Flying a Crimson Flag

Harvard’s spirit is hard to avoid

BEIJING—Three objects sit on my desk: a Chinese-English dictionary, a lamp, and my computer. For anyone who knows me, this is an anomaly in the extreme. I have an innate incapability to have a clean desk; one memorable winter, I lost my ID twice under the stacks of papers and books that inevitably cover it by mid-semester. Yet it’s almost halfway through the summer semester here at Beijing Language and Culture University, and my tabletop remains freakishly clean. Ostensibly, my monkish existence has a single purpose: learn Mandarin. To this end, we may only speak in Chinese, read Chinese, write Chinese for the entirety of the program; the punishment for being caught speaking English more than once is nothing short of dismissal. If any of my teachers knew I was writing this postcard, there would probably be consequences. Very serious ones. Moreover, the course I’m taking is part of a Harvard Summer School program. Thus, it’s designed to be as intense as the standard Harvard curriculum: four-and-a-half hours of instruction every day, starting almost with dawn. It seems you can take the classes out of Harvard, but not the Harvard out of the classes—not only regarding difficulty, but also the requisite complaints of the students about their workload. Only, one must be slightly more inventive in a different language. So, my first week in Beijing wasn’t the usual rush of the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, and the touristy splendor of the Palace Museum. It was mostly my textbook and me holed up in a dull hotel room. Barred from English, the language of home, I dreamed of such a place itself. I’ve never been so far away, I kept thinking; I’ve never been so far from everyone I love. But somewhere between the 120th and 125th vocabulary terms, I started to realize something else: like the Cantabrigian Harvard, being able to take Mandarin this summer is also turning out to be a thrilling, utterly awesome experience. I can say things with just a few syllables in Chinese that I couldn’t in English—from “decadent music” to “suffering with patience.” I’m learning so much, so fast, and it is quite marvelous to think, read, and write in a completely different language. The academic crusade in a nutshell: an intense, all-encompassing, struggle to push oneself beyond intellectual limits. Such pressure can lead above all to the capacity for growth, and so it’s probably one of the best things that could have happened to me. Although I am not Jewish, this period reminds me most of a quote from Reuven Malter’s journey through yeshiva (Hebrew school) in Chaim Potok’s “The Chosen.” “A man must fill his life with meaning, meaning is not automatically given to life. It is hard work to fill one’s life with meaning,” Reuven’s father advises. One could say that Beijing is my yeshiva: something of great difficulty, but also something holy, a spiritual journey of sorts through the absorption of very concrete and testable material. I’m starting to think that maybe that’s what the Harvard experience as a whole is supposed to be. The fact that this place resembles Harvard so much makes me feel just a little bit closer to home. Much as I initially protested it, I find the routine I’m slipping back into a familiar one, a world where school sets the schedule. A world I’m very comfortable in. In other words, I’m starting to suspect that Cambridge is wearing off on me. So maybe you can take the girl out of Harvard, but not the Harvard out of the girl? Ah, but I can’t spend all day on such philosophical musings. After all, it’s only three o’clock, and there are 60 more words to go. Time to pick up that dictionary, train my lamp on its pages, and get to work. Mary A. Brazelton ’08, a Crimson arts editor, is a history of science concentrator in Quincy House. She wants her family to know she is not that messy during the school year.