A Grain of Salt
Nahid Nosrat-Mozaffari '77 carries a little bottle of seasoning with her everywhere. She can't stand Harvard food, she says--she comes from Iran, and the food there is generally much spicier than Lowell House's watereddown vegetables. When one of her friends points out that the spice jar looks like a gold-fish food container, she replies, "Yes, but it makes almost anything taste better."
Like most foreign students, Nosrat-Mozaffari has had to come to terms with the differences between her own culture and those that prevail at Harvard. Many of the differences are superficial--the kinds of food they like, the side of the street for driving. But most of the foreign students who come here are prepared for this kind of culture gap; they are generally cosmopolitan and are ready to deal with different life-styles.
But a they move into their second and third years here, many foreign students begin to realize that there are other, less obvious differences between their background and that of most students here. The differences aren't so much physical, Japanese Eriko Ishikawa '77 says--not music or food or language. They go deeper than that. What emerges as the students begin to get a more objective viewpoint into their own culture are the completely different views of the world and how to live in it.
Perhaps the most deep-seated cultural difference with which foreign students have to deal while they are here lies in the ways they make friends here and at home. "Here, you meet someone in class, you talk for ten minutes, then you see them the next day and they pass right by you," Ngozi Okonjo '76, from Nigeria, says. "At home, you see someone and you stop to talk." It is a difference, foreign students say, that takes a while to notice. Once they do, however, they find it hard to ignore.
Students from other countries often find it hard to understand Americans who seem to have little feeling for their families, who make little effort to spend time with their relatives. Gizela Gonzalez '79, from the Philippines, says she has found most Americans are "task-oriented" rather than "relationship-oriented." "At home, family ties and relative ties are stronger," she says. Rheka Nameo Nimgade '77, from India, describes the family structure there as vertical rather than horizontal. As an example, she points to an American family she once visited for Thanksgiving that had three tables, one for each age group. "At home that would never happen," she says.
Most foreign students are a little shocked by the competitive American ethic that is exhibited in the pre-med syndrome. Gikas Hardouvelis '78, from Greece, says he never had to compete for anything before he came here, and says he finds it hard to accept competition as a way of life. Elena Granaglia '79, from Italy, says she just ignores the competition, and hopes to avoid becoming the kind of student that learns nothing but how to get good grades.
Almost all the foreign students find that most Harvard students seem to care very little about the world outside the American borders. "I thought everyone here would be so smart--I mean, this is Harvard," says Juan Pitarque '77, from Ecuador. "I guess they are intelligent, but some of them don't even know Ecuador is in Latin America."
Of course, there are some Americans who know a great deal about the world, foreign students say. But on the whole, Harvard students seem to know little and care less about international relations or internal politics of other countries. Granaglia says she is frequently asked, in vocabulary reminiscent of the Cold War, if it's true the Communists are taking over in Italy, and what will she do if the country goes red?
Granaglia says she also feels there are a great many misconceptions about Italy that make it hard for her to talk to Harvard students about her own country. She attended a dinner for Italian-American students once, but she has not returned to the group because, she says, "they've turned Italy into a myth, all sunny and pretty. But I know Italy has problems, and that the Riviera is only a strip along the coast--I know the dirty smelly cities in the north, just as dirty as any American city. The Italy they've heard of from their parents just doesn't exist."
Students from the Third World who come here to study often complain that very few of the courses offered here have any relevance to their lives at home. Okonjo points out that in her concentration, Economics, there is a grand total of one course on developing Africa, and that isn't even being offered this year. Nimgade says it is only since she came here and faced Harvard's lack of concern for Third World problems that she really began to feel she came from a less-developed country. It's understandable that the curriculum is geared to American needs, she adds--but she does find it surprising the Faculty hasn't made more of an effort to offer students a chance to learn something about the rest of the world.
But these gripes only become real frustrations as foreign students get used to the initial thrill they feel at being here. "I was so enthusiastic about everything, it was all so new and exciting," Granaglia says. Hardouvelis says one of the first things he did was to go to a baseball game.
For some foreign students, this initial enthusiasm never wanes. Teresita Alvarez '76, who came here as a freshman from Cuba, is extremely involved in Quincy House and College committees. She enjoys seeing other Cubans now and then, she says, to have a chance to speak her own language and enjoy shared backgrounds, but she says most of the Latin Americans she knows don't just rely on each other for friendship. Her freshman year she barely knew any foreign students at all, and now she sees those she does know only occasionally. "The type of student you get here will get involved in activities anyway," she says, "and won't be limited to just one group. You don't look for each other--you enjoy seeing people from your country, it's fun to speak your own language, but we're all pretty much independent of each other."
But most foreign students who have been here a few years find they get to know other foreign students better as their enthusiasm toward Harvard begins to fade. While they all say they have American friends, many of them say they find they turn to other foreign students when they are most unhappy. Ishikawa, Okonjo, Nosrat-Mozaffari and several other foreign students tried last year to set up an international students' organization, but were unable to get the project off the ground for lack of funds. "Some people say it's bad for foreign students to stay together, since they should get to know Americans while they are here," Okonjo says. "But you have to give foreign students time--they need some one from their own type of culture to talk to, to tell their problems to. They see Americans all the time, anyway."
Since there is no official international organization in the College, foreign students who want to get together have to find their own ways of doing so. When Hardouvelis eats at the Union, conversation at his table is constantly interrupted by Greek and Turkish students who stop by to say hello. Several foreign students have formed an international women's organization that meets weekly at Lowell House for lunch, "a purely social affair," one of the group's organizers says.
But like any other students here, foreign students get involved in extracurricular activities, they talk about writing papers and worry about problem sets. Ishikawa is active on the Crimson Key; Alvarez is Radcliffe first class marshall; Nimgade participated in last month's demonstration for affirmative action. Many of them cook meals for friends and teach others about their countries. Life is not all that much more difficult for them than it is for most.
Perhaps the hardest thing for students who come here is to try and readjust to their own culture. Most plan to return home, but all of them say they feel somewhat alienated from the cultures in which they grew up. Most foreign students who come here attended high schools geared toward sending graduates overseas, and already felt somewhat alienated--Harvard simply makes that alienation more obvious. Ishikawa suggests it may be especially different for students from traditional cultures to return; she says she worries about going back to a world where women are expected to be subdued, and where arranged marriages are still customary. Nimgade speaks of being a misfit in both societies. "If only," she says, "one could take the good things from both cultures and the imperfections from neither."
Gonzalez, still a freshman, is prepared to grow farther from her own culture, and views the prospect with equanimity. "It's probably a worthwhile trade off," she says. "After all, I came here to get a different perspective on my own country."
When Nosrat-Mosaffari is asked about her gold-fish food-like seasoning jar, she offers it to anyone interested in finding something new and different. Most of the foreign students here don't find Harvard all that new--their backgrounds have usually prepared them for American culture. They find ways of dealing with the minor inconveniences; the larger ones--the ones that go deeper than seasoning--they live with, as an unavoidable part of choosing to go overseas.