By Rhea Kumar
There is something especially comforting about brunch in the Branford dining hall on a cloudy Sunday morning. Miranda Melcher and I each grab a plate of chocolate chip pancakes and settle down in a quiet corner in the dining hall annex.
“Breakfast is the only Western meal I actually like,” Miranda admits. “I grew up eating a wide variety of Asian food, mostly Chinese, but also Vietnamese, Malaysian, and Indian. I don’t eat salads, cheeseburgers, hamburgers, and potatoes. So I’m not a huge fan of dining hall food.”
This may sound strange to someone who’s unfamiliar with Miranda’s background and childhood. At first glance, with her pale skin and brown hair, Miranda could easily pass off as any American. Indeed, her family is American. But Miranda, who moved to Beijing when she was nine and attended a British high school there, feels her American heritage forms only a small part of her identity. Miranda’s parents met in Hong Kong after graduating from college and decided to move to Beijing when she was 9 because they wanted to learn Mandarin and were fascinated by Chinese culture. Everything about her, including the “I love Beijing” T-Shirt she is wearing, is a statement of how her personality has been influenced by a wide range of cultures.
I quickly realize that Miranda is quite the foodie. She emphasizes again how her tastes vary sharply from those of her fellow Americans. “My list of comfort foods is really bizarre and makes no coherent sense,” she laughs. Her sober face lights up as she describes her favorite “food memories” from her childhood. “Many Saturday mornings, my mother would cook two huge dishes of chana masala (chickpeas) and dal (lentils) and put them in the refrigerator along with a batch of idlis (rice cakes). When my mom wasn’t home during the week, and I did not want to cook, I would heat some idlis and some dal and that would be my comfort meal. Amazingly enough, even today I could eat idli and dal for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.” I was pleasantly surprised as I heard this, firstly because Miranda identified with foods from my country (India), but, more importantly, because idlis are one of my favorite foods too!
“Chicken dumplings are another personal favorite,” Miranda tells me. “Our housekeeper in Beijing did not eat pork, so although dumplings are not generally prepared with chicken, we ate chicken dumplings at home.” Perhaps one of the few Western foods Miranda enjoys is spaghetti with tomato sauce, which was the first thing she learnt how to cook. Everything else is often “too bland.”
It’s not just her palate that sets Miranda apart from her American peers. The differences run broader and deeper. Miranda describes her political viewpoints as somewhat blurred and maybe even at odds with mainstream US political views. “I do not know what my ideal political system is but it probably comes closest to the parliamentary government in Britain. I find the United States political system interesting, but it isn’t mine. Sometimes I am in favor of a police state as well because I feel it is efficient, but I am also wary of the human rights abuses in states like China.” But just like with everything else, she is completely comfortable being who she is and thinking the way she does. “My only problem is when I have to vote in the US. It is a strange feeling, voting for a system you don’t identify with.”
Since most of her education was outside the US, she is not very familiar with American history, perhaps the consequence of attending British school. “Throughout high school, I studied European, Asian and Soviet history extensively. My knowledge of American history before I came to Yale stemmed largely from my understanding of the US foreign policy and its interactions with the rest of the world, but I had very limited knowledge of the domestic politics in the US that shaped its foreign policy.” Miranda feels that this sometimes poses a challenge to her social and intellectual interactions with Americans as well as non-Americans on the campus. “It’s difficult for other people to understand that I look and sound American but do not know enough American history.”
As we touch on a diverse range of subjects, and I get a sense of the person that Miranda is, I realize that she is very appreciative of Chinese ideology and people, which is not entirely unexpected, since she has lived in China for most of her formative years. Miranda feels that the US media often projects an incorrect picture of the situation in China. “It’s hard to speak for the aspirations of the 20+ million people who live in Beijing. Certainly, human rights and democracy are burning issues in China, especially among the prosperous and educated. But the real issues that people in Beijing care about are economic issues – land rights, economic inequalities and environmental pollution. The commoners in China have led multiple protests on these issues, but these protests have largely stayed out of the media.”
After about two years in the US, Miranda’s food and political preferences still remain relatively unchanged. But other things have changed. “I came here with a distinct British accent but now I sound completely American. It was hard enough to explain the white girl from China to people, the British accent further complicated things.”
In many ways, Miranda feels that attending a British high school made it more difficult for her to adjust to American life than other American expats (there are about 10 in each freshman class, according to Yale admissions office statistics). “None of my friends at high school were American, and the only Americans I had ever interacted with before coming to Yale were my family members and their friends.”
So why did the American expat in China decide to attend a British school? It is a remarkable story, one that speaks of young Miranda’s insight and independence. After moving to Beijing from a rigorous elementary school in California, Miranda attended a local Chinese school for six months, followed by an IB international school for one year, and was also home schooled for 6 months while studying Mandarin. But she felt she wasn’t being challenged enough academically. When Miranda was eleven, she and her younger sister (now studying at NYU) told her parents she would like to attend one of the British schools in Beijing, known for being the most academically rigorous. Her parents, while initially skeptical, decided to let Miranda and her sister try it out for a year. “And we loved it,” she tells me emphatically. Looking back, though, Miranda doesn’t think her decision was particularly daring or path-breaking. “It wasn’t like I was asking my parents to let me try out a new education system. Academic rigor was just something I was used to and the British school offered that. Sure, the other schools were great too, but they just did not offer the kind of learning I liked. It was all about the right fit.”
For Miranda, Yale is the right fit as well, though perhaps for different reasons than a lot of the other international students. Already exposed to the cultures of three continents, Miranda has been fascinated by certain other regions of the world for as long as she can remember: the Middle East and Africa. Since middle school, she decided she wanted to study civil wars in these regions. While deciding on her college applications in her senior year at school, Yale was her top choice as it ranked first in the US, on research in her subject of interest.
When I marvel at Miranda’s focus since such an early age, she merely shrugs. “I grew up British in my thinking process.” In typical Brit fashion, Miranda loves structure and focus. The liberal arts curriculum at Yale, with its multiple distributional requirements and its emphasis on encouraging students to explore various subjects, confounds her. “I came in knowing what I wanted to study and that is what I am studying now. All of my classes have been with the same few professors specializing in civil war theory.” On a lighter note, she says “My suitemates joke that, if I don’t know about a country, it hasn’t recently had a war. That is slightly disturbing, I guess, but that’s just what I am passionate about.”
So does she feel frustrated by the liberal arts curriculum at times? “Certainly,” she sighs. “College in the United Kingdom would have definitely been more focused. But I probably wouldn’t have had a chance to explore so many different extra-curricular activities.” At Yale, Miranda is involved heavily with the Yale International Relations Association, has been involved in several of their Model UN conferences, and is the Secretary General for this year’s YMUN Korea. She is also the Managing English Editor for Accent, an undergraduate multilingual magazine, and is involved in Jewish life through the Slifka center. “Without a doubt, I am very fortunate to be at Yale. And I do plan to attend graduate school in the UK, so I will get there. Eventually.”
So would she want to work in the UK eventually? Is that what she calls home? “It’s difficult for me to call one place home,” Miranda says after pondering over my question for a bit. “Beijing was home till my friends and family were there, but neither are there any longer. New York is home now because my family lives there, but it is not where I am from.” As for where she wants to live and work, Miranda feels it is too soon to decide.
“I’m a third culture kid,” Miranda says gravely. “It doesn’t matter where I stay. I can live anywhere.” A true global citizen, in mind, in spirit, and at heart.
Rhea Kumar ’18 is in Branford College. Contact her at email@example.com.