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At HBS But Away From Home? Me Too. We Got This.

Jigya Bhagat (MBA ’24) empathizes with international students.

Last year, the RC class had a course on inclusion that was poorly received by many across the student body. The shallow depth of the cases, the focus on America, the ‘appearance of inclusivity’ versus genuine inclusivity, and the touch-and-go nature of classroom discussions were among the few pain points we highlighted. In a private meeting with my section’s Inclusion professor, a Chinese student brought up the need for a ‘primer’ for international students coming into the American education system – covering broad cultural practices, historical events, and so on. At the time this struck me as unnecessary and neo-colonialist. With the passing of the RC year and seeing my own personal challenges in feeling integrated in a completely new culture, I realized that the motivation behind asking for an ‘onboarding primer’ wasn’t to Americanize the international population, but to help them get integrated faster.

When you don’t look, talk, think, eat, drink, work, recover, or decompress like an American, acclimation is hard, feeling at home is a near impossibility, and being treated equally is an article for another time. This editorial is my way of commiserating with fellow internationals and attempting to provide said primer for both the international and non-international population at HBS.

First, my top 5 commiserations on life as an international:

1. Finding acceptance in the ‘American expression’

The first step in finding love and belonging is understanding how a new society communicates. During a LEAD lecture, a classmate of mine was asked to evaluate the competence of the case protagonist. He said that she “had the dog in her.” After about 10 mins of cross-referencing across expressions, the professor’s handwriting on the board, and regular English words, I surmised that “having the DAWG” in you is supposed to make you a badass. The American expression is a combination of a) English words jumbled together to form eclectic phrases, b) non-question questions (“hey how’s it going” is a passing greeting, please don’t stop and proceed to explain how it is in fact going), c) downright lies (“interesting” is code for “that makes no sense”), d) a lot of excitement, and e) a universal politeness that could be perceived as indifference.

2. … only to develop an identity crisis …

Now when you are having a difficult time conversing with nearly everyone, you do what a 3-year-old does. You imitate other people. And that is what a lot of us did. We rolled our Rs, nodded a “hey how’s it going” by way of a passing greeting, altered our names to white/Starbucks friendly versions, et al. We undertook the same cultural fitment journey that Priyanka Chopra Jonas undertook, only we did it in three months not three years. The interesting part here is that our behaviors are adaptive and self-preservative in nature. What may seem like a natural evolution may just as well be cultural appropriation, fitting into otherwise inflexible social molds and overcompensating for deep-seated inferiority complexes. An example – there’s a classification exercise conducted by Indians on the Indian community at HBS where an Indian is classified into “an Indian lover” or “someone who is trying desperately to not associate with Indians.” Most non-natives go through rounds of internal deliberations to see which force is dominating, what part of our behavior is authentic versus put on, what is practical, and what robs us of our identities. And mind you, this is a two-way assessment. We do this to ourselves because we know that someone is evaluating us too. It is this lack of confidence and constant sense of being unmoored that drives such a low participation from international students in MyTakes, for example.

3. … in the absence of comfort food in tundra-like weather …

An identity crisis sits at the top two levels of Maslow's hierarchy of needs and may seem like a privileged problem to have. But it is important to note that many of the basic physiological needs for someone moving across continents are unmet – food and weather being the top two. Sunset at 4pm, limited affordable DoorDash options for your local cuisine, lack of time to cook, the bitter cold, stubborn refusal to switch off air-conditioning – these things are new for many of us who have spent 25+ years in very different climates. So, when 90% of your meals are scientifically nourishing but not soulful and you are carrying around 10% of your body weight in the form of winter apparel, solving for belonging and esteem on top of that can be a bit much at times.

4. … knowing that money is limited and life may just get harder with tighter employment prospects for immigrants …

Most of us leave our countries and older jobs behind to get better exposure and stay in the US. And so many of us are unsponsored, on huge loans taken in USD collateralized against heavily depreciating local currencies, running against a ticking time-bomb to find an employer within 60 days of graduating who will be willing to hire us and spend $5000 extra per international applicant’s visa. And so, we must work much harder to show something for an extremely expensive MBA.

Now the question is, if you move somewhere, it is natural for the transition to be tough right? Switching jobs, homes, countries, relationships – an MBA is a transition like many of life’s transitions. But what makes internationals lives tougher are what I call racist microdoses.

5. … punctuated with microdoses of racism.

On a flight to San Francisco, a friendly steward asked me what snack I wanted to eat. On asking what options were available, he asked me if this was my first time on a flight. As an ex-consultant at McKinsey, this hurt. Not to forget the subconscious racist undercurrent there. On most days, I’m a mild-mannered and un-funny person. But justice prevailed as a quip magically bubbled to my lips. “Yeah! You know that I swam over from India to the U.S. too, right? Since this is my first flight, can you make it extra special and give me all the snacks you have?” Not to mention the time I got spat at in the subway. Such micro-indignities are exceptionally commonplace even in the fanciest school on the planet – sometimes even professors gloss over your comments. You could do everything in your power to work your way up only to get beaten down again in seemingly innocuous ways.

And so, this brings me to my (non-exhaustive) primer!

1. Take it slow, check in with yourself. When you feel like a lot is happening, call home, watch TV, and recenter. Do avoid public spaces in HBS – not the best for self-esteem when you’re feeling down.

2. Attend as many MyTakes as you can. The great thing about school is that this is one of the few places in your life where you meet diversity at this scale with ~40% of the class being international students. MyTakes are real, Instagram is not. If offered a chance to peek through the window of another soul, take it.

3. Build on shared experiences that are enjoyable to you. You don’t need to start watching American shows, drinking like a fish, or skiing to make friends. We’re all three-dimensional people with wide-ranging interests. Assert yours and troops will rally.

4. Be input-driven. In a world obsessed with outcomes, I cannot overemphasize the stabilizing power of inputs and routine. (e.g., I handled my social anxiety and acceptance within the section by giving myself mini goals to do something with my sectionmates that was enjoyable to me. I may still doggedly be stuck at position 93 but it matters less now.)

5. Share your culture. I have found that my American peers in school get very tickled and happy when people from a different culture bring something new to them (e.g., one friend’s joy was boundless when I gave her a bindi, a red dot commonly worn between eyebrows in India). I recognize that this is the “HBS bubble” where the nicest Americans reside but the point is that others do value diversity. I hope we can value ourselves and them the same way.

Jigya Bhagat (MBA ’24) is from New Delhi, India. She did her bachelor’s in Economics from Delhi University. She then spent 3 years at McKinsey & Company as a management consultant and then as an Entrepreneur-in-Residence responsible for setting up new businesses for a mid-stage tech venture, UrbanCompany. She loves to dance and watch Korean dramas.

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