I have to admit, it was a little weird being an international student at Yale during election season. Everywhere I turned, I was greeted by enthusiastic volunteers reminding me to vote, friends brandishing Obama T-shirts and “Hope and Change” buttons (aren’t those out of style already?), and don’t even get me started on Facebook. If I see the “Mitt Romney Gangnam Style” video one more time, I might as well move to Gangnam, Korea. I mean, it’s not like I’ll be able to find any out-of-touch millionaires there, right?
What was surprising wasn’t the ubiquity of politics on campus — after all, that’s what democracy is all about. Rather, as a Chinese kid without any stake in these elections, I was struck by how fully I devoted myself to the process. I was more attentive to the presidential debates than my classes. I knew who Todd Akin was, and exactly why he lost his Senate race (boy, did he deserve to lose). And when I saw that President Obama had clinched Ohio, I felt as though I might cry — the zombie apocalypse had been avoided. Gotham was saved. The Decepticons had been thrown back into space, and the world would be safe again for the next four years.
I’m exaggerating, of course. Yet looking back, I can’t help but wonder how the past two years at Yale have managed to shape my views and my grasp of American politics. How did I suddenly become this radical liberal that snickers whenever someone mentions Fox News, when I haven’t even sat through a single Fox News program? How could I complain so naturally about the evils of big corporations, when I’ve never taken a real job in this country, and when I don’t even live here? Maybe they are right after all about the brainwashing power of the liberal media. Or maybe I’m just channeling the Chinese communist hidden deep inside me.
It is difficult to overestimate the molding power of one’s surroundings, for better or for worse. I had always wondered how Americans could be so ideologically divided, with both sides being so sure of what they believe in, yet so opposed to one another. Now I’m beginning to understand. It seems incredibly difficult to be a genuine conservative at Yale, and I can imagine how the opposite would be true in many other places around this country.
I recall a conversation I had in a Shanghai taxicab 2 1/2 years ago, right before I came to Yale. The driver, trying to start some small talk, asked me where I went to school. Still riding the euphoria of having gotten into Yale, I explained to him, with considerable pride, that I was going to America for college on a full scholarship. He snorted. With typical Chinese cynicism, he quipped, “You think the Americans would just give you a free education? They are paying to train you so you would think like them and work for them. Those Americans are sly dogs, they are.”
To some extent, he was right. Yale has forever changed the way I think, and in many ways, I now feel just as American as I feel Chinese. However, I have not been brainwashed. It is true that I have come to take some values for granted, but Yale has also taught me the importance of examining them with a critical eye.
At Yale, I am one of 5,000 20-somethings locked up together in a castle of wealth and privilege, trying to “figure out” the world while desperately looking to one another for approval and confirmation. At this place, where a majority of us start out with a set of similar assumptions, and where our voice can seem like the only one out there, American and international students alike face the very real danger of intellectual homogenization.
We can only combat that danger through conversation and introspection. We must learn to recognize where our biases and prejudices lie, and work to restrain them.
Values that we ingest but not digest are ultimately unsatisfying. That may be why, three days removed from the election, I find myself unable to enjoy Obama’s win as much as I had once imagined.
Xiuyi Zheng is a junior in Davenport College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .