My brother and I were on the airplane, the two of us next to each other in a three-person row. We were sad because we were leaving Beijing. Leaving Beijing meant leaving Yeye and Nainai and their Alzheimer’s disease and their colon cancer, and it meant leaving heritage and old roots only just rediscovered. We were annoyed because the child behind us had already started crying. I needed to finish a column for a newspaper. The old man on my other side was very nice.
At least we thought he was an old man — we talked to him later, as the plane started to descend to Newark. He was only a dad. His oldest daughter had just gotten into Columbia for engineering.
“Are you guys in high school?” he asked.
“No, I’m in college.”
“Where do you go?”
I paused for a couple of seconds. “Princeton.”
He paused for a couple of seconds with his head cocked at me before he belted out, “That’s amazing!” I shrunk a little into my seat, especially under the sudden glances of other passengers (many sleepy-eyed). He immediately asked me what I had done in high school and what I was doing at Princeton now and what did I want to major in? And also, what do I want to do in life? We had good conversation; eventually he asked me for my email — for his younger daughter, who was still in high school. We talked until the plane landed and I wondered if being associated with the name of Princeton had taught me anything.
Fast forward to my first time experiencing hibachi — Japanese barbecue — in a distant state. We all sat at a large table; six of us, three of them. “Them” was a middle-aged mother who was still very blonde, her 12-year-old daughter and her daughter’s friend. She asked us if we were on vacation. Yes, we were. She asked if we were college students. Yes, we were. Where did we go to school? Princeton.
“Oh, my God!” she cried, eyes opening wider than I would have thought possible – “Oh my God, you go to Princeton!” She clasped her chest and turned. “Girls, we are with some very smart young ladies here!”
They laughed nervously. We laughed, too. As I laughed, I thought about how being associated with Princeton — being the possible participant or subject of these sorts of conversations — has taught me to notice and understand, well, differences. Allow me to elaborate.
These two encounters are not unique. But they highlight the range of ways people react to “the P-bomb”, as well as the way I’ve reacted to their responses. It has shown me that the phrase “I go/went to Princeton” is many things. It can be things which have been done before and perhaps even overdone. Privileged. Pretentious. Prideful. It can also be awe-inspiring or intimidating or reverential. It could be, in other ways, endearing.
We all know that it creates some sort of effect. I have certainly not experienced the full range of situations and emotions which comes with bearing the blessing — or perhaps the burden — of an Ivy League name. What have encounters like these — in my one year or so of being associated with Princeton — shown me? What effects have they already had?
The topic of Princeton stereotypes and the way students are viewed by others has been discussed before. It has been discussed in this very section, with a friend of mine illuminating the socioeconomic connotations which come along with saying, “I’m a Princeton student,” and another columnist addressing the apparent inaccessibility of Ivy League institutions and students. Although the subject of these articles, elegantly called “Ivy league elitism,” is not what I am talking about here, I find it respectful and enlightening to refer back to what they have said. I find that what they have said is true, at least through my eyes.
I find that being associated with Princeton has shown me how wide small differences can sometimes be. In the different walks of life I am now more able to detect subtleties and nuances; several thousand dollars can make an ocean of difference. Majoring in, say, the Wilson School, as opposed to politics, can lead to very divergent roads. Speaking a Level Two as opposed to a Level One of English can be make a difference even in Trenton. What effects have these encounters had on me? They have begun to open my mind, yes, but they have also spoken to me of the things I have to learn down this journey I’ve only just begun.
Lavinia Liang is a freshman from Poughkeepsie, N.Y. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.