The game of life: embracing identity and community through board games

By Jackson Moseley

Daniel Manila sits by the gameboard on the living room coffee table, intently contemplating his next move in the strategy game Catan. He glances at the board, then at his resource cards, then back at the board. The gears turning in his brain are almost visible.

The game is a close one. Three of the four players have almost enough victory points to win. At this rate, anyone could take home the victory crown.

But suddenly, a flicker of recognition appears in Daniel’s eyes, and a knowing smile spreads across his face and curves into a smirk.

“Good game,” he says. In one fell swoop, he makes his move and snags the last two points that he needed to claim the victory.

The other three competitors roll their eyes and groan, but they harbor no feelings of indignation. This outcome was expected. Daniel’s affinity for board games is well-known among his friends. Few play against him expecting to win.

Daniel has loved playing games of all sorts ever since he was old enough to understand and abide by basic rules. Strategy games like Catan are some of his favorites.

In many regards, Daniel is a typical American college-aged adult. He goes to school at UNC-Chapel Hill, where he studies computer science. He enjoys playing games, reading, programming and hanging out with friends. For the most part, he fits right in with everybody else (aside from his overall lack of pop culture knowledge). Most people wouldn’t guess upon first meeting him that Daniel has actually spent relatively little time in the United States over the course of his life.

How it all began

Daniel was born in Durham, North Carolina, but has spent most of his life in Central Asia, where his parents do nonprofit work. When Daniel was 5 months old, his family moved to Uzbekistan. However, after seven years, they were forced out of the country, and after a yearlong period of moving around, they moved to Kyrgyzstan, where they have lived ever since.

From an early age, Daniel’s love for games was one of his defining characteristics. His parents recall how he used to organize outdoor games among groups of total strangers on the playground when they would visit his grandparents’ house in the U.S.

“You wanna play tag?” he would ask the other kids. And with that, dozens of small children were running around the playground, chasing each other and having a blast—all thanks to Daniel.

Daniel wasn’t just content to play though. He wanted to win. His parents recall a time when he was 8 years old, playing a game of Phase 10 with them and a group of college students during the brief period that they lived in England. Daniel was losing badly, but he fought desperately to hide the tears welling up in his eyes. He didn’t want the big kids to see him cry.

A complex story

Daniel’s refusal to cry in this situation is reflective of his overall tendency to conceal his emotions behind a calm, collected demeanor. But behind his composed exterior is a very goofy and lively individual. His younger sister, Faith, frequently found herself both annoyed and amused by Daniel. She recounted a time many years ago when her brother stuck his tongue out at her during the blessing before family dinner. Faith couldn’t stop herself from laughing and ended up getting in trouble for his antics. 

Every couple of years, the Manila family went back to the U.S. for a few months at a time. But they never stayed there long. In fact, Daniel estimates that he spent a total of only three or four years in the U.S. prior to starting college at UNC-CH.

Daniel’s time in the U.S. was not particularly restful. Much of it was spent going from house to house, getting dinner with families in hopes of raising support for their nonprofit work. Daniel and Faith dreaded these meetings and found themselves bored to tears when the families they visited had no children their age.

Between two worlds

For Daniel, Kyrgyzstan was home. Though he was American by both background and citizenship, Kyrgyzstan was what he knew best.

Yet, even in Kyrgyzstan, there was a disconnect between him and the locals. For one, he didn’t speak the language particularly well. Though he knew some Kyrgyz, it was hard for him to communicate more abstract concepts, making it impossible to have anything other than superficial conversation. As a result, most of his friends were Europeans who happened to be in the area, with whom he could communicate in English. 

The struggle to assimilate

Coming to UNC was certainly a shock for Daniel. Having been homeschooled his entire life, this was his first experience in a physical, brick-and-mortar school. In addition, many of his preconceived notions about what constituted American culture turned out to be false, only reflecting white American culture.

The first few weeks of school were especially hard for Daniel. In addition to being an outsider, he struggled with social anxiety, and these factors combined made it difficult for him to form close friendships. For someone who identifies as an extrovert, as Daniel does, this was especially trying.

Full circle

However, as time went on, he began to form those friendships that he so desperately craved. He enjoyed hanging out with the other guys in his hall, and he grew close to the people in his small group for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, the campus ministry that he joined.

It was also through playing games that these friendships formed. Daniel frequently brought board games to the first floor lounge of Everett Residence Hall, asking those who were already there if they wanted to join in. It was just like the games of tag on the playground that he used to organize as a kid.

Daniel’s friendships have persisted to the present day, particularly with those in his InterVarsity small group. And he maintains those friendships through playing games, among other things.

Remembering home

While Daniel has grown close to these friends, however, physical distance has made it difficult for him to maintain that same level of connection with his family. He only sees them in person once or twice per year, and the 10-hour time difference makes phone communication difficult to coordinate.

But he remains close to them nonetheless. He flies back to Kyrgyzstan once a year to see his family, and this year, they flew back to the U.S. for the summer. Faith said that some of her fondest memories of her brother are from when he came back to visit over Christmas break after his first semester of college.

Despite growing up abroad, Daniel says that he wants to make his permanent residence in the U.S. He appreciates the work that his parents do, but he believes that it is not for him. Living outside of one’s culture is not something to be taken lightly, he said, based on his own experience.

Yet there will always be a place in Daniel’s heart for the country where he was raised. In many ways, it shaped him into the man he is today.

Edited by Isa Mudannayake