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The universalized personal narratives

| Monday, April 9, 2018

We know no ocean from a drop of saltwater, no autumn from a tumbled maple leaf and no God from a random page of the Bible. And here is my question: can we know what is true about a group of people from knowing the personal narratives of one person who fits into that group?

One afternoon at the bustling dining hall, my friend and I were rattling on about rituals.

“My family doesn’t celebrate the Chinese New Year anymore,” I said. “It’s the only time when everyone gets the same days off, so we travel instead.”

Eyes widened in disbelief, he asked, “Wait … So Chinese people don’t celebrate the New Year now? I thought it was huge, like Christmas here.”

It was clear that he somehow considered my family’s situation to be representative of people from my cultural background. Not intending to confront him, I replied in a casual tone:

“No, I was talking about my own family.”

By no means did I take his response negatively. Amidst our overloaded schedules, we were interested in each other enough to sit down and exchange the cultural manifestations of our backgrounds. Yet his response pointed to a trap that we all might fall into: the tendency to universalize a single person’s story to a group’s shared experience.

Like many people, I have represented clubs and analyzed the general social trends in some expansive regions. But when I speak solely for myself, I always make it clear by starting my statement with an affirmative subject “I” — what I experience, what I think and what I believe to be true. Even so, my self-perceived clear statements have solicited responses that address a broad group, sometimes “international students” and sometimes a vague “you guys,” as if my personal experience is a reflection of that of my group.

Novelist Chimamanda Adichie’s warns in her TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story” that if we only hear a single story, we risk a critical misrepresentation. Knowledge of solely one person’s account naturally leads to an unintentional assumption that the single narrative is the whole story. With a mere six percent of the Class of 2021 hailing from somewhere outside the U.S., seven percent as the first in the family to embark a college journey and 19 percent non-Catholic, it is not hard to imagine that the tendency to universalize some minority students’ personal narratives is spotted at Notre Dame. The unbalanced student composition and the bubble we comfortably form make it a possibility that we do not know enough veteran, LGBTQ+, atheist and other minority students to have a holistic view of their diverse experiences.

Yet we need to challenge this tendency to universalize, because it both negates people’s individualities and contributes to an incomplete understanding of a group. I have no better solution to counter this inclination than to suggest that we go out of the comfort zone and befriend people from different backgrounds — to learn about them as independent individuals and to see the cultural, political, socio-economic and intellectual richness behind their narratives.

Two years ago, my monologue at the Asian Allure, “The Story of My Name” brought some people to tears and others to their decisions to switch their names back to their original ones. Despite the seemingly unanimous recognition in the significance of one’s own name, a Chinese friend shared with me only a few weeks ago that she was troubled by my story:

“My professor suddenly asked me if I wanted to go by my Chinese name,” she said. “I told him I was fine with my current English name. But I immediately felt bad for not seeing my Chinese name as important.”

Again, her remark revealed the fact that even an overwhelming uniformity did not equate to an absolute homogeneity. Interestingly though, she was still grateful for her professor’s inquiry: Having no other means to vicariously live his students’ live, he understood that some experiences could be shared among people of the same group and thus actively reached out to care for them. With this goodwill, the professor was only to be appreciated.

The balance between treating people as individuals with their own personal narratives and universalizing someone’s story to care for others is difficult. Yet the more we learn about people’s diverse experiences, the better we are at understanding people’s nuanced situations. Besides befriending more people, initiatives like Notre Dame’s “Show Some Skin” also provide channels for an increased understanding and empathy. After this year’s “Show Some Skin,” one of my friends commented on the large number of stories about female students of color. “But I was glad that there were a handful of them,” she said. “I never knew that their experiences were so different.”

Once we know, we no longer universalize personal narratives.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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