sent me the article in continuation of a conversation about a very close friend of ours (“Tim”) who just decided to head for doctoral studies at Harvard, choosing to go there instead of at Cal, where he was also admitted. While the decision to go to Harvard was not easy for our friend, and was certainly at least conflict ridden, and we all understood why the decision was made even as he opened the offer letter, I could understand but have not fully processed the decision. As Edinho and I wandered through the woods today, taking in the breathtaking views of the cities of Berkeley, San Francisco, and Oakland skirting the edges of the glistening water, and the sun shining down brilliantly on the horizon, I knew at least that I was in the right place. No place could have been righter.

So here’s what Paul Graham said that stood out for me:

I’d always imagined Berkeley would be the ideal place—that it would basically be Cambridge with good weather. But when I finally tried living there a couple years ago, it turned out not to be. The message Berkeley sends is: you should live better. Life in Berkeley is very civilized. It’s probably the place in America where someone from Northern Europe would feel most at home. But it’s not humming with ambition.

Not everyone “gets” Berkeley. Graham doesn’t get it, doesn’t get it at all. I remember the first time I came to Berkeley, for the UC Language Consortium’s “National Colloqium on U.S. Language Educational Policy” in October 2005. Though Dave insists he was there too, I remember feeling like I was the only grad student there. With a two day stay at the Y and an Amtrak ticket financed by the fabulous folks at the Chico State Self Instructional Language Program, I arrived thinking I was at the Mecca of intellectualism. My first moment on campus, I was overwhelmed: it was as my father had described from his earlier multiple visits to the campus, this energy, electricity in the air that is palpable, felt, and LIVED. I remember standing on the balcony in the MLK building, listening to the Cal band play, the chaotic chatter rising above the grounds, my boxed lunch in my hands tightly gripped. I knew I never wanted to leave.

It took me a year to come back: I wrapped up my master’s at CSU Chico, and headed over, and from the summer of 2006, I belonged; I knew in my blood that I was home. Berkeley isn’t a cookie cutter city at all; it’s quirky, random, chaotic. You’re never really sure of your footing. There is idealism, cynicism, liberalism, conservatism, atheism, faith. There is color and it is blanched; there is diversity and there is its pretense. There is free speech and censure, tuxes and casuals. There are languages and silences. There is certitude, there is uncertainty. Resources, and its lack. There is naked ambition, there is passion, there is apathy, disillusionment. You can’t pin it down, there’s no road into it, just many vectors fanning out from it. If there’s a center most of us don’t live in it, if there is a center at all. It’s porous, it’s permeable, it’s plastic. It is Berzerkeley, it is Cal.

Sure we have our latte-sipping (organic!) arugala snackers (ahem ahem). And we have our fast food joint addicts (ahem ahem squared). To say that we are “very civilized”: hmm, what does that even mean? It came across as an insult to me, but then again, as an Indian, I see that term in a colonial context, and my blood boileth over. You hear the hum of ambition if you stop to listen. Maybe it was beyond Graham’s range of hearing. It might be a different kind of ambition, the raw ambition to make a difference, to change the world…or, the ambition to just get by, to be “average“. Everyone is going somewhere.

And as to Graham’s following point:

Because ambitions are to some extent incompatible and admiration is a zero-sum game, each city tends to focus on one type of ambition. The reason Cambridge is the intellectual capital is not just that there’s a concentration of smart people there, but that there’s nothing else people there care about more. Professors in New York and the Bay area are second class citizens—till they start hedge funds or startups respectively.

It can’t be possible you’ve been to Berkeley. And if you have, with all due respect, Sir, you’ve certainly not understood it.

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2 Responses to “I ♥ Berkeley”

  1. aaminahm on: 8 May 2009 at 7:30 am

    I grew up here. I have to give you a big round of applause. You have articulated something that it is very difficult to articulate. Berkeley is such a one of a kind place. I would take offense to the “second class citizens” comment, but I’d say our professors are in a class of their own! A respected professor emeritus of Stanford told me recently, “There is no place like Berkeley. You have all of those brilliant professors in one place.” Amen to that!

  2. Usree Bhattacharya on: 8 May 2009 at 8:21 am

    Thank you so much, A-B!

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