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On being different July 1, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in America, education, india.

Daphne Merkin’s apprehensions about her daughter, who through high school is seen taking stands and making decisions that involve breaking away from prevailing trends, swimming against the tide. I like this paragraph :

Although as a culture we bemoan the perils of groupthink, it can be very cold once you move beyond the circle of warmth that is the reward for adding your voice to the collective chorus. We celebrate loners and visionaries, but we tend to do so only after the fact, when the class nerd who sat by himself in the lunchroom ends up writing a best-selling software program. Defiant individualism is fine if it succeeds, but for every misfit who becomes a Charles Bukowski or R. Crumb there is one who becomes Jeffrey Dahmer or the Unabomber. Striking up a different tune has always come with certain costs, beginning with ridicule and ending with social ostracism. A famous loner of a British poet once noted that “our virtues are all social” and that there is always the lurking possibility that what you stand for on your lonesome is nothing more than “a compensating make-believe.”

Not because this in any way relates to a personal experience, which in fact was quite the opposite.

I find it a certain paradox about America – in the land where individuality is valued most, I think everyone’s effort to be different ends up with everyone moving lock in step. For instance, I imagine whether girls that hate the pink color have a tough time in American schools 😉 .

From my experience, being different in India costs you your relations with the authorities – whether at school or with adults in the family/neighborhood. However, peer groups are more accommodating of mavericks. I wonder that in America it is the opposite – mavericks are seen by authorities as someone with promise, while they are viewed as a threat to one’s own popularity by peers.

Not an expert on the topic, really appreciate your opinions.



1. yunjin - July 1, 2007

I was always different. Some kids tend to give up on their protruded opinion for the sake of popularity. I never did. People called me “dissocialized,” but I guess that’s the word they used to call anti-racists back in the age of slavery. Of course, it wasn’t like I rebelled against everything common. I just said what I thought and that was it. I feel glad I remained myself, although it was only possible because there were some true friends along the way.

2. Abhinav - July 1, 2007

New look for the blog is amazing! Love the pen’s picture. And good to have you back.

As for the post:

I feel it’s the same situation everywhere, whether it’s the States, India or any other country.

Socially inept kids go through hell, fat kids get made fun of, skinny kids get picked on, the smart kids look down on the dumb ones, the jocks treat non-jocks like scum, et cetera. Authority figures don’t really care as long as you obey them and do not cause trouble; whether you are a geek, jock or xyz doesn’t really matter.

And from my observation, the more people assert their individuality, the more they are conforming to a certain norm set aside for expressing individuality.

3. Randomizer - July 1, 2007

It’s interesting you speak about popularity … Because just the other day there were like 600 high school girls practicing cheer-leading in our campus recreation center, and it got me thinking a whole lot about this concept.

Would we Indians encourage our daughters to get into cheer-leading ? I definitely don’t think so, as we view it in a sort of ‘derogatory for women’ way. But imagine the lives of our daughters were they to grow up in the USA… When they’re 14-15, all their friends would be wearing make-up on a regular basis, cheerleaders would be the most popular girls on campus, and so on … they’d want to be popular too! This pursuit for ‘popularity’ would take them in such a weird direction. If they were smart/intelligent, they’d probably be labeled the ‘dorks’/’nerds’ of the school … at least going by TV serials/movies that I’ve watched over the course of my life.

Somewhere along this road of middle and high school, you realize you’re either ‘in’ or ‘out’ .. a popular guy riding high, or a ‘loser’. In India, I feel this stage is reached only in undergrad college life or PUC when we’ve all been given independence…. I really think it is best left this way. I would hate to deal with this sort of intense pressure during my childhood.

4. Sharath Rao - July 2, 2007

@yunjin : thanks for the comment ..first timer I gather. The last sentence in your comment is something I cant agree more with. 🙂

@abhinav : I see where you are coming from, except I am not sure if it is really that straight forward ( unless something has changed that drastically in my last 3 years outside India ) …there is a need to recognize the diversity of schooling out there ….i come from a small town in a non-metro setting …and among the few schools in that area, students grew up very differently because of their circumstances …

@aswin : popularity is a big thing out there….infact talking to my family friends/relatives who have kids starting school, I hear that being in the right school district is really a big part of the effort of settling down in the US … and yes, non-white kids have it a little harder in terms of blending in especially with parents keen on bringing up the indian way ….as you mention some big tradeoffs there….

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