Induction to California
As you may have guessed, I have arrived in California. I have been here a week and am now equipped with everything I need for a happy modern life: an office (decorated with some confident photos of previous Sather lecturers), an email account, an internet access code or two, and ID card to give me access to my building out of hours and library borrowing privileges.
Amazingly I have no borrowing limit. Accustomed as we Cambridge academics are to a more or less strictly enforced 10 book limit, I approached the Berkeley borrowing desk with some trepidation. How would I choose between the 12 I wanted to borrow (Berkeley has a wonderful collection – and I had stumbled upon the ‘laughter’ section)? I needn’t have worried. I can borrow as many as I like for up to year. This was like the proverbial child in a sweet shop (though I did wonder how many mainstream books I would find had been borrowed by other sweet-eaters like me). Maybe they library just doesn't have the space to store all it has, and this is a benign form of out-housing.
In many ways Freshers Week (or Welcome Week as I should call it) seems reassuringly familiar. I’ve had tremendous hospitality from the faculty -- and all those internet codes must have taken someone hours to get sorted. Meanwhile the students seem to be engaged in much the same activities as those back home, offering free water in return for signing up to some very worthy, but ultimately no-hope, Society. (In Cambridge they do it with alcohol – here apparently off limits till you’re 21 -- but the principle’s the same.) Plus hours of partying, music, and non-stop hellos.
The local student paper is up in arms that Welcome Week has been cut to just two days from seven – the ‘authorities’ wanting to reduce costs. I can see why the students object but I have to say that after half a life time in Cambridge, I feel a sneaking sympathy for the mean ‘authorities’.
Anyway the only really, really different bit has been the two hour compulsory induction for foreign scholars provided by the International Office of the University -- to which I was firmly invited.
I must confess that I was not looking forward to this.
It wasn’t half as bad as it sounded. In fact, cynical as I was when I turned up, I did learn quite a lot of things that I didn’t know about tax, health care and whether you did or did not need to take a Californian Driving Test (I think the answer to that was no…but it seemed the trickiest question of all). Though after 90 minutes, it became pretty clear that almost al the information they were handing out was also on the sheaf of paper we were given. So I slipped away.
This meant that I missed what was obviously going to be the final section -- on how to adjust to life in the US, and what Americans are really like. There was plenty of good, homely, common-sensical advice on the paper here. If you don’t learn the language (English), you’re likely to find acculturation hard. A sense of humour helps too. So far so good.
The mind boggling bit was the list of “the values majority culture Americans live by”, drawn from a book by one Robert Kohls on precisely this topic. It was scary stuff. Take this one: “Time is valuable; achievement of goals depends on productive use of time. Result: efficiency and progress often at expense of interpersonal relationships”.
Or “Americans believe competition brings out the best in people and free enterprise produces most progress and success. Result: Less emphasis on cooperation than competition.”
If all this were true of the people of Berkeley, then it might be a grim prospect for the next few months. Happily I’ve seen little sign of these “majority values” so far. I’ll keep you posted.