Summer in Boston, the American Dream, and how everything can change in a year

Facebook’s “On this day” app reminded me a couple days ago that it has been a year since I left Korea. In that year, so much has happened and everything has changed. I started school, my family moved back to Toronto, and over the course of two semesters I have shed skin, and over, and over, and over again. I will be returning to Korea for a week this month before I head to Manila for HPAIR’s Asia Conference; I don’t even know what to expect because I have been gone for an entire year and feel like a different person.

For the majority of my summer – excluding crazy travels to Europe and upcoming adventures to Asia – I have been in Boston, doing research at the Graduate School of Design on public transportation policies through the Harvard University Center for the Environment’s Summer Research Fund. I’m working for a professor, writing political background notes on each of the cities that she is studying. It’s been an amazing combination of everything that fascinates me – (comparative) political science, cities and urban studies, environment and geography…what I’ve enjoyed most is seeing how previous political decisions, culture, and geography shape the way public transport decisions are made. Here’s an example: I read a fascinating book about sprawl in Los Angeles and how America was built on the idea of endless space and limitless growth.

The houses and automobiles are equal figments of a great dream, the dream of the urban homestead, the dream of a good life outside the squalors of the European type of city…Los Angeles cradles and embodies the most potent current version of the great bourgeois vision of the good life in a tamed countryside.

-Reyner Banham, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, 1971

I’ve been learning a lot more about America not only while reading for research but also as I’ve been spending much of my free time seeing Boston. It is such a historical city, as one of the oldest in America and the starting place of the Revolutionary War. Doing the self-guided Freedom Trail Tour with my friend gave me a glimpse into the foundations of American society: the fight for freedom from a “tyrannical” colonial government that imposed unfair taxes, and how that has led to a political culture against government intervention in any situation. In so many ways American government and society functions so fundamentally differently from those of other countries, and I’ve learned a lot about why and how. In fact, my entire year here has been a learning experience in that sense. From the “outside” there is almost always an impulse to mock these concepts of aggressive freedom. Regardless, for better or for worse, America is indeed special.

Yesterday, I went out for Saturday brunch and realized I made the stupid mistake of leaving my wallet at home after ordering. I usually don’t uber, but given time constraints and the fact that I was a thirty-minute walk away from my apartment, I called one on my phone. I ended up having a fantastic conversation with my uber driver, who was from Rwanda, did his undergrad at an Ivy League institution, and worked at a biotech company during the week and as an uber driver on weekends to save up for traveling. As an “outsider” there are so many things you can’t help but notice about this country: in his words, it is at the same time the best and the worst place to be. Many things don’t make sense, like how there is no welfare system or how the education system is so broken. But the concept of a liberal arts education, the freedom to study and pursue what one wants, blending in and fitting in thanks to the amazing diversity, these are things that can’t be taken for granted. These things are so often talked about that it seems redundant and meaningless to point them out, but sometimes it hits me how different things could have been if I had decided to live elsewhere.

Another dose of insight: On top of my research, I have been leading workshops for people visiting Harvard on topics like “How to get into a top US school” or “What makes an Ivy League education special?”. This has also endowed me with perspective and made me much more appreciative of the education that I am receiving. Taking a humanities class taught by two Pulitzer Prize winners, going on a field trip to an energy facility and walking inside a wind turbine, working for the former Minister of Education of Colombia (post coming on this later…), putting together a conference and a half, visiting the World Bank for a conference on climate change, interviewing two former heads of state, and seeing a dozen more visit campus…these are opportunities that don’t just fall on every nineteen-year-old’s head. But I don’t want these realizations to ever become an obligation to feel grateful 24/7. And I know a lot of people around me do feel that obligation. So it’s about walking that middle ground. As I am trying to find my feet in a new land, seizing good opportunities that come along (while trying not to drive myself crazy from lack of sleep), and in a funny way of my own, chasing the American Dream, these are some things I always want to keep in mind.

As with many of my posts, I want to end with a (long) list of things I have been doing this summer (and a list of suggestions for anyone who plans on spending a summer in Boston, in no particular order):

  • The Museum of Fine Arts – the Hokusai prints are detailed, witty and alive. Glad that I saw the exhibition before it ended!
  • Harvard Museum of Natural History & Peabody Museum of Archaeology – the section on Harvard history and Native Americans at Harvard adds a new perspective to this place. This institution is old, flawed, but constantly renewing itself (much like myself, except maybe not old).
  • South End Open Market
  • Harvard Art Museums – Works by Picasso, Monet, Degas, Van Gogh, etc. just casually in a building I took a class in last semester. I can’t believe I never took the time to visit…
  • Shakespeare on the Common – King Lear (and magic: it started raining as the Fool recited this line: “That sir which serves and seeks for gain/ and follows but for form/ will pack when it begins to rain/ and leave thee in the storm./ But I will tarry; the fool will stay…”)
  • Carpenter Center “Summer Summits” – the view from the terrace of the Carpenter Center at sunset reminds me that there is still so much worth seeing at Harvard that I have not yet discovered. Planes fly overhead more often than expected. Maybe this place is more transient, with people always coming and going, than I realize.
  • Museum of Bad Art – in Somerville Theater. The movie theater itself is 50s-esque, quintessentially American in the way that a diner with red vinyl chairs is. The “museum” which is closer to a room with a dozen “works of art” is hilarious and ridiculous. The movie that I watched – “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” – and this “Museum” had the same friendly, offbeat vibe.
  • Freedom Trail Tour
  • 4th of July
  • MIT Museum – I could write an entire post about this…probably one of my favourite museums of all time.

So far, my summer in Boston has been magical. It has been a time of rediscovery and reorientation in what I thought was a familiar space. It’s weird being on campus and getting eight hours of sleep a night. I feel unprepared for the school year to start, but September is approaching quickly! At the same time, I can’t wait to leave for my end-of-summer adventures in Korea and the Philippines, and especially to spend a week in Seoul, my Seoul.

Until then,

K

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