Exchange Story: UC Los Angeles
by Sinéad Clarke
Over the last year I’ve noticed that exchange stories either confirm or refute whatever general expectations people have of their particular location. To me, being at UCLA for the past two months has been both: Everything I had expected and the complete opposite.
Yes, the sun shines (all the time), the sky is immaculate blue (all the time) and the one day (literally) the sky decides to spit out some rain droplets, people do indeed put on Wellington boots and take out umbrellas (something I realised I don’t even own in Utrecht).
I live with five other girls in the UCLA version of a “unit”. Every time I interact with the three girls from room B I have the sensation of walking into an MTV reality show. Their English might as well be a different language. Their intonations, pronunciations and the general nuances of their voices are so different to mine that it feels foreign in a strange way because I do understand what they are saying. It is, after all, still English.
Then there’s Room A. I live there with a Taiwanese-American and a Mexican-American girl who – having lived together for four months before my arrival – themed our room with Pokémon gadgets and memorabilia. It sounds like I’m mocking them, and while such precise incarnations of stereotypes have admittedly amused me, I do like all five of them very much.
If I had to choose one word to describe what has struck me the most since I’m here, it would have to be ‘abundance’. For example: dining halls. The eating facilities here are more elaborate and luxurious than any hotel I have ever stayed at. There is an immense amount of choice: Hamburgers, French fries, pizza, sea food, sushi, quiche, bacon, bagels, eggs, sandwich bars, muffins, beans, salads of all kinds, oatmeal, more cereal types than I knew existed, pasta, hot chocolate and huge amounts of deserts. The list goes on. There are many different dining halls, some are themed and cater to varying tastes, such as Mexican and Japanese. It is definitely fantastic, but somehow it also feels completely unnecessary.
When the plane descended into Los Angeles, the enormity of the city staggered me. L.A. sprawls over a massive coverage of land with skyscrapers and miles of housing extending into a full-fledged city of 4 million inhabitants (roughly the population of the Republic of Ireland). I felt ridiculous for referring to The Hague (where I went to high school) as a city.
Having left stormy, rain-ridden Amsterdam, Claire Huijts and I landed in 26 degrees Celsius. I had been to the US before. I know it is a ‘melting pot’ or ‘salad bowl’ of people and cultures. Yet, L.A. appeared to be more so than anything I had seen before.
From the moment we left the terminal, it became clear that Los Angeles is the ultimate meeting point: all colours, heights, builds, fashions, stereotypes and oddballs were represented. It is a place of harmonised distinctiveness because none of these dominates. From a large African American man wearing black sunglasses and a suit, looking like he had walked right out of Ocean’s Eleven, to a middle-aged Caucasian woman with jean shorts, cowboy boots, retro earphones and large, wasting thighs jiggling with age, so many characters awaited transportation out of LAX Airport.
Sometimes it feels like being in a film: Little gangs of almost comically muscular athletes and racially determined groups of friends, from Indian to Hispanic to Chinese to African American and Caucasian.
The campus is enormous, majestic and breathes certain sophistication. People are very welcoming and helpful. Sometimes it can come across as fake or insincere, but strangers in general do tend to be very friendly here compared to Holland.
At times I get the impression that people don’t hear what I say and just listen to my accent. During my first American Literature class I was selected to read out loud and I’m not exaggerating when I say that almost one hundred heads turned with enthusiastic curiosity to see who had produced such foreign-sounding rhythms of English.
I’ve often heard people proclaim the US has no culture. People painted images of it being a collection of massive SUV-cruising highways, fast food restaurants and suburban settlements with a few spectacular concrete jungles sprinkled throughout the country.
California is in fact one of the most beautiful places I have ever been to. I visited the Yosemite and Joshua Tree National Parks, tremendously different and unique natural environments. Now I can’t wait to jump at any opportunity to visit more Natural Parks. There is also something interesting about living in a relatively ‘young’ country that has not been ‘civilised’ for long. I don’t quite know what it is that I did or did not expect, but – although I miss Utrecht and its people – this has, so far, been better than anything I ever expected.