Stepping outside of my comfort zone is by no means an easy task. At least that’s the thought that was flowing through my mind as I climbed out of the car. The bitter wind immediately startled my body which had become acclimated to the heat of the car. My heels clicked on the concrete sidewalk as I held my puffy winter coat tight around my body. I had no clue where I was headed. My only directions were listed on the simple, paper invitation that I had received a week earlier. Luckily I was surrounded by two of my closest friends who were also dressed for the occasion. Our above-the-knee dresses and high heels seemed contradictory to the thin layer of snow still on the grass from days earlier.
We glanced frantically around the unfamiliar scene before deciding that the large, brick building with the word “Union” pasted on the side was our final destination. We quickly made our way into the building, hoping to escape the frigid air outside. The second the door closed behind us, my body instantly warmed. I wiggled my toes, trying to rid them of their numbing sensation. We slowly navigated the brightly lit Student Union, checking around each corner and through every doorway to make sure we didn’t miss our turn. By the time we made it to the rickety elevator, I had loosened the hold on my coat. Still, I made sure to leave it zippered up. The cold was gone but nerves rapidly took its place.
It didn’t take long for the elevator to reach the second floor. I glanced down at my red and yellow invitation one more time, confirming that we made it to the right place. The words “Lunar New Year Party” stretched across the top of it and I was left wondering what I had gotten myself into. As I looked up, my eyes instantly met the ballroom. Circular tables lined the wall all the way from the bare stage to the grand back door where we entered. Each one was decorated with a bright red table cloth and fancy silverware. Despite the decor, the room felt casual and welcoming rather than pretentious and snotty.
An exchange student from school invited us in, her familiar face a welcoming sight among a room of strangers. She lead us to our table, one on the right side of the room and second from the front stage. As we took our seats, I finally shed my winter coat, leaving me open to the warm room. My simple white, lace dress and burgundy cardigan felt plain compared to the elaborate, traditional dresses some of the exchange students wore. Their elegant outfits flowed all the way to the ground, covered in vibrant colors and jewels that sparkled under the fluorescent lights.
As I took in my surroundings, the real show began. Another fellow classmate of mine stepped up onto the stage, his suit a representation of his role for the night as the MC. As the microphone crackled on, his voice boomed and filled the room. Everyone’s gazed snapped up from their phones or side conversations as their attention went straight to him. Despite the straps he found under the stage lights, he remained seemingly unfazed. His dialogue flowed when he told jokes as if he was having a conversation with the audience. The more he talked, the more my nerves left my body. Laughter filled the room, lightening the mood and making everyone less anxious. For a split moment, the fact that I was immersed in a completely different culture seemed to escape my mind.
Reality suddenly set back in when the beating of a drum grabbed the attention of the room. It was quickly followed by three more drums, all beating to a similar rhythm. Everyone scooted their chairs around in hopes of being able to catch a glimpse of the back of the room. I once again realized how out of place I was. The wooden doors creaked open and in waltzed five Chinese dragons. Each one was covered completely in a bright, colored fur, shielding the two dancers that controlled its movements. The dragons were adorned with golden cords and fine fabric, each on slightly different from the next. Even their eyes – which fluttered open and shut as the danced saw fit – were unique. They slowly made their way to the front of the room, dancing in time with the drums. Every beat was another step forward until they reached the stage. From there the dance intensified. All ten of the dancers moved in time with the music, allowing the dragons to dance as a unified group. The music was drowned out by applause as the dragons marched back out of the room, leaving an excited crowd behind.
The energy lifted the spirits in the room as conversation grew. Even my side conversation with the girls sitting directly next to me was drowned out by the noise of the room. My eyes flew around the room and noticed that people were beginning to leave their seats. Their chairs scrapped against the floor, adding to the chaos. The girl informed me that it was time to eat and that’s what was leading to the craziness. We scooted back our chairs and made our way to the back corner of the room.
Behind a hard, gray divider was an assortment of food from America and Vietnam. The second we were within a few feet of the buffet, my nose was overwhelmed with the sweet aroma. A mixture of meats, fruits, and sauces filled the air. Many of the smells I couldn’t even identify. Some salads were made of lettuce, others of fruit covered with a white, creamy, sweet sauce. There was crisp fried chicken placed directly next to a mixture of variety sliced meats I had never seen before. Nearby I found traditional egg rolls (ones much more authentic than the bagged ones we received at school when they served “Chinese food”). The line was covered in dishes, each one containing another food unfamiliar to me.
After picking a variety of options, I gradually made my way across the brightly lit ballroom, my arms bearing the weight of two overflowing plates. The show continued on, students singing a mix of traditional songs in Vietnamese – ones that flowed off the tongue to a perfect melody – and pop songs in English we could all understand. I slowly picked at my food, first chowing down the dishes I was most familiar with. I was ultimately left with traditional Vietnamese food.
The girl next to me pointed at a plastic glass full of a sugary fruit mix and recommended I try it. I didn’t want to be rude so I grabbed the cup despite my worry. The white fruit reminded me of a cherry covered in artificial sugars and juices as it rested on the plastic spoon. I brought it to my mouth as a swallowed hard, not knowing what to expect. I thought it would be bitter or sour, but instead it was sweet, almost like a pear. The texture of a cherry covered my tongue as thick sugar slid down my throat. I urged others to try it, confirming that it was actually pretty good. Later on I learned that it was lychee, and continued to eat it throughout the evening.
As the sky darkened outside, the ballroom became dimly lit as the only source of light was artificial. Yet that never dampened the mood. We were all called out to the “dance floor”, the middle of the ballroom. Teens, dressed in their Sunday best, tore off their dress shoes and heels and sprinted to the middle. The room went nearly dark as music blared through the speakers. Everyone bounced to the beat of the American pop music, throwing their hands in the air. The temperature rose quickly from the closeness and energy of the dancers. Yet that never dampened the mood.
As I hopped along to the music with all of the adolescents, I reflected on my night. Even in midwestern Nebraska, I managed to find myself immersed in a culture whose home was on the other side of the world. In the middle of the ballroom, surrounded by decorated tables and traditional food, teenagers of different societies danced side by side to American pop music from 2012. I realized that there truly was no disparity between us. Although we wore different clothes, spoke different languages, and ate different food, we were all teenagers. And at the end of the night, being teenagers was the only similarity we needed.