In graduate school, I had this friend who, every time we passed a black student, staff member, or community member, would say hello with a wave or head nod. After a few months of knowing her, I finally asked her to share the scoop on her constant greeting of strangers. Her response was simple, yet powerful, “I may be the only black person they see today, and I feel like it’s important that they see someone supporting them.” At the time, the university was horridly underrepresented, and the percentage of black students was that which we could count in single digits. This friend’s perspective was alarmingly raw to me, and was always something I kept in the back of my mind when working with students.
“We need to see someone to be someone.”
This old saying was something I took very serious as an out-professional, and one which allowed me to truly be my most authentic self. Tom Nelson Laird asserts, “The best thing you can do as a[n education] professional is show people who you are.” In fact, for the past three years I have had this very quote hanging from my computer monitor, living as a constant reminder to bring my whole self to every table in which I’m invited. Perhaps, like my friend shared, someone would see me and think they, too, were valuable, valued, and validated.
Now, fast-forward to my first week in China. Upon arriving in Beijing, I slowly started to realize that I was no longer the majority, and that my white skin stood out as a sign and marker, reading, “OBLIVIOUS WESTERNER HERE.” To find some sense of solidarity, I decided that, similar to my previously-mentioned cohort friend (for obvious reasons, I’ve refrained from saying, “…my black friend,” and so should you, if ever given the chance), I would nod at all the white folk, in hope of forcing some type of introduction or affirmation (an, “I see you, and I’m here too,” if you will). And so, I nodded.
Three days in, and probably twenty nods later, I had yet to gain a single nod in return, and definitely not even a smile. This was particularly frustrating to me, as that first week I felt more alone than I had felt in my entire life (which is ironic for being in a city of 22+ million people). This frustration boiled up until yesterday afternoon, when I spent some time walking around the supermarket, looking for a chocolate snack for my new coworkers (after all, nothing says, “Help me, I’m foreign,” like a sweet treat). Just as I was walking into the market, my eyes caught another white person coming down the escalator – we’re not hard to miss in this city. I guessed she was from the states, as plastered across her light blue t-shirt were the words, “PI BETA PHI.” I gasped!
My first attempt at contact was a quiet, “Hi,” as we were both looking at fruit. She was unresponsive, and I could hear the music coming through her earbuds. She wandered off, leaving me to lurk around the supermarket and devise a new plan of approach. And that’s when it happened: she took out one of her earbuds while examining different milk options, leaving me to swoop in for potential conversation. I immediately scurried over, casually stood next to her, and said, “Pi Beta Phi, eh?”
“Yep,” she responded. “People always approach me when I’m wearing this shirt.” We both laughed, and then had a nice 5-10 minute conversation about the why and how long we had been in China, the neat and often-global connections forged by an experience in fraternities and sororities, and then even discovered we knew a mutual friend (another Pi Beta Phi who I worked with many years ago, whose little sister was in the same chapter as this new friend – talk about a small world!).
We shared our WeChat (a messaging application) information, and went on our way. That brief moment of interaction gave me a ton of energy, and in a lot of ways, affirmed and validated my very existence in that specific place and time (and in China, if you want to look at the gigantic picture). Just like my friend validating students, even individuals she didn’t know, in this moment more than ever, I understood the idea of, “see someone to be someone,” and how it truly can impact a person’s (or student’s) experience (life, routine, future, etc.).
So, reach out. Look up. Nod.
See this post as one huge thank you to all those who have supported someone along their journey (whichever journey seems fitting). Additionally, please see this post as an opportunity to be a light to someone else – let them see you as an individual, an environment, or an accomplishment which they, too, can achieve. Reach out, be available to someone’s nod, and provide validation even if it violates the day-to-day norms you’ve allowed yourself to replay. Look up, and don’t be afraid to tell people who you are by inviting them to be their true self too.
Two nods for you, Glen Coco,