Story | Lavonna Mark, Contributing Reporter
Photo | Kalla Sy, Contributing Illustrator
“Long live Chairman Mao!” my friend exclaimed, following up with flippant remarks on chanting The East Is Red, the Chinese Cultural Revolution’s anthem, and the censorship practices employed by the Communist party.
As I come from a family irreparably sundered because of the Cultural Revolution, the comments did not settle well. My mother still holds lingering resentment from never having been able to grow up with her parents—they were banished from Shanghai to the countryside. Forced to flee the villages that contained sacred links to ancestors, my father’s side of the family still recounts to me over family dinners the horrors of the political crackdowns that occurred. The scars of the Cultural Revolution are very much tangible within the Mark family: visible within the urgent tone in which my grandparents have recounted history to me, and the psychological bruises that we are still attempting to mend.
Upon hearing his comment, I considered my options: a visceral reaction of defense? Or, as I have been socialized, a smile, hoping that his comments would bury themselves?
The latter response tends to be all too common, not only with me, but within a community particularly eager to present our best selves. Daniela Salazar ‘21, for example, felt troubled when someone casually referred to her home, El Salvador, as “The Country With All the Murderers”, condensing her country to one of its most grim aspects. Yet, in that moment, she felt compelled to “smile even though [she] felt like crying”. Here, we prefer to present ourselves amicably even in the face of moral outrage. Cordiality eclipses closure and silence to fruitful conversation.
“We (Yale-NUS students) tend to withdraw and alienate instead of engaging in debate on more emotional issues,” says Abdul Sharapov ‘21. This culture allows emotional tensions to brew underground. When grievances cannot be dealt with rapidly and in person, they tend to dangle within suite confines, or worse, manifest themselves in eternal labels applied to our peers. This prevents Yale-NUS from becoming the haven of vibrant discourse we endeavor towards.
To cultivate such a community, we can augment the spirit many Yale-NUS initiatives have fostered in the past. Jamin Jamieson ‘19, who participated in the Eurasian dialogues, where Eurasian students discussed problematic behavior they had been subject to, says that it is necessary to enter discussions with an awareness of our peers’ boundaries and a preordained circuit of trust. Regarding his conversations on Israel (Jamieson served in the Israeli Army), he says, “I make sure to say ‘we’re going to talk about it in a way that isn’t antagonistic’. Even though it may seem like a manifestation of being polite, it is better you be too polite than avoid that conversation altogether.”
And when conversations lead to unintentionally offending someone, we ought to sympathize with the legitimate emotional reactions evoked. “I tend not to take people’s feelings into account and it may have caused some problems,” says Abdul, who has found himself in sensitive political discussions. “I need to be warmer…instead of looking at everything as cold facts,” he adds. When emotions manifest, we may not understand them. Perhaps this is because we can never fully comprehend our peers’ human experiences. Nevertheless, we ought to approach them with gentleness.
Another responsibility we all hold is to educate ourselves to a basic threshold on identities we have little awareness about. “It’s mentally exhausting for you to be appointed as the spokesperson for matters related to your heritage,” says Waihuini Njoroge ‘20, who has found it very burdensome to educate others over her identity as a black person after perpetually being bombarded with questions about her hair. One particularly pernicious one: “Don’t you get lice from washing your braids every two weeks?” Though ignorance can sometimes vindicate offense, awareness of our own ignorance should engender action.
But the offended, too, ought to foster their empathy. To begin, we must recognize the social forces that shape each individual: the narratives they have been imbued with, the versions of history they’ve learnt. Comments that appear malicious tend to dissolve in mere ignorance when one acknowledges the amalgamation of environmental factors from which each individual springs. Many freshpeople, for example, were worried about being offensive to their peers’ gender identities because they were not accustomed to asking for preferred pronouns upon introduction and did not fully comprehend the importance of such a convention. To Ting Yu ‘21, this concept was only first taught to her at Orientation.
In a school replete with diversity—of thought, nationalities, and life experiences—having a vulnerable community to speak about these concerns is crucial.
I speak to this on a personal level. In April’s Experience Yale-NUS Weekend, I asked two incoming freshpeople if they were siblings on the sole basis that they appeared to be of the same ethnicity. Not only were they from two disparate backgrounds, I left my comment uncorrected, mindlessly unaware of the offense I had caused.
“My first impression of you was that you were an asshole,” said Jonathan Saldanha ‘21, one of the two students, months later. It took me a while to grapple with this incident. How could such ignorance coincide with the same girl who prided herself on being a socially conscious leader in her high school?
And perhaps this is why we need mutual understanding: because we are all more than the comments we’ve made; we are complex, inquiring creatures who do not seek to harm but desire to do better next time. Just as it is simplistic to define someone’s country as “The Murder Capital”, it is simplistic to define someone by one of their comments. I found solace in forgiveness, and I hope to reciprocate and forgive in the times I will be offended on campus.
As I considered my options in addressing my friend’s comments on the Cultural Revolution, I tried something new. I asked a question: “Why do you believe that?”
What followed was an enlightening conversation on Marxist super-exploitation. My friend never intended to belittle my family’s circumstance; he had volunteered with a Migrant Workers association and concluded through his research that the global economy flourishes off an underclass of oppressed workers. Through dialogue, I learnt of the migrant-dominated construction sector driving Singapore’s GDP. Through dialogue, I let mental burdens unravel.
There is no concrete solution to the tender conversations that so often arise here. But our home, Yale-NUS, could do more with questions like these. They shepherd us to conversation instead of closure, and curiosity instead of censure. Through them, we dust the corners of our conscience and bring quiet grievances to light.
The views expressed here are the author’s own. The Octant welcomes all voices in the community. Email submissions to: firstname.lastname@example.org