Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

Homecomings

January-February 2005

I think the enormity of my decision hit me when the plane flew out of Sydney airport and I watched the famous Opera House, its distinctive half arcs shining in the sunlight, shrink to a little white dot by the frilly tide of the Pacific Ocean. I burst into tears. What on earth was I doing? On a whim, I had applied to Harvard, and now, bound for a country I had never seen, that old chestnut about being careful what you wish for had never seemed so apt. As the flight attendant handed me a tissue, I was reminded of the postcard from my soon-to-be freshman roommate that I had received just before leaving home: a map of the world, a cheery greeting ("Hello from Cambridge!"), and a gaping hole in the corner of the map where Australia should be. I was leaving this shimmering mirage, so wonderful that we try to keep it secret from the rest of the world, to begin four years of study just about as far away as one could possibly get.

Applying to Harvard had definitely been a left-field idea. Australians just don't go overseas to study for an undergraduate degree because the tertiary education system is well run and well funded. Those who do pursue studies abroad usually do so at the postgraduate level and it is still the dreaming spires of Old World universities that loom largest in the popular imagination. Informing one high-school friend of my American ambitions yielded the disdainful enquiry, "Where exactly is Massachusetts?" To be honest, I wasn't entirely sure, and I was even less certain how to spell it.

Nevertheless, I had fixated on Harvard as the Place I Wanted To Be. Not that I knew anything substantial about it. In my mind, Harvard was sort of a pastiche of American teen movies from past and present, populated with classic figures of the Ivy League collegiate drama: football players with absurdly padded shoulders romancing cheerleaders with names like "Suzy Ann"; bookish types talking about Hemingway in earnest tones, beautifully accessorized with angora-blend chunky scarves (a novelty item for sun-drenched Sydneysiders); and, of course, the occasional old-money heir, name suffixed with an appropriately distinguished "Jr." or "IV," learning that love means never having to say you're sorry, and deftly networking his way through college to a future presidency.

There were other appealing aspects, slightly more grounded in reality. I wanted the experience of living on campus, and all the novelties that entailed: living with friends, eating in dining halls (a throwback to an earlier fixation on English boarding schools, I suspect), working on a real daily newspaper, figuring out how to do my own laundry. Most Australian students live at home and commute to urban campuses for their classes. Immediately upon leaving high school, they study for highly specialized degrees, whether in dentistry or law, medicine or architecture. Therein lay the academic rationale for my wanderlust. I had enrolled for a law degree, having always enjoyed courtroom dramas and fancying myself a major player in my high-school debate team. But as I plowed through cases and learned the importance of correctly citing line numbers above all else, the broad liberal-arts education I was promised by the Harvard viewbook—art, philosophy, and all that jazz—became another major draw.

The admissions process was completely unfamiliar. Australian universities determine entrance solely on the results of terrifying final exams that all twelfth-grade students take. I am very lucky the Harvard admissions committee appears not to rule candidates out based on SAT math scores alone. When I was offered financial assistance, my parents, wonderfully supportive as always, swallowed their sadness and encouraged me to follow through on yet another of my fantastical schemes.

And so I found myself on the plane—and found myself still there 22 hours later, at which time we finally reached New York and I set (flight-fatigued, painfully swollen) foot in the United States for the first time, aware that mine was not the story of the penniless immigrant pursuing a dream of fortune in the New World. I come from a comfortable background of tree-lined streets and plaid school uniforms, and from a society which is as well-versed in the nuances of American culture as you might expect from a national daily diet of Oprah, The Simpsons, and Survivor. I knew my Jennifer Lopez from my Jennifer Aniston. I liked bagels.

Yet what has surprised me the most during my stint in the States is the imperfect quality of my cultural camouflage. Things that I still find mysterious after more than three years here include Halloween, the greeting "What's up?" and how one is expected to respond, the bewildering array of toothpastes and other everyday consumer goods available at the local drugstore, the bright orange hue of American cheese, and the admirable but exhausting work ethic of Americans. Campus customs which remain strange include polar fleece as fashion statement, midterms (in the antipodes, assessment is more of the once-a-semester variety), the idea that class for fellow students is merely a distraction from the main business of extracurricular commitments, single-sex social clubs, the terminology of "dates" and "dating" (it all sounds so arcane, like something out of an Archie comic), and the strange noises the ancient dormitory-room heaters make in the middle of the night.

These invariably trivial, nonetheless telling, moments of foreignness are phenomena I talk about a lot with fellow Anglophone international students. Most of us hail from former Commonwealth countries and find we have more in common with Americans than with the "international" crowd of foreign students at Harvard. That doesn't mean, however, that we don't enjoy comparing notes on our own minor experiences in cultural incomprehensibility. A constant complaint I've shared with Nicole Cliffe '05, who hails from Kingston, a small town between Montreal and Toronto, is the array of mysterious slang terms we've learned to use only through sustained effort and conscious application. "'Hooking up' doesn't meant that in Canada," Nicole says, referring to the ubiquitous American college term for amorous after-dark encounters.

It's not just a matter of vocab, either: you've got to pronounce it the right way. When I first arrived here, the constant comments on my accent irritated me no end. "I am so sick of people telling me how much they love my accent," I wrote in an e-mail to my parents at the end of my first week at Harvard. "Why can't they just listen to what I've got to say instead?" The accent branded me as different, and it irked me that people seemed to find my nationality and its aural accoutrements (flattened vowels, reticent Rs) more interesting than my personality. The comments have dissipated over the years, probably because the people I interact with regularly have forgotten I even have an accent. And with new acquaintances, I've learned to use that distinctive drawl to my advantage, even if trading on my slight exoticism means I have to entertain questions about the Crocodile Hunter and which way the water drains "down under" (two things which never even crossed my mind before coming to the States).

