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Summer Book Club: Reading Harry Potter with Fresh Eyes

By Natalie Grace Sipula

[5 minute read]

This summer I was a leader for the American Language Institute’s brand-new book club. I helped to lead discussions for this pilot program with international students, and the book we chose to read was Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Like many other college-age individuals, both in America and around the world, Harry Potter was an integral part of my childhood. From the moment I picked up the first of those mysteriously thick volumes, I was entranced. The world of Harry Potter, in the eyes of a child, is often vivacious, all-consuming, and enigmatic-a land of opportunity for the child who sees part of themself in one of the multitude of characters or feels misunderstood.

I think that sometimes those of us who grew up with the Harry Potter series put it on a pedestal, carrying it in a place so deep in our hearts that it is hard to look past it’s many virtues to see some of it’s obvious flaws. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was chosen by the book club for an international audience because of its accessibility to a wide range of audience members, but that accessibility to many different age groups and backgrounds also suggests varying levels of complexity. Returning to the Harry Potter series in a discussion-based setting with older eyes revealed some interesting new layers to this book. 

My copy of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”

Initially, I noticed that triumph in the face of adversity was a recurring theme throughout the book. What becomes particularly important is the people who are successful in overcoming the obstacles set forth throughout the novel, and how they are categorized. Almost as soon as Harry steps foot onto the train taking him to Hogwarts, he learns of a rigid system which categorizes students into different Houses based on personal qualities or attributes. Despite the fact that Harry knows nothing about the wizarding world, he takes to heart everything that his new friend Ron says to him on the train about the virtues of Gryffindor and the downfalls of Slytherin. This blind assumption is never challenged (at least not for the duration of the first book in the series) but is instead supported by other students and professors. Everyone seems to be looking forward to the day when Slytherin is met with failure, whether that be in personal conflicts, the House Cup, or Quidditch tournaments. In a moment that has been pointed out for it’s ridiculousness multiple times from fans of the series, Headmaster Dumbledore, at the end of year feast, absurdly recalculates the House points once Harry, Ron, and Hermione recover the Sorcerer’s Stone to make it so that Slytherin conveniently loses the House Cup by a measly ten points.

To any child reading this, this may seem like the epitome of justness, wherein the stereotypical group of bullies are met with disapproval and failure at the hands of an all-powerful adult figure. But in actuality, this favoritism continues throughout the series, illustrating a tendency for the wizarding world to look down on a group of people with supposed traits that they perceive as threatening. While it is possible that J.K. Rowling was trying to create a world in which your success is based on personal virtue and strong morals, it is difficult to see how this idea can coexist alongside a system where children are categorized at the earliest point in their education and then judged and questioned for the rest of their lives based on that categorization.

Preparing material for Book Club while wearing USC gear

Another aspect worth mentioning about the Harry Potter series is the interpretation of England which J.K. Rowling infuses into the magical world she has created. As an American preteen avidly reading the Harry Potter series, I did not have a particularly detailed idea of what the cultural landscape of the United Kingdom looked like. Returning to the series at nineteen years old with a greater understanding of UK culture, I see some vast differences between my new knowledge and the culture depicted in the Harry Potter world.

When we are first greeted by the presence of Hogwarts as observers of the nervous first years being transported in boats across the lake, we see a medieval-style castle, complete with towers, ghosts, suits of armor, and dungeons where the young wizards and witches take their potions class. The food they eat is old-fashioned: shepherd’s pie, treacle tart, and more. There seem to be few students of color in this world, but when they are mentioned, the reader is immediately tipped off by Rowling’s stereotyped names and descriptions-Dean Thomas being described as a black boy the first time he is mentioned, the only known Asian girl in the series being named Cho Chang, and the twins in Harry’s class of Indian heritage being almost indistinguishably characterized as Padma and Parvati Patil. In light of recent controversies of J.K. Rowling releasing transphobic statements via social media (which were met with outrage by Harry Potter stars Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson, among others), it is hard not to wonder whether those characters were included as a meager attempt to reflect the modern-day diversity of the UK or just a form of thinly shielded tokenism. As a young reader, especially one who is not originally from the UK, it is easy to overlook or misunderstand the Britain which Rowling portrays for us, but looking at the series with fresh eyes it becomes clear that this is a place that idealizes a medieval version of Europe that is disconnected from the thought and culture of the modern world and is predominately white. 

Reading outside is a great way to relax in the summer
Continue reading Summer Book Club: Reading Harry Potter with Fresh Eyes

Effects of Physical Confinement on relationships

By Richard Petrosyan

[5 minute read]

Edited by Natalie Grace Sipula

Author’s note: This article is the fruit of my analysis and my analysis only. By no means do I wish to come off as an authority on these matters, but rather as a blog writer attempting to spark debate on commonly relevant life questions.

Since governments around the entire world issued stay-at-home orders, you and I can well relate to being stuck inside with your family or your loved ones (I am with my family, which is nice because I get to spend more time with them). Everyone is experiencing different situations at the moment, but I’ve heard many of my friends ask themselves how spending more time with relatives will impact their relationships with them, especially because the connection is being forced by circumstances beyond our control. Here I will put forth my analysis of how I believe different relationships will be impacted during the coronavirus pandemic.

