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TEDxDA: Putting the Chinese in Takeout
By Elizabeth Wong '23

I think high school is when you really start to discover who you are because you mature and develop as a person so much in such a short span of time. For me, I really started exploring more about what it meant to be a Chinese American woman starting in my junior year. 

During and after the pandemic, I felt more connected to Chinese culture than ever. I remember that it was a real wake-up call when I saw a news headline one morning that told the story of a Chinese restaurant owner being assaulted and their restaurant vandalized with graffiti saying ‘Kung Flu’. It hit really close to home for me. I have multiple local relatives who own restaurants, and it was alarmingly easy to imagine the same thing happening to them. 

For my family, food is a pillar of our heritage like many other cultures around the world. It represents a sense of togetherness and familial devotion, but to be honest I was never very open about the complexities of Chinese culture with people outside my home. Chinese food is something I’ve tended to shy away from in conversations simply because it can be controversial at times. For example, some of my favorite dishes consist of ingredients that are considered taboo to Americans (e.g. cow tongue stew). When you grow up around looks of disgust from others at some of your favorite home-cooked meals, you tend to learn from those mistakes pretty quickly and stop talking about it. 

So when I was given the chance to apply to be a speaker at Durham Academy’s first-ever TEDx event in January, I knew I wanted to talk about discrimination against Chinese Americans and use food as a vehicle for that. 

A lot of the brainstorms and conversations I had with mentors were about my experiences growing up and feeling like I had to hide a huge part of my identity because it was too appalling for others to hear about. More than that, it was a criticism of both parts of my Chinese and American identity. It was a criticism of Chinese culture for hiding a beautiful, vulnerable part of our identity and disguising the white-washed version as an authentic representation of Chinese culture. And it was a criticism toward American culture for being obtuse to the diversity that was so prevalent in our surrounding communities. This speech allowed me to come to terms with my identity and was a big step forward in acknowledging the mistakes that are made surrounding issues of cultural assimilation. I think these conversations and stories are ones that need to be told to truly understand the perspective of minority groups around the world. 

In academic settings, it’s easy to lose track of what you’re truly passionate about in favor of getting a better grade. By doing this TEDxDA talk, it forced me to confront some of the emotions and feelings that have been in the back of my mind for the past few years. When you truly do something for yourself, it’s vulnerable and it’s scary. But this has been one of the best experiences I’ve had and is a landmark of personal growth for me as well. It was empowering to give this speech because it wasn’t something for a class or even other people, but rather it was something for me. 

Seven other Upper School students joined Wong in delivering speeches at the January TEDxDA event:

Connor Ennis ’24 - “How to Be a Raindrop in a Storm”

Triyakshari Venkataraja ’23 - “Your Memory Sucks. Here’s Why.”

Aneesh Patkar ’25 - “The Competition Plaguing School … and Our Minds”

London Burnham ’23 - “The Psychology of Authoritarianism”

Ajibola Nureni-Yusuf ’25 - “Black Families, Home Ownership, Gentrification, and What You Can Do to Help: A Durham Case Study”

Robert Liu ’24 - “China Fluency: Re-Imagining the Way We See China One Student at a Time”

Ella Simmons ’23 - “How the Engineering Design Process Can Help Solve Systemic Issues”

Joining the speakers in making the event a success were Blake Roper ’23 and Max Tendler ’23. Roper served as a stage manager, ensuring that the technical aspects of the show ran smoothly. Tendler, a member of DA’s speech and debate team, helped coach speakers on pacing and delivery.


Watch a playlist of TEDxDA talks: