"You have to make friends, that’s the only way. Human is not made to just live his life by himself— he needs others to feel well.”
By Neya Manavalan
I’ve never interviewed anyone before, and am not quite sure what
to expect. Armed with a few frankly awkward questions I’ve
filched off the Humans of New York website, I head into a cozy
café on Friday morning, naïvely pinning my hopes on my clumsy conversational skills to head off any potential awkward pauses.
We greet each other at the door and go to purchase our drinks. My first impression of her is that she has the mellifluous accent and beautiful blonde hair of a muggle Fleur Delacour in a Cal sweatshirt and glasses. I order a hot chocolate like the fully-grown adult I am, and am surprised when – without missing a beat – she asks the barista for an Americano, sounding like a seasoned veteran of the American café circuit.
As the interview progresses, I struggle to push past the surface. I fumble awkwardly to introduce my prepared questions into our conversation, too afraid to push, to press. I guess I treat her, instead, a little like glass. And that, I suppose, is my first mistake, because much like Fleur Delacour, Clara Olivares is certainly not made of glass.
“When I knew I was accepted to Berkeley, I didn’t sleep for three days,” she says matter-of-factly, “but after that? I wasn’t nervous.” Clara’s pursuing her PhD in Music Composition at U.C. Berkeley, and it’s the first time she’s ever lived outside of France, or even away from home. When I off-handedly comment on how difficult it must be to adjust, though, she just shrugs it off.
“But what was the most difficult thing to get used to?” I want to know. She tilts her head, thinking, before she lights on that
favorite criticism Europeans have of the American service industry: our lousy tipping system.
“Here, you never know how much you’re going to pay,” she laughs, indicating the coffee before her. “In France, I go with my small money, and give exactly how much it costs, but here, the first time, I was like ‘What? 20%? That’s so much!’
It feels like you’re giving a gift, but it’s not…In France, tipping, taxes, it’s all included.” I surrender the point easily, but want to know if she has any other qualms.
“Sarcasm!” she says immediately, grinning in good-natured exasperation, “My actual problem! People sometimes don’t understand it was sarcasm!” She shakes her head. “Sometimes I would be saying something, and I know that people didn’t understand me because they would just be like ‘uh-huh,’ but I had just made, like, a joke.” Pretending that I’ve never been guilty of the occasional “uh-huh” when I’m not paying attention to the people in my life (oops), I ask if she thinks that maybe humor just translates differently in English. After all, Clara’s trilingual, fluent in both French and Spanish in addition to English (and the language of music!).
But Clara thinks it has more to do with the American spirit. “People here talk very personally, very quick,” She says thoughtfully. “If you are sarcastic in this moment, it feels inappropriate.” She adds that she often feels rather judgmental in comparison to her American peers. “People here value more than criticize,” She says. “Actually, I’d like to export this to France— the relationships are more peaceful.”
Maybe it’s just the cynic in me that bites back an ironic chuckle at “peaceful relationships,” being any kind of a characterizer of America, but even I can’t help but laughing good-naturedly when Clara gives me a critical evaluation of my interviewing skills afterwards, before worriedly assuring me that I did fine: “See, this is what I mean,” she frets. “I always say the negative things first, but I think you did a good job!”
Clara describes some of her highest moments of her nearly three months in Berkeley: playing basketball with her department and giving a whopping one-and-a-half-hour presentation in English for one of her classes. “I felt very good for having done it without blanking or without saying ‘oh, I don’t know how to say that,’” she says, “It was one of the good moments— it gave me a lot of self-confidence.”
“What about the bad moments?” I ask, hesitantly. She’s quiet for a bit as she thinks.
She’s had to deal with an illness in the family, the diagnosis coming within a week of her departure to Berkeley, and when she speaks of it she appears, for the first time, truly sad. “It was a strange thing,” she says quietly. “But it’s also life… You have to make friends, that’s the only way. Human is not made to just live his life by himself— he needs others to feel well.” It’s beautifully spoken, heart-felt, and needs no additional wrapping, so we move on. I ask her if there’s any advice she would give to other potential international students embarking on a similar journey, and she readily answers.
Number One? “Be flexible!” She declares. “You can’t just come with one way of thinking about people…you have to be ready to change, but not too much!”
Her second piece of advice? “Don’t wait for things to come to you. You have to help yourself,” she asserts. “Don’t wait for things to come fall from the sky.”
And finally? “Get involved,” she says simply. She refers to her pet project organizing and producing ten concerts at CNMAT (Center for New Music and Audio Technologies) to showcase student composers and local Bay Area musicians. “I did it not only because I wanted to,” she says, “but more to discover the two people I was doing it with.”
I check the time. Our drinks are all frothed out and growing lukewarm, and our little half-hour is nearly up. I ask Clara to grade her experience as an international student. “9.2!” She answers immediately (out of ten). “There are always those little things– I mean, it’s perfect, but in France we grade very low, you know.” She reflects for a moment and then retracts. “No, maybe 10. Nothing is not good, here. But I’m searching right now. Every day I’m learning something amazing about this place. You always have something new to learn and you are free to learn it – it’s great, you know—there’s lots of things on campus to do and to discover. Each time I speak with somebody I learn a new word or a new way of expressing something.”
She tells me how she’s been trying to do something new every day, getting out of her comfort zone and interacting with more people. As for her plans for the future?
“Now that I’m out of my country, I want to see all the world,” she confides. She mentions Japan, China, and Australia as possible locations for a post-doc.
Afterwards, reflecting, I’m honestly surprised and a bit chastened by how worldly and put-together she is. I guess the world truly is her oyster. But glass? No, Clara Olivares is certainly not anything so fragile as glass.
About the Author: Neya Manavalan