The Other Side of the Glass Wall
A Narrative Essay by Tiffany Huang
El Centro’s tiny space was jam-packed with people. They milled about, talking to everyone in sight, laughing at who knows what. Along with the excited voices, the methodical thumping of reggaeton carried past the glass wall. The music’s energetic bass resonated throughout the entire building, and I could feel it in my bones. As the door opened and closed, the familiar smell of corn flour and meat wafted through. It smelled delectable, tempting me to go and take a bite.
I genuinely longed to go in and join, but I couldn’t force myself to. Instead, I just watched from the other side of Carlton, sitting with my half-finished homework in front of me.
You see, Elon tries to convey that everyone is welcome to enter any space of diversity and inclusion. The CREDE supposedly welcomes all races, not just students of color. The Asian-Pacific Student Association supposedly embraces people who are interested in Asian-Pacific Islander culture, not just those who identify as Asian-Pacific Islander. El Centro supposedly cherishes Spanish speakers of all levels, not just Latinx students who’ve spoken Spanish all their lives. Supposedly. The sentiment of diversity is there, but inclusion is not.
These diversity and inclusion resources were clearly designed for individuals who identify themselves a certain way. They are meant to be safe, community-building spaces where people can meet up and speak to others belonging to the same identity group. So, when someone who doesn’t belong walks in, people always stare.
But what really determines whether someone bELONgs?
Just as I am a Taiwanese-American, my mom is a Taiwanese-Argentine, having lived much of her teenage years in Argentina. When she and her family moved to the U.S., they naturally brought pieces of that culture with them. I grew up surrounded by it. I heard my grandparents order fast food in Spanish, listened to Menudo’s top hits, and ate empanadas for dinner. My mom and grandparents ingrained that culture into my childhood, and it was all I was familiar with. So theoretically, I should fit right in at El Centro. I should be able to walk right in, listen to a language I am familiar with, and share childhood stories that others would relate to.
The issue? I look nothing like anyone that goes to El Centro’s events. I’ve got yellow-toned skin, almond-shaped eyes, dark brown irises, and jet-black hair…all the characteristics of a Taiwanese. On the outside, there’s no denying that I’m Asian. But at the same time, that’s not a full representation of who I am on the inside. I’m a mix of two cultures, with one physically inevident.
So, no matter how familiar El Centro’s happenings were to me, there was no way I could force myself to go in. People are quick to judge you based on your looks before getting to know about your background, and I’ve heard real horror stories about being judged. My mom grew up as the only Asian in her town, and she was heavily bullied for it. Her so-called friends referred to her as Chinita—little Chinese girl—instead of her real name. They bad-mouthed the Chinese food that she ate, acting repulsed by the strong smells of flavored sauces. Every Asian part of her identity was made fun of. Even now, decades after she’s moved to a different country, my mom still feels bitter about that experience. When we order at restaurants, she orders in English just like all the other gringas, even though she learned to speak Spanish before English. When we talk about vacationing, not once has my mom suggested visiting South America; she’d rather blend in with the plentiful number of Asian Americans in our hometown. When we look through scrapbooks, we look at pictures from my mom’s college years; she doesn’t have many happy childhood photos to look back on.
So me? I’m afraid. I’m afraid to be judged in the same way that my mom was. She did nothing except be herself, and people were unwilling to accept that. Who says that wouldn’t happen to me too, when I, as an Asian, try to engage with Latinx spaces? And this fear of being rejected kept me from engaging with the Latinx community here at Elon.
It’s not like I would be engaging with El Centro as a complete stranger. I’m friends with many of El Centro’s partygoers that day who knew about my diverse childhood. As an avid language learner who typically listens to music in foreign languages, I often get the chance to share the origins of my diverse cultural interests. But having friends at the event didn’t convince me any more to cross the glass barrier. Even if I could weasel my way into a conversation with my friends, I’d still stick out. I’m a short, Asian girl, and I’m sure that would garner some sideways glances and whispered judgments.
