My Fuqua team met itself by surprise, and I’m so glad we did. 

The time was early July. I found my seat in a lecture hall during our Duke Master of Management Studies orientation session. I was too nervous to bother with what time it was. The atmosphere was brewing with the courageous intimacy you’d only experience when you put a group of strangers from all over the world together in one room.

My heart palpitated with the unknown zest you’d feel before a pop-quiz, my mind habitually scanned the room for any opportunities to categorize each person. Is this person similar to me? Is this person part of the “us” or part of the “other?” Will this person make me feel safe and secure in their presence? Will this person be my future friend, or will they just be another LinkedIn connection?

I asked myself question after question, anticipating the worst, keeping tabs as the clock ticked.

After some ice breakers were done, our team assignments were revealed. These teams are a major component of the program and how we complete many class projects and tasks. There were five people on my team. Lev from Siberia, Jacob from Alabama in the U.S., Diviya from South India, Pratik from East India, and me, from both China and the southern U.S. For the next three months, we’d join hands and minds, figuratively and literally, tackling assignments with pressing deadlines while pursuing our career goals, from consulting, to strategy, to marketing, and even to web design.

One of the first times we’d met up with one another was through a day of team-building exercises that took place in the North Carolina wilderness, including one where we had to scale a wall. This event later evolved into Whatsapp messages of self-reflection when we’d experience personal obstacles.

dozens of MMS students supporting teammates climbing an obstacle course wall

The next day, I took another look at my team, and all of the sudden, the “us” versus “other” narrative became arbitrary. Because, all at once, it seemed like all of them are like me, even if we come from different places.

We have all felt “othered” in a room full of strangers. We have all felt fear, perhaps even feeling it right now. We all have goals, dreams, and people we love. Why does the difference between us and them matter, when we are all part of a team?

The answers are simple. The difference vanishes through bursts of laughter, arguably the best medicine for when you are stuck on a problem about dividends in Corporate Finance class, or about something as frustratingly exciting as dating apps. It vanishes through small acts of kindness. Grocery store runs for our team dinner, and confessions of imposter syndrome, family stress, and uncertainty about the future. Through announcements about time management, frustrating moments of miscommunication, and situations that truly tested our patience for other people and cultures.

From working with my team, I understood that there are not just two worlds, two planes, and two modes of existence, but an unquantifiable bunch of life experiences, profound emotions, and human stories that made us as much individuals as our imagined collectives.

Every moment of our time together resembled the rush of cultural collision one would feel when a dopamine-heavy dance circle at a Diwali celebration merged with a reckless sea of post-finals joy at a sporting event tailgate. Though we had a mindset of hustling, of a time-crunch that kept us on our toes, of “let’s get it done so we can get out of here,” the camaraderie began to seep into our time together.

I will also learn that I, a child of two cultures, was wrong about my reality all along. I was wrong in that the world was never just “two.” It was never just the binary of “us” and the “other.” The cultures that exist in this world, in this Fuqua academic building, and in our community are unquantifiable, undefinable, and rich in ambiguity.

I am part of “us” just as how I am part of my team. Part of the sweat and tears when attempting to complete a colossal task in the wilderness and part of the universal feeling of gratification flushing our cheeks with excitement and wonder. Part of the pure frustration when the numerical results of our assignment do not match up and part of the “aha” lightbulb moment of finding that sweet spot between result-driven work and a loving heart for teamwork. Part of our daily commitment to utilize our differences as fuel for growth and part of the willful ignorance when trying to not count the fast-approaching days until graduation.

My Fuqua team met itself by surprise, and I like to feel that each of us met ourselves in the process too.