Touring the Ivory Tower
Our perspective of ‘Asian tourists’ needs drastic reevaluation
Many years ago, when an older friend e-mailed to debrief me on his first few days living in Weld Hall, he quipped: “I woke up today to the sound of a tour guide outside my window, explaining that this is where freshmen at Harvard live. I’ll never visit a zoo again.” Little did I know that in just a few years, my issues with volume control and freakish levels of enthusiasm would lead me to join the Crimson Key Society, and I would find myself leading throngs of wide-eyed Asian tourists throughout Harvard Yard. The first few tours I gave were incredibly unnerving. I worried I’d slip up on a date or be faced with an obscure question from the tourist equivalent of “that kid in section.” But the nerves faded as I came to a realization, one that I’ve passed on to many a younger keyster. “You’re a Harvard student,” I remind them. “These tourists want to like you.”
In his Dec. 1 column “I Go to Harvard. FML.”, Brian J. Bolduc ’10 denounced one of Harvard’s nearest and dearest traditions. “Students target the figure, whose shoe tourists rub for good luck, because it symbolizes their success,” he wrote. “But when we disrespect this institution, we disrespect ourselves. Revelry in other people’s misery, public urination, and embarrassment over your affiliation are undignified.” As an expert on undignified behavior, I’m hardly in a position to comment on the appropriate comportment of members of the intellectual elite. I will, however, join Bolduc in condemning this tradition. Not because it’s disrespectful to this institution, or to ourselves, but because it’s disrespectful to individuals who travel to Cambridge, Massachusetts, for an hour-long glimpse into our ever-so-privileged lives.
Although a score of Crimson op-eds have highlighted the perils of “the Harvard bubble” in which we live, most fail to mention one of the most unsettling aspects of our seclusion. More often than not, we forget that the prestige that drew us here is the same prestige we benefit from daily in the profound lectures we attend and the vast resources we have access to. Yet when we are reminded of our world-class reputation, we very rarely consider it through the lens of an outsider.
The context in which we interact with the flocks of foreigners who congregate in the yard to take their picture with John Harvard or point an awe-struck finger toward Widener Library is usually one of inconvenience. They impose on our isolation unapologetically. Many days, they are the Harvard student’s sole, albeit limited, contact with the outside world. The relationship is, unsurprisingly, antagonistic. Clad in Harvard sweatshirts, we scoff at the tourists as we’re forced to walk around them on our way to class. The most aggressive amongst them even dare to hand us a camera as they pose eagerly in front of the Science Center.
Yet the tourists can represent so much more. Piled up behind problem sets and complaining about the dating scene, or lack thereof, at our ivy-covered institution, it’s easy to take our place here for granted. It’s easier still to forget that, in the international community, Harvard is just that: an institution. It is not just another name in a pile of applications or another campus to visit. It is a beacon of educational excellence and a pinnacle of achievement, and it’s no surprise that the occasional tour group wants to admire its buildings, and sometimes its students.
It’s true that the very idea of being observed can feel unnerving, particularly when it manifests in a way that sticks out like a sore thumb, in the form of strangers who share neither our language nor our culture. But we at Harvard are hardly caged animals. In these four years, and for the rest of our lives, we stand a great deal to gain from the Harvard name. It’s also more than fair to assert that we were by no means backed into a corner when we settled on Harvard College. We all had options, but we all came to the school that offered a tradition of excellence and a wealth of opportunity. And this, in addition to about $30,000 of tuition a year, is the price we pay.
More importantly, we must recognize the desirability of a value system that places an institution of higher learning up there with art museums and natural landmarks on a list of must-see tourist destinations. The notion that spending a day touring an elite college is not only important, but fun, deserves encouragement, not disdain. If I’ve learned anything during my four years here, it’s that Harvard students have no shortage of undignified outlets through which to disrespect themselves. Next time, don’t rain on my tour group’s parade.
Silpa Kovvali ’10 is a computer science concentrator in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.