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The value of not knowing

While at Princeton, students are expected to talk about their experiences struggling to get here, their stories of trying to stay here — and stay sane, for that matter — and most of all, what helped them make it into this institution. Sometimes it seems like there is never a moment when we’re not trying to establish our merit whether to our peers or even to ourselves. Whether confronted with professors, preceptors, classmates or friends, we have to mark out what makes us special and remarkable, because in this case, “being special” sometimes seems to be as close as we can get to “belonging.” But what happens when your appearance and your stereotype dictate a false image or a misrepresentation of what really makes you special?

I have a face that doesn’t “belong” to any one place. I have characteristic features of an Indian with some Hispanic undertones, but I find that my languages, my experiences and the things that I love about my Chinese heritage often overpower these features. So what do you do when your face betrays you? What do you do when you find yourself in a room full of South Asians with no knowledge about where Goa is on a map despite it being the childhood home of your father or when you make the mortifying blunder of exchanging “Hindi” for “Hindu” in a conversation or when you have absolutely no idea how to drape a sari?

Recently, Harvard students released the debut of the “I, Too, Am Harvard” campaign, a project that explores the experiences of the black student community at Harvard using photographs of individuals holding whiteboards that showcase powerful statements about racial and cultural stereotypes. The photograph that resonated the most with me was that of a student holding whiteboard that said, “The lack of diversity in this classroom does NOT make me the voice of all black people.”

In academic institutions, expertise is prized; first-hand biographical experience makes your stories interesting and reliable. People turn to you when they want to know when your country’s civil war was fought, how you’re supposed to participate in a tea ceremony or how much it snows in the winter where your grandparents had once lived — even if you’ve told them you’ve never visited that place.

However, I’ve realized there is strength in not knowing, and even more strength in being able to say, “I am not the poster boy or spokesperson you turn to when you don’t know something.” After all, what is so shameful about lacking knowledge about a certain culture, custom or historical fact if you are willing and enthusiastic to learn? Would feigning knowledge be any less embarrassing?

I have found that my experience is, more often than not, different from the experiences of the people whose culture others think I’m a part of. I therefore feel as though I cannot speak on their behalf and shouldn’t be expected to do so. If I connect with you, it is not because I’m black, white, Latin American, East Asian or anything else. When I tell you something about my Chinese culture, I am telling you what I know, regardless of what you think my responsibility is to my other backgrounds. And in this way, I represent myself and show what really makes me special.

I ask others to not be ignorant about my ignorance, because in doing so, you prevent both of us from learning the truth.

Isabella Gomes is a sophomore from Irvine, Calif. She can be reached at igomes@princeton.edu.

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