Greenhouse Flower and Diversity

Two years ago, when I started Wharton, I knew I was heading into an adventure. I was both excited and nervous since I had never spent more than four months outside of China. And while I expected to grow academically and professionally, the most important lesson that I’d learn would not be related to either. Now, as the adventure is about to end, it’s a good time to reflect and share this lesson with all of you, my dear classmates. It’s about learning to be comfortable when I am not the majority.

I was born in a typical middle class family in urban China. I’m from the coastal area, a.k.a. rich area. Growing up, I always had a strong sense of belonging. My parents are still together. I’m male. I went to good schools and was a good student through and through. I’m talkative, sociable and usually have a lot of friends. All these automatically placed me in the mainstream, or majority, of Chinese society; an environment that is relatively homogenous, and sometimes discourages the opinions of minorities. But of course, I didn’t understand this back then, because I was almost never in the minority group and I completely took it for granted.

James Gong Pic2

In college, I stuck with classmates from big cities and good schools, because we were just like each other. We loved traveling, karaoke and posting selfies on social media. At work, I mostly hung out with colleagues with similar backgrounds, because it was so easy to talk to them. As a result, I became a member of a few groups, and we didn’t like people outside the groups.

The Chinese have a term for kids who grow up in very comfortable conditions, and therefore struggle when they are out of their comfort zone – the greenhouse flowers. As much as I didn’t want to admit, I realized that I was one of the greenhouse flowers when I came to Wharton because I clearly struggled right off the bat.

I used to speak very little in my class project team, because a) I didn’t know much about the context of the cases, since most were US-oriented; b) I was concerned about my ability to speak as clearly and fluently as I wanted. My social life was also going nowhere. I remember there was a wine club social event at the beginning of the first semester. I decided to go to, but was too scared to go in at the door when I arrived, because I didn’t know what to talk about.

Since then I started to understand that this was me having trouble switching from majority to minority. I knew that I was going to be a minority before school started. What I didn’t realize was how much being majority meant to me. This revelation hit me like a ton of bricks. I was finally able to see myself from another standpoint and realize how arrogant, closed-minded and even stupid I had been. By closing the door to minority opinions, I had essentially foregone the perspectives from the other side and stuck in my own biases all these years.

After that, I decided to change. I wanted to learn how to be a responsible minority, and to stop being a greenhouse flower. I convinced myself that I don’t need people to always agree with me, but I do need to raise my voice. I shouldn’t feel pressured to do what most people do, but rather I should follow my heart. When I’m not the leader of the team, I should always think about how I can contribute, even in a minor supporting role.

This repositioning has since opened a window for me. I became more respectful of diversity. I became calmer in situations where I felt uncomfortable, and tried to engage productively as opposed to easily being discouraged and frustrated. This repositioning even drove me to become the co-president of Wharton Greater China Club in my second year, and we did everything we could to connect the Chinese community with the broader Wharton school.

In a few days, my adventure will come to an end. Afterwards, I will return to China, my comfort zone, and regain my identity as majority. I am excited, but this time around, much more grateful. I will be fully aware that everything -my family, education, and working backgrounds- give me some advantages, but I will not let those define me as person. I hope I will never go back to being a greenhouse flower and I will always be willing and patient to listen to the minority.

The world is an incredibly diverse society and is integrating faster than ever before. After being both majority and minority in the past few years, I strongly believe that diversity is vital for our development as human beings and embracing diversity is the best way to grow in the long term for any country. America is lucky enough to be one of the most diverse nations in the world and I hope everyone will continue to appreciate this diversity. It’s not wise to be a greenhouse flower, and it’s always helpful to listen and understand.

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