Let us begin with how quarantine impacts relationships within couples. In my opinion, the way the relationship is affected depends on if the couple decides to spend the time apart or to temporarily move in together. If you’re away, even if you talk and see each other online every day, I have observed from acquaintances of mine that the physical distance can create a mental distance. After all, even if you’re in love, not seeing the other person in the relationship every day can make their virtual presence feel less real. You may not see what they look like every day, what they eat, what they are doing. Sharing all of these details on a daily basis makes you become comfortable around the other person, and therefore to a certain extent, dependent on their presence. Why? Because, according to Psychology Today, we are creatures of habit. This is how emotional attachment strengthens.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Nonetheless, if a couple lives together, it’s an entirely different story. When a couple lives together, they will discover very personal details about each other that define their personalities, such as hygiene and eating habits, circadian rhythm, house set-up and possessions, and the things that are really dear to them. These discoveries can help you discern deeper aspects of your partner’s personality in order to determine whether you wish to pursue the relationship. In other words, you get to know the person in a deeper way. If nothing about the relationship seems deterring at a glance, then you may feel compelled to continue pursuing the relationship on a deeper level.

However, a problem that has been mentioned in the news is skyrocketing violence within married couples as a result of excessive, forced contact with each other, according to French media outlets. This typically happens when the couple has been established in their lives together for a long time already. They stay married for purposes other than love, and see going to work as an escape from each other. Quarantine in this case may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. In these cases, the two members of the couple, if reasonable, should understand that it’s time to part ways for the good of both parties involved. 

Photo by Jude Beck on Unsplash

For children spending time with their family during quarantine, the reaction of the child usually aligns with how the child was raised. For example, if you are a child who is very invested emotionally in your family and your parents took care of you in the most devoted manner possible, it will likely be an immense pleasure to spend more time with your parents, whom you will probably have missed very much over the course of your busy schedule. On the other hand, if you were primarily taught to be autonomous, independent, and outgoing without much contact with your parents, you will likely perceive an increased quality time in proximity to your parents as restrictive, almost punitive in some cases. You may also feel restricted by the impossibility of intimacy with your close friends, listening to music, or engaging other social activities.

Continue reading Effects of Physical Confinement on relationships

Quarantine Gardening Misadventures

By Sarah Selke

Edited by Natalie Grace Sipula

[3 minute read]

Over the past few weeks, which have consisted of staying primarily at home, I – like many others – have taken up a new hobby. I have attempted to acquire a green thumb. After ordering several beefsteak tomatoes, some marigolds, and a couple of eggplants from a local garden center, I began tending to my plants on a near daily basis. Within just a week, the tomato plants proved to be a success with dozens of flowers and green fruit hanging on their branches. The eggplants in the corner were sprouting large leaves and appeared to be developing at a rapid rate. The marigolds planted next to the two harvestable plants not only gave the vegetable bed a lovely splash of color but were also meant to aid in the tomatoes’ growth. Everything seemed to be going as planned.

One morning, I noticed two marigolds missing from the garden. Upon closer inspection, I realized that not only had the flowers been consumed, their entire roots had been dragged out of the soil. In addition, several large holes had appeared in the eggplants’ leaves. Perplexed by the source of this destruction, I began looking online for answers. While the marigolds had to have been uprooted by a rather large animal, the holes in the eggplant leaves suggested that they had been eaten by slugs. This required two rather complicated solutions in order to prevent further attacks on the garden. One of these was to build a wired fence around the entire vegetable bed; the other was to place small cans of essential oil mixtures next to the eggplants in order to repel the slugs.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

As it turns out, getting rid of the slugs was not a terribly difficult task, as many of them were later found in the oil mixtures. However, building a fence was a more tedious job, which required numerous attempts to complete. Once finally finished, I was quite confident that my vegetables and marigolds were now safe. Nevertheless, the next morning I was in for yet another surprise. All the remaining marigolds as well as one of the eggplants had been completely eaten. Utterly clueless as to the cause of my garden’s demolition, I scavenged the internet once again for answers. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that gophers were responsible for eating most of the plants. Unfortunately, they are much harder to get rid of, and of course there was hardly anything left for them to consume. After digging around, I discovered a large hole near where the marigolds had once been and flooded it with water and cotton balls that had been soaked in peppermint oil. Although in retrospect it is hard to say whether this would have worked in repelling them from my plants, at least there has been no further damage to the tomatoes. 

Ultimately, while gardening may seem like a rather simple and relaxing hobby to pick up, it can be quite demanding if one is unaware of potential obstacles. Perhaps the easiest thing to grow for beginner gardeners are alliums, which include green onions and garlic. These can even be grown indoors, which make them the perfect plant to cultivate while stuck inside during the pandemic. Here’s a brief article for how to grow scallions in just a glass of water: https://www.allrecipes.com/article/save-money-diy-fresh-green-onions/.

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Maybe you too can pick up gardening to keep you occupied during quarantine! If you do not have an outdoor space to garden in, you can always buy an indoors terrarium and grow succulents to begin to cultivate your green thumb. Happy gardening!

Featured image by Benjamin Combs on Unsplash

Sarah is majoring in English with an emphasis in Creative Writing. She was born in the Los Angeles area and has lived there much of her life. In addition to English, she has some background in Mandarin Chinese, French, and basic German. In her free time, she likes reading, listening to music, photography, and cooking. Sarah went to Beijing last summer and experienced having one-on-one conversations with other local students learning English. She hopes to continue improving her Chinese and French and is interested in teaching English as a foreign language someday. Feel free to reach out to Sarah if you need any help with your English language skills.