Revisiting International House Berkeley, 50 years later
Letter From I-House alumna, Mely G. Tan
Mely G. Tan, from Jakarta, Indonesia, received her Ph.D. in Sociology at UC Berkeley in 1968. She lived at International House from Fall 1964 through Spring 1965, and was a member of the Resident Council. She is now the same age as I-House: 84 years young!
I arrived in Berkeley in August 1963, the beginning of the 1960s that turned out to be a highly turbulent decade for the US and the UC Berkeley campus. I had lived in an apartment and only 3 months after my arrival, President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed. Still sharply etched in my mind is the afternoon of 22 November. I was preparing for the first test in my first semester, when the radio suddenly stopped and there was the announcement that Kennedy had been shot and shortly thereafter that he had died. I was stunned. I tried to call people on the phone, but all I got was a busy signal. I left the apartment but saw nobody in the building. I realized then the truth that humans are really social beings. Not to be able to contact another human being was really scary. I decided to go to the campus. It was the middle of the day, but the streets were deserted. Later I learned that everybody was inside, huddled before a television set. I learned something else: the power of television. For three days the whole nation was transfixed, watching incredible events unfold on the screen.
Later, when I moved to International House, another memorable event was the Free Speech Movement that reached its peak in 1964. It was the biggest student movement on any campus in the US at the time. The students had become increasingly strident in their protests against the Vietnam War and eventually political activities on the campus grounds were forbidden. The students protested that this is violating the right to free speech and started crowding in front of the Administration Building, Sproul Hall.
I was, of course, on the side of the students and I participated in the activities. First by standing in the crowd listening to the speeches, and then sitting with the protesters in a huge circle on the floor of Sproul Plaza, joining hands and singing “we shall overcome” … until it was announced loudly that any foreign student arrested by the campus police will be deported. I was shocked, but of course I could not jeopardize my studies and the fellowship I received. So, I just got up and left the circle. Since then I followed events on the sidelines. What an experience for a sociologist in-the-making. To be a participant observer in student politics right on campus was exhilarating. With this momentum of the Free Speech movement, I decided to participate in the I-House Resident Council.
In June 1968, I received my Ph.D. and participated in the Commencement exercises. That year was also to commemorate the 100th Anniversary of UC Berkeley. It was even more memorable for me, because my parents had come all the way from Jakarta, Indonesia, to participate in the celebration of the event.
Since I left Berkeley, I had been back once or twice, but did not visit I-House. However, this year when I planned to visit my sister in LA for the Nth time, I suggested that it would be nice to make a trip to International House. Her son, Bill, worked out a fantastic itinerary, a “trip down memory lane.” Starting from LA, we went to Yosemite Park, with the magnificent waterfalls then Lake Tahoe, with its clear, blue water and the snowcapped mountains in the distance. These two parks brought back fond memories of summer vacations when I used to go camping with friends. Then San Francisco and Berkeley. The four of us, my brother Bernard and I, my sister Elly and her son Bill traveled comfortably and leisurely, spending a few days at each place.
We arrived at I-House in the early afternoon of Friday, May 9th 2014. I sent an email of my visit to I-House using the names I found in the International House Times Newsletter. We were just in time to have lunch in the dining hall before it closed. We were joined a little later by Joy Iwasa, Associate Director of Development, and she gave us a tour of I-House.
My impression of Berkeley and I-House after 46 years? The pressure of population increase could be clearly seen. I remember walking down (and up of course) the road from I-House to go to classes and the library, when everything looked so open and now everything looked so built-up. Inside I-House I had the impression it is cool, but also on the dark side and it was for me, somehow not easy to find the Dining Hall. It was like going through a maze. But then the terrace, where we found a table to have our lunch, was nice, open and sunny. Making the tour of I-House, I find the Hall of History most interesting, but I think there should be more stories and pictures about the turbulent decade of the 1960s.
It was wonderful to revisit I-House after half a century! Now, we can look forward to the 100th Anniversary, the Centennial of International House!
Note: Parts of this write-up are taken from my article in: Mely G. Tan, 1994. “Indonesian Odyssey: Jakarta, Cornell, Berkeley, Jakarta” in Kathryn P. Meadow, and Ruth A. Wallace (eds.), Gender and the Academic Experience: Berkeley Women Sociologists. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, pp. 85-98.
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