Op-ed: An open letter to the citizens of Berkeley

Good People of Berkeley:

I’m here from out of town, on a five-month stay for my husband’s sabbatical from Middlebury College, but I lived among you for five years while that same husband received his PhD from UC Berkeley. So, I’m prepared to tell you how the rest of the country thinks of you.

Mention “Berkeley” to most people, and they immediately conjure up an image of progressive, liberal, peace-loving descendants of the 1960s hippie movement, eating artisanal whole foods while dressed in tie-die and smelling of patchouli. It’s a stereotype, sure, but in my experience it’s a stereotype that the population of Berkeley does little to discourage.

Except for the “peace-loving” part.

Berkeleyites, never have I been among a more stressed-out, rage-filled group of people.

How do I know that you’re stressed-out and rage-filled? Because never in my four decades of life have I been as scolded by complete strangers as I have been in the past five months that I’ve spent among you.

I have been chastised for my driving (usually for not being aggressive enough.) Other people have scolded my children for minor offenses, and then turned and criticized my parenting. And, just this morning, I was barked at for not realizing that the proper system in the bakery where we had taken our children for breakfast — where the line snaked out the door — was not to select your items from the open bins first and then take your place in line (which, confusingly, is the system when the line is shorter), but was instead to wait on line first and select your items as you passed the bins.

Now, I recognize that angry, stressed-out scoldings of total strangers are not unique to Berkeley, but the fact is: I’ve only experienced them here. Sure, I come most recently from a small town in Vermont where everyone knows everyone, which tends to encourage kindness (in public, at least.) But I also lived in Manhattan for seven years. And never once, in all that time, was I lashed out at the way I have been in Berkeley, where I’ve averaged at least one scolding a month.


Let me also say this: The people I actually know in Berkeley are kind, and peace-loving. These scoldings all come from people I don’t know, which, frankly, makes them worse. I can take correction from my husband and close friends, whom I trust to know me, but scolding from a stranger who has no idea of my struggles (although they are generally apparent in the four wiggly young children surrounding me) seems completely unjust.

And do you know who the worst offenders are? Affluent-appearing Caucasian men and women in their 60s and 70s; in other words, the very people who were alive during the Summer of Love and “Give Peace A Chance” and “Imagine” and “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke.” The very people who gave Berkeley the stereotype it still bears.

I understand that it’s stressful to live here: You have to sit in traffic and wait in lines for everything – wake up at 8 AM on a Saturday and the bakery line still stretches around the store. I understand that this degree of congestion fosters the idea that other people are aggravating impediments to your own personal muffin consumption, in much the same way that you might take compassion on one ant in your house, but when there’s a line of ants marching across your floor you have to annihilate the suckers. I understand that, in order to live in a city where the median home price is in the $800,000 range you probably work long hours creating technology that encourages human relationships to be played out over screens. I understand that living in a place with a reputation for progressive thinking might encourage a certain aggressive self-righteousness. I understand that you may be dealing with a zillion hard things; I am, too.

So here, as an ambassador from small-town Vermont, are two simple suggestions for you, Berkeley:

  • First, let’s just agree that we should never, ever, EVER take it upon ourselves to correct other people’s children or give unsolicited parenting advice. I think most parents of young children would agree with me that the only times we welcome interference or advice are: 1) If we’ve asked for it, or 2) if death is imminent (i.e. my child is running into traffic.) Otherwise, not to put too fine a point on it: BACK OFF.

No, my children are not perfect. That’s because they are children – they are works in progress. And guess who’s responsible for raising them? ME, that’s who. I’m doing my best to raise responsible adults, but we’re not there yet, and it’s hard work.

I’m not claiming to parent in a vacuum: My husband and I rely on an extended network of grandparents, family, and friends as we raise our children, and all of our lives are the richer for it. I know full well that it takes a village to raise a child. But what I am describing does not look like a village; it looks like an ambush. The strangers who’ve accosted my children and me during our time in Berkeley are not looking out for our best interests or trying to be helpful; they’re looking out for their own interests, and making it very clear that we’re annoyances.

My children aren’t perfect, but neither are they monsters. And, if you stopped a moment, you might think that they’re kind of cute. Maybe you could even smile at them, because one thing my children and I have both noticed is that nobody smiles at them here. You might feel better if you did.

So, lady in front of us in line for the gas station bathroom, next time you see a mother surrounded by four young children and one of her children neglects to cover her cough: Before you lash out at mother and child, perhaps consider that this mother has a lot on her hands, that maybe she was about to remind her child of proper hygiene before you stepped in, and also this is a gas station bathroom and those germs are surely not the worst ones around.

  • BE KIND. The people around you are just as complicated and sensitive as you are. They have hopes and dreams and struggles, just like you. It behooves us all to consider one another’s humanity as we interact. The things you say and the way that you say them have an impact on people.

Back to my bakery experience: When the man in line barked at me for what he perceived as my cutting the line, he had no idea of my story. And when I apologized and explained that we were from out of town and hadn’t known the system, it made absolutely no difference in the tone he used with me. When my eyes strayed behind him in hopes of finding sympathy elsewhere, I saw that the man behind him was snickering at me, presumably at my stupidity.

These were grown men, and they made me feel like I was back in junior high.

And you know what? It ruined my morning. My scone felt like sand in my mouth, my heart rate was elevated for the next hour; I felt like a bad person. And all we were trying to do was to take our daughters out to a special breakfast.

Berkeleyites who read this might be thinking: Grow a tougher skin. Don’t let one jerk ruin your breakfast. To which I submit: Is that really how we want to be with each other? Grow tougher skins so that others can spew their rage all over us without consequence?

Berkeley is one of the most innovative and creative regions in our country right now. You don’t have to let people steal your muffins, but don’t tell me you can’t come up with more polite methods of correcting people.

There are signs up around Berkeley now that read, “Drive Like Your Kids Live Here.” My daughter saw one of these signs and misread it: “Mommy!” she laughed, “That sign said, ‘Drive Like Your Kids!’ They want you to drive like your kids!”

It was a funny misinterpretation that’s become a family joke. But I can’t help thinking how it’s indicative of the Berkeley way of life. All of the signs – the face Berkeley presents to the outside world – seem to encourage responsible and kind cohabitation. Yet in reality, many Berkeleyites are driving like their kids – both literally on the road and metaphorically in their interactions. They bash into each other and cut each other off and honk their horns like a bunch of preschoolers on the playground.

Because the truth is, your politics don’t make you a peacemaker. Neither does your money, your intelligence, or your success. Peacemaking comes from recognizing that every single person out there was created special and deserving of respect. That’s what we teach our kids, right? So let’s drive like our kids live here.

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Faith Gong is a writer from Middlebury, Vermont, whose work has appeared in On the Willows, The Longridge Review, The Addison Independent, and on her personal blog, The Pickle Patch.