The Nieman fellowship which my wife received to study at Harvard was so generous, it extended to her partner. This meant that, after COVID moved our year abroad from the 2020/21 academic year to the 2021/22 academic year, we were set to get ourselves to Cambridge in August of last year.
Except that the American consulate felt it necessary to postpone issuing me a visa.
Like Natalia, while waiting for my visa, if it would come, I was still able to follow any class I wanted. However, though during 2020/21, pretty much all classes had been online, for the 2021/22 year, almost no classes were. So, this one year fellowship, for me, was quickly proving to be almost dead in the water.
Almost: The Harvard Extension School, kind of like a hodgepodge of all of Harvard’s classes, is set up to consume its classes remotely, online.
Access to information at Harvard, as well as the Nieman foundation, isn’t quite always as easy or obvious, which meant we only found out about the Harvard Extension School, shortly before the deadline for picking classes.
As a result, I only managed to get one class in, in my first semester.
Yet, this class, lead by the excellent Bakhtiar Mikhak, was a joy. With a focus on digital prototyping using modern design tools, I enjoyed it so much, I enrolled in the follow up class, during the second semester, in which students expand their digital prototype into a working product.
More, we got along so well that I ended up getting a speaking part in the summer school version of the first class.
I used both these classes to rethink Dérive app, which resulted in a completely updated interface for the app, new functionality, with more on the horizon.
Natalia and I being apart for months, we spent our autumn break together in Costa Rica, privileged to be able to stay with great friends.
For Christmas and new year, Natalia came back to Brazil, when we both ended up with COVID. And then, close to when Natalia was set to return to the US for the year’s second semester, the American consulate contacted us to say it was time for me to move to the next stage of my visa-application procedure.
This was promising, and unexpected, and after a first visit, it turned out that, indeed, the US government had chosen, in all their magnanimity, to issue me a student visa, after all.
Wonderful news indeed; I was finally going to be able to get a whiff of the famous Cambridge smells, and meet the fellow fellows of Natalia.
Wonderful, but the deadline to select classes for the second semester had already passed, which meant that, although I was now going to spend some three and a half months in Cambridge, all my classes were still going to be online.
Also, as I had decided to get as much out of this opportunity as possible, I had signed up for 5 classes. And I participated in an unofficial creative writing class with a former Harvard professor, and granddaughter of Sigmund Freud.
And though, as fellows and affiliates, we supposedly were only allowed to audit classes, meaning we were allowed to sit in class and listen, not do any of the assignments, I had managed to sign up as a graduate or undergraduate for my classes, which meant I was expected to do all the necessary work. Sure, there would be no real consequences if I didn’t, but I had signed up to learn, not to faff around.
It was going to be busy for me.
All classes ended up being a lot of fun, some more than others. For all, the workload was immense, unreasonably so. For two of my classes, I had to read a total of around 12 books, over a period of about 3 months. Adding to that the papers I had to write, and all the work I still had to do for the other classes I was following, it meant I was feeling the brunt of elitist education.
Indeed, these insane workloads are par for the, haha, course. Virtually all Harvard classes are intense, and it’s a common complaint that professors assign too much.
Odd, as this makes it very difficult for students to internalise the material, and it makes it nearly impossible, to properly synthesise the contents, and to critically respond to claims, theories, and ideas.
Three of my classes were on global politics, with a focus on populism, cyberpolitics, and the governance and politics of world regions. For each of these, because of my own pre-existing knowledge and expertise, I arrived to these classes not as a tabula rasa, but with opinions and some decent knowledge, allowing me to not completely be overwhelmed, as well as to challenge many of the students, and be challenged, at an excellent level, by the presiding professors.
The outcomes were great. I had fun writing papers (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) which were well received, and saw Dérive app spill over in to the real world. The latter through two interventions, one after a conceptual discussion with Bakhtiar, the other as part of one of my other classes, in which half the students were from MIT (and myself), and the other half were juvenile inmates in a correctional facility in Maine.