There are other particularly peculiar aspects about life over here that we Anglo imports return to time and time again. Ruchira Saha '06, who brings new meaning to "cosmopolitan" (hailing from India, Switzerland, Sri Lanka, and Nepal, among other places), finds the drinking-to-excess philosophy that drives so many Saturday nights at Harvard more than a little curious. "People pre-game and drink until they are sick, which is something people in Europe don't do," she says. "The concept of being taken to hospital because you were so drunk was alien to me before coming here."

For me, American attitudes toward other health matters took some adjustment. "Working out" was an expression I had literally never heard at home. No one I knew had a gym membership. I had always thought gym equipment was strictly for old people advised by their doctors to take to the treadmill to help with heart problems. You certainly didn't wear a sweatsuit in public, because that would be deeply unfashionable—"daggy" in Australian-speak. It was a shock, then, to discover that at Harvard, the Department of Harvard Athletics sweatsuits ("DHAs," as they are known) are actually much in demand for everyday wear. Watching my freshman roommates head off to the gym three or four times a week plumbed a wellspring of previously untapped guilt. Also striking was the tendency to medicalize what I used to consider mood swings. I was amazed to learn how common it is to have a psychiatrist, and have come to appreciate the way mental-health issues are discussed openly, without stigma or shame. This is particularly important at Harvard, where students are in a highly pressured environment and expect so much from themselves.

The positive side of that pressure shows up when Nicole says Harvard has taught her to be more assertive. "I love America because you can say what you think without fear of being labeled as 'pushy,'" she declares. Here, nothing is spoon-fed, even to those already possessed of the sterling-silver variety from birth. Selling yourself, standing up to be counted: call it what you will, international students all speak of the way their Harvard experience has taught them that hard work is a great leveler and that success comes through putting yourself "out there."

Sometimes, the niggling disjunct between what I thought I knew and what I have actually encountered in American society seems an insurmountable barrier. In dark moments (any time after 3 p.m. in winter), I am suddenly reminded of how far I am from home and begin to wonder whether it has all been worth it after all. Fortunately, communication is relatively easy and cheap, though the 14-hour time difference invariably means that one party in the conversation is bleary-eyed, not quite able to keep up with the other's chatter. I worry about being so far from my parents. I suspect they still wonder why I set my sights on going in the first place, and I feel guilty for leaving them so unexpectedly, so early, and so conclusively, particularly because we have always been very close.

I also miss "Australia," as both a geographic and a psychic entity, much more than I might have expected. Australians are, generally, a little embarrassed to talk about issues of national identity. I'd certainly never been particularly patriotic. A barrage of questions from interested Americans, however, has forced me to confront my nationality surprisingly often. Sometimes I catch myself descending into a stereotype of "Australian-ness," greeting friends with "G'day" (an expression I would never be able to pull off at home), enthusiastically explaining the rules of cricket (a sport I have always found boring), and singing the praises of Australian bands I wouldn't have cared for before. I feel that I should have a "bronzed Aussie" tan, even in the dead of winter. Moments of exaggerated authenticity aside, my time away has made me acutely aware of what I really miss about Australia: the beach, the bird songs, and of course, my loved ones. And every time I disembark from the plane in Australia for a (northern hemisphere) summer break, I breathe a little easier and feel a little freer.

All this is not to say that I have, at any point, felt like an "outsider" at Harvard. Quite the contrary. My experience of the United States more generally has been of an extraordinarily open place, full of interested and engaging people. What has been challenging is trying to explain my enthusiasm back home, where there exists a muted but insistent anti-Americanism. By and large, Australian audiences embraced the condemnation of the Bush administration in Fahrenheit 9/11 and have received the news of his reelection with a mixture of bemusement and horror. Despite the reelection of John Howard's conservative Liberal/National coalition last October, mainstream politics back home is generally more centrist and moderate than the U.S. version. Beyond Iraq, the United States is of ten viewed as uninterested in world affairs and tainted by fast food, religious fundamentalism, and rampant crime.

I become quite upset when confronted by this nightmarish portrait of the United States, because it couldn't be further from my own experiences. Although I have largely clung to the two coasts in my travels through the United States, I feel lucky to have developed a more nuanced view of the country through first-hand experience. Current developments aside, I have come to understand that no single representation could possibly encompass the astonishing diversity within its borders.

What's more, the Australian stereotype of the boorish American is personally offensive because I have experienced endless generosity: from Harvard as an institution, to the roommates and others who have opened up their homes and lives to me. Some of my favorite college memories will be of Thanksgivings with friends, taking part in a quintessentially American celebration within the comfort and security of a family and, of course, discovering the wonders of cranberry sauce.

Forget Oxbridge, I tell everyone back home: I have had wonderful learning experiences at Harvard across a range of disciplines that I am absolutely certain I could not have got anywhere else in the world. The standard of education is unparalleled. I have met famous poets, politicians, thinkers. I have partaken of snowball fights. Living on campus is like one long eighth-grade sleepover, with the occasional problem set thrown in.

The idea of leaving it all after I have developed such familiarity and fondness can be paralyzing. It seems so strange to think that in a few months, when I graduate, this place—Harvard, Boston, the United States—will recede from my vision in the same way Sydney and Australia did almost four years earlier. The difference this time is that I know this new home of mine will still be there when I return. And I will be secure in the knowledge that once a place wiggles its way into your heart, you can never really leave it behind.