We’re all familiar with the saying, “You are what you eat,” and a lot of us college kids turn out to be pizza and/or pasta, and caffeine – or even Taco Bell, ugh! Anyway, I’m finally writing about what I’ve had in my mind for a long time but never materialized yet: conversations we college kids have in the dining hall at our own tables with our specific group of friends. Now let’s take it as a premise that we all like to sit with a particular group of people/close friends for our meals; even if class times and schedules are different, we like to make an effort to meet up, so as not to eat awkwardly alone or with “other” people. At my old school, I never had such a group and I table-hopped a lot, awkwardly trying to push my way through different groups of people. And I’ve made some interesting discoveries along the way – some pleasant and some disturbing.
For a school in the southernmost part of a Midwestern red state bordering with the South, this school is very dominantly white – and has much much fewer black population than I’d expected – but is not that segregated. In fact, my old school, which has a large black population from Chicago and Missouri (and select Southern states) feels more segregated. Not only do black and white students have their own social circles, but international students (who are mostly Asian), Mexican-Latino students, white feminists, fraternity boys, sorority girls, sports players by gender, Pacific Northwest hippies, New England folks, etc. have their own groups. These groups don’t usually interact with each other, although when they do they do quite amicably. The only group of people that seemed to easily flow from one group to another seemed to be the Jews. I move tables every meal, every day. So within a single day, I would hear different things from different people: during breakfast, a conservative Jew talks about how he loves his unregistered guns; during lunch, a hardcore Texan complains about how meat at the cafeteria is just rubber with sauce over it; and during dinner, a Mexican immigrant get frustrated over the night’s assigned reading because she wasn’t taught good English throughout elementary and secondary schools.
What people talk about during the meals with their groups of friends say a lot about themselves: their upbringing, their cultural background, their social awareness, their comfort zones and their personal aspirations. It’s fascinating actually. Table-hopping has opened up to me how diverse a country America can be and also some of its dark pockets, even in the middle class community that can send their children to college. I’ve just become the Diversity Chair of the hall council of 3 upperclassmen dorms, so I feel I’m in good enough a position to make explicit comments on diversity in whatever school I’ve been to.
There’s a group of Mexican-Hispanic/Latin American girls who I remember vividly. Some of them are children of immigrants and some of them immigrated to the US with their parents. A lot of them were from the Chicago area. I also have Hispanic friends from the SoCal-New Mexico-Arizona area. Conversations over lunch would usually be about their parents’ struggles in the American society and their own struggles which stem from their parents’. What they deal with varies from their parents’ low income and meeting payment deadlines for the college to keeping up with their extended family from outside the US. I’ve met a girl who is studying politics and sociology and wants to become the next female Hispanic icon in American politics, and she know she has a lot of social barriers to break through – racial, gender, economic, etc. Another girl, the poor dear, as sweet as she is, didn’t get to learn English properly in school. She can communicate well in day-to-day scenarios but she can’t manage it with academic reading and writing. She often goes on a rant about how English, as a second language, wasn’t taught well while growing up and she is suffering the consequences of it in college. She wants to be a doctor or in some sort of medical profession, but has been struggling to maintain a stable GPA so the college doesn’t kick her out.
Although, I am not a big reader or, in any way, a gamer, I have hung out with gamers, nerds and geeks; I can’t even make a distinction among them. They can afford to discuss a lot of fantastical stuff – whether they are existing technological advances or stuff that is yet to come, or hypothetical fantasies. From time to time, I wonder: Do they realize their indulgence in books, games and stuff alike is actually a luxury that a lot of other members in society cannot afford? Those Hispanic girls I just mentioned are too busy with their family struggles they can’t get their heads out of those family affairs to turn to fantasy. Gamers, nerds and tech-geeks are usually a liberal bunch – perhaps because they had to reject God and his staunch followers to indulge in alternate fantasies – but I wonder …
And there are the apparently elitist white (upper middle-class) folks who don’t realize their social status. I’ve met guys who think it’s ok to ask Japanese students who don’t usually get snow days this: “So do you get tsunami days instead?” I’ve heard some Jewish boys make Holocaust jokes. It makes me mad! What kind of a Jew are you? I only know Jewish mothers to teach their children well; their like the Western counterparts of Asian tiger moms. I can’t even … And I’ve met gamers/nerds who get so into fantasy they lose touch with reality and the current social-political issues. They would as far to joke about invading other planets with intelligent life and enslaving them and so on. You wanna relive days of slavery and human barbarianism? Well, other intelligent life forms can come and conquer earth, too, you know. It goes too ways. Be careful what you say, what you wish for! There are people who assume sexuality, sexual liberation and spirituality/religion are mutually exclusive: I’ve encountered a supposedly liberal guy slut-shame a sexually liberated girl for quoting the Bible. Here’s a little known fact about me: I am a devout Buddhist – not despite being gay, but while being gay!
But on the flip side, I’ve had good experiences with people from completely different cultural backgrounds and upbringings, too. Ok, I’m not talking about my old school or new school in particular. I’m trying to blur the lines and the transitions here so as to not point people out. But some close friends will know who in particular and what in particular I’m talking about. My very first roommate, who is a devout Catholic, and I had very open discussions on (religious) philosophy and practices; and he never for once shoved me into Purgatory. Actually, his family ended up taking me to church on Christmas Eve. And I connect very well with the immigrant community, because I’m somebody who’s trying to start up in this country and they themselves and their parents have been through the process. I click well with the black community who have had slave ancestry in the Americas, too. I don’t have slave ancestry but I come from lost roots of Chinese ancestry in Burma.
