As I reflect on Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, I’d like to share an experience that enriched not only my college experience, but my life in general. My first year at the Penn State University Park campus was a bit nerve-wracking in many ways, one of which was adjusting from life as an only child to life with a roommate.
Megumi was an international student from Japan studying at Penn State to become an English teacher in her home country. Megumi and I were an odd couple of sorts: me, a 5’10” Black girl from Philly by way of the suburbs, and Megumi, a barely-five-foot girl from Kyoto, Japan, who had only been in the U.S. for a few months. In many ways, we were both fish out of water, but we were very different from each other, too. Despite our differences, we quickly developed a sisterhood that I would value throughout our time as roommates and to this day.
In our sisterhood, I was the Big Sis and Megumi was my Little Sister. The irony of this was that Megumi was a few years older than me, but because of our very noticeable height difference and the fact that Megumi was new to Pennsylvania and to the U.S. in general, I found myself feeling very protective of her, helping her navigate life at Penn State and always having her back, just as she had mine.
Our relationship was very much a reciprocal one; as I introduced her to Soul food and helped her with her English, she introduced me to seaweed and Mochi and taught me Japanese words and phrases. My favorite was, “Tabe sugimashita.” Translation: I eat too much. Megumi swore she never saw someone of my size with such an enormous appetite. She was convinced that everything I ate went to my feet. My size 10 feet said she was probably right. Megumi was there to soak up American culture and broaden her English communication skills, but the funny thing is, she left more of a mark here than she ever realized.
I think about the rampant wave of cruelty and violence we’ve seen against Asian and Pacific American people over the last year or so, random cruelty and violence toward a group of people based on their heritage. Please indulge my corniness for just a moment, but I can’t help but think — If we all had a conversation or shared a moment with someone of a different background, like I had the privilege of doing with Megumi, would we be less inclined to want to harm them?
Michelle Obama shared in her book Becoming that she learned “it’s harder to hate up close.” It’s easy to form misguided opinions and make assumptions of people we think are different from us when we are accustomed to only being around others who look like us, think like us, and have the same customs as us. Had I not had Megumi as a roommate, I may have never experienced the beauty and grace of Japanese culture. I may have never learned that although we looked like polar opposites, we had so much in common — like wanting to understand each other’s traditions, eating sweets at night, having a passion for fashion, and enjoying trips to the movies. And I definitely wouldn’t have learned that tabe sugimashita. And, quiet as it is kept… I still do.
I share my personal experience with you so as to invite you to challenge yourself. Step outside of your comfort zone and get to know someone beyond a surface level. When you get to know a person, you’ll be less inclined to tolerate harmful words and actions based on their race. It becomes harder to stand by in silence witnessing implicit or explicit bias. Let us all embrace opportunities to learn, grow, and value what those of differing identities have to offer… and what you have to offer them, as well.
Denita Wright Watson is the associate director of equity, inclusion, and advocacy at Penn State World Campus.