Culture shock at Harvard

Hui Siu Fan - Principal Producer, TVB News & Information Services Division

[Mar 2012 - The Journalist] I studied in the United States for a year, and lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, quite close to Boston, and where Harvard University is located. Cambridge, to me, is a small town, and it is easy to walk into students, teachers and other people from Harvard. Since there are other universities like Harvard, the MIT and Tuffs in the vicinity of Boston, the academic atmosphere is very good, and students are even allowed to take courses in different universities. Some fellows in my class, for instance, had some of their lessons at MIT.

Photo at Harvard
With the help of the Nieman Foundation office, I rented a flat in an apartment less than 10 minutes walk from Harvard Yard. It was a 60-year old, 4-storey apartment, built of red bricks, with four flats on each floor. I lived on the top floor, and walking up and down the stairs, walking around in the campus neighbourhood was my everyday routine – I did not own a car or a bike. It was the year I walked the most in my life.

So many things happened during my time living alone in the States, and because of cultural differences, some were often hilarious. I moved into my flat on a hot summer day, and the first thing I did was to open all windows. Everything was fine until I opened the bedroom window, when the air conditioner on the window sill suddenly fell off and smashed on the pavement. That shocked some road maintenance workers nearby, but luckily nobody was hurt. Why did the air-con just drop out? Only after the accident that I find out that the air-conditioner was never properly installed. It was only put on the window sill, and relied on the window to stop it from falling!

Later, I started to notice that most people I knew in Cambridge put the air-con outside their windows just like that. May be it was because there are not many tall buildings in Massachusetts, and people do not find it dangerous. Of course it may sound funny, but at that time I was scared to death, worried that I could have got someone seriously injured.

In everyday life, there were also a lot to learn and to adapt to. Unlike the Chinese, Americans love to hug people when they meet, and are constantly eager to express themselves directly. Sometimes I felt uncomfortable with such personal greetings. Some fellows from other countries felt the same way.

There were other things that left me puzzled too. On New Year’s night when I returned from my trip to New Orleans, I was puzzled that one of the locks on my door had been bolted. Neither I nor the tenant had the key! I paid a locksmith $220, to break the lock and let me in, but it troubled me even more when I found trash that did not belong to me in the kitchen rubbish bin, like small metal parts.

How did such a thing happen? Later I discovered that while I was in New Orleans, the water pipe in my kitchen leaked, and the apartment manager asked the plumber to fix it. What left me puzzled was not only that the manager had the keys that even my tenant did not have, otherwise how could he enter my flat, and get someone to fix the kitchen as well, without leaving a note or some other indication at all.

This was not the only incident that I found ‘amazing’. When I first moved into the apartment, one of my neighbours once walked straight into my bedroom - without telling me - to look for his cat. I knew he was a good guy, but it was such an embarrassment to me as I used to think Americans treasured privacy more than anything else.

Not just the big issues like the flat or the air-conditioner, but even little things like a surgical mask showed how different we are, culturally. The American winter is much longer than the one in sub-tropical Hong Kong. In November, winter gears have to be readied, and in December it starts to snow. I experienced 3 snowstorms in a year, and the freezing weather lasted until April. I remembered on April Fools’ Day, it snowed in Cambridge and our campus was covered in snow, making a fool of everyone who thought winter was already past.

It is during such a long winter that people get sick easily. My classmates, their families and I saw each other every day and were literally spreading germs to each other all through the winter. I once had a serious cold, and coughed for a long time. Since the 2003 SARS outbreak in Hong Kong, it is the norm to wear a surgical mask if you are sick, but my local classmates strongly encouraged me NOT to do so, in order not to be seen as a nerd. I did not believe it at first - thinking wearing a mask is just being a responsible citizen - but I was convinced that it was a bad idea when I did put on a mask: people on the streets all stared at me with strange eyes, and many of my classmates asked me why I did so.

For a while I really felt quite wronged, I thought Americans claim they can tolerate diverse cultures, but in fact I doubted if they can even tolerate a mask. It was not only true of Americans. Even my classmates from other countries had the same problem with surgical masks. So I thought maybe wearing a mask is like a taboo or a mystery, and it is just hard to understand.

Nevertheless, regardless of all these cultural shocks, I had always insisted on grabbing every chance to understand the American way of life, so that others could understand mine, too. I was invited to spend Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day with other fellows, and those occasions were good opportunities to learn what they do, eat, drink and talk about during festivities. For a similar reason, I also bought ink, brushes and red paper at Chinese New Year, and asked my friends to come and write Fai Chuns, which are Chinese words of blessings and luck. I enjoyed teaching them about Chinese characters, and let them have their own Fai Chuns to stick on their walls at home.

Talking about understanding cultures, I remember during my one-week trip to New Orleans, our local guide was a black lady from our group of fellows. One day the lady took us to a place which used to be a plantation, to understand the history of slavery. It was a gloomy and windy day, and I sat on a bench nearby, trying to imagine what life could have been as a black slave. The black lady sat next to me, and I told her how sad I felt about this gloomy part of American history. It might be just a random exclamation, but five months later, in our weekly sharing called the “sounding”*, this black lady suddenly mentioned our trip and thanked me. I had no idea she remembered every word I told her in New Orleans, and my words became the most touching thing she ever heard during her year in Harvard.

Thinking back today about my year at Cambridge, through all the cultural exchanges and interactions, there were both gains and pains. It is hard to conclude on the one best way to deal with different cultures, or the day-to-day questions of different foods and ways of thinking. Yet I think I would conclude that the worst thing to do is to deliberately humiliate others, and I hope I would never fall short of this baseline.


* The Sounding is a weekly event, each time one member from the group of academic fellows will share about his/her own country, personal experience and answer questions. The sounding is to fostering understanding among fellows and among cultures. It is the most important activity in the life as an academic fellow.


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