My Real Education at Cal

Last week while hobnobbing with writers at the Bay Area Book Festival gala atop the Memorial Stadium, which overlooked the UC Berkeley campus and the sparkling bay, I couldn't help but give in to nostalgia. Exactly 30 years ago I, a premed, graduated from that campus down below with a degree in biochemistry. But I didn't become a doctor. I picked up the pen, dropped the test tube, and through some years of struggling, became a journalist and writer instead.

Yet if I didn't learn how to write at Cal, it was certainly here that my literary life really began. A refugee boy from Vietnam at age 11, I barely spoke a word of English. I lived in a crowded apartment full of refugees where Mission Street ended and the working class of Daly City began. It wasn't until I was a junior at Lowell High School in San Francisco, when a few of my Vietnamese friends were applying to Cal, that I first heard of the school. And I thought that maybe I, too, should apply.

2016-06-10-1465583409-4022630-13346987_10154248165178118_6256792048125943806_n.jpg
At the Bay Area Book Festival's Crossing Borders panel. Andrew Lam is on the far right.

Despite the odds, despite not having a perfect GPA, and the discouragement from a certain teacher - "Your English is not good enough. You're much better off at City College!" - I somehow managed to get accepted to Cal, and afterward, I was never the same.

For a Vietnamese refugee boy sheltered by his very conservative family and homogeneous community, attending Cal was transformational. I had in essence entered a much larger world. I found, for instance, that I was not exactly as conservative as my family, that I was willing to accept others and new ideas more readily, that I was articulate in a way that I was not while living at home, where, being the youngest, I was not expected to express my opinions, nor for that matter to speak English.

At Cal, I found my tongue. I excelled in what science majors called "electives"--political science classes, foreign language courses. I also took Asian-American studies classes and argued for more inclusion of Vietnamese refugees stories, which back then, were non existent. I argued with those with misconceived notions about South Vietnam and who romanticized Ho Chi Minh yet looked away from reeducation camps and the killing fields of Cambodia, and the sufferings of boat people.

Slowly I saw possibilities and opportunities far beyond what my parents could have envisioned for me; I saw a new narrative for myself. That I didn't necessarily have to follow family expectations, and that, thank goodness, since my parents had done relatively well in America, I, without the burden of financial obligations, was free to explore instead my own desires, and interests.

And so it now seemed inevitable that at Cal that I, too, would fall in love. And that my heart would be broken after graduation. And I would start writing and, in turn, broke my parents' heart. No medical school for me, thanks, I went to creative writing school, and became a writer.

Indeed, if I entered college with one particular set of blueprints I surely left it with a totally different sense of direction, one that for the first time in my life was something of my own choosing. That is, I started thinking for myself and critically.

2016-06-10-1465583706-9423088-ScreenShot20160610at11.34.13AM.png
Bay Area Book Festival Gala on top of the UC Berkeley Memorial Stadium

Talking with an international literary crowd and looking down at that lovely campus at sunset last week it all came back to me: how much my Berkeley education was really outside of the classroom.

More than mere mixing chemicals and splicing genes and killing mice, my real education taught me how to deal and accept "the other" and slowly my new self. I remember making friends from all walks of life, many were scholarship boys and girls from the barrios, some were transfer students from refugee and immigrant communities, and others were privileged, worldly kids; a mix of economic, ethnic and social strata. The Mexican American boy whose parents were immigrants was otherwise a guitarist for an all blond boy band, and I was sometimes their roadie and number one fan. My roommate at the dorm during my freshmen year was a studious Jewish boy who loved sports and loved writing about baseball. Across the hall was a math genius who memorized all the lines from the Star Trek episodes and could recite them while watching the show nightly. The friendly, outgoing, down to earth sansei a floor below turned out to be the son of a congressman. The Greek foreign student was a martial arts expert. I, the shy, inarticulate kid from high school, friended them all.

But isn't that what a college life is about, that, besides the lessons of sciences, the stress in the pressure cooker of final exams, beyond the worrying about grades and jobs, ultimately it's a process of self discovery?

2016-06-10-1465585560-2837022-13331093_10153626450021569_2742523231895819304_n1.jpg

Thirty years since I graduated, the world is a much changed place. And many of my friends from impoverished backgrounds who entered Cal back then have done very well. Many have become doctors, lawyers, scientists, and executives. And they now watch their children attending and graduating Cal and other prestigious universities. My best friend from that time too, another Vietnamese refugee boy from the same neighborhood in Saigon who fled at the same time as I did at the end of the war, is seeing his oldest son entering Cal this Fall. "We didn't know what we were doing and our parents didn't know anything about Cal," my friend said, thinking of our distant past. "But now [among us] it's expected your kids should go to Cal, it's a point of pride. And a tradition."

At the festival I participated in a panel called "Crossing Borders: Tales of Migrations." What happens when a migrant crosses the border was the theme. And it got me thinking: there are all sorts of borders to cross beyond national demarcations, like the one where you leave the insularities of home and hearth and community, and enter college and find love and heartbreaks and ultimately your tongue, which leads to a vocation.

And for a refugee boy who became an American writer, his college life, which ended three decades ago, still provides plenty of materials that stoke his imagination.


Andrew Lam's family left Saigon for California at the end of the Vietnam War in a C-130 transport plane crowded with refugees. He was 11 years old. He is a senior editor at New America Media in San Francisco and the author of "Birds of Paradise Lost," a colelction of stories about Vietnamese refugees in San Francisco, " "East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres," a book of essays on East-West relations, and a memoir, "Perfume Dreams: Reflecitons on the Vietnamese Diaspora."