But at the same time, I’m still desperate to engage with a space and people who understand a part of me the Asian community doesn’t. On the other side of the glass wall stood people who, just like my family, ate dulce de leche with fruit, baked brazo gitano to share with friends, and drank yerba mate practically every day.
I’m always torn between my desire to engage with the Latinx community and my fear of being judged. That was never the case back home; I came from a very diverse community, so people were more receptive. Everyone willingly engaged with minority communities other than their own. Black people would go to the Asian churches, Asians went to the Latinx grocery stores, and Latinx people went to the Black restaurants. Thus, I usually felt welcome no matter the space that I engaged with. And the fact that Carlton’s glass wall let me see into the space just made it so much worse. I could only watch hopelessly from the other side, allowing my intense fear to overpower my bravery.
After watching longingly for what seemed like hours on end, I finally decided to get out of Carlton. Having divergent thoughts about identity in no way helped me write an essay about the printing press. So, I packed up my stuff and walked away from El Centro. I walked briskly, eager to evade the tempting environment, but something caught my attention as I turned the corner.
Inside, on the other side of the glass wall, sat Brandon. You see, as a big, Black man with a scruffy beard and wide smile, he stood out in the crowd. He looked no more Latinx than I did. But still, he sat comfortably in the kitchen, talking to everyone around him. No one brushed him off for not looking like anyone else in the room. Seeing him sit there so content was convincing. Maybe I could feel just as comfortable there as he did. But I still didn’t enter. I turned away from the window and kept on trekking away from the tantalizing space.
“Brandon is an Assistant Director at the CREDE; he’s probably required to be there. Brandon helps organize events across campus; he might even be in charge of the event. Brandon is friends with everyone on campus; people probably explicitly invited him to be there,” I thought to myself. I made up excuse after excuse for why Brandon deserved to be celebrating with El Centro. But after a while, I realized something. I was afraid that people would judge my cultural background based on my appearance, and here I was doing the exact same thing. I’ve only seen Brandon in and out of his office. I’ve never talked to him before, so maybe he had a multi-cultural background too. Brandon very well could be Afro-Latino, or he might have even grown up in or with other cultural influences in his family. I didn’t once give thought to the fact that he might be exactly like me.
And that decided it for me. It didn’t matter why he was in there. Brandon belonged in the space even though he physically looked nothing like anyone else there. He was there, and maybe I could be there too.
I turned around and traced my steps back to the very place I was trying to run away from. The closer I got, the greater my fear became. This time, I didn’t turn away. I wanted to be where Brandon was, and that encouraged me to keep putting one foot in front of the other. When I made it to the door, I took a deep breath, mustered up my courage, and pushed that barrier open.
Conversations, music, and smells all immediately caught up to me. Ahhh. A familiar sense of home. I walked through the door and made my way to the kitchen where all the food was being kept. I walked with my head hung low, wanting to be invisible as I weaved in and out of the packed space. There was no denying that I still felt uncomfortable; physically being in the space didn’t feel any easier. At least now that I was there, I could get food—an interaction that required talking to no one.
I uneventfully made it all the way to the kitchen doorway. There sat Brandon in the exact same seat. He was still talking to the people around him, laughing and enjoying the conversation. Just as I was walking past, the girl he was talking to thanked him and left. And for the second time of the night, I made a 360. I turned around and went up to talk to Brandon.
It was a spur-of-the-moment decision. I didn’t at all know what I was going to say to him, but I wanted to at least thank him for being at El Centro. I introduced myself to him. “Hi, I’m Tiffany,” I said smiling. “I’m a first-year. I hang out in the CREDE quite a bit, so I’ve seen you before but never got the chance to talk to you.”
As soon as I started to talk to him, I couldn’t hold my frustrations back any longer. I wanted him to know that he was the whole reason I was inside. I wanted him to know that he was unknowingly inspiring to me. “Thanks for being here. I wasn’t gonna come in, but I saw you sitting here, and that meant a lot to me. I was so scared of people judging me for not belonging at El Centro, but here you are. You really look like you’re enjoying yourself, and maybe I can too.” That’s what I meant to say. Instead, I just ended up crying. Past the introduction, words refused to come out of my mouth. Just tears spilled from my eyes.