The latter saw the creation of a collaborative deck of task cards, the former culminated in an intervention in Brooklyn and Manhattan, using Little Free Libraries as a vehicle for distribution of Dérive app task cards.
A lot of fun, though I was also expecting more from this time at Harvard, in part due to the perceived legendary status of this educational institution.
Harvard is considered the cream of the crop, if not the best university to attend. Instead, I found, and other foreigners I talked to about this found this too, a good university that’s immensely overpriced. ‘Good’, but comparable to many other educational institutions. And perhaps for its sense of exceptionalism (more on that below), not always actually the best.
Meanwhile, Natalia and I spent the little free time we had as well as we could. We didn’t nearly travel as much as we would have liked, but New York featured twice on our visits, as did trips to Salem, and Portland in Maine. But hopes of going further afield had to be abandoned; there simply wasn’t enough time, while everything, everything(!), was also painfully expensive; Dinner for two in a not exceptionally expensive restaurant can run up to the equivalent of the Brazilian monthly minimum wage. We steered clear of these absurdity, meaning we developed a love for readymade soups from the Daily Table, and others.
But wait, there’s more!
I could have divided up this article into three sections, the “good”, “bad”, and “ugly”.
The above was (mostly) the “good”, but where the “bad” ends and the “ugly” starts is harder to determine. And, a lot of the “good” is intrinsically connected to both the “bad” and “ugly”, while quite a bit of the “good” appears to currently be breaking down, with the “bad” and “ugly” slipping below what have apparently been acceptable levels, due to the world’s dominant economic model becoming more and more exploitative, in part exposed by challenges posed by the COVID pandemic, on a backdrop of a new gilded age, facilitated by scorched earth capitalism.
Boston, and Cambridge more so, are very wealthy. Both towns are lovely, almost sedate, very green, quiet, well kept, well organised, liberal. Also, New Englanders secretly want to be English, perhaps British. Secretly, because of that whole Tea Party thing, which played out around Boston, with Boston cemeteries still actively identifying deceased who were involved in that uprising against colonial masters.
People are friendly and educated, there is very little of the dark, and very large, underbelly of the central feature of the United States, exploitative, late-stage capitalism.
But, if you know where to look, Boston isn’t quite immune to the capitalism’s dark side. One day I cycled down to a nearby town to visit the first and oldest Dunkin’ Donuts (which, incidentally, was closed). On my way back, I passed an area of Boston which resembled Cracolândia, the few dystopian blocks in downtown São Paulo, where homeless drug addicts roam the streets. Admitted, the Boston version was smaller, but they were also openly injecting drugs into their arms.
Still, in the end, my experience in the US was better than I had expected; I simply was assuming I was going to be much more confronted with the societal horrors of unbridled capitalism. New England’s agreeable context nicely shielded me from the worst.
On the other hand, Natalia’s experience was worse than she expected; particularly the hyper-individualism, and the feigned, insincere, concerns, even, or perhaps even more so, in the academic circles we briefly got to roam around in, got to her.
When it was time to go, we had the advantage that we were able to stay in the house of a friend in Brooklyn for two weeks, which allowed us to wind down, and appreciate just how attractive the city that never sleeps, is. If you have the money, of course. Though public transport is pleasantly affordable, it’s also pretty much the only thing that is. Unless you shop at Goodwill, which we did.
Juicy tidbit: Our friend is working on a documentary on Evo Morales and left the house to us while he headed to Bolivia. After a housewarming party, he ended up with COVID, which he discovered after arriving down south. A few days later, Evo also came down with COVID.
When we were in New York in March, the city felt quiet, mellow, clean, almost. Quite different from how it came across the first time I visited, just before 9/11.
Now, I did not have the impression I was walking into a movie set, nor did the city’s inhabitants strike me as extras from some film I had stumbled into.
In part, this might have been because I no longer immerse myself much in American visual culture. That is, I watch few movies and little television. Another aspect must be that global culture has flattened rapidly over the last 25 years; everyone more and more shares the same cultural shorthand, a ‘nice’ cafe in New York pretty much is identical to a ‘nice’ cafe in Berlin, Delhi, or Tokyo.
