Stay True by Hua Hsu: Nostalgia and Reflections from UC Berkeley

April 10, 2024

One of my favorite aspects of attending UC Berkeley is encountering its name in the books, journal articles, movies, and other media I come across. This is especially true of one of my favorite books, Stay True by Hua Hsu. Stay True is a memoir following Hsu and his friendship with Ken, whom he meets during his first semester at Cal, as well as Hsu’s grappling with Ken’s death three years later. The book is a time capsule of the late nineties, a love letter to Berkeley, and a reflection about how to move forward.

Ken is described as the opposite of Hsu: a Japanese American fraternity-going, Abercrombie-wearing “cool guy.” Hsu, on the other hand, is the son of Taiwanese immigrants and views himself as less assimilated and mainstream than Ken. Although Hsu is initially skeptical of Ken’s disposition, they eventually forge a close bond, spending hours late-night talking in Hsu’s Unit 3 Ida Sproul Triple, exploring Berkeley and its surrounding areas, and driving down the coast of California.

While reading the book, I enjoyed recognizing the Berkeley landmarks Hsu mentioned, like Sproul Plaza, Amoeba Music, and Top Dog. It fills me with a sense of nostalgia that students almost thirty years ago were doing some of the same things that my friends and I do on a Friday night, like walking down to Durant and Telegraph for a midnight snack. I can’t help but wonder, thirty years from now, will students still be doing this same thing?

That being said, being a Berkeley student in the nineties was definitely a different experience compared to now in some ways. One point Hsu brings up in some of his interviews about the book is that our relationship to boredom has changed dramatically since the time he was in college. Students then didn’t have laptops or phones, so there was a finite amount of work that one could do outside of the classroom. Hsu says that so much more of the world is knowable now because of technology, and there is an obligation to stay productive. But during his time at Berkeley, Hsu and his friends had to find a way to fill their time with other activities.

As much as Stay True is a memoir of Hsu’s time at Berkeley, it is also a poignant exploration of grief. After Ken is senselessly killed in a carjacking, Hsu struggles with the death of a friend so integral to his college experience and life. Hsu writes, “Maybe I misremembered a lot along the way. Or a little thing was replayed in my mind so often that it hardened into the memory of having once been routine … Our friendship was staged in private, on balconies, in cars, walking in search of pizza. But how could I ever be sure?” How could he be sure he truly knew Ken when his own perspective was so heavily influenced by his own coming-of-age?

Throughout the book, Hsu has the incredible ability to articulate feelings that we’ve all had but often remain unspoken. He explains the experience of being a young adult so adeptly: “Youth is a pursuit of this kind of small immortality. You want to leave something behind.” Stay True, it seems, is what Hsu leaves behind of his youth and friendship with Ken.