In that moment, Brandon didn’t say anything epiphanic nor did he try to comfort me. He just listened to my sobs, and that was exactly what I needed.
I never actually got to tell Brandon what I wanted. In El Centro, I simply cried then excused myself. Not long after my embarrassing encounter, Brandon went on and took a job elsewhere. And every time that I did see him, I always avoided him out of embarrassment. At that time, I didn’t know exactly what to tell him, so I never felt compelled to go and re-do our first “conversation.” But now, two years later, I think I understand better.
A part of my identity will always remain hidden. When people look at me, the first minority group they associate me with is Asian. And for the most part, that’s what I present as. But that isn’t the whole picture. The real me is an intersection of different identities—one is just harder for me to show than the other. I identify significantly more with my Asian heritage, and it’s easier for me to assimilate into those spaces. But when I try to connect with others who understand Latinx culture, I find it extremely difficult. I fear that people won’t understand nor accept that I relate to a minority group that isn’t physically my own. Thus, I always feel like I need an excuse to engage with the Latinx community to be there.
But that shouldn’t be the case. Everyone should feel welcome no matter what space they’re in. Our identities are all made up of different components, and each one is reflected differently. I’m optimistic that we’ll be able to start recognizing that. More and more, I see people engaging with diverse communities not because it’s their own, but because they want to connect with others. Seeing non-Latinx identifying people welcomed in a space always gives me to courage to push through the walls I’ve put up for myself. There’s no need to be afraid if others aren’t.
And now, I try to be the Brandon for others. When I hear the familiar sounds, sensations, and smells, I let my heart guide my feet. I walk through the door and go interact with the people that I want to. It’s not my responsibility to change other people’s perceptions, but what I can do is help other people feel more comfortable in their own skin.
Author Interview – Tiffany Huang
Major(s): Communication Design, Cinema and Television Arts
Q: Why did you choose to write about your particular topic for the project?
A: When the prompt came up to write about any personal struggle, I chose to focus on something that was affecting me at the time. As a first year student, I still hadn’t found my place in the Elon community—even going into the second semester. Thus, the struggle I depict is something that I was still struggling with at the time. I wanted to write about a personal experience that made a difference to me, and that was the one that had made the biggest difference in my Elon experience so far.
Q: With this contest, we want to feature pieces that challenge and discuss Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. How do you feel your piece accomplishes that goal?
A: Before I came to Elon, I never gave a thought to being a racial minority. I grew up around so many different people and cultures—but it was a bubble. I never felt a struggle trying to belong with different cultures because everyone belongs everywhere. You could go to whatever event in the community, and you never feel like you didn’t belong. There were plenty of White people at the Asian cafes and plenty of Black people at the Hispanic grocery store. The experience at Elon is totally different. Different racial groups tended to stick together, and it made exploring and learning feel out of place.
It was difficult for me to articulate the exact feeling I had about not belonging. The concepts of racial comments and exclusion is something often talked about. But what affected me the most wasn’t the way other people treated me, but the way I treated myself. Deep down, I know that when I interact with people, I will be accepted. But it’s hard to jump over that hoop of feeling like you are not enough. So, in this story, I wanted to convey this less discussed internal struggle that diverse students may experience.
Q: How do you feel the genre of the project helped you effectively communicate to your audience? What were the advantages of this genre in particular?
A: The diversity, equity, and inclusion stories that have spoken to me the most have always been personal narratives. There are so many things that you can read in training manuals or hear in workshops, but nothing is as impactful as learning from someone’s personal experience. Even more impactful are relatable stories—not far out ones from the early 1900s in far away places. Personal narratives describe incidents and feelings that may be difficult to place. There’s no way to summarize the feeling of not belonging in one sentence, but I can build up the exact same tension and anxiety though recounting a full experience. The experience that I chose to write about was right here on campus; I talked about places that readers would know about and people readers would be familiar with. With all these tangible details, I hope that my story will have more of an impact on people than just an informational, educational workbook that they’re required to read.