And heading outside the dining hall table-hopping topics, who takes what classes, in the liberal arts education system where some classes outside your area of study are required, can also tell about people. I’ve been in 3 women’s/gender studies classes. My first one on feminist utopian literature: 3 gay guys and 17/18 women. (Not sure if the third guy was gay or not but … gay unless proven straight!) The second one was feminist musicology, from the music department; I was the only guy with 8 other women. Third one was a sociology class on gender diversity; only sociology majors/minors and LGBT-identified people showed up. I am currently in a class that explores African culture and society through literature. I am one of the 3 guys in class with about 20 girls – mostly white girls – and I’m the only Asian (I think). There’s a West African native and 1 or 2 South American girls. (Wow, I really don’t know who’s in my class. But I know for sure there’re only 3 guys.) I signed up for it because it knocks out 2 gen-eds AND because I was interested in foreign cultures. I have taken a similar class for Russian culture. We read some delightful poems and short stories and watched some films. It was great cultural outtake.
But when dealing with something like African culture which had been very much damaged by colonialism, there comes in white apologists. The readings infers that the downfall of African tribal culture with the advent of European – not white – colonialism is attributable to both African locals and European colonialists/missionaries. What happened, according to my understanding was: the Africans were very resistant to the newcomers and the Europeans forced themselves, their culture and their political and belief systems upon the Africans, whereupon they had great clashes. Now there is no need to be an apologist and stand up for the losing team and aggressively assert that the Europeans were wrong and were the sole cause of destruction. (I’m just gonna stop, because it isn’t fruitful to have a debate with someone outside of class and when they are not present to respond to my thoughts and ideas.) Other examples of white apologists: I’ve seen some folks who invest themselves in a Spanish major and Spanish culture, just so they can help out the poor Mexican folks around the US-Mexico borders and in the slums of the cities. They feel the obligation to care for the minority, the ones they’d wronged. It’s a weird not-ok aspect of American culture.
A Jewish gentleman from New York (a friend’s dad, actually) told me, over a meal (back to the meal conversation theme, aha!) that Americans like to pitch for the underdog, the losing team, the one’s that’s already lost and hopeless; they never care for the Jews. The Jews have had it tough throughout history and even up to this day. Yet wherever they are, whatever they do, they maintain their culture and heritage and come out on top. America in general hasn’t much sympathy for them, but in fact has stigma toward the Jews. Charity and philanthropy makes people feel superior. It’s like noticing a less fortunate social class/group and saying to yourself, “At least, I’m not unfortunate as them. And I’m helping them out. My ancestors may have been bad, but I’m good.” Society works in weird ways. It makes sense and doesn’t at the same time.
White culture exists in a vacuum. There’s no such thing as white culture actually. There is a European culture, however, and I subscribe to that personally. White culture is what has come to be in America as European immigrants try to distinguish themselves from their European ancestors, preoccupying Native Americans, African slaves and fellow immigrants from all over the world. But you can’t create your own culture in a snap, so you end up taking everything from neighbouring/adjacent cultures and calling it their own. #MileyCyrusTwerks If you are a “white” person and you can trace back your roots to somewhere in Europe, I love it. I stop seeing you as just white and find more essence in you. The family I stayed with over the summer … The mother is a 5th generation Texan; she knows how her ancestors got there, who had a dual where and how her blood got mixed with Native American. And the father can trace his ancestry back to the Danish royal family – the order of the Elephant, or something like that (I don’t remember). And although he is no longer Catholic, he found his long-lost Godfather on Facebook and was thrilled about it. The other day at lunch, this very handsome man dropped this line while discussing foods, “I’m Italian, so garlic is in my blood.” And he got sexier all of a sudden.
If you can’t trace back your roots all the way, honey, you’re in the same boat with the African Americans – and that’s ok. They have adapted their old African roots, which are now blurry/forgotten with European tastes. You end up with amazing things like soul food, yum! You can come up with your own little things and start building a culture over generations. Or you can subscribe to something that already exists. I know an African American girl who is absolutely infatuated by Korean culture. She’s one of my close friends and I follow her blog. Go check it out! My current crush is a white boy and he loves all things Spanish, and he still speaks some French and Japanese. I don’t know his family lineage. It’s one of those cultures where in its language, the letter V is pronounced as a U – like in Bvlgari. I know it coz it’s in his last name. Before meeting him, I didn’t know how to prounounce Bvlgari!
Yeah, so that’s all I guess. I’m expecting some backlash to this post, and I’ll see how that comes up and turns out. But I’m happy I’m finally getting this out in the open, after thinking through for some time. Before I peace out, in defense of my old school, I think the segregation might be a result of numbers. It is demographically diverse, just not in terms of operation. Where there are large numbers of groups of people, they tend to stick together and not get out of their comfort zones. Here, at my new school, however, it is very dominantly white – ok, I’m starting to feel uncomfortable about using that modifier – and the few minority folks do not add up to their own individual groups and thus remain an object of admiration and awe and everybody wants them around and likes them. Words matter, guys. No, what you speak of matters – the subject matter and how you put it all. It’s an outward reflection of who you are. What does that make me then? I’m just a blogger. I’ll go with that for now.
P.S. I couldn’t find any pictures to go along with this post and it’s pretty long, so I’m attaching these remotely relevant cheeky photos.
P.P.S. I’ll write gay stuff next time. I’m having a gayby soon, so I have things to talk about …