Serena Bian (‘18) is majoring in Psychology and is an advocate for meaningful interactions between people, and between people and places. She started ‘Space Gatherings’ and is part of the team behind Dear Penn Freshmen. Conversations with Serena are both thought-provoking and fun. 10/10 would recommend.
What’s been on your mind lately?
As a Chinese-American Michigander, never having lived anywhere except in the sleepy suburbs of Detroit, what’s been on my mind a lot is how we must more deeply understand the context of our own lives and the lives of others order to truly understand and love them. It seems quite difficult to hate someone or judge their actions after getting to know their context.
I’ve grown very close with two Chinese-American women, one from rural Ohio and another from an offshoot suburb of Toronto. We connect in deep, nuanced ways. Every Thursday, we invite a self-identified male whom we think ‘can hang’ out to drinks and grill him on his experiences with all things related to love. Over Chinese New Years, we ordered a Peking Duck and sake and spoke in Chinese, essentially becoming our Chinese mothers for the evening. While sharing similar cultural upbringings, our personalities, relationships with pop culture, politics, ideals for love, fashion, way with words, dreams…are fascinatingly complex and varied. Because of them, my words and thoughts have been stretched. My previously stale narratives have been challenged… and it feels breathtaking refreshing. As good relationships should, I feel more alive when I’m around them!
What motivated you to get involved with renewing Dear Penn Freshmen?
It’s a project I’ve long admired because I think it does the work of dispelling a lot of misunderstandings for college freshmen. My freshmen year was really hard. I broke up with my first love and was heartbroken for the first half of college, had very few friendships and felt deeply lonely, struggled with depression and was scared I’d never feel excited again. I eventually, with the help of many loving people and a summer back home in Michigan doing yoga and working on a farm, overcame these dark feelings and actually felt more than just okay, I fell back in love with life. Upon coming back to Penn, I was resolved to do anything I could to try to create a warmer campus culture and be outspoken about the difficulties of transitions, of breakups, or loneliness, of loss, and of redemption. Fully aware that my struggle, in the grand scheme of things, is small and I am so privileged to even be at Penn, I hope to convey that so much of what being human means, is to face these everyday struggles. And the redemptive factor is doing so with other people by your side.
A psychological phenomenon in college is ‘pluralistic ignorance’, when we act in ways that are sub-optimal, such as accepting constant busyness as the norm or trying to be ‘too cool’, when in actuality, we simply want to connect with others in more authentic, non-pretence ways. I also feel that we grow accustomed to not looking past people’s surface level labels and identities.
…And ‘Space Gatherings’?
In my sophomore year, I was thinking about architecture and realizing the importance of our built environments. We exist in these physical spaces every day; the built environment is such an integral part of us but we are naive to this. For example, I behave differently when I am at Huntsman to when I’m at Green Line or somewhere else off campus. These spaces provide different contexts for self. If I wear Greek letters on campus, they say something about me… but when I hit 30th Street or 45th Street, they mean shit.
Therefore, I wanted to be able to create spaces that optimize deeply human social interaction. I eventually came to the conclusion that I could bring people together to rewrite social norms in a different type of space where everyone has no idea what’s going on and is equally uncomfortable. We should learn to lean into vulnerability. ‘Space Gatherings’ is essentially this. We bring ten to twenty strangers together in a space for them to interact with one another in a way they may not typically do so in the course of a normal day.
How did you find the participants?
I literally approached strangers on Locust. At first, I was like “Holy shit. What am I doing?!” but it got easier over time. For the first ‘Space Gathering’, twenty random people showed up at an Airbnb. We met in a beautiful antique loft that used to be an old and wealthy man’s library — the place was filled with books, antique furniture, collections of birds, hanging wall to wall. After explaining to the Airbnb host what was about to happen in the space, he asked if he could join us! For three or four hours, we were all just sharing and talking. The whole event really embodied ‘hygge’. There was just this sense of cosiness and the feeling of being with people simply for the sake of being; something that we seldom do in our daily lives.
I was wary of it becoming gimmicky because ultimately the focus shouldn’t be on the event itself — it is merely a proxy to have these unique interactions with other people. We move people away from the normal confines of society and enable them to experience these deep transformative and unusual conversations. What next though? You head out into the real world and it’s over. I want to spend more time exploring the integration period from when you leave the gathering and head back into everyday life. How can we continue to carry this intentionality into everything else that we do?
Do you try to maintain this intentionality?
Sometimes, in a very weird way, I feel I’m a little too intentional! During sophomore spring, I was only having super deep and intense conversations and started feeling really burnt out from it. Haha so then I realized that we need BOTH the small talk and the big talk. I enjoy intentionality, but I also massively appreciate spontaneity, lightness and stupid hilarious moments that mean nothing.
