Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Starry Skies

This essay was published in the Final Exam section of CWRU, the magazine for Case Western Reserve University, in Spring 2002. 

Starry Skies

After several sweaty trips between our car and my dorm room, the last of my boxes and suitcases were finally stashed into my new home in Michelson House at Case Western Reserve University. It was a hot August afternoon, and my parents dumped me off (their firstborn child on her first day of college) without so much as a hug or tearful goodbye. I offered to take them on a campus tour, but my dad scoffed. He had been working at CWRU for years and already knew his way around the university.

The campus was nothing new to me either, after countless visits to the lab where my dad, Song-mao Chiu, worked, dozens of piano recitals at the Cleveland Institute of Music, and seemingly endless trips to the orthodontist at the dental school. Still, even though my family lives just a few miles from campus, I hadn’t anticipated that CWRU would open up a new world to me – a rare, diverse international community.

By living on campus, I developed friendships with people from all over the globe. I lived on a floor with students from Sweden, Vietnam, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates. In the first week of school as we all got to know each other, I found myself struggling to find an easy answer to the question: “Where are you from?” Did this mean where was I born? Or where do I live? Or what is my ethnicity? I didn’t know how to offer a succinct answer without providing a long-winded explanation: I was born in Canada to Taiwanese immigrant parents but grew up in Cleveland.

Spending time with a close circle of international students introduced me to other cultures, while crystallizing feelings about my own. It also helped me better understand and cherish the idea of living in a multinational community. Sometimes our political discussions lasted all night. Ethnic differences were not always celebrated. One time, a group of American-born freshmen grilled a Middle Eastern student, accusing him of being associated with terrorists. They questioned what his father did for a living. Surprisingly, the student remained calm and joked that his dad was a farmer. When pressed for details on what was grown on the farm, he replied with a straight face, “Ravioli.”

Overall, though, living in a multinational community proved to be positive and enlightening. One night, a Swedish graduate student, after decorating our suite in blue and yellow streamers, threw a “Swede party” for all of us. Muslim students explained Ramadan. An Iranian student described the dazzling sight of stars lighting up a desert sky.

In the classroom too, I developed a broader perspective on international cultures and traditions. In my senior year, I took an English class called the Immigrant Experience. We read literature from Asian, Russian, and Mexican writers, among others. We wrote and shared our own stories, which illustrated how each of us found our way to the United States and to CWRU. We wrote about how our families arrived in the country, the reasons we came, and the reasons we stayed. We wrote about living between cultures, among languages, within religious customs.

I began to sense that being American does not preclude coming from an Asian, Arab, European or any other ethnic background. In fact, in many ways, the immigrant experience is uniquely American. Coming to this realization helped me in my decision to formalize my commitment to this country. I decided to become an American citizen.

Considering how much our world has changed since September 11, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be an American today. I’ve been thinking about the situations that bring us together and the conflicts that drive us apart. I’ve been thinking about the friends I made during my freshman year and in that remarkable English class. I’ve been thinking about the Iranian student and wondering if he still looks up at the stars. And I’ve been hoping that we are looking at the same sky.

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