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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
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Californian Slang and Sayings

By Lauren Anderson

I am not a California native. I was born and raised in the Chicagoland area. However, after living in Southern California for close to five years, I have gotten used to one of the common words and phrases used here. Some of these are not California-specific, and can aid any non-native English speaker in communicating with or understanding others on the West Coast.

“Angeleno” is a noun, and represents a native or inhabitant of Los Angeles. This is sometimes used for those living outside of Los Angeles, if they are still in the Los Angeles region. Even city documents will mention implementing changes for Angelenos.

“Cali” is an abbreviation of “California” that only non-Californians use. Nearly every other U.S. state calls California “Cali,” but Californians hate this. Avoid using “Cali” if you want to seem like a native Californian.

“Rad” was used more frequently by Californians a few years ago, but you may still hear it today. This is used as an adjective to describe something that is cool. Northern Californians often say “hella rad”, meaning very cool.

“Gnarly” is used predominantly by surfers in California, but because I lived in Huntington Beach for a few years (also known as Surf City), I have heard it quite a bit. Gnarly is often used to describe good waves, and can also be used to describe something that is cool. Gnarly, rad, and “sick,” are interchangeable slang terms, that are generally used in a positive way.

If someone is excited for something, you may hear them say that they are “stoked.” But if they are not stoked, they may “bail,” meaning that they will skip something; not show up, or leave. This phrase is heard in California but can be heard in certain places around the United States.

While many states use the saying, “April showers bring May flowers,” California generally does not get rain in the Spring. Instead, you will hear, “June gloom” in California. This refers to the sky being cloudy and overcast most of the day, especially in the mornings. By July, Southern California usually returns to its normal sunny self.

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Language and Identity

By Sara Malik

Recently, I was asked about my ability to speak my parent’s language and the conversation led to a discussion about my relationship to my parent’s culture. I immediately wanted to explain all of the layers, the reasons why I do not speak my parent’s native language fluently and how it is not born out of embarrassment or dislike, but mostly out of lack of confidence and practice. My parents are from Pakistan, a country born out of a split from India with a religious foundation in Islam. I was born in the United States of America, a country with no singular identity, with core values of individuality and freedom.

My parents speak Urdu and Punjabi, two languages with their own cultural contexts and attitudes, but both spoken in Pakistan. While I was growing up, my parents would speak to me in Urdu at home, but would not expect me to respond in the same language, so I responded in English instead. I grew up learning words and phrases from both Urdu and Punjabi, being able to understand the language when spoken to, but being unable to respond with confidence in my pronunciation. Even around my Pakistani-American friends in our local community, I would be told that I had an American accent when speaking Urdu, or that I was the “least Desi” out of the bunch. “Desi” is a term used by people from the Indian subcontinent, from countries such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, etc., as a means of collectively identifying via our similar cultures. “Desi” should be an inclusive term, but somehow, I was not “cultured” enough, or did not speak the language well enough to feel as though I was a part of that community.

Growing up with this feeling of being too American to fit into my parent’s culture, but not American enough to fit into the culture of my peers at school, resulted in a sort of blurred and unclear identity. There are parts that fit and parts that don’t. In America, children of immigrants navigate these complex layers of our identity as we develop our own beliefs and values while also remaining connected to our parents heritage. We want to be able to connect with those with similar backgrounds, but also want to belong as Americans. We want to participate in normal American pastimes like school dances and sports games, but we also want to retain the traditions, food, clothing and culture of our parents. It is a balancing act that we do not realize is happening until we are older and able to reflect. 

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