Setting Off

Exploring immigrant narratives at Harvard

The email arrived on a typically chill late-November morning. I was sitting on my bed, toothbrush in hand and paste pooling at the corners of my mouth, when it appeared at the top of my inbox: “University of Cambridge—Conditional Offer of Admission.” I threw my toothbrush onto the nightstand and scrolled through the message, still slightly bewildered, though thrilled, by the news.

I had nearly forgotten about Cambridge, having submitted my personal statement and academic proposal a month earlier in a flurry of fellowship applications. As my acceptance email quickly reminded me, though, I had applied to the university’s MPhil program in Modern South Asian Studies to research how the perceived political, social, and economic benefits of migrating to the United Kingdom have been communicated to South Asian communities, and based on that information, which factors families and individuals prioritize most in their ultimate decision to emigrate.

My interest in the topic first arose while at the University of Oxford last spring, where I found myself eager to explore the city and equipped with a surfeit of downtime in which to do so. (In the Oxbridge tutorial system, mandatory class-time totals only one or two hours every week). Upon the advice of a friend, I began tutoring through the university’s English literacy program for local immigrant children. Hamzah, my thirteen-year-old Pakistani tutee, had only a rudimentary command of English and, thus, an intense aversion to reading and writing. Over our six months together, I helped him with his spelling, grammar, and verbal communication—though his incipient British accent made him sound already five times smarter than I.

Working with Hamzah opened my eyes to the hardship that young immigrants face in navigating the social landscape of a new country. At times, it was difficult to hear him talk of teasing from bullies at school and glares from strangers at the market, but from his stories of adversity I developed a newfound sense of need to investigate the issue further. Over the summer, I left Oxford for London, carrying my burgeoning interest in British immigration policy with me to its institutional progenitor: the House of Commons. While interning for a member of Parliament, I researched domestic responses to recent influxes of Punjabi and Roma immigrants to Britain that summer, uncovering an all-too-common thread in the story of immigration: the more people arrive, the stronger domestic resistance grows. The ideological polarization of the issue, I likewise discovered, mars productive political debate, and backlash from both nativist constituents and immigration advocates often produces insurmountable roadblocks to effective reform.


Returning to Harvard in the fall, I decided to shelve my previous senior thesis topic—pleasure-slumming in late-Victorian London—and explore instead the historical antecedents of South Asian immigration to Britain. My research in literary representations of Indian visitors to England has transported me to a world not dissimilar in its treatment of migration from modern-day debates. In the work of some British authors, Indian migrants figure alternately as either deleterious impediments to the cohesion of a singular British national identity or as comical mimics of British manners, subject to bemused contempt in their efforts to assimilate. In memoirs written by Indians residing in England during the same period, parallel anxieties of identity and cultural hybridity emerge.

While my observations—taken from select case studies of late-nineteenth-century literature—do not hold universally true for all Britons and Indians living in England at that time (it would be egregious to make such a reductionist claim), they nonetheless signal the historical continuity of immigration as a focal point in our conceptions of “self” and “other.”

In an op-ed for The Crimson earlier this semester, I noted that the emotional weight of a national issue can only be felt most fully when it personally impacts you. I now intend to discover if the same holds true for immigration. Over the course of the semester, I will interview students from across our university’s wide-reaching immigrant community, loosely defined for the purposes of this column. From American-born children of immigrant parents, to young arrivals, to undocumented students, to soon-to-be international graduates looking to permanently immigrate to the States, I hope to uncover new personal perspectives on what it means to be an immigrant at Harvard.

Matthew M. Beck ’14 is a history and literature concentrator in Quincy House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.