ZHENG: Free food cheapens our groups

As a member of the Chinese Undergraduate Students at Yale, I recently participated in organizing the Night Market event co-hosted by the Asian American Students Association and the Taiwanese American Society. Night Market featured approximately 20 booths that offered various types of Asian cuisine, activities and cultural performances.

Our organization ran a booth that taught traditional Chinese calligraphy and paper cutting. To encourage our customers to participate in our activities, we ordered about 70 cups of bubble tea from Great Wall, a local Chinese restaurant. Our plan was to reward each visitor who completed a piece of calligraphy or paper cutting with a cup of delicious bubble tea, a Taiwanese specialty.

As soon as we set down the boxes of bubble tea, I felt the heat of a dozen pairs of eyes fixating on what I had in front of me. Our small booth, located at the periphery of the market, suddenly became the center of attention.

A crowd quickly gathered. “Can I have bubble tea? How do I get bubble tea?” The anxious crowd pressed us with their hands held out. When we explained that they had to participate in our activities in order to receive the free drinks, the disappointment on their faces could hardly be concealed.

Soon, dozens of people were carelessly copying down Chinese characters and then scrambling to exchange their sheets for bubble tea. Some didn’t even bother to take their work with them when they left.

When we gave away our last cup of bubble tea, my co-organizers and I breathed a sigh of relief. Our customers dwindled to a trickle, but those who still came were genuinely interested in what we had to offer.

I am not blaming our customers. If anything, it was our fault for failing to anticipate the high demand. In retrospect, we should have prepared more cups of bubble tea in smaller serving sizes and kept the free drinks separate from the cultural activities we offered.

But perhaps there is an inherent hypocrisy in our approach of trying to promote our event by advertising free food. On the one hand, we expect people to devote themselves to the educational element of the activity, yet by adding the incentive of free bubble tea, we’re appealing to a whole different audience.

Many cultural events at Yale consist largely of using Yale money to feed our fellow students. But when something becomes free, it becomes cheap.

Earlier this year, my association hosted a Spring Festival event in the Stiles dining hall. We decorated the dining hall with traditional Chinese couplets and handmade red lanterns, invited various cultural groups to come perform and spent over $1,000 buying catered food from Great Wall.

Although our event attracted over four hundred people, I am not sure all of them truly appreciated what Spring Festival is about. As Buddhist Chaplain Bruce Blair pointed out to me, the spirit of Spring Festival consists in building and developing genuine relationships with other people. It brings people and families together for something more deeply fulfilling than a late-night snack. Something tells me that those people who, after eating, stayed for the cultural show and indulged in conversation with their classmates gained a deeper understanding of what the holiday stands for.

If our goal in hosting the Spring Festival celebration event truly was to celebrate the values of the New Year, then we cannot measure its success solely by the number of people who came or the amount of food they consumed. We would have to rely on a different set of metrics, one that is less tangible but closer to heart.

At Yale, we have it easy — there are more than enough funds available for whatever extracurricular activities we decide to organize, and free food is an easy draw. However, in organizing events, we should think more clearly about what we are trying to achieve and make sure that the means we take don’t distract from the ends.

It might mean lower attendance, or less of a big deal on campus, but it will be more genuine. If you ask me, calligraphy and bubble tea don’t really go together, anyway.

Xiuyi Zheng is a sophomore in Davenport College. Contact him at xiuyi.zheng@yale.edu.

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