[This piece won Second Prize in The Diversity Story Cultural Writing Competition - Middle School]
BY ELLIE TANG & MANY OTHERS
Sharing is truly the most phenomenal way to learn. This all started on that February day, foggy, misty, with that snow covered ground. It may sound ridiculous, but a man, a black man who was quite old, came up randomly to ask me about that team jacket I was wearing. And oh my, his voice, warm and full, it reminded me of a fireplace, rejoicing through the chilly melancholy of the winter air. “Is that Tang on your jacket I see?” He had some good eyesight. I responded, astounded that someone would mention my last name, something on my jacket, “Yes.” “You know, my son in law also has the same last name, a coincidence!” He chuckled. “He’s a surgeon, a good one, he grew up in New York City.” I smiled, realizing he couldn’t see it through my mask. Then, my mother walked over to me, and that black man said, “Are you their mother?” My sister was with me. “Yes, I am.” She replied with a sweet voice. He continued to pull up a photo of his son in law, “When you’re sick and injured, go look for him!” My mother gave a laugh and a smile. Afterwards we had to leave, so we told our goodbyes and left. From now, I still wish I had asked about the black man himself. But that black man did something so simple, it’s amazing. It makes my heart full of sweetness and warmth. I had always had manners, but I never had the confidence to go ask someone about their personal life. But this experience, it inspired me to ask others about their life and share mine too. His simple questions brought all of us together, it taught me that no matter how diverse or different we still have one similarity: we humans all have a heart.
I decided to start easy, I asked my mother about her childhood. She told me about her home, how she lived by the countryside. She remembers the apricots; they hung high on the trees. When it was time, they were sweet and ripe. She’d peel off the skin and eat the tasty flesh of the fruit. The seeds were still soft and they were such a delicacy she chewed each one carefully. She told me how after grandma had finished college, she went down to this small cottage to help save people’s lives. She told me that grandma had sent eggs, fruits, and vegetables to them, making grandma a savior! Sometimes when in need, those people would ride these carriages that looked like a small cart pulled by donkeys. They had all they needed in there. They would tie their donkeys to the fence of my mother’s house, making it difficult for her to get in after school. She would have to quickly climb over the fence, before those donkeys, blocking the entrance, would notice her and kick her. They had a garden, and during the summer she and her friends would go up the hill to catch grasshoppers and sometimes even mantises to feed to the chicken. During the winter it was so cold that grandpa had to gather lots of wood to survive. They’d put the wood into their furnace; it was made of dirt, the bottom for making a fire with wood and the top for cooking. The walls were also made of dirt and would warm up their bedrooms at night, making it extremely chilly in the morning. Although my mother told me no more, I do know that my mother became a nurse and helped people out. One day I would like to go to China, although I am Chinese, I was born in America. Maybe I’ll see my mother’s old rural home...
On the same day, I stayed after class just to ask my science teacher about his old home, Ghana. My teacher loves Ghana very much, I can really tell. “Well, I don’t have any particular stories about Ghana, I have been living in the US for 40 years,” he said. “But when I retire in a few years, I would like to go back to Ghana, as I have a house back there. You should go to Ghana, I’m sure you’ll love it. The weather there is nice. The summer is warm and dry while the winters are more wet. The temperature stays around 76-88 degrees year round. It really depends on where you live; living by the ocean will give you more humid weather.” He also told me, “Many people will travel there and buy houses. There are a lot of Americans over there, especially African Americans.”
