America is considered a melting pot of a wide amount of diverse cultures, races, and ethnicities. Many Americans themselves see America as the superior country, often using our diverse population of culture to validify their conclusion that America is superior. However, too often Americans shy away from cultural influence, they hide themselves from a culture different from their own, that take cover when an opportunity to explore the values, beliefs, and attitudes of foreign people are gently tossed at them. Those same Americans that preach diversity are . . . scared of it?
I admit, their ignorance to the world around them isn’t entirely their fault. College is a turning point in everyone’s lives, when vast amounts of fun, studying, and opportunity are thrust by the handfuls into our nearly unwelcoming arms. If America is one huge melting pot of culture, then college campuses are the mixing bowls that contain the very same ingredients. College is a culture whose existence in the 21st century is entirely based around the subcultures that create it. But yet, multicultural activities go practically unnoticed, hidden behind a veil of layered research. There are many clubs on college campuses made up of different groups of people: Asians, Africans, Native Americans, Hispanics, etc. Each club does its absolute best not only to include those apart of their own culture but to also make others outside of their culture feel welcome, not necessarily as a member of their own club, but as a participator within the club’s activities.
The school I am attending now, the University of Iowa, is no different. Being such a large university in the Midwest of the United States, the University of Iowa attracts many different cultures to come and merge with a larger community. All these diverse people who speak foreign languages and hold to unique values are not rare to spot when just strolling around campus. The diversity is an invitation to explore something new and unique, and perhaps a bit uncomfortable. College is a stage of life in which we are openly allowed to explore a different culture than our own at usually no additional cost. We are enabled, even encouraged, to become culturally sensitive, culturally expansive, and to throw ourselves into different walks of life. Why is it that some, perhaps even most, students are unaware of such opportunities available to them?
Actually, is it unawareness or refusal? It’s as if to be “American” is to dissociate ourselves from people, places, and things that are foreign to us.
Perhaps I would’ve been one of those students who hides in a corner, waiting for all of the cultural opportunities to bypass me without even glancing in my direction. Honestly, I most likely would’ve ended up like that, introvert as I am, as I barely immerse myself into the culture I “belong” to. However, I guess fate, or whatever fancy word you want to use in replacement for it, had something else in store.
As a first-year, I was already struggling to make friends at the beginning of this school year, and I wasn’t making any social progress in any of my classes. It was nothing new, but I was hoping that college would be a little different than high school in that regard. Looking only to satisfy the introverted part of myself, during the second week of school I went to the poster sale that was taking place on campus in Hubbard Park. Immediately, being a total nerd, I was drawn to the posters that featured some of my favorite Japanese animations, including One Piece. One girl had already beat me to the table with the posters, and was admiring the One Piece posters as much as I was. And, for some reason, well really for no reason at all, I said something to her. I don’t know what it was, what took over me, but my introverted self just said something about our similar interest in the show.
I am very good friends with that girl now; she is a second year, and is an international student from China! Our friendship grew very fast, and I began to immediately learn so much about the Chinese culture. It was very fascinating to learn how different her country is compared to America. One night we were talking and she ended up mentioning how even though she’s going to school here, all of her friends (excluding me) are still only other students from China. I found it odd, but it still made sense. On the surface it might not seem like it, but although our campus’ numbers are diverse, there is still a cultural divide.
Something deep inside of me felt like changing that. I was given an opportunity unlike any other; it was my opportunity to do exactly that. To break through the cultural divide.
Recently, I am honored to say, I was invited to volunteer at a particular event that is held annually by the club CSSA (Chinese Student and Scholar Association), in which my good friend is apart of: The Mid-Autumn Festival, which is also held in China every year. While the event is held to honor the many international Chinese students’ heritage and perhaps cure a bit of home-sickness, all students, no matter their race, ethnicity, culture, etc., are welcome to the event. I was actually quite surprised to see the amount of people that came that night, but I wasn’t really impressed with the diversity. A very large majority of the population that night consisted of Chinese people, with only a few people of a different culture coming to take part in the fun.
The festival had a lot to offer: fun games in which you could win awesome prizes, free food and drink, and many fun and culturally accurate, live performances at the end of the night. While the games and food were fantastic, with food ranging from Moon Cakes to Pigs-in-a-Blanket, the live performances were what really brought the entire event together. For those who had never experienced Chinese culture, the live performances taught more than any class could; they truly brought their culture to life. Live singing in the Chinese language and traditional dancing all brought a whirlwind of sentiment to the hearts of the Chinese people present, and carried a thunderstorm of shocking excitement to those who had never seen anything like it.
For the first couple hours of the event, I worked at game booth (the first two hours of the event were dedicated to food, drink, and games, while the performances took up the last hour and a half). The game I was stationed at, with my friend, was a game that challenged players to transfer three ping-pong balls from a large container to a small cup using chopsticks. Just this part of the night astounded me, as I humorously spectated many participants attempt and fail the challenge. Most players couldn’t even pick up one ball with the chopsticks. While it was amusing and hysterical at times, I couldn’t help but really just ponder the cultural difference between America and Chinese then and there. A lot of the Chinese competitors were able to, with ease, grab a ping pong ball with the chopsticks, and swiftly move it over to the cup that stood in front of them. The ones that struggled most of all were those from a culture who prioritizes hands and other utensils to eat: Americans. This small difference in table etiquette was only the introduction to the night of wonders that followed.
I was mesmerized for the rest of the night, especially during the performances that I have previously described. Immersion was a key to unlocking a very stubborn door of cultural pride, and Chinese culture flew through the door that now stood ajar and whisked away my imagination to heights I had never seen. I placed myself in the pictures of China that culminated themselves into a powerpoint to the left of the stage, and imagined viewing these performances, these spectacles, in the country where they originated. While my mind stayed in place, my heart was taken somewhere else.
Most of the food surged my tastebuds with creative flavors that I had never tasted before, but when you go to explore something foreign to you, you can’t expect everything to match what you want or expect. In China, as I have found out, desserts aren’t as sweet and are rarely as sweet as some delectables in America, which, being a huge fan of sweets myself, was a little heartbreaking. Perhaps it was my borderline obsession with sugary desserts that was the problem, but when I tried the Moon Cake for the first time, it wasn’t sweet really at all, but my Chinese friend was saying that it was still too sweet. I was confused at first, but everything just boils down the way foods are produced, and which foods are more appreciated in one culture versus another. In America, we tend to value sweet things, while in China, as my friend explained, nutrition and substance is prioritized.
Despite the fact that some foods didn’t match my own personal tastes, just trying new foods that I had never tried before was amazing, even if the taste wasn’t on the same level as the experience. As an individual, you learn what it means to appreciate something for what it is; to appreciate something for how someone else appreciates it. You learn this by putting yourself in their shoes, by getting out of your own comfort zone. One learns toleration through listening to others’ experiences. But one learns appreciation and respect for another’s experience by experiencing it themselves.
The same goes for song and dance; I found great aspiration for all those performing, and it was incredible just to have the ability to be present for those performances, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that all the performances suited my tastes. It’s not accurate that I enjoyed the music and dance because they were what I preferred, I simply enjoyed them because they were different and gave me a glimpse of a part of the world on the opposite side of the Earth.
From the crazily unique foods to the mesmerizing dances, from traditional Chinese to the blending of pop culture, from the fun games to the feeling of community, I felt oddly at home in a place that wasn’t, well, my home.
Being an outsider looking in was strangely freeing. I was experiencing something entirely new and breathtaking, and in those moments, throughout the entire night really, I didn’t feel like an outsider. I felt welcomed with open arms into a world that was so foreign to me. My heart fluttered as it was warmed by a feeling of community; I was gathered around people that I had never met, but I felt close to them already. I’m glad I put myself out there so that fate could handle the rest. I’m glad I let my guard and pride down as an individual, and opened up to a different community.
And so should you. So should everyone. Everyone should choose to explore a lifestyle, a culture, different from their own. Step out of your world.
I promise, you won’t regret it.
(Here’s where you can get started: (https://diversity.uiowa.edu/events)