Q: What did you learn through the process of research and completing this project, and/or the experience of preparing it for publication?
A: The biggest struggle I had with writing this essay was the lack of a goal. When I was writing, I was able to word-vomit all the feelings I wanted to share. But when it got to the end, I felt like there was no focus. I knew what to talk about, but I didn’t know what I wanted my audience to take away. In fact, I spent most of my time working on the last few paragraphs. This was the first time that I realized that I often write without a goal. I’ve slowly come to notice this trend in my writing. With research papers, for example, I always have a bunch of information to share, but I have a hard time finding the takeaway. We learn a lot about how to write in terms of sentence structure or building a story, but continuously working on this essay has taught me to think about impact. I’ve learned how to spend more time thinking about the bigger picture and my relationship to the reader.
Q: How has your writing process changed throughout your time at Elon? How do you feel English 1100 fostered that change?
A: The main thing I took away from ENG1100 was that not every piece has to be formal. As a narrative essay, there were many components that didn’t fit the traditional “research paper” format that I was used to writing. I absolutely loved writing this narrative essay, and I eventually found other places where I could incorporate a narrative portion. For example, in the analysis essay that I completed in ENG1100 about acquired taste, I included a personal narrative of why the topic was important to me. And for writing in other classes, I’ve done just that. ENG1100, especially the narrative essay, made me realize that using first person perspective or a less formal tone is appropriate for most papers and can engage those who would otherwise not continue reading.
Q: What advice would you give to students who are currently enrolled in ENG 1100, might want to complete a similar project, or are interested in publishing in Phoenix Rhetorix?
A: The ENG1100 pieces that I’m proudest of are ones that relate to something personal. I didn’t just pick the first idea that came to mind, but I instead chose to write on topics that I had a personal stake in. Addiction to social media, for example, was a struggle that I experienced, so I chose to write about that. And because that was something I personally understood, I felt invested and had a lot to share. Carefully choosing topics that you’re invested in makes the writing process so much easier. Write about something that you have a lot to say about. You’ll spend less time groping for ideas to make your paper longer, and instead you’ll spend more time improving your writing skills.
ENG1100 Faculty Interview – Chrissy Stein
Q: What is your overall approach to teaching ENG 1100?
A: I try to provide many different types of writing activities, mediums, and audiences. I hope to help students gain confidence in their own voice and in their ability to formulate an argument. To do this I make use of distinct projects, in class writing workshops and individualized conferences.
Q: What do you hope students get out of completing this particular project?
A: This first personal narrative assignment is particularly enjoyable as it helps students showcase themselves. [Students] are the research source, so without the stress of research, we can focus more completely on the elements of argumentation. I learn a great deal about the students through this assignment, and it pushes them to expose their vulnerability early in the term. Being open and willing to share is necessary in writing workshops, so getting over that sharing hurdle early on allows for a much more supportive and collaborative workshop as we proceed.
Q: In completing this project, did your student face any particular challenges? If so, how did you help them navigate those challenges, and/or how did they work to overcome them?
A: Tiffany always engaged with the peer feedback and the one-on-one conferences. I do remember talking with her about building the tension as she looked through the window, but she had such a clear image of the story in her mind that she easily found her way through it.
Q: What was the most rewarding part of working with your student on this project?
A: Tiffany has a great energy and enthusiasm to polish her work. I enjoyed seeing her ideas take shape and develop as we moved through the workshops. We did talk about how she should share it with others, as she had managed to capture a moment of difficulty and doubt that many students, particularly first year students of color, encounter. Her insight and ability to muster the courage to go back to El Centro speak volumes about her character but also about how impactful small influences like a song or a mentor can be. Putting her story into words has the potential to help other similarly searching students but also help the university to acknowledge where and why students might feel vulnerable.
Q: What advice would you give to students who are currently enrolled in ENG 1100, might want to complete a similar project, or are interested in publishing in Phoenix Rhetorix?
A: My advice would be for students to write about something that matters to you so your enthusiasm will carry you through the process and to acknowledge that even professional writers have editors and must revise their writing many times before the reader ever sees it.