Growing up between two countries and having parents from two vastly dissimilar cultures, I had to learn early on how to handle social changes. One week our mother brought us to a Pentecostal Church with worshippers galore speaking in tongues. The next our father brought us to a Bengali wedding ceremony as my brother and I did not quite understand why a man was waving a chamor, a wand crowned with animal hair, amidst the thick, wafting fumes of incense. Indeed, moving and switching schools seemed the most challenging obstacle of my youth, but when divorce became the reason for having to completely change peer groups, I began to resent the mere idea of change as much as the act of it.
I wasn't a particularly outgoing child and the moving from city to farm to small town did not affect me until I reached my teenage years. Being in new social situations was difficult for someone who tended towards shy and it seemed unfathomable to me that I would be able to make friends. Over time I decided that forcing myself to become popular was the key to survival having observed popular kids, often military children, who seemed to drum up new friends with the ease of snapping fingers. However, I failed miserably in this exercise of extroversion since I was never comfortable in trying to accrue friends just to feel "popular" or liked. Moreover, as a female, being popular is often hinged upon "dressing up" and mimetically embodying this concept of the feminine which was alien to me until my essay into these waters during high school. The attempt to be that girl who throws her hair back, pushes it into some alluring posture, and who floats around in high heels as people look on in admiration ("How does she do it?") backfired. The glue-on nails I put on one morning remained stuck to the St Charles streetcar pole the minute I jumped off at my stop and walking in heels not only made me walk like Frankenstein but forced me to understand the artifice of the "feminine." As one of my schoolmates, Billie-Jo, told me that first day I showed up in make-up; "You look like a clown."
Having failed at popularity, I was not sure how I was going to survive the constant moving, having to adapt to losing and making new friends. And as I grew older, I could not understand the ethos of those kids who just wanted to be popular, as if popularity were some badge of approval. (Well, it is, but I questioned if I even wanted such a badge in the first place.) And as I matured, I began to find the outcasts more interesting than the "preppy" sorts and I viewed high school as this process of socialisation that would establish adult notions of normativity within a microcosm of a few hundred adolescents that ostensibly mimicked the larger society.
As I grew into adulthood I learned to dislike and even distrust many of the popular types of people--the very ones I wanted to emulate in my adolescence! For it was the popular types who were afraid to speak up about the bullying of certain students and who remained silent in the face of pretty much everything that was deeply wrong about high school. The popular kids were too busy working on photo opportunities to chronicle their high school years with their BFFs and schmoozing with the year book editor to ensure their photo would be plastered about most every page. The popular kids in high school were ultimately eye candy for those like me who just wanted to fit in as we falsely believed these were the types of individuals to emulate. (The goth kids and math nerds ended up being the more interesting and friend-worthy types I would later discover.)
Then in university, I would meet those once popular kids and often their need to be liked remained part of their personality. Yet some, instead of seeking out the approval of others, shifted their focus towards somewhat healthier aspirations. But overwhelmingly I never found these folks terribly interesting as adults in the way I did a few years prior. In fact, I found a lot of them quite passive to life and I noted that their popularity hinged upon not what they said or did, but what they didn't say or do. You know, the sorts of individuals who are afraid of voicing their opinions for fear of being disliked or for causing discomfort? The sorts of individuals who utter platitudes like "Let's agree to disagree" (wait--isn't that disagreement?). and those who smile at everything you say until you dare mention the current situation of immigrants dying in the sea after which they respond, "Ah, that's a downer. Let's think happy thoughts." As an adult I now understand how some of the more pernicious and dangerous political movements throughout history were buttressed by the silence of the masses, the muteness of those who are afraid of offending others, of being "different." Life taught me to appreciate the loud-mouthed individuals who, although they might artlessly make their argument heard, were not afraid to be disliked in the interest of righting, or even recognising, a wrong.
A nomadic childhood allowed me to witness the various ways in which people bond, communicate, disagree, conceive of the social, and form friendships while also lending me a certain objective distance, a detachment of sorts, from the very lives I observed. Growing up between diverse cultural traditions forced me to understand difference and it obligated me to question if certain cultural ideals such as popularity are socially useful constructs or if they are merely an extension of other political relics (ie. social subservience, peer-pressure, etc). In fact, having had so many diverse cultural experiences, the nomadic individual is in a unique position to have comparative perspectives as to what cultural notions such as popularity mean within certain societies and how this discourse functions to extend the individual's "value" within a given society.
Yet, what once appeared to be a desirable social position--to be the focus of everyone's attention and admiration--was, I realised as an adult, not all that enviable. Life is simply not an episode of Glee or a John Hughes film where in the final scenes the "cool kids" embrace--and even make out with--their uncool counterparts. In reality popular kids are often indifferent to all that is exterior to the focus on and construction of their ego as well as the social reinforcement thereof. It is this apathy to the outer, political world which potentially breeds even more helpings of indifference amongst their sycophantic entourage, cruelly demonstrating that what society values today is the image, the superficial, far more than any depth or substance.Suggest a correction