By Nelson Tam, Pacific News Service


There I was, 18, writing a new chapter in my life — moving into the freshman dorms.

For months I had anticipated this moment, standing in front of room 222 where someone had placed a “Welcome, Nelson!” sign. A thrill ran through me as I turned the doorknob and walked in.

Inside, I heaved a sigh of relief. My roommates weren’t in.

I looked around the room for clues of what might lie ahead.

On one side were photographs taken from fraternity and sorority parties, assorted Tupac and Notorious B.I.G. CDs, various cutouts from Abercrombie and Fitch catalogues, and posters from The North Face and Patagonia depicting “extreme sports.”

The closet was full of Abercrombie and Fitch, Billabong, and Quicksilver clothes. On the other side of the room was a course schedule with the name “Tim Kang.”

“Hmmm, he’s probably Korean-American,” I told myself, and a chemistry engineering major from the looks of the schedule.

A Bible lay on his desk along with several magazines for “rice-rocket” — Japanese sports cars, Acuras or Hondas turbocharged and outfitted with an edgy body kit — racing enthusiasts. Taped on the wall were two posters of Japanese anime and a Van Gogh. Right away I figured I’d be sharing the next four months with a “gangsta” wannabe, rice-rocket driving Asian and an over-entitled, oblivious suburban frat boy with a penchant for gangsta rap.

So much for stereotypes.

Looking back, I realize this was the beginning of the most important lesson of my freshman year. For all the talk the professors and PC types put out about breaking down stereotypes and the need for diversity, what really counts are personal relationships.

At first, it was strictly “getting to know you” — we hung out, went out for food, bought groceries.

Brad came from an affluent, conservative, gated community in Southern California with distinct blocks of Jewish families. His neighbors included the Goldmans of O.J. fame, and Pamela Anderson Lee. He was an Eagle Scout and champion track star — scion of bedrock Southern California Republican suburbia.

Tim was indeed Korean-American, from the San Gabriel Valley of Los Angeles, who drove a “rice-rocket.” His parents were post-Korean war immigrants who first settled in Germany but later came to the U.S. due to xenophobia in Europe.

And then there was me, with all the idiosyncrasies of an urban, politically-aware Asian American of Hong Kong descent, raised in the Bay Area, wearing a faux Prada coat from Banana Republic and Emporio Armani pants, carrying stereo and video equipment from Nakamichi and Sony.

I also brought a case of “Tung-I” Cantonese-style ramen noodles, and for my pseudo-political activist side, a poster of the lone Tienanmen Square protestor blocking the line of tanks. But I wasn’t 100 percent stereotypical: I didn’t have a laser-disc karaoke machine.

Over time, while our friendship was confined to roommate interactions, we each developed our own outside friends. Brad’s were predominantly white and in the Greek system. Tim’s were mostly Persian Jews, Persian Muslims, or East Asians. Most of my friends were Asian or Black.

None of us seemed to question or challenge the invisible but very real lines separating us. But I did begin to wonder why, for all the pieties the UC system offers about student diversity, we were all being so insular — and why the wider campus community remained so persistently segregated along racial lines.

A friend from Dartmouth College told me minorities in the Ivy League get broken down into two main groups: those who aspire to be white, and those who stick strictly to their own.

I myself began to think that maybe the only way for diverse groups to avoid being insular is to assimilate into a single homogenous culture. Berkeley’s prospectus makes much of the multi-racial character of our campus and statistically, that’s true: Asian Americans made up 40 percent, whites 35 percent, Chicano/Latinos 9.3 percent, African Americans 3.5 percent, and American Indian made up 0.5 percent. (The remaining 10 percent declined to state. But around campus, integration is rare and each community inhabits its own microcosm.)

Even racial and ethnic subgroups divide along rigid lines — as with Sikhs or Hindus or Punjabis among the large Indian American community, or by class or immigrant status. For example Asians “fresh off the boat” versus first- or second- or third generation Asians like myself.

Most groups just seem to stick with their own, with the exception of a few marginal types, unless they’re interacting in a classroom. On the other hand, my freshman roommates and myself shared a level of trust I never experienced on campus.

Brad could be described as a staunch Republican — a backer of Prop 209, critic of affirmative action, and supporter of Prop 21.

Tim had often been assaulted by white skinheads in his desert home town where and had learned to play down his ethnic identity but gradually came to hang out with gangsta Asians. His parents approved because he stopped criticizing them for not being American enough.

Neither ever questioned me or my identity, nor did I ever question let alone criticize them. We accepted one another for who we were. On moving out day, we knew that our dorm room had been our best classroom for diversity.


Nelson Tam is a staffer of YO!-Youth Outlook, a publication by and about young people published by Pacific News Service.

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