Since 2010, I have taken an annual photograph with a dim sum waiter. His name is Peter Chung and, over the years, we have created a rather strange, but nonetheless timeless tradition of picture-taking.
As the folklore of my own personal narrative has it, I first met Peter on an auspicious Sunday morning in the eighth grade. My family, joined by our good friends, the Wong family, embarked on an afternoon pilgrimage down to the mecca of South Floridian Chinese cuisine: Tropical Chinese. After emerging from our respective minivans, each family sauntered inside for what would be the first of many dim sum gatherings.
For those poor souls in the general readership of this column unfamiliar with this culinary art form, allow me to explain. Dim sum, essentially, is the Chinese equivalent of afternoon brunch. Consumed late on lazy weekend mornings, dim sum is a time for friends and family to congregate and collectively stimulate their hedonistic urges with towers of steamed baskets filled to the brim with bite size delicacies. While there is a huge selection to choose from, dim sum essentials include 叉烧包(barbecue pork buns), 烧卖(small meat-filled dumplings) and 糯米雞(sticky rice and sausage wrapped in lotus leaves).
During our meal that day, I believe I finally attained dietary enlightenment. Unlike Siddhartha, whose course towards spiritual freedom followed an eight-fold path, my path followed an eight-course meal. It was at this moment, in a state of ultimate satisfaction and ephemeral bliss, that my friend Christian pointed out to me an anomaly in our general vicinity. About 15 feet away, in between the kitchen and two other tables stood Peter, a tranquil beacon of serenity amidst the hustle and bustle of his fellow employees, aimlessly walking about without a care in the world. A striped apron around his waist and a wide smile across his face, Peter just looked to us like the nicest guy in the world.
“Take a picture with him,” Christian urged.
An obnoxious thirteen-year-old with a tendency for tomfoolery, I immediately approached and asked my soon-to-be associate if he wouldn’t mind having our photo taken. Slightly confused, he obliged. Christian snapped the picture, I thanked Peter, and we went our separate ways.
The next year, it was all very much the same. We sat down, ate our meal, conversed, laughed and then, we spotted Peter. Unfolding my prized memento from the year prior, I advanced towards the unsuspecting waiter and made the same request. Still confused, he agreed. This time proudly holding the previous year’s print, we captured another snapshot. Thus, it began. Year after year, this tradition continued like a recursive algorithm, each iteration embedding the past further and further within the most up to date version of our classic pose. And while Peter surely is still befuddled to this day as to why a strange, hormonal Jewish child would want to take an annual photograph with him, I do believe I have grown on him over time. One year, he even introduced me to his wife.
This tradition was one of the defining escapades of my childhood. It solidified my friendship with Christian, gave me an excellent Facebook profile picture and created lasting memories and beautiful, random connections. Additionally, it gave me something to look forward to every year—something weird--that made suburban life exciting for a change. While the definitional repetitive nature of traditions could potentially wear on and tire, I found myself energized each go-around, excited by the opportunity to reengage with the same people and further our relationships around an occurrence that had provided so much joy time and time again.
According to the artofmanliness.com,“Traditions are behaviors and actions that you engage in again and again at the same time and/or in the same way. Traditions can be big or small, but they differ from routines and habits in that they are done with a specific purpose in mind and require thought and intentionality.”In fact, a tradition is really any activity purposefully repeated that includes heightened attentiveness and something extra that lifts a person above the ordinary ruts of their daily routine. Traditions, when done right, lend a certain magic, spirit and texture to our everyday lives.
I think we need to create more of our own traditions. In life, yes, but especially as undergraduates. When we arrived at Duke, we quickly learned to adopt tradition by engaging in O-Week programming events. Soon after, we discovered the tradition of Wednesday Night Shooters. Months later, again, we took to heart the proud tradition of tenting in Krzyzewskiville. Traditions are a critical piece of any culture, forming the structure, bonds and foundation of families and society. They reinforce our history, define our past and offer a window into the kind of person we are likely to become in the future. Traditions and rituals in a college atmosphere can reinforce the values we deem important. And, of course, traditions create lasting memories of our friends, our teachers and our alma mater.
However, there is room enough in our mass anthology of collegiate ritual to leave our own mark on the communities we have chosen to form. During basketball games, while it’s important to embrace chants and cheers started by Crazies past, come up with your own. Within residential spheres, commence repetitious endeavors that may provide a sense of shared collective identity. At West Union, have a conversation with a stranger once a week. In whatever community you have chosen to take a role in, whether it be a in friend group or as a member of the Duke student body, the creation of our own distinct traditions has the unique ability to connect us to those with whom we engage in them. Through forging our own collective conventions, we will surely create lasting memories, foster an inclusive community, and add to the rhythm and seasonality of life.
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As for me and Peter, well, Tropical Chinese closed down this past December due to 62 health violations. Traditions don’t always last forever, so it’s always a perfect time to begin a new one.
Grant Besner is a Trinity Sophomore who one day aspires to operate his own alpaca farm. His column, “you said duty,” usually runs on alternate Thursdays.