On the morning of the very next day, I had a conversation with my orchestra teacher about food. “My father has this really cool tradition of making these Serbian cabbage rolls,” she announced proudly. “They were like a food in the Ukrainian/Carpathian Mountain area, they are called Halupki.” She continued to talk about her father—“You know, my father was the youngest one in the family, making him the one staying with my father the longest. At the time, he still ate my grandma’s food, allowing him to recognize my grandma’s most recent cooking taste. At EVERY party, they would serve Halupki with a side of mashed potatoes, and my father and his siblings HAVE to argue about who makes the Halupki most similar to their mom.” The story is really hilarious, honestly, my family never had any arguments like these. I told my teacher all about what I eat everyday, the dumplings, scallion pancakes, noodles, and how I eat with chopsticks. This is what I think is the spark of finally starting to get better at making interesting conversations. My teacher continued to tell me, “This conversation reminds me of the time we had an in service day, which was really all about food. Everyone brought food from their family traditions and more. In the end, we learnt how to make Wonton and went home with our own little Wonton recipe. I’m not sure if I still have it, though. Do you and your family make Wonton? A nice wonton recipe would be nice.” I decided that I would ask my mom about that and tell her next time. We ended our conversation talking about how COVID makes it really difficult to talk to others, and she totally agreed, but with one exception: “Actually, well one good thing during these difficult times is that we get to be in the kitchen more often—I think cooking brings a lot of happiness.”
One day I went to the gym to swim, and I noticed the lifeguard. He looked quite old, maybe in his 60’s. I heard him coughing, and even saw he took pills. Just then I asked him, “Are you alright?” He looked at me, stared, and said, “Am I alright?” He took a sip of a wine bottle, “I’m drinking—but…” He looked a little angry, maybe feeling some sadness. I knew I shouldn’t have asked because I think he needed some time alone. I thought about the awkwardness between us, and tried to understand why he was being so weird. I suppose some people have some feelings we don’t understand, and we should respect it. I learnt from this experience that not all conversations go smoothly, and even the worse ones we can learn something from. (Luckily, I was able to have a better conversation with him later. He was nice.)
My social studies teacher loves Mexico and South America. She said that Mexico had ancient civilizations. They had weird games back in the day that could lead to even death. She talked about how she was interested in the stoning—human sacrificing. Their history is truly unique. She said these places include Argentina, Mexico, South America, Peru... I never really thought of any of those. One of these days I want to research about Mexico.
I feel like I need to get better at just talking: sometimes I ask teachers and make the excuse of saying that I have a project. But I have learnt so much about the world in such a few weeks, including Ghana, Mexico, China, and Ukraine. I must continue to have conversations!
The most recent conversation I had was with another teacher. I never finished it, but I was able to to bring it up without telling her about any “project” I’m completing. Our conversation is still ongoing, and we will continue it. My teacher goes to Haiti a lot, because she has a family over there. When she visits, she helps the poor. I am hoping to get to know more about them!
Unfortunately, things are hard during this special time. A crisis spreading about, makes it very difficult to talk to strangers. Also, I’m sure I’m not the only one observing people to make sure that our interactions are friendly. Sometimes overthinking has led to missed opportunities of learning something new about someone. Not only this, but I am more of an introverted person, making it be exhausting to talk to too many people at once. Although I was not able to get too many stories, I was able to talk to a diverse group of people. I talked to Asians, Americans, African Americans, and more. I had also strengthened many relationships. For example, there is this old lady who I smile at every day. A wave to one another surely makes my day, and I’m sure hers as well. Sometimes a conversation will even break out. Another example is how I swim, and many people compliment me about it. Another old man told me I am a very fast swimmer, and ever since, we talk to each
other about life. I’ve told him about my sisters and about school. I hope he tells me more about himself. And besides just learning about others’ stories, I also came to realize that from some experiences I tend to judge a book by its cover. A Korean man was working out at the gym, and I sat across from him, trying out a machine. I was scared to talk to him. I thought Korean people were serious, hardworking, and strict people. It also made me think that he was quite serious by the expression on his face. But he was only worried—he told me and my sister how to use the machine. Let’s say I got pretty mad at myself to not know and judge. Ever since, I’ve gained more confidence to talk to others. All thanks to that man.
I’m sure I’m not the best writer in the world, I’m sure I’m not the best speaker in the world, and I’m sure that there are millions of people who make better, confident interactions with people. But for me, an almost 12 year old introverted and insecure girl, talking to strangers and writing this down? This makes me extremely proud. I will continue to learn about myself and others through this process, and make friends from all over the world. Sharing is truly the most phenomenal thing that allows you to learn not only about others’ life stories, but about yourself at the same time.