My mother was folding laundry on the mattress in the living room where my dad slept. Sunlight streamed into the apartment, bouncing off piles of boxes — things they had rescued from our flooded home before the mold set in; food and essentials from generous donors; stacks of paperwork and bills awaiting payment. I picked socks from the laundry basket, matching them methodically.
“It’s not fair,” I said, bringing home my newfound depth of awareness around race, class and gender, my anxieties about success and socioeconomic mobility. “All these privileged people just skate by and end up in power and, in the best case scenario, they don’t do terrible things!” My mother took a stack of towels to the bathroom.
My mother is strong and whip smart. English may have been her second language, but since childhood I have rarely thought my writing good without her approval; in a different time and place — no stress, no bills, no immigration hurdles — I picture her as a prize-winning novelist, or a journalist, free and independent. She has a knack for language and an eye for art, and little time to indulge in either. Whatever qualified me to be here, she’d deserve a place 10 times as much.
Now, I think about what it sounded like telling a woman who had sacrificed so much that I was quietly unhappy with my place at Yale where 14 fairytale colleges serve three meals a day, where quiet libraries inspire awe and where international travel is funded by the University. I wonder how she felt — worlds away from a place so saturated with power and privilege.
I had been angry. After I’d lost my first-year, rose-colored glasses somewhere within piles of sophomore insecurities, a large part of me resented my classmates — rich, white men and women with connections and room to make mistakes, even grave ones. People who only understood working class, eviction, gentrification as vocabulary words. I was frustrated about old boys’ clubs and sexist professors, about the boarding school elite who came well prepared for tough classes. I was tired. In many ways, I still am.
But here’s the thing: The privilege of being here includes acknowledging that we get to choose both how to shape this community and how we allow this community to shape us. We can imagine a better reality, but we also have the ability to fight for it, to do the hard and dirty work, to bring the platform to communities who need and deserve it the most.
And here’s what I choose: the people, time and again, who have carried the water in big ways and small. Those who have systematically organized protests and lectures in response to injustice, as well as the friends who have made space for emotionally draining post-midnight conversations about difficult and complicated things like abortion, race and the morality of choosing certain career paths. I choose the trust and respect and community-building inherent in those things. I think about challenging my own latent prejudice over the past three years and how that has happened through the love of those willing to explain their experiences to my flawed ignorance. I think about coming into myself, my hyphenated Asian-American self, my class-passing confusion, the interwoven layers of community and identity that compose me — and I choose a road paved by ethnic studies scholars and artists, writers and activists.
When I think about my place at Yale — why I am here and my mother and countless other people are not — I struggle constantly inside the divide between here and there. How do I bridge the gap? How do I cross between here and home, then and now, my mother and me. How do I unite these worlds? At the end of the day, it is doing the work. It is carrying my home upon my back, breaking down the barriers between this place and the outside world and demanding accountability. It is looking around me in awe at the peers and the people who organize and build homes and constantly demand that we — as occupants of the ivory tower, as an institution — bring more to the table.
During the summer, I will head home again. After three years here, I am still frustrated and tired, but I will tell my mother that the clubs and the elitism and the ugly behavior are real, but beautiful things are real, too. Especially when they emerge because we have brought our homes here.
Liana Wang is a junior in Davenport College. Her column runs monthly. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .