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Class of 2021 Common Experience Essay Contest

Duke Honor Council relaunched its annual essay contest this year for the incoming Class of 2021 to give them an opportunity to reflect on and expand upon the ideas portrayed in their common experience reading of Richard Blanco’s The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood. Along with their copy of the book, the members of the Class of 2021 were provided a card that outlined our essay contest prompt:

“In the Prince of Los Cocuyos, Richard Blanco struggles to define his personal identity and reconcile conflicting cultural norms and expectations. In diverse settings – whether on Miami’s beaches or in Duke’s Gothic Wonderland – how should individuals respond to community imposed pressures to conform? Essays should be between 500-700 words and may draw upon the book, historical examples, or personal experiences.”

We received a record number of submissions this year, so the selection process was extremely difficult for our panel of executive council members. After a thorough review, one winner was chosen along with four other finalists. The winner’s essay is published in The Chronicle, and the winner will receive $500. Each of these five students and their submissions are recognized below; the finalists are listed in no particular order.

Winner: Anuk Dayaprema – Trinity ’21

Throughout the time I spent between the covers of The Prince of Los Cocuyos, I was astounded by Richard Blanco’s dynamic relationship with the novel’s sole “antagonist”: his abuela. It seemed that no matter how many times he was chagrined at her attempts to negotiate the English language, or was forced to repress his very personhood to meet her traditional standards of manhood, she never ceased to be a pillar of support for a young Richard Blanco. But beyond his grandmother, Mr. Blanco made it quite clear that he was surrounded by a pueblo of family and friends throughout his childhood and adolescence, a village that would confound his “becoming” but foster his growth, make him question his identity and yet be intricately connected to it. It is this support, the strength derived from community, that I consider most beneficial to those facing pressure to conform.

Obviously some measure of conformity is necessary for a society to function smoothly; it’s hard to fathom a long-lived country where people get to choose which side of the road to drive on. On the other hand, ideally one should be true to one’s heart, if Disney’s Mulan is to be believed. But these are neither solid pieces of advice nor wise counsel; they are at best hand-wavy, wishy-washy statements that offer no guidance on traveling the minefield that is remaining true to oneself. In fact, given the wide swath of human experiences, it is difficult to imagine a panacea effective for each and every trial and tribulation people may encounter in maintaining the integrity of their identities; personally, I don’t think one exists. Just as there are myriad events, emotions, and memories from which one’s identity develops, it surely follows that there are just as many ways social norms act to compromise one’s individuality, ostensibly for the worse. Therefore, it seems that an indirect solution would best serve individuals filled and bombarded with doubt about who they really are; namely, the unwavering support of a community would allow individuals to resolve, on their own terms, their inner conflicts stemming from outward pressure.

I hope that I am not regurgitating some cliché or offering something either unrelated to or not in the spirit of the question at hand. Nonetheless, it is hard to disregard the importance of strong social ties in providing strength and resilience. Evidence in support of this abounds, and herein listed are just a few examples: (1) A study conducted in Canada found that LGBTQ students in schools with strong gay-straight alliances experienced fewer suicidal ideations and attempts. (2) The National Crime Prevention Council lists community intervention as a proven strategy for reducing gang violence. (3) A case study of Iranian migrants in Turkey proposed that immigrant networks are vital for displaced individuals to regain their sense of identity. Therefore, I suppose the following would be the best course of action for dealing with the pressure to conform to social norms: assemble a cadre of compatriots, whether that be one or one hundred others. Fortunately, at a place that samples the world over, finding one’s social niche in the ecosystem that is Duke must be easier than in other locales.

Of course, the above assumes that one is able to escape animosity and/or find the support of others. For those who find themselves with no social support or even concerted efforts to undermine their identities, their paths to “becoming” are that much more difficult. These individuals, understandably, would find nothing of use in the words above. However, much can still be done. The majority of this spiel has been centered on the individual finding community; not a word has been said on the community reaching out to the individual. As was mentioned, Duke clearly seems to be doing its part in helping those in need of backing; however, the same cannot be said for many places elsewhere. With only eighteen years of unremarkable life experience, it may not be in my place to suggest something that others should work towards; regardless, I feel that going through the next four years and beyond with an arm ready to be extended to someone lacking anyone is something worthwhile to strive for.

