From Some Countries Far, Far Away...

Sophie Gonick

Who at Harvard does not love the friendly neighborhood international student? You know, the one who speaks in the strange accent using words nobody (or at least no one American) ever uses? The one who looks up momentarily when you start talking about “football,” only to realize with a sigh that you’re only discussing the other football, the one the barbarians in helmets play? Like many of these strange people from far-away countries, I came from India to this Mecca of education expecting to be a proud representative of my nation. Unfortunately, I’ve found a student body mostly disinterested in my differing world view. There is a gap at Harvard between the Americans and the internationals.

At first glance, I thought Harvard’s internationals were at fault for this gap. In the Woodbridge Society, an international students’ group that claims to be open to all, one very important nationality is conspicuous by its low representation. (Hint: it shares a name with two continents in the Western Hemisphere.) Was there something in the air of one of the Woodbridge get-togethers in the Straus Hall common room that smelled foul to the locals? It seemed that there must have been—I was a witness to fellow internationals’ inside jokes about the U.S., and there seemed to be a general attitude that since Americans weren’t interested in other countries, it stood to reason that we shouldn’t bother too much about them. Many of my American friends reciprocated this sentiment—I learned that Woodbridge seems to them a cliquish group of internationals that doesn’t much care for its integration into the American community. I’ve even heard it referred to, if jokingly, as the International Mafia.

Believe me, though—the only dead fish I’ve ever seen were in the sushi at the last gathering; if often isolated from Americans, Harvard internationals are certainly hospitable. International students are acutely aware of the divide. The U.S. is joked about, but it is hardly unique: like one big happy family, we make fun of all countries present! Besides, we try not to cross the line—a group e-mail that poked fun at Americans last semester drew much flak for its insensitivity. The few Americans in Woodbridge (there are two, to my knowledge) seem genuinely to have fun and get along with everyone else. If Americans aren’t being made to feel unwelcome at “international” events, then where does the undeniable gap come from?

It’s hardly very surprising that as first-years, international students feel more comfortable with each other. In general, we have to undergo a more radical adjustment process, and the only people who can truly appreciate this are other internationals. Be it learning, quickly enough, that faucets don’t work the way you’d like them to, or coping with a new education system, the adjustment is a process that brings us together. It is because we are different that we share this experience.

In contrast, we almost have to shed our national character to fit in with Americans. Many I have spoken to have asked me about India, and I am only too happy to talk about it then—but my “Indianness” only seems interesting up to a point. Each conversation lacks genuine curiosity, a desire to learn about things people don’t already know something about. Once I no longer fit into the framework of “Indian,” my nationality isn’t interesting anymore. (It’s always possible that I’m just a crashing bore when I talk about my country, but I know many other internationals who aren’t.) Admittedly, mine is a broad characterization. My roommates and friends are acutely conscious of my different world view, and treat it as a part of me. But this observation does seem to apply to those who don’t have an international in their suite, or a close international friend. Bereft of the contact, they’re just not interested.

I do not suggest that Harvard is not culturally active. There are many student groups that conduct many cultural events. But watching a ballet or eating Chinese food cannot educate you about another culture the way a personal view can. Culture is about people—why not learn from the primary sources?

Perhaps this concern seems unwarrated. Harvard has so many opportunities to learn about so many different things—what difference, you may ask, should it make if some people don’t find other cultures very interesting? They’re probably neck-deep in some other equally engaging pursuit, some would argue, and they are hardly to blame if they aren’t actively interested.

The truth is that it is my responsibility to bemoan this lack of understanding, and it should be the responsibility of Harvard undergraduates as well. Two of my friends from high school, who are currently in the United States, have a long-standing argument. It’s about whether we are in college as individuals first, or as representatives of our nation, endowed with obligations to contribute to student life. The answer lies somewhere in the middle. I believe that we can learn as much from our peers—from their particular circumstances in life—as we can learn from any textbook. Conversely, we should voluntarily feel like contributing our circumstances to the vast library that is the student community. And a failure to do so should be taken personally.

The week before Spring break, I was witness to the election of the new officers of the Woodbridge Society. My ears perked up when I heard many of my first-year friends running for the board on a platform that promised to encourage more participation from Americans. I was secretly thrilled. Maybe we all felt a common lack of fulfillment, I thought to myself. But during the question session, one of the departing board members—a senior veteran of Woodbridge—asked the candidates a question that I thought produced the most telling answers. Innocuously enough, it asked them to describe how they saw Woodbridge 10 years later. Most of the candidates saw a larger, more vibrant Society. But they all saw it swollen by an increasing number of international students. Not one mentioned the Americans they had mentioned in their candidacy statements.

Perhaps students like this see the situation like the Red Sox see the World Series: They know they must strive for a more inclusive community of internationals, but in their hearts, they’ve already lost hope. I can only hope that this fatalism is not permanent. The Red Sox will win someday. International students should be so lucky.

Siddhartha Sinha ’07 lives in Matthews Hall. He is a member of the Woodbridge Society.