Thankfully, it’s not quite that this flattening has been a one-way export of a certain, western, American, cultural standard. Though a lot is coming from America to the rest of the world, there’s also a reverse trend. For one, I couldn’t help but notice that downtown New York has gotten much more walkable, and there are lots of bike lanes, now, too. Like in Boston and Cambridge.
Then again, many of the agreeable spaces that appear to be ‘public’, are in fact ‘public-private’, meaning that, when you do something which private security doesn’t like, or when you just look out of place, you can be kicked out without recourse. In a public-private space, you have no rights.
Also in New York in March, we stumbled upon a little shop, ‘Pepper Palace’, which had a huge range of pepper sauces. We tried the hottest pepper sauce in the house, a mix of the three hottest peppers in the world.
After a careful taste, I felt nothing, so I went in for a drop or two. Only to, panicking, quickly leave the store, tears running down my cheeks. I considered violently throwing up on the curb, but failed. The experience was so crushing, I literally felt like I was going to die.
So far, I haven’t.
When we discovered the shop was a chain, I had asked where they were located. “Oh, we’re all over the world!” Pleasantly surprised (and not yet dying), I asked in which countries they had branches. “Oh, Canada…”
A kind of jumble of other experiences:
Very early on, I noticed that the vast majority of rank-and-file workers in the hospitality sector are African American, or Asian immigrants. Boston has the largest community of Brazilians outside of Brazil. Many work in construction, home improvement, and cleaning. Weirdly, among them, there’s very strong support for Bolsonaro.
While we were in the US, a newly established union at Starbucks underscored the abysmal context, and lack of security, “low-skilled” workers have to put up with. Also while in the US, Roe vs Wade (the ruling providing legal abortions) came apart. Starbucks came out to say it will cover abortion travel… for those not unionised.
Nothing is clearly priced. Often, things, in cafes and whatnot, are not priced at all. Starbucks (are they the devil?) recently moved to only listing the price of one of their three sizes of coffees on their announcement boards.
Then, there’s always tax, and almost always a push for tipping, even when staff doesn’t leave their counter, and you’re expected to clean up after yourself, with the suggested low end now starting at 18%, sometimes higher.
Of course, minimum wage in the US is a joke. Tipping, for many in the hospitality sector, is the means through which they survive, if barely. There are plenty of drives for increasing the level of tipping, these same people apparently not realising that pushing the burden of providing a living wage to the consumer, also absolves the state from its responsibility.
In many places around the world, a type of hidden joblessness is identifiable through the large number of employees in some sectors of the economy. Restaurants and cafes in Brazil are one example.
Because capitalism is all about optimization and continuous growth, I was not prepared to find here, too, many institutions and businesses deploying an overkill of staff, often many of them not doing value-added work. The many chaperones at airports and museums, for example.
At the Boston marathon, I went out to mile 20, where the Boston Hash House Harriers traditionally hand out beer to runners.
Along the route, undercover, but obvious, FBI agents eyed everyone with suspicion.
Or maybe they were just eying me. All of them.
Earlier, we had attended the largest, but very underwhelming, St. Patrick’s Day parade in the world. Pretending to resemble a carnival parade, it was mostly military, mostly Irish, frog marches before an ecstatic crowd, many very young, of Irish decent, taking the opportunity to drink in public. Not really allowed, but apparently tolerated during the parade, it also meant many kids emptying their guts violently along the route.
The parade was a bore.
Here, too, the undercover secret agents were obvious, though the public got their money’s worth; a group of Neo-Nazis, sporting a banner proclaiming that Boston should remain Irish, were arrested and removed from the scene.
The sense of American exceptionalism is strong. Surprisingly, for me, we also encountered this in the highly educated, and the well-traveled.
I was expecting this, perhaps, in the younger American students in my classes, against which it was fun to push back. But, it was everywhere.