Finalist: Bing Ho – Trinity ’21

A Fish Enthusiast’s Guide to Confronting Conformity

Step 1: It’s ok to be self-conscious

If you’re an immigrant or a fish enthusiast like me, embarrassment is no stranger: The whole class cackles when the substitute always mispronounces your name or when your shrimp tank is an outlier amidst a sea of Legos and Barbie dolls at show-and-tell. Yes, you hear snickers behind your back as your peers watch you open up your bento box during lunch, revealing hokkien mee noodles with a side of durian. But don’t worry, their brown paper sacks that smell of cold-cut ham are no match for your fish-shaped mochi waffles mom packed as a treat.

Step 2: Attempt to assimilate

So it’s recess now, and the other kids give you rude glances while you read your beloved fish encyclopedia. You mistake the basketball players’ sneers in your direction as friendly gestures to join them. Hastily tossing aside your book, you join the ”cool kids” but end up watching courtside- nobody wants to be judged for including “Mr. Fins”. Now you’re in the same boat as Blanco, drifting further out to sea between the birthplace of your identity and this new frontier.

Step 3: Neither here nor there

With the scent of your favorite duck dish forming an aromatic symphony with the barbecue next door during the Fourth of July block party, Dad can’t resist anymore and brings the whole family to this “foreign festivity” after years of refusal. Shooting hoops with the neighbors, your teammates’ cheers for you drown out your feelings of loneliness; you’re finally one of them. Heck, you’re starting to sound and act like them too: telling Sam he’s dope for letting you ride his sick bike and saying grace before dinner. You stuff your face with your roast duck (cooked to perfection), but your friends gawk at the carcass and your alien pallette in horror. Suddenly, you’re alone again, eating your duck at the picnic table and as confused as Blanco about where you belong. Calling your best friend back home, you can’t even relate to him anymore as he rambles about his favorite K-pop artists and foods that suddenly seem so obscure. Your identity is stuck between your roots and the present and you vie for a community to be a part of…to call home.

Step 4: Accept yourself

With your emotions scrambling to find their ground, you resort to the one thing that knows you: fish. Whether they’re coming to the front of the tank to greet you in the morning or swimming to your fingers for food, they’ve always been there for you. Watching the tank grow from its infancy to mature tranquillity, you’ve become a part of the community. The diverse species each contribute their own strengths to support the vibrant ecosystem. You discover that no matter the color, shape, or size, there’ll always be a place for you- you just have to find it. What matters is not the differences between you and them, but the person you have become, “a little from everywhere” as Yetta might say. Your insecurities no longer hold you back from participating in your community but shine a spotlight on where you belong.

Step 5: Be a Maverick

As Victor would tell you, “ you know who you are and that’s never going to change, nunca”. The basketball players who judged your relationship with fish, wondering “what’s wrong with you?” now approach you during the science fair asking, “Tell me how you did that!” Even as your teammates give you weird looks as you drink a Japanese Ramune soda, you ask them to try and pretty soon everyone is begging you for a bottle. You were stuck between two worlds, but now you have the best of both. “Daring to disturb the universe”, you start sitting with “that nerd” during lunch or showing the new kid around school- finding companions in the nooks and crannies of your community. Everyone still knows you for your quirks and oddities, but own being different- being “un farito”- for the others that are stranded between their identity and their surroundings. You guide the missing parts of your community ashore, creating a brighter and better society than when you first found it.

Finalist: Daniel Egitto – Trinity ’21

I’ll never forget the night I became an Indian.

It was early October, a couple months into my high school senior year. One of my Indian friends had been inviting people out to this big Gujarati dancing festival over at the India Association, and one way or another me and my fluorescent-white skin had found ourselves sucked out of my basic jeans-and-tee-shirt, stuffed into this jumble of clothes whose names I could barely even pronounce, and shuttled off to dance the night away on a choreographic skillset that had never gotten much beyond the “funky chicken.”

Standing with two white friends in the midst of 200 Indians, waiting for the start of an unknown dance in a language I didn’t speak from a culture totally alien to my own—if it’s possible to lose sight of the last iota of community or place, that is how I felt that night.

It was a strange sensation, to be so fundamentally alone. This white kid squished into Indian clothes, tripping through a stranger’s dance, a Richard Blanco caught between the expectations of two worlds I’d neither fully claimed nor understood. All my life, of course, there’d been some tacit understanding that I was “American,” part of American culture and a greater American community. But what did that even mean? What was that “American community”—and why did it feel so different to be involved in a festival like this, when this culture must be part of America too?

The United States is and always has been a melting pot for culture and identity. Communities come here from everywhere under the sun, mingling, adapting and claiming ownership to the idea of America while still upholding their own senses of self. But what about the rest of us? What about those of us who weren’t born into these communities or who don’t connect strongly with them, left as we are to a culture whose meaning depends so much on the identities that make it up? It’s here we run into the greatest challenges of diversity. As with all diverse societies, America lacks the definition that comes with a universally-held heritage or system of belief. America is composed of people from every imaginable walk of life, and because of this there is only so much we can achieve by simply conforming to the American super-community’s demands.

Whether it’s on the scale of a nation, a city, or a university, no truly diverse society can ever be understood passively. Culture-defining elements and conformist expectations are always ambiguous in these settings, and when we fail to recognize our true diversity, it becomes all too easy for us to forget ourselves in the clamor of the loudest voices shouted from the largest crowds. These voices are rarely accepting, and they are never pluralistic. They are the definition of the status quo, reactionary forces that respond to inroads of diversity with little but prejudice and fear. If we fail to engage with the communities around us, these voices can bring ruin to multicultural growth on all levels, both societal and personal.

The sway of these voices, however, only remains strong as long as we forfeit our courage for complacency. When we take ourselves out of our comfort zones, when we look more closely at the needleworks of community that underlie the fabric of our world, when we overcome our insecurities and step out into the rhythm of a new song—when we do these things, we not only extend ourselves beyond the tyranny of the loudest voice, but we also begin to develop an identity and a voice of our own.

Because as I slowly let down my barriers in the melodies of that night at the India Association, America became so much more to me than the sum of vague shouts and conformist demands. This was the real America, here among these strangers, caught up in the freedom and expression and strength, whites and Indians brought together under a single beat. No, I was not a good dancer. No, I did not know the songs. But there was one music, one dance, and one humanity—and in that moment, the Indian and the American were one.

Finalist: Dennis Harrsch Jr. – Trinity ’21

Humans are fundamentally a duality – we live as simple creatures, one with Nature in our physical existence and needs, and yet simultaneously as thoughtful beings, in that we consciously exist before, within, and beyond ourselves. We are separate from the Earth’s other inhabitants in that we have beliefs, morals, and passions that define who we are. Without these, what truly are we? It is in those important ways that we exist within ourselves – however, through the heritage of our parents and histories forged long ago, we are shaped before our life even begins. The basis of who we will be exists, amorphous and malleable, before we experience the formative world around us. Thus, we exist before ourselves, in those ideas, and find our very basis in that fundamental part of who we are. Moreover, through our interactions with others, we can exist beyond ourselves, encouraging our children, friends, and peers in how they live, view the world, and exist beyond the simple needs of the body. Knowing this, we must not ignore the importance of any of these components to our being – our personalities are important, and equally valuable are the roots of these personalities and their impact on others. We should cherish our heritage, culture, and personalities, as they are a celebration of who we are at our core. The very fact that we are able to be anything is beautiful, and we must recognize that beauty and love it for its value to us as humans.

All of this being said, we are still a part of Nature, and can learn much from the world around us. One thing that is strikingly clear in the ecosystems around us is that diversity provides stability. Differences in niches or food sources allow organisms to work together and coexist – without differences, it would be impossible for all of them to exist together. Diversity allows for organisms to specialize, finding their specific role within an ecosystem, and through this specialization ecosystems become more able to withstand difficult times. It is the same for humans – when we exist in a diverse community of people with different interests, backgrounds, and cultures, we are build a strong social group in which people are better able to work together and find where they fit in. This diversity, founded in different backgrounds, builds communities which give back to their inhabitants, and which are built to last.

