Kelly Yu / Gavel Media

A Sense of Belonging at TCO’s Retreat

Arriving early at 9:30 on a Saturday morning in the Murray function room, I snuck a glance at the map laid out on the table. One sticker for every person to mark where they’re from. With people from California to as far away as Taiwan, and also students from here in Boston, on the surface, it seemed that we all came from different places. However, centering on the Taiwanese Cultural Organization’s (TCO) theme of “home” for this year’s retreat, by the end of the day, I realized how a sense of belonging transcended where we came from.

As people slowly trickled in, we all mingled and got to know each other through a few introductory games. First was bingo worksheets, where we would write down the names of people who fit or agreed with the prompt. Questions ranged from the mundane (east coaster?) to the impressive (speaks 3+ languages), and even a few controversial ones (cereal is a soup). After presenting the board and quick introductions within smaller groups, we started our first activity of the day: 大風吹 (Dàfēng chuī), translated as the strong wind blows. A staple in retreats and icebreaker activities, we got to know each other’s names and habits, familiarizing ourselves before the more vulnerable conversations that were to follow.

We then broke up into our smaller groups, focusing on themes of home, identity, and how it was expressed here at BC. For some, the transition to BC freshman year was harder than others, with a longing for home casting a shadow over what was a smooth transition for others. However, what we all agreed on was that BC’s wider campus lacked the sense of cultural community we sought, especially with its status as a predominantly white institution. Less anything specific than a general sense of understanding, for many of us TCO and the wider Asian Caucus community was a place where we could find others with a similar cultural background. Whether it was something as trivial as taking one’s shoes off at the dorm entrance or a love of boba, or deeper issues such as missing the feeling of home, we all talked about how we found friends, connection, and belonging through the club.

After our discussion amongst ourselves, we attended a panel consisting of two alumni (Crystal Chen CSOM ‘21, Cassi King CSON ‘21) and two seniors (Maddy Zhang MCAS ‘22, Haiyun Zhu CSOM ’22), who answered our questions on life at BC, what came next, and about their identities. Something that surprised me was their attitudes towards BC; many of them echoed the idea that they had doubts about the school, and initially did not feel like it was the school for them. One panelist talked about having to code-switch between different social groups and people in order to fit in. This was by no means an attitude that was unique to the school; another panelist remarked that “the only thing I can talk to my white colleagues about is The Bachelor.” And while it was in some ways discouraging to hear, the stories of finding friends to make their four years worth it provided a sense of hope that things can end up working out. A lot of what we talked in our small groups was affirmed by the panelists, and how while BC as a whole might never feel like home, it’s the people, not the place, that can bring reassurances.

However, we were reminded that while people can help offset the lack of belonging, it’s oftentimes a complicated process. When asked about the balance between conformity and belonging, the answers were far from clear-cut. One panelist suggested finding people who could empathize with you but urged balance and making friends outside of an Asian bubble. Others suggested that sometimes conformity could create belonging, and how adapting to a social group was not hiding ourselves, but that the self was an aggregate of these different faces. Perhaps the most interesting perspective came from a panelist who worked as a nurse at the Veterans Association. Conflicted between her identity and the veterans’ experiences fighting in Korea and Vietnam, she found it difficult to confront the patients she worked with about their microaggressions. Even though they all pointed to relationships with others as key to enjoying and finding belonging at BC, all four panelists made it abundantly clear that it was a difficult dynamic to navigate.

Next came lunch, with a variety of traditional Taiwanese foods. From braised pork belly with rice to fish and noodles, and other options such as tomato egg over rice, the delicious food provided an opportunity to connect with others on the retreat. Also present was the cultural icon and Asian American staple, Taiwanese milk tea. We strayed away from the deeper conversations, focusing on getting to know each other’s hobbies and interests. Half an hour of questions (where are you from) and jokes (no, where are you really from) later, I heard stories about living in Taiwan, learned about the culture shock of moving across multiple countries in Asia, and even a few impressions on the Ukraine crisis, which had started just a day earlier, and what that meant for Chinese-Taiwanese power dynamics.

Our next group activity was an activity known as “gradients,” which functioned similarly to four corners, but with a focus on introspection. There were five lines on the ground: strongly agree, agree, neutral, disagree, and strongly disagree. Our job was to choose one in response to the question posed. Initially, it started out mundane and trivial, with questions like “I would rather live in the city or the country,” but soon posed questions that were much more difficult to answer. Many of these focused on family, a common theme throughout the retreat. I remember one question clearly: “I would marry someone I do not love to preserve the family name.” To most people, the answer would be a resounding no; one only needs to look at the popularity of Romeo and Juliet or Crazy Rich Asians to see how much true love in the face of tradition is idolized.

Most people in that room likely would have answered no as well on most days. Yet the group was nearly evenly split. Some of my closest friends, to my surprise, ended up in neutral or even agree. It was not the only question focused on filial piety; others included staying close to your parents and avoiding sending them to a nursing home. But it stood out to me because of how these other aspects of Asian family dynamics—money, support, and jobs—had been discussed before. To me, it was a twofold lesson, both in how much western society idolizes love, and how when it conflicts with filial piety, silent acknowledgment can help one formulate their thoughts and start to talk about it.

After gradients came our final small group discussion of the retreat. Keeping in the theme of family, we started reflecting on our own experiences and our conflicts with our parents. One person’s comment about her parents wanting her to be a doctor or coder was met with murmurs of approval. Another story about trying to explain the effects of mental health led to others sharing similar stories. Eventually, the conversation shifted to the future and our views on family. One student talked about not wanting to have children due to climate change, while another sparked a debate over what was the right age to have children. Maturity, the right partner, the state of the world, finances, and whether to adopt were all concerns we discussed. Despite the discussion over what was the best set of actions to take, we all agreed that we should learn from the way we were raised. Between the more traditional Asian parental norms and the radically opposite Western approach, we agreed that neither had all of the answers.

Our final activity for the retreat was titled "affirmations." For those who took part in the 48 Hours retreat as freshmen, it was similar to the string activity. Someone started with a ball of yarn, which they held onto and threw to another person after giving them an affirmation. The next person would grab onto a part of the yarn and throw it to someone else, creating a web of string that linked everyone at the retreat. As an ending to the retreat, it reminded us to keep up the friendships we had built with others during the day and to remember that TCO was a community where we could find support and belonging anytime.

As the retreat wound down, I started to reflect on the day’s events. Ending on a slow note, it was hard to tell anything profound had happened. My friend was learning the ropes of mahjong, one of the co-presidents was lamenting the budgeting of the retreat, and I was studying for my midterms in the coming week. But I had a hard time focusing on memorizing formulas and adjusting variables, as my brain kept wandering and reflecting on all I had learned about others, and through them what I had learned about myself. While getting to know other people is one of the best aspects of life here at Boston College, oftentimes I found it difficult to talk about more personal topics, something which the retreat excelled at. 

Retreat culture is big at Boston College, but TCO is undoubtedly one of the best I have been to. It perhaps may have been shorter than others, but within the day the connections I made with people will no doubt be ones that will stick with me for the rest of my college years. The activities pointed a serious eye at ourselves and helped us reflect, while the conversations and perspectives of others were a reassuring reminder that everyone has their struggles and that you can turn to others for support. It also did touch upon experiences within the wider Asian Caucus, yet retained an intimate feel compared to the bigger retreats such as CSA. Doing a brilliant job of navigating the difficult yet essential conversations surrounding belonging, culture, and relationships, TCO retreat is something that I look forward to participating in for years to come.