[????? I’m not too sure what led to this discussion but I found it compelling]
Right now, I’m a few degrees above agnosticism, but I was raised in a non-denominational evangelical Christian household starting in middle school when my parents converted like overnight. I loved the community and truly believed in a very pure sense in God, but over time found these beliefs to be quite fundamentalist. It didn’t hold enough space for questioning. That said, however, there is something that is very real and very raw about religion and faith. I admire people who are religious very deeply, such as my mom and my housemate Grace. There is really something to be said about seeking higher ways of being moral. I don’t think that our education system spends enough time teaching how to be good people. Sure, we’re taught to follow the law but that’s really it.
In fact, I recently read a book called ‘Mere Christianity’ by CS Lewis, a Christian writer (formerly heavily agnostic). Lewis states that pride is a negative quality viewed through the Christian lens., However, from in a secular perspective, pride is just a part of human nature and since it does not break any laws, is not ‘bad’. That moment was a paradigm shift because I realized I had forgotten that ego and pride are toxic elements for the heart. In our culture, it’s easy to value these mindsets. For example, I am applying for full-time positions right now and I feel an expectation to talk myself up and present a well-spun narrative. I’ve been talking to a couple friends about this recently, and have come to the conclusion that we all need to seek out moments of reckoning where we sit back, question our privilege, and seek ways for underrepresented voices to have greater space. This could look like taking a step back and making a conscious effort to listen in a conversation, being silent and not injecting with your own thoughts and choosing to let another talk and take more space in a conversation than you — that is the art of humility.
You have a really unique way of thinking and perspective on being. What would you say has influenced this?
My ability and also my inability to be vulnerable. I suppose that on a daily basis, this ability to express it shapes we know ourselves to be in the long term. In our lives, there is often something ‘off’ or ‘wrong’ about how we wish things, or relationships, to be. But there are also always times, relationships, circumstances that are going really, really well. It takes vulnerability to create space to hold both things together. I think one of the most important things is to remain open-minded to everything and to embrace vulnerability.
What is something you appreciate about Penn?
The first thing that comes to my mind is the abundance of intellectual curiosity. Secondly, there’s really something so special about the sheer proximity between us and our friends. Even though we have potentially turned it into something obnoxious and network-y, the ease of coffee chatting grabbing coffee with someone is something we take for granted. More accurately, the ease of having the opportunity to reach out and connect with someone is taken for granted. I know that we joke about it but I cherish the feeling of walking down Locust and running into people I know.
What is something you would like to see changed?
I just wish we weren’t so busy all the time! In the past two weeks, for the first time, I didn’t have any more school work to do… and honestly, at first, I was like “Oh my god, what do I do??”
Relatable. We’ve forgotten what it’s like to relax.
Exactly. One of my friends said that it took going to Australia and experiencing its education system to realize what the college experience could have looked like without all the unnecessary stress. I wish that we engaged more with activities that may not contribute directly to our academic or career goals, but instead improve our present quality of life: listening to music, watching movies, taking a walk in nature — things that are beautiful and things that make you feel alive.
What is something that you recommend?
Oh my gosh, there are so many things! Hmmm, well it’s tricky because I don’t do this often enough, but I really want to advocate for is finding an old person and sitting down and talking with them. Old people have so many experiences and stories to share and we forget the wisdom of their stories.
It is disconcerting to think about the attitude we hold towards old people. By 2030, around 1/5 of the American population is going to be older than 65. We are facing an ageing demographic and the fact that the West doesn’t like to acknowledge ageing and death makes this a big and sad problem. It is interesting because in the Eastern culture we revere our elders, whereas here, they are seen as obsolete and shuffled into rest homes.
I visited my brother’s friend’s parents who used to be investment bankers at Goldman Sachs in New York City and then realized like after a couple years that wasn’t really fulfilling and so then they moved back to Michigan and started a series of assisted living facilities. They intentionally placed these facilities next to a nursery, which lends itself to very organic interactions between younger and older people.
Also, there is a very cool independent bookshop called the ‘Joseph Fox bookshop’ on 16th & Sansom. Epic architecture and design collection at the very back.
Who should we talk to next?
Zoe Ziegler! She’s had quite a fascinating journey throughout school, coming to study technology and entrepreneurship, and in the process becoming a huge brainiac, total ‘feeler’ of life, curious soul, and intent on discovering, through singing and songwriting, the great mysteries of our lived experiences. She’s made the brave, badass choice of pursuing her dreams in singing and songwriting. Plus, I just watched her perform at an Open Mic at World Cafe Live and her rendition of Daughter’s ‘Youth’ nearly brought me to tears. She says she’s still ‘discovering her voice’, but I think she’s definitely already found it.