I stood in the corner of a dimly lit fraternity house, solo cup in hand, observing the commotion in front of me. The air reeked of cheap beer accompanied by the occasional crisp sound of ping pong balls landing in cups. I had two thoughts in mind: it is surreal that I’m finally at college after a year of online school and I can’t believe how much I’m enjoying a fraternity party.
Before coming to Penn, I harbored little intention of going to fraternity parties, let alone rushing a fraternity. My only experience with American social culture at the time was my boarding high school in southern Pennsylvania, and my sole cognizance of fraternity parties are from movies and TV shows. My idea of “a frat bro" was someone who always wears their cap backward, puts a sports jersey over a hoodie, and talks in a brassy deep voice. I, a nerdy Asian kid who is more artistic than athletic, did not necessarily fit that archetype — or at least my perception of it.
Thinking that I had to fit that mold in order to fit in at a fraternity party, I was nervous when my friend invited me to one. Though, in the spirit of trying more new things, I went regardless.
As I walked up to the house, nervously screaming internally, I decided to put on a façade of what I perceived a stereotypical fraternity brother to be, hoping that it would allow me to fit in. I stepped in, started dabbing people up, greeting them with “’sup,” and calling strangers “bro.” To my delight, I was chatting with a dozen different strangers, pulling up to different pong tables, and blending in. This isn’t so bad, I thought. As antithetical as it may sound, I had a lot of fun that night pretending to be someone else.
Over the next few weeks, I began hanging out with the brothers outside parties. We worked together in class, ran into each other on Locust Walk, and got lunch throughout the week. Our conversations evolved from the simple “oh, where are you from” to talks about interests, aspirations, and more. I got to know these guys beyond their perceived “frat bro” persona: some are passionate about activism, some are artistic, some want to teach after graduation.
At first, I would still put on an alternative personality in order to fit into the conversation, sometimes feeling exhausted by the whole act. Though unwittingly, somewhere along the way I let my guard down and became myself. I saw how the brothers did not impose judgment on those different from themselves or those who would not fit into society’s idea of a fraternity bro. More importantly, to my own surprise, I befriended guys that my high school self would never expect to. They showed me, through their actions, that I do not have to change myself to fit into a community: the community is what you make of it and everyone adds their own nuances.
In retrospect, I approached fraternities at Penn with a stereotypical mindset — and while stereotypes exist in part because they could be true to a certain extent, it is important that we do not embrace essentialist views of people. We can be quick to put ourselves and other people in boxes, labeling bins of things that are for us and those that are not. However, we sometimes fail to recognize that all of us have multiple labels and no one only fits into one box only. There is no singular way to enjoy a fraternity party, just as there is no singular way to be a fraternity brother.
I recognize that my experience does not represent that of everyone, which is undoubtedly wide-ranging. While I do not wish to defend the actions of those who marginalize and hurt others because they do not fit their idea of someone who belongs in fraternities, I want to encourage our community to not reduce everyone in Greek life to one stereotype. It is irrational to judge the majority of a community by the actions of a few and inevitably creates an us-versus-them mindset which can be counter-constructive in building a more inclusive community. Moreover, it is unfair to reduce people to the conventional portrayal of “frat bros” when there are many other facets to their personalities.
Many of us can feel intimidated, unnerved, or even fear being excluded by fraternities when we first arrive at Penn and that is natural. However, we should not overtly restrict ourselves to fit certain boxes and decide that something is not for us based on preconceived notions. After all, it never hurts to keep an open mind. You might end up discovering a piece of yourself that you never experienced before, just like I did.
JESSE ZHANG is a College and Wharton sophomore studying marketing and communication from Shenzhen, China. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.