My eyes peered at my mom’s hand, rarely blinking. My ever-bouncing leg had stilled. My mind caught every subtle movement, attempting to decipher the pattern. I watched, entranced, as my mom’s fingers nimbly wove together the pieces of red thread into the bracelet I would wear every day for the rest of my life.
Chinese red string bracelets are a symbol of luck, prosperity, health, protection, and courage. In ancient China, the emperor would give his first, therefore most important, wife a red string bracelet. Similarly, red string bracelets are gifted to newlywed couples to commemorate their true love and wish them well in a new stage of their lives. Close relatives also gift a red string bracelet to women and girls on their 本命年 (Year of Birth), in order to protect them from the negative energy they will face that year.
A bracelet serves as a physical representation of a promise. Most obviously, a friendship bracelet shows a promise to love and trust your matching bracelet wearer. But any string on your wrist represents a promise. A W.W.J.D. band serves as a promise of faith and to live like Christ. A 4Ocean beaded bracelet is a promise to care for the Earth’s aquatic life. Even an Apple Watch is a promise to live healthily.
I was given my red string bracelet by my mom in 2016 (the Year of the Monkey). When I wear it, I remember my family’s unconditional love for me and the history of my Chinese heritage. The bracelet serves as a mutual agreement between my family and me: to protect and look after one another.
My name is Emily Zou and I’m a freshman from a suburb outside of Portland, Oregon. The bracelet my mom made 6 years ago sat on my wrist the entire flight from PDX to RDU. Similarly, my parents’ promise is what has landed me here. Throughout the past 18 years of my life, my parents have taken care of me: they cooked me dinner at 9 pm after school board meetings, drove me 4 hours to debate tournaments at 4 a.m., cut endless bowls of fruit for late night study sessions, and of course, are paying my college tuition.
A promise is a unique moral obligation. The obligation isn’t inherent; there’s no biological or evolutionary reason to keep a promise. It’s also not for fear of consequence; simply breaking a promise does not inflict physical or emotional damage on you, but rather the consequence is the act itself. And yet, promises are expected to be kept universally, regardless of scope, culture, or time period. This is because just like a red string bracelet, a promise is made with intentionality. Just like each knot must be precisely made, so must each part of a promise.
Now, it’s my turn to uphold my end of the promise. I’m extremely lucky to attend a university like Duke, and I plan to use every opportunity possible to someday give my parents even half of what they’ve given me throughout my childhood. And not just to my parents, but to the rest of the world, as well. I believe that each one of us wears a metaphorical bracelet symbolizing our promises to society. To protect one another and leave this world better than how we found it.
My bracelet sits perfectly positioned against the pulsing heartbeat in my wrist’s veins, pumping its promise into my veins to accompany the red blood cells to every part of my body. It remains visible as I ride the C1 to my Economics lecture, code an APT, or throw a ceramic piece on the wheel. As long as a bracelet is worn, its wearer swears to keep their promise. However, much like a bracelet worn every day, it’s often easy to forget the various commitments in daily life. Friendship bracelets fray, W.W.J.D. bands become stained, and Apple Watches become simply a way to check text messages.
Our society’s foundation is based on promises: promises to value community, act with integrity, abide by the law, show up to work or school, put our shopping carts away, etc. Some of the most important promises are made by leaders and institutions. If we anthropomorphize the American government, we can imagine the slew of red string bracelets it hands out to its citizens, each representing a different promise. These promises are explicitly laid out in the preamble to the Constitution: to “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” More specifically, each amendment lays out a specific promise from the government to the people about certain rights and privileges. However, it seems that in its daily wear and tear, the US Government has forgotten about its promise to its people as we experience daily violations of these promises.
This is what I want to discuss at Duke, and more specifically, on the Duke Research Blog. Promises transcend so many different academic and research fields: the promises parents make to their children, promises schools make to their students, promises countries make to their citizens.
When we tie the knot around our wrist for the very first time, the bracelet’s strings taut and secure, it’s simple to uphold its promise for the days following. Hyper aware of its presence, each time we move our arm, we recognize it: I made an effort to improve my Mandarin during the first days of the Year of the Monkey; the recently converted attend church every Sunday; Apple Watch users take their 10,000 steps. However, as our minds become used to the bracelet, or overwhelmed by the fresh new ones, its promises become obsolete. This phenomenon can only be reversed when we ground ourselves in the intentions of our bracelets: to protect one another, the marginalized, and our planet.
At Duke, I’m weaving my bracelets from scratch, which includes the Duke Research Blog. But a lot of my future bracelets are still up in the air. I’m still collecting my strings, and I’m learning that that is okay. And moving forward, not all of my posts will wax so philosophical, actually, probably none of them will. I just figured if I get one opportunity to make a first impression, I might as well share my life philosophy.
Post by Emily Zou, Class of 2027