Guess Who's Not Coming to Dinner Again?

Who are you and what makes you who you are, I had been asked. Sitting in a circle, I found it hard to contain my laughter as I was told that I was ...

Feb 14, 2015

Who are you and what makes you who you are, I had been asked. Sitting in a circle, I found it hard to contain my laughter as I was told that I was doing the exercise wrong. Of course, this laugher came easily; since the two above questions were mentioned I had been giggling on and off.
I was at Guess Who's Coming to Dinner: An Intercultural Experience. I had looked forward to meeting some of the students who had spent their previous semester abroad, those who had just arrived to Abu Dhabi for the first time and those students I’d unfortunately not had the chance to bump into.
How am I supposed to answer that question in five minutes when I could spend my whole life figuring it out? It had been a long Monday, and I was trying my best to pull myself together and philosophize over what life meant.
It was naïve to think that I needed to concentrate that hard because the answers turned out to be quite simple. So simple that it hadn’t even crossed my mind that they would be requested. Labels.
The questions kept pouring in:
“Did anyone list their socio-economic status? Or their gender identity?”
Don’t get me wrong, I am forever grateful that this university does so much to engage us in intercultural dialogue. Often, however, these little ice-breaker games that are supposed to show the global and multicultural nature of our community end up being counterproductive. Not only are labels subjective, they are also shallow, constraining and misleading.
First of all, one main shortcoming of labels is simply that they often are extremely subjective. For example, I label myself as a scout. People can easily misunderstand that label and create associations that might not apply to me. No, I don’t know what Girl Scout cookies are. No, I don’t collect badges. Instead, I sing folk songs, learn about my Hungarian heritage, hike, camp and learn how to give back to my community. What one label might mean to me can mean a completely different thing to another, creating a false impression of another person.
Often, the leaders of these ice-breakers do recognize the problems with labels. Sometimes these sort of labeling exercises are used to show us that labels cannot be complete descriptions. However, I don't understand why these exercises need to happen in the first place. Many of us — perhaps all — are aware that labeling is shallow. Therefore, these exercises are an unfit starting point for those deep conversations that aim to reconcile cultural disparities and understand underlying differences among the student body. We should move beyond labels and stop trying to demonstrate the divisions of which we are already well aware.
Another fault of superficial labels is that they are often used in the form of lists; lists that keep piling up and that students feel the pressure to add to. In conversation, when I brought up the use of labels some students mentioned that there is an expectation to be diverse and have unique characteristics. Later on, a senior who wishes to remain anonymous wrote to me:
“[These] well-intentioned [intercultural] exercises become strenuous and you start running out of special things and become pressured to make them up when everyone else around you seems to have so many of them. Truth is … in the end we are all still normal people and that’s OK.”
While I personally have not experienced this to a large degree, I do feel that there is a lot of emphasis placed by administration on our differences, like the constant mention of the countries we come from, or the languages we speak.
Furthermore, instead of forcing an answer to who we are and what makes us who we are, we should allow for more flexibility, reflection and even more open-ended questions. Many of us are here at NYU Abu Dhabi to figure these questions out. Forcing us to label ourselves does nothing but constrain us, hindering our development. As a liberal arts university that places so much emphasis on exploring and pursuing previously undefined roads, why are we always asked to define ourselves?
Melinda Szekeres is news editor. Email her at
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