Humans of Harker: Food, jokes and dinosaurs

Ben Yuan meets change with quips and quirks


Mark Hu

“There’s been lots of things to deal with [this year], and I feel like at the same time these changes and these things to deal with are a transformative experience. It makes you really think about who you really are and what you want to do,” Ben Yuan (12) said.

Hands fiddling with a videogame remote and eyes focusing on the colorful arena dotted with minifigures on his laptop screen in front, Ben Yuan (12) calmly competes against his friends outside of Nichols Hall in a friendly game of Super Smash Brothers. Yelling with joy after landing a huge hit or suddenly falling silent after a crushing defeat, he enjoys the competition among his friends. Although he appears relaxed and confident now, two years ago, when he just joined Harker in sophomore year after living his entire childhood in China, he was trying to adapt to a new culture and to fit in with a completely new group of students, not knowing anyone to talk to.

After spending his entire life in China, he was unable to attend a prestigious high school in China due to a government rule. The school was in Shanghai, but he was not a citizen of the city, forcing him to find a different school. Deciding that attending an American high school would boost his chances of being accepted to an American college, he immigrated to Maryland in the middle of eighth grade. He spent his ninth grade there with his sister, who was in college, then came to Harker after the year ended, pursuing a greater challenge.

On the sophomore ropes course trip, two of his current friends, Mathew Mammen (12) and Cedric Nowatzyk (12), saw him sitting off to the side. They approached him and began a conversation, inviting him to eat lunch and to play Super Smash Brothers Melee with them. As the year progressed, he slowly began to talk to them not only at lunch but between classes during the day.

“He’s transparent with his strengths and his weaknesses. He doesn’t talk so much about himself, but he listens very well, and he’ll give insight that’s thoughtful and calculated. He’s also very good at not overstepping boundaries, and he’s very respectful with people,” Mathew said.

Although he transitioned more easily because he did not have a Chinese accent, Ben still struggled at the start. He could only live with his mom sixth months per year and only three months at most per visit. To adjust, he tried several new activities, taking debate as his elective. He stuck with it, working through different partners and lower than expected results, eventually becoming one of the policy captains this year.

“Debate goes beyond the surface level—it’s not just about rhetoric, it’s not just about policy,” Ben said. “It is a logical exercise, and the scope of debate is entirely unexpected. There’s so many things to deal with. There’s so many different arguments you can make; it blew my mind.”

Ben also took up studying Latin and cracks jokes with his classmates while volunteering to read in class. Last year, he placed second in reading comprehension and sight reading at the Junior Classical League Convention.

“I like Latin because it’s a fun language. It makes perfect sense and is more like cracking a code or decoding a puzzle. It’s rigid, and it’s orderly and it does what you expect it to do. I also like the pronunciation and the way it sounds,” Ben said.

His friends have also noticed his eagerness and success in Latin.

“Ben’s really enthusiastic in Latin [class] to translate and to volunteer to read,” Akshay Manglik (10), one of Ben’s classmates, said. “His pronunciation is really good, and he’s also really smart and very good at translating all the documents and all the complex Virgilian poems.”

Just like in his Latin class, Ben made frequent comments and jokes in his biology class, a notoriously difficult course, last year.

“I shared all of AP Bio with him last year, and the class literally would not be the same if he was not there,” Mathew said. “Every time we spoke about a specific organism or some animal or plant, chances are he’d say ‘I’ve eaten that before.’ He would always say that. We loved him for the way he would crack jokes.”

In his math class last year, he would raise his hand to any question right away. Sometimes even without thinking, he would respond with an answer that even to him made little sense, giving the class and himself a good laugh.

“He brought a nice sense of humor for everyone else,” said Bradley Stoll, Ben’s math teacher last year. “He liked to have fun and was a very curious student and still is very curious. He brought a lightness to the class.”

Making the transition from a fairly relaxed junior year compared to most students to a more stressful senior year, Ben’s had to manage his time more carefully but finds these changes influential to his success.

“There’s been lots of things to deal with, and I feel like at the same time these changes and these things to deal with are a transformative experience. It makes you really think about who you really are and what you want to do,” Ben said.

In his daily life, he experiments with new ideas by trying new foods, gaming with his friends, or joking around in class while still an upbeat attitude.

“Overall, Ben puts a very strong facade that he’s generally confident, funny, very smart, but what humanizes him is all of his quirky passions, and he gets very passionate about things he likes whether it’s food, dinosaurs, or eating random things,” Mathew said.