Editorial: Resisting Insularity

Becky O'Malley
Tuesday December 02, 2003

Last week I had a chance to take a look at a little exhibit in the basement of International House, the residence hall near the UC campus where students from all countries live together in order to, as their web page says, “foster intercultural respect and understanding, lifelong friendships and leadership skills for the promotion of a more tolerant and peaceful world.” 

The display cases are filled with memorabilia going back almost 75 years since the house opened: a letter of recommendation for Canadian John Kenneth Galbraith, pictures of formal dances in the 40s and 50s with daringly mixed racial and ethnic groupings, the saga of how I-House arranged for a Japanese student to live a Midwestern home instead of an internment camp when she was marooned during World War II.  

The exhibit brought back the most vivid memory I have of my first day in Berkeley: walking through Sather Gate and seeing an Indian woman in a sari coming toward me. At that moment, 18 years old, I felt that I was indeed a citizen of the world, even though I’d never been farther from the U.S. than Tijuana. One of the continuing joys of living in Berkeley is that the world has always come to us. But now it seems that this could change. 

Thanksgiving at our house has often included guests from other countries, as it did this year. But this year I was sadly conscious of the guests who weren’t there: the Cambodian student who left for a short visit to his family and was inexplicably denied a return visa after 9/11; the Canadian opera singers who had to leave because they never could get working papers; the Israeli girl who went home to months in prison because she is a conscientious objector. A Parisienne at the table has been here for five years, thanks to her husband’s high-tech job, but her family hasn’t visited her. Her father is old, she said, and was originally from Algeria. He’s not willing to risk going through U.S. visa procedures because of the stories he’s heard about how foreigners, especially foreigners from Arabic-speaking countries, are treated in the U.S. these days.  

Enrollment of international students at Cal is down since 9/11, enough to affect the vacancy rate for Berkeley rentals. Students report endless hassles from U.S. consular employees when they apply for visas, even in countries like China with very little logical connection to fears of terrorism. The American president is a man who had never left the country until he was elected, and who now travels isolated in military jets wearing soldier suits he hasn’t even earned.  

The prospect of a “more tolerant and peaceful world” seems more remote than ever. But if Japanese-American friendships survived the Second World War, perhaps friendships being made by students in Berkeley today will survive the current unpleasantness. The I-House exhibit is a touching reminder of what has been accomplished in 75 years, against all odds, by dedicated internationalists determined to rise above the periodic eruptions of national strife. We Berkeleyans who enjoy the rewards of living in an international community should continue to do as much as we can to prevent our government from working against these goals. 

Becky O’Malley is executive editor of the Berkeley Daily Planet.