The value and importance of personality and diversity is clear, and yet, for reasons buried deep within our human condition, we fear differences and what we do not know. Due to these fears, each of us will inevitably be confronted at some point with pressures to conform to some norm, or to a culture that is not our own, or to give up some belief, simply on the basis that it isn’t what others are “comfortable” with. For examples, we can look to Richard Blanco’s memoir, The Prince of Los Cocuyos, in which he describes these pressures from several sides to be “American”, or “Cuban”, or straight, depending on the situation. These pressures to conform are all too common, and yet we cannot yield to them. Just as the Elie Wiesel described the opposite of love to not be hate, but indifference, so too is the opposite of diversity not uniformity, but rather conformity. We know the value of our who we are and of diversity, and we must protect these commodities by actively resisting those pressures, by more firmly being ourselves. Blanco, despite societal and familial pressures, chooses to discover who he is, instead of simply being what he is told to be. He, like the fireflies which give his own pueblo its name, found a way to shine, even when others were attempting to force darkness upon him. We must each do the same. We must be. We cannot passively allow ourselves to be who we want to be: instead, choose to actively be who we are in the decisions we make. Like the fireflies in Blanco’s Cuba, or perhaps in our own backyard, when the sun begins to set, we must force ourselves to shine, and in shining, light the way for others to do the same.

Finalist: Natalie Ecanow – Trinity ’21

“Strive to be in the world, but not of it”. These are the words preached by my high school English teacher, and the very words that hover in the dense air of Richard Blanco’s Miami.

Speaking to a class of soon to be high school graduates, my teacher wished upon us a life in which we participated in the world as productive and engaged citizens while remaining distinctively unique, individual, and wholly our own. Remaining informed while resisting societal pressures to conform was the essence of his message.

In his book On Judaism, Jewish philosopher Martin Buber writes that, “Sin is basically nothing more than inertia.” This phrase cannot help but haunt the mind that ponders conformity. If we, as individuals, allow society to dictate our whereabouts and whatabouts, we do not only relinquish uniqueness, but, according to Buber, we are sinning. Passively submitting to society’s incessant murmur is a form of inertia. In turn, trading the flavor of distinct character for the blandness of life in a uniform society would be as if society resorted to a life of sin. This is precisely why human beings have the responsibility to uphold their beliefs. Individuals cannot allow their values to be swayed by what scrolls across the screen in their living rooms, what is plastered on billboard advertisements, or whatever society presents as what is “good” and what is “true.” This is not to say that individuals should boycott the media, get rid of the television, remove themselves from the secular world and return to the primordial. We should indulge in the pleasures of modernity and fully engage in our world, yet be cognizant of the dangers of becoming of it. Inertia is threatening. The value of decision is priceless. Individuality is priceless. It is the human responsibility to live a life immersed in culture and community, while upholding whatever it may be that makes us distinctly our own.

These contemplations are no doubt complex in execution. It is challenging to maintain a stance of duality in which one foot is planted in society, the other in individuality. Perhaps, this duality is what defined Richard Blanco’s childhood struggle: how to balance his Cuban heritage with his patriotism for his new home in America. He wanted to be an American who shopped at Winn-Dixie and ate Turkey on Thanksgiving. Surely, fried plantains beside the candied yams was not how Blanco imagined his Thanksgiving feast. Thanksgiving is its own American entity, separate and distinct from Cuban tradition.

Humanity has struggled with the concept of “two” for generations. This struggle reached the peak of its strength in Nazi Europe. The New York Review of Books published an article by Timothy Snyder entitled Hitler’s World, in which Snyder writes about the Holocaust. He describes that, “The world’s problem, as Hitler saw it, was that Jews falsely separated science and politics…The solution he proposed was to expose Jews to the brutal reality that nature and society were one and the same” (Snyder, 10). The Jewish mindset, according to Hitler, was corrupt and dangerous. Jews were leaders in two frontiers. They were at the forefront of science, discovering and innovating upon nature’s principles, while remaining active in society —in politics and religion.

Whether it be nature and society, America and Cuba, or, more broadly, society and individuality, every individual finds himself oscillating between two distinct realms, urged by community imposed pressures to conform. Inertia, however, is not the answer. We are to remain strong in our beliefs, uphold our traditions, all the while extracting value from the community that surrounds us. After all, is there really anything wrong with having fried plantains on Thanksgiving?

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