Through the Looking Glass: “Inevitably it comes up. ‘How is Dartmouth going?’”

by Hui Cheng | 5/14/15 7:44pm

Cheng discusses being “eased into norms of a more privileged class” at Dartmouth.
Source: Cherry Huang/The Dartmouth staff

I avoid going home because I can’t avoid mealtimes. The scene plays out almost exactly the same way each time. My father complains about bills, my mother gossips about her immigrant friends’ children and my 10-year-old brother spills food onto his comic books, ignoring everyone present. I remain silent, not sure which parts of my current life I can share with a family that lives in an entirely different world.

The D-Plan helps, giving me excuses to drop in briefly and leave. I have to fly to London. I have to leave for my internship. I have to get back to school so I can have a few days to study up before classes. The inconsistency of the D-Plan schedule lends me a façade of busyness that I can hide behind at home or on the phone. Mom, I would love to talk, but I can’t.

But inevitably, it comes up. “How is Dartmouth going?”

Winter break after freshman fall, I didn’t want to answer the question. I had a difficult time adjusting to college with the overwhelming New England culture and moneyed privilege permeating every little corner of campus life. When my undergraduate advisor stressed to us the importance of building relationships with professors, I was too embarrassed to ask for clarification as to what that meant while others nodded along. What did it mean to build relationships? All my life, I had been taught that teachers and adults were authoritative figures — classes were instructive. I did my work, I was respectful toward professors and I got good grades. It was how I had aced high school, and when the same formula didn’t map onto college, I wasn’t sure what to do. My parents never attended college in the United States and had little idea of what a liberal arts education might entail. In my public school, teachers were always busy, and our one college counselor was constantly overworked.

Who could explain to me how these interactions worked? A friend tried to describe the relationship process to me as professional networking, but it only intensified my confusion. My parents weren’t in jobs that required a professional network — how would I have known what that social dance entailed?

And then, there was money. I remember my first dinner with my first year peer mentor. She had three other mentees and wanted to organize a group meal to get to know each other. We decided on Jewel of India as a break from campus food. I scoped out the menu beforehand and found something inexpensive. At Jewel, the four others decided to order drinks and appetizers. They asked me what I wanted. I thought about the price and said I wasn’t hungry yet.

We started making small talk. The others joked about their summer vacations and where they hoped to ski in the winter. When our mentor asked us where we liked to go out, the two other girls told her about their sports teams and fraternities from back home. I tried to chime in with a few fraternities I had heard of, but I didn’t know how to express that I had yet to “go out” because I felt guilty about the opportunity cost of weekend socializing. In high school, I never had free time and neither did my friends. We were the children of immigrants who had given up careers, social standing and material comfort to come to the United States, in search of brighter futures for the younger generation. I had studied, volunteered and spent all of my free time on extracurriculars because I wanted to repay my parents’ sacrifices by going to a prestigious university.

At Dartmouth, that same sense of obligation remained unshakable. My parents were skimping and saving at home so I wouldn’t have to take on a student job at school and so I could take advantage of the once-in-a-lifetime opportunities offered by a school like Dartmouth. They did so to ensure that down the road I could find a financially stable career path and become better off than they were — this goal was my priority. What kind of ungrateful, irresponsible child would I be if I wasted my weekend nights drunk in dirty fraternity basements before scrambling to finish homework on Sundays? How could I justify spending hard-earned dollars meant for tuition and living costs on frivolous pieces of college culture like flair? How could I face my parents if I ended up with mediocre grades and limited job prospects?

It seemed excessive to interrupt a lighthearted conversation with my thoughts, so I remained silent. When our check finally came, it was split evenly and there was a mistake in the charging. I was going to pay almost twice what I had expected. I looked down at the bill, thought about the post-tip amount and felt a pang of guilt -— my parents could stretch that total for at least a few days’ dinner. What’s more, prior to college, I could have counted the number of times I had paid tips on my meals on one hand. The other four laughed off the mistake. “Let’s just go, it’s fine.”

I wanted to say something, but the service had been slow and the others were looking at me impatiently. Still silent, I paid my portion of the bill and wondered if Dartmouth would always be like this — meeting people who couldn’t understand my concerns and what this school meant for me.

I never shared my struggles to fit into Dartmouth culture or my constant guilt with my parents because I was afraid that if they knew the truth they would feel crushed that their enormous sacrifices weren’t being appreciated. Instead, I constructed snippets of success. I told them about making diverse friends, I told them about cool classes and I told them about getting an impressive freshman internship and being awarded funding. I created a happy façade for them, corralling my more honest thoughts into class issue-based campus activism.

Little by little, though, Dartmouth began to socialize me into privilege. The changes were small at first. I started having regular meals in town. I started going out more frequently, working campus jobs and buying tutus and shark hats. My liberal arts education led me into classes that challenged me to think more critically and taught me to value intellectual conversations about society, politics and current issues. I went on an foreign study program, travelled to different cities and learned the intrinsic value of art and culture from this new world. I absorbed the way my peers — usually from privileged backgrounds — carried themselves. I learned the way they talked and listened in on enough conversations about family ski vacations, travel, boarding schools and upper-middle class culture to pick up the language and the social cues. I spoke less to my parents. I spoke more about gender and race, contemplating my identity and future aspirations. The College and the people I surrounded myself with made it hard to remember the culture I had grown up in and subconsciously eased me into norms of a more privileged class. Many terms later, class became an unspoken part of my identity that I celebrated through activism, but was nonetheless a part that had ceased to weigh down upon me as heavily as it did, freshman fall.

I noticed a difference during winter break after junior fall, when I was inevitably asked again, “How is Dartmouth?” I’ve never wanted to answer, but this time, my reason felt strange. I wanted to answer, but I didn’t want to answer in the way I had always done. I wanted to engage in conversations with my parents about personal identity, about power dynamics and gendered spaces. I wanted to share critiques of art museums I had gone to, extend classroom discussions on gentrification and ask them what they thought of the way the American government produced environmental policy. I wanted to tell them about all that I had seen, all that I had done and all the things that were now important and fascinating to me — and I couldn’t. I was afraid that they wouldn’t understand, if my parents saw the truth about who I was now, they would feel crushed that their sacrifices had produced this bizarre, pretentious stranger concerned with completely impractical considerations of the world, who had used tuition money to city-hop in Europe.

So instead, I again shared snippets of success with them — I’ve made new friends, I’m interning at an investment bank in the winter, I did really well in my fall classes. They were impressed by my dedication to post-graduate plans and to my academic achievements. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that those two things that they valued so much — the reason why they sent me to Dartmouth — were usually the least of my concerns. I didn’t want to reveal the asymmetry between the person I had grown up as and the person I had become over my two and a half years at Dartmouth. So I remained silent and wondered if the cost of life after Dartmouth would always be this — returning to a home and a family with whom I could never truly share myself.