Harvard Supplement Essay: When In Rome

Harvard Supplement Essay: When In Rome


It was the first day of step tryouts, and I couldn’t have been more thrilled. I’d seen other students perform step routines and thought to myself “I want to do that!” But the moment I entered the cafeteria to tryout, I started feeling uneasy. Everyone towered over my diminutive 5’6” frame. These kids were nothing like the crowd I was used to. Everyone spoke with a different dialect of English, wore their jeans at lower altitudes, and several even sported tattoos on their forearms. Honestly, I thought they looked like thugs. It wasn’t that I’d never seen anyone like that before, but it’s really intimidating when you’re in a place full of them, and you’re the odd one out.

I grew up in a pretty typical Chinese household. As a kid, I spent my time playing the violin, doing homework, and trying to beat my friends at Nintendo 64 games. My elementary school was situated in a mostly white neighborhood, so most of my friends also turned out to be white. Playing football in junior high broadened my perspective some, but even then, I never did spend much time with African American kids because we lived in different neighborhoods.

But I wasn’t about to turn around and leave just because of cultural differences. I didn’t believe that it should matter. I was sure I could find plenty of common ground with these new future friends of mine, but even if not, at least we’d all share a passion for stepping.

Ten days of tryouts passed and I’d made the team, along with 20 others. Everyone was getting to know each other pretty well, but I still felt alone. Nobody was rude or anything; it was just whenever I’d greet someone, he would reply with the customary but unfortunately brief “Sup?” and after some small talk about what grade level they were in, I’d be stuck. I had no clue what to talk about because I didn’t follow sports, play sports videogames, watch BET, listen to the same music, or even share any classes.

However, they did come to appreciate my dedication and fair ability, but the respect was in a sense “professional”. We were more like coworkers as opposed to friends. Accepting the reality that I may never find common ground with my teammates, I came to practice only to step, and so long as I got to do that, I was content.

Despite the distance between me and the other steppers, they were actually really nice. Violin lessons and quartet rehearsals made me miss quite a few practices, but there was always somebody willing to help me catch up. The other members would even spend time on weekends to teach me, and I’d come to practice Monday as if I’d been there the whole time. I came to realize these kids were actually very kind and hard-working people; I was just too caught up in my own misconceptions to see it. But none the less, we were still just “acquaintances”.

Three months later, we won our first step competition. On the jubilant bus ride home, the distance between the other steppers and I began to disappear, and in the most unlikely way.

“Aye yo e’rrybody listen up! We gonna have a rap battle!” Joey B called out, illuminating the bus with his phone. I never did get his last name; everyone just called him Joey B. To his convenience, it had a nice ring to it that he hoped would boost his rap career. Like many of the step alumni, he had aspirations of becoming a famous artist.

“Every single one of y’all, ‘specially y’all rookies, is gonna do this!” An even mix of cheers and silence met his request, coming from the veterans and the rookies respectively. He started it off: “Awais over there, he’s cheap like a quarter. He even stank, like hot dog water!” The bus burst with laughter.

Awais, not to be humiliated, immediately retorted, “Joey B, you think yo’ raps are good, please. You better go make like a tree. Leave!” and everybody started cheering as the first battle began.

Slowly, the light from Joey’s phone moved toward the back of the bus.

Towards me.

Panic settled in. What do I know about freestyle rapping? What would happen if I was mid-sentence and couldn’t think of anything? I would die. Deep down, I wished I could fall out the bottom of the bus and forgotten. Before I could find an emergency exit, I’d been illuminated. I sat there, staring at the light, speechless. After some prodding, I lamely told them I wouldn’t. I felt like a loser, and all the more distant from other members of the team. As I wallowed in sadness, the rap-battle evolved into a game in which people would insert a phrase rhyming with the previous person’s: “I body-rock like I’m in heaven!”  the first one cried out.

“I body-rock at seven!” came the reply.  

“I body-rock when it’s eleven” shouted another.

“I body-rock at 7-11” came the last.

An awkward silence ensued; they’d exhausted every word rhyming with “heaven”. But then all of a sudden I had a moment of inspiration: Kevin rhymed with seven! Seizing my chance, I sprang out of my seat and shouted “I BODY-ROCK CUZ I’M KEVIN!”. The entire bus erupted into a cheer.  

“Kevin!” called out Joey, “that rhyme right there, it was hot. Do another, let’s see what you got!” The battle had begun. Taking a deep breath, I dove in.

“Joey-B, you gotta lotta nerve, you tryna call me out, well I’ll tell you now, SWERVE!” everyone waited in anticipation for Joey’s response.

“Little man, you ain’t got nuthin’ on me, I got mixtapes out the window, matter fact, here’s one free!” Joey tossed me the CD of his latest mix-tape.

“Ooooohh!” cried the audience.

“Mixtape? You know why it’s free? Ain’t nobody yet signed you, take it back, please!” The subsequent roar of the audience drowned everything out. Joey had no response. Worried I’d gone too far, I walked up the isle to apologize, but as I reached got closer, I saw a smile widen across his face as he reached a hand out to shake mine.

I had beaten a step alumni in a rap battle. All the rookies cheered me on, and gave me high fives and fist bumps. For the first time, I felt I was really part of the team, really one of them. From there on, the other members respected me on a more personal level, and I was no longer just a professional asset, but a fellow friend and teammate.

Looking back on step tryouts and the rap battle, I’ve learned not to jump to conclusions about people before getting to know them. It’s funny to think I was uncomfortable at all in their presence that first day, given how accommodating they turned out to be later on. In the two years since that first day of tryouts, I’ve had the pleasure of working with some of the finest gentlemen around, and despite huge initial differences, we have become the best of friends. Long after I retire my “step career”, I’ll bring with me the lessons I’ve learned through this team. I don’t believe there’s anyone or any group that can’t be gotten along with, nor do I believe there are differences too difficult to overcome.  

Now who said you can’t have an Asian on a step team?

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