Grateful for the Bubble

In times of uncertainty, Harvard’s bubble-like nature is comforting and necessary.

In two weeks, I will board a plane home to a country the leadership of this country has deemed a "very, very vital problem." At some point, I will be asked to retrieve my passport and present it to airport security for inspection. This time around, I will be more aware of how green it is. I will be more cognizant of the "Islamic Republic of Pakistan" branded onto it. When I return in January, if I am able to, the President-elect will have dropped the elect from his title and have unimaginable power at his disposal. The thought terrorizes me. I am angered that uncertainty and fear are once again uninvited guests in my life. While I was convinced I had successfully escaped the perils of unpredictability, the phrase “stay safe” has somehow managed to follow me. From marginalized minority to marginalized minority, I’m not quite impressed with the progress I’ve made. So, amidst times like these, a bubble is exactly where I want to be.

My father, an avid reader of my column, wrote to me last week. “Great job”, he complimented. “I have but one suggestion. Stay away from politics.” I smiled at his dad-like advice, albeit nervously. “I want to,” I thought to myself. In truth, however, it is the politics that refuses to stay away from me, much like everyone else. And, it’s always bad politics. The dirty kind. The inherently sad kind. The politics seeps into my skin and no amount of scrubbing removes it; its only emancipation comes through expression, though this requires bravery depending on what’s being expressed, where, and to whom. In the wake of intolerant atmospheres, policing myself comes naturally, for I am often on the periphery of what is deemed acceptable. It was at Harvard that I began unlearning that.

“Harvard’s such a bubble,” I hear all the time. “We need to break out of our echo chamber,” some utter. I nod to both statements with sincere agreement. But, I also cannot deny how indescribably grateful I am for this bubble. I know too well what uncertainty and unpredictability feel like, and what policing your thoughts, ideas, and opinions for a false sense of security tastes like.

In both America and Pakistan, I am somehow a minority. Within the Harvard enclosure, however, I leave in my drawer the minority label that hangs around my neck at home. I put on my Libertarian jacket that is sneered at for its “extremity” and deemed superfluous. While countries grapple with their inability to make their people feel safe, this bubble offers solace and security. It is here that in the Eliot Grille I can blast Sufi music that uses phrases demonized by Islamophobia, and not have people freak out or complain. I wonder if, at another American college, the act of playing music that doesn’t speak English would be endangering. It is here that I presuppose a degree of acceptance; I only fear that I’ll get accustomed to it, for I know the real world bears no resemblance to this liberal cocoon I revel in.

While I try hard not to take intellectualism for granted, I’m grateful for the like-minded people that surround me, the substantive conversations that arise at any moment, and how we coddle transformative ideas to fruition. It is here that I decide what kind of woman I want to be, and what values I want to embody without the sociocultural pressures and the expectations of my friends and family. It is here that I toss them anew every day into the Charles on my morning runs. It is here that I am told that my ideas matter, and it is on this campus that I have been able to exercise my voice that vicious intolerance exorcised out of me long ago. It is here that I can be a LGBTQ+ ally without question. It is here that my feminist identity is considered the norm. Harvard is at once my sanctuary and enabler. It is where I am most myself, intellectually, and physically. It is here that I feel free.


That is not to say that I absolve Harvard of its flaws. There are times it belongs more to some groups than others, the nuances of privilege forever informing how much space we can claim on campus. There is lots of work to be done, but I do take comfort in the fact that our college is at least attempting to be everyone’s.

As another semester draws to a close, I try to collect enough of Harvard to sustain myself over break. I take in the palette of autumn that streams through the Yard. I savor my HUDS meal without complaining. I graciously accept when tourists ask me to take their picture even if that means getting to class a couple of minutes late. I sit on the Widener steps and wait for the hour to arrive, engrossed in singing the language of the bells, while students hasten from class to class, exchanging pleasantries in the mere second they take to pass by each other, sputtering scripted responses, reinventing the efficacy of communication.

This place is too grand, too fast, too alive to keep up with, and I subconsciously concede that I will never be able to consume all it has to offer. But, I’ll be fine if I don’t get to meet every Nobel Laureate here and attend every talk that intrigues me as long as I have room to be my most genuine self.

When my plane lands in Boston at the end of January, I plan on unsheathing my armor and donning it with pride: the Harvard sweatshirt. My portable sanctuary. When I pass through border control, I plan on distracting skeptical eyes from the green with the crimson. Sure, I anticipate the bouts of privilege and guilt that I will experience, interchangeably, but, for once, I will not grimace about feeling protected: It is something everyone is entitled to but not everyone gets.

Zuneera Shah, ’19 lives in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.


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