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Culturing an Awareness

An invitation to Americans to experience the world

By Bede A. Moore

Quivering knees, clammy palms and an anxious look of shameful dread—these features of fear define the standard immigrant to the “give us your tired, your poor” United States of America. Visa-holders, having left a sweaty fingerprint and deathly-white photograph for the steroid-pumping security guard, go off to haggle for their baggage with the other traumatized “aliens.” With any luck, they also catch a glimpse of a majestic George W. Bush standing before a fluttering Stars and Stripes, with a banner bellowing: “Mission Accomplished”—or some similar piece of patriotic overkill.

For a country so assured of its multi-cultural constituency, the U.S. may need to consider revising its greeting protocol. Perhaps a simple, “Hi, how was your flight?” might trump the condemning and suspicious stare which makes you wonder, “Did I leave that C4 in my bag?” But don’t think things get any better after surviving immigration—America’s “foreigner relations” aren’t about to improve. Sure, you escaped the armed guards, fingerprinting and interrogations about your visa’s legitimacy, but Customs is still to come.

Thankfully, the standard Harvard International student strolls through this process with ease. Safely through the airport doors with her verified student visa and there you have it: an incident-free immigration. On her maiden voyage, the first-year international student may have questioned the ambiance of the airport, reassuring herself that cultural sensitivity can only improve with proximity to Cambridge. She considers the flourishing “Foreign Cultures” curriculum and the impressive assembly of international academics. The unassuming student can’t help but convince herself that Harvard will be a bastion of international culture. But in truth, such a gross misjudgment would land you in academic probation.

As an Australian I experienced it all firsthand. And having survived the trauma, I’m returning the favor. I frequently delight in relating embellished accounts of my adventures from back home. Riding kangaroos while drinking Fosters is a personal favorite—and Americans always applaud. And if they’re lucky, I might even mutter a somewhat indignant rendition of “Crikey” for a polite Crocodile Hunter fan.

“You speak great English for an Austrian,” someone inevitably remarks.

What could possibly breed such ignorance? It could be—and I’m no sociologist—that Americans spend too much time waiting for culture to come to them. They view culture like mail order: If you sit around long enough, it will eventually turn up on your doorstep. Maybe that’s why only 22 percent of Americans own passports, and even fewer use them

But the real ramifications of America’s unwillingness to embrace different cultures firsthand runs deeper than a quick chuckle at a Woodbridge meeting—the international students club—and does more than bolster my condescending humor. I know it’s hard to believe, but the U.S. wields great power as the world’s dominant force and the remaining 6 billion of us are often affected by the decisions made by the White House.

If it’s too much to ask Americans to spend a little more time abroad, perhaps they could simply dabble in the vast array of ethnicities, religions and cultures that pour into terminals and ports across the country everyday. By making this small effort, Americans would greatly enhance their political and cultural tapestry and make better-informed international policy decisions. Opening their hearts and minds to other cultures might just help Americans realize that there’s a whole other world out there.

Bede A. Moore ’06, a Crimson editorial comper, is a history concentrator in Winthrop House.

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