We thankfully had little interaction with representatives of the military-industrial complex, nor the prison-industrial complex. That said, one of my classes involved incarcerated juveniles, and on one occasion we attended a quiz night with a few higher-level military officers also studying at Harvard, including one person who had been stationed for a number of years in the Middle East, and who’s job it had been to plan assassinations, not thinking much of the ‘necessary’ civilian casualties this required.
To justify his actions, he wanted us to think of the most corrupt Brazilian person, and how many regular civilians would be ok to murder, if that would also mean killing the corrupt Brazilian.
Natalia (mostly internally) fumed. I was kind-of entertained, in the way it’s difficult to take your eyes of a train wreck, by this actualisation of American caricature.
Intellectually, one knows that Americans consume vasts amounts of… stuff. To see this in person was still jaw-dropping. The amount of plastic our basic shopping generated was baffling. The extent to which single-use plastic and paper is used, everywhere, is incredible. Waste, as a corollary to convenience, seemingly one of the pillars of America’s capitalism, is integral to American life.
We were asked to keep our central heating running, in winter, when away for a few days, as otherwise the neighbours would end up having to turn up their heating to compensate for the heat leaking out of the building for its bad insulation.
The house, like all others in our street, was a good 100 years old. Instead of a structural solution, insulation, they choose convenience, and waste.
Everything, or perhaps nearly everything, is seen through a racial lens.
There are, very obviously, tons of problems around ‘race’, in the US. The disenfranchisement of the black population, the role of the GOP in politically sidetracking the same societal abuse, inequality, etc.
But, ‘race’ also enters the discussion unwarranted. Or, it’s required that issues are to be seen through a racial lens, when there is no need for this.
One contributor to this is the emphasis which is put on who is ‘black’, and who is not. Like how Obama, who is as white as he is black, is never called ‘white’.
At the St. Patrick’s Day parade we attended, we were joined by a number of Natalia’s fellow fellows, including a couple which is black.
I was talking to the woman of the two, and we were discussing the different groups of the parade; many were flavours of military, many were students, musicians, cheerleaders, etc. For me, the whole experience was anticlimactic, boring, uneventful.
At some point, I mentioned that she must have seen ‘this’ su many times, my point being that, for her, this parade was one like many others, to which she responded affirmatively, but, to my ears, also a bit oddly. After a few seconds, I realised that what she was actually responding to was her thinking that I referred to the particular troupe that had just passed us by, a group of African-American kids who had done a cheerleader routine based around R&B music. To me, this particular troupe was just one of the many that had already passed by, and the many that were still to come, in no meaningful way different from all the others. Yet, for her, my comment could only have meant that I was referring to this particular group, of African-American girls, emphasising the racial aspect of this particular section of the parade.
Public transport in New York is great. In Boston it’s pretty good, and I’m sure that in several metropolitan areas, it’s not bad at all. But, on the whole, public transport is horrible. For some research, Natalia had to be in a small town some 40 minutes away… by car. It took her three hours to get there by public transport.
Many small towns are not practically connected to a public transport network.
Sure, as with many of the troublesome features of ‘Murica, they are not unique to this country. Yet, most of these downsides are more typical of developing countries, not of countries that America, to a minor extent, considers its peers.
In the end, we had a nice time, though both of us were hoping, expecting, to get more out of this year at Harvard. Specifically in terms of making professional connections. I was crippled by my classes being online, and my being there for only three and a half months. Natalia found it particularly difficult to establish professional relationships with non-Brazilians. The interest, even courtesy, simply didn’t exist.
Now, both of us have a stronger, more negative, impression and understanding of the United States; how it operates internally, as well as the role it plays on the international stage. This, while neither of us was unfamiliar with US history, and even the personal affect this has had on our own lives, with my roots in Iran, and Natalia’s continent having been manipulated, for decades, by American foreign policy.
‘Americans’ can be pleasant, yes, but politically, professionally, I’m not sure redemption is possible. It’s perhaps a worn-out talking point of the International left, but, truly, the world is in the mess it is in primarily because of the role, attitude, and arrogance of the United States.
Our final two weeks in New York, were a pleasant winding down. This, followed by another two weeks in Portugal, a reunion with good friends, was re-energising.