Editors’ Note: This piece originally appeared in the 2019 First Year Issue, published on August 2, 2019.
I am a young woman with the iridescence of my mother’s eyes, crowned with the jet-black hair that she once claimed as her own and known for my slender fingers — my “piano fingers,” she calls them. Piano lessons were out of the question for her, a girl who once worked at an umbrella factory for four hours before deciding that she wanted a different life — a young woman who went to night school after her father took ill.
The nose is my father’s, a bit round near the edges, almost stubborn in its shape. The eyebrows are his, too, defined and serious, but expressive and honest. They reveal emotions in me that I’ve always struggled to hide. They’re the eyebrows of an artist, a young boy whose mother took in extra sewing jobs so that he could join the church choir and one day become an opera singer. My version of a bedtime story was Wagner’s Ring Cycle; I can sleep through an opera to this day.
You’d never know these things about me. Not at first glance, not through a second conversation and not at a third club meeting. Certainly not over a single dining hall conversation. In fact, there are those who have known me for an entire two years at Yale and still don’t know that I am molded after my mother and marked with the personality of my father, that I graduated in a class of 1,500 students in the Cowboys’ practice stadium and that I am an only child who used to throw temper tantrums at the mere thought of siblings. They may never know, simply because they never ask.
Over the course of your time at Yale, your calendar will be peppered with scheduled meals. They will be with people you love, people you have admired from afar, people who you will realize you never want to talk to again. Most of these meals will begin with simple questions of majors, classes, residential colleges — questions meant to help you wade into the waters, filling in the awkward silences between bites of Stiles pizza or Murray’s attempt at bibimbap. Don’t let them end there.
It is entirely possible to go through hundreds of dining hall dinners without learning anything substantial about the person sitting across from you. I have looked back on many conversations where I have been afraid to ask more, ignoring the fact that the person sitting across from me had a life before they came to Yale and has dreams for their life after this place.
Most of us came to Yale to be surrounded by people who stimulate and challenge us. How ironic is it, then, that we fail to learn what drives these people, that we know nothing about the first 18 years of their lives, that we see their hopes and dreams in monochrome? Instead, ask. Ask what their parents are like, how their hometown shaped them, what their favorite books are, what they’ve learned from past relationships, what they value most in a friend. This all may seem annoyingly simple, but it brings the people around you to life. Soon, you’ll begin to see people in color, with dimension.
Almost every meal I have begins with a line like this: “I know this is a bit unconventional, but I have never been interested in the shallowness of small talk. Can I ask you some meaningful questions?” In a world where interactions are ever-fleeting and judgments quick, it will surprise you how much it means to someone when you genuinely want to understand them. You will be shocked to find how much they have bottled up inside.
Yale is not Yale because of the Gothic-style architecture, the residential colleges or even the amazing classes. It is what it is because for four blissful years, you are surrounded by people who have a passion for life. The simplest thing you can do to enhance your time here is to ask intimate questions, to ask like you care. Over the course of my two years here, I have listened to friends discuss desires to emigrate from the U.S., the burdens of sheltering an intergenerational family under one roof, and the joys of gaining new siblings after a parent’s remarriage.
In turn, you will flip through pages of your life story with them, learning about yourself in the same way that you notice new plot lines each time you re-read a favorite novel. You will become familiar with the joy of being known and the vulnerability of being understood.
The greatest delight of my time at Yale has been sharing deeply — about falling asleep in opera houses, about my mother giving me the life she could have had, about how in love I am with storytelling of all kinds. I hope that this, too, becomes your greatest delight.
Katherine Hu is a junior in Ezra Stiles College and an Opinion Editor for the News. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .