“How was your break?! What did you do?!” are a few of the inevitably trite questions I’m asked by person after person upon my return to campus. Although I convincingly reply with a “Great!” I’m really thinking to myself each time, “Um, do you reeeeally care?” #sass.
When I return home for school breaks, I can always count on one thing. Maybe there won’t be a surprise party, or endless sunny Floridian days, or 3 a.m. trips to a vending machine, but there will always be at least one Chinese Party. Yes, they are capitalized. My mother was born and raised in China and has developed many friendships with Chinese families over the years. Every couple of months, these families get together and eat deliriously rich food. The adults sing karaoke (my mom is channeling Celion Dion as of late) and play cards around the dining table. The children, whose ages range from 7 to 25, talk, play board games, watch movies and entertain the young ones. We’re also confined to a designated “kids” table. Sounds depressing, but it’s actually quite entertaining. I’m fortunate enough to have two friends from these parties here with me at Duke.
As much as I love these dynamic and memorable Chinese Parties, I wonder why I am not a part of any Chinese or Asian community here at Duke. Why haven’t I explored something that I’m so proud of and happy about back home? What other facets about my identity do I share and develop at home that I don’t at Duke, and vice versa? And why does that happen?
Going home rejuvenates and reminds me of parts of my identity that only occasionally surface here on campus. For three and a half years I’ve lived a split life—one at Duke and one at home. The moment I step back on to campus, my mind is filled with classes and friends and responsibilities. I may go a week without talking to my parents, and only rarely Skype high-school friends during the semester. Sound familiar? Although I tend to separate my two lives, I’m discovering several shared characteristics.
It seems almost impossible to really describe these Chinese Parties to unknowing non-Chinese friends, but they actually resemble bits and pieces of Duke life. It’s an opportunity for comfort, family, friends and laughter, paired with moments of stress and anxiety. Parents will approach their friends’ kids with questions about post-graduation plans, and there are the inevitably awkward comments about how tall I’ve become or how much my Chinese has improved. A time always arrives when children are thrust onto the piano bench to perform for everyone, and you’ll never fail to hear parents’ slight bragging undertones about their Harvard child, pre-med daughter or violin prodigy son (um okay, we get it).
These Chinese Parties epitomize a form of unity, one that is distinct and comforting. Though these friends share my olive skin, black hair and slanted eyes, we certainly share more than just appearances. They also have strict parents with exceedingly high expectations: straight As or BUST. They face the stereotypes: We’re not communist, thanks. #ignorance. Our American-ness strikingly differs from Chinese culture. We complain about similar frustrations, laugh about parental relationships and bond over the small things.
At Duke there are many traditions that Blue Devils bond over. Tenting. LDOC. Senior Bhangra (have you seen the YouTube video? I promise you won’t miss me). With all these new traditions, I haven’t clung to potlucks with the Chinese department or involvements with the Asian Students Association. My Duke life is defined in many other manners, but that doesn’t mean I’m not proud of my heritage. Those Chinese Parties are still one of traditions dearest to me. Without them, my family would never have really felt like a part of a community. I wouldn’t have served as a mentor and role model for younger, Chinese, female friends. I would never have performed a karaoke duet with my mom. …
I’ve developed home traditions, and I’ve developed Duke traditions. But just because I celebrate my Chinese identity in a more concrete way at home than at school (except for the occasional rosy cheeks), doesn’t mean it’s not important to me or that I don’t care about fighting racism or Chinese stereotypes. Just because you feel like you are living a double Bruce Wayne-Hannah Montana life, doesn’t mean they don’t intersect in some fashion. Maybe next time somebody shoots one of those annoyingly repetitive questions about my break, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe we’re all living multi-faceted lives, and just looking for reasons to bring them together.
Jaimie Woo is a Trinity senior. Her column runs every other Monday. You can follow her on Twitter @jwoo9913.