Two winters ago, I stood on the beach in a remote part of western Costa Rica, after having somehow managed to convince my poor parents — all they wanted was one relaxing week to shake off the exhaustion of their 8-to-8 hospital work schedules — to forsake a less adventurous vacation and rent a little bungalow on the edge of a tiny coastal village.
If you were a local resident (or even a tourist, for that matter), the sight of this guy standing on the beach would have seemed bizarrely out of place. Clad in seersucker shorts and a polo from a Vineyard Vines sale, I looked out at the shimmering bay as the obvious question hit: “Who are you?”
The answer, in that moment of handicapping self-consciousness only possible in a setting vastly different from what you’re used to, wasn’t obvious then and it isn’t now. I wasn’t the extremely awkward, slightly foreign, vested elementary school kid who would sprint home after school. Nor was I the middle-schooler in Kentucky who came from New York and started to pick up, slowly, all the social cues. But, now a sophomore at Yale, I also knew that wearing a salmon (not pink) polo and seersucker shorts didn’t make me an East Coast yuppie on the inside any more than it made that girl I’d pass on Old Campus every day (wearing some variant of blue scales and red feathers) Lady Gaga.
Go ahead, psychoanalyze. It’s not a hard case. After growing up in an Armenian immigrant household where every day felt like a climb for everyone involved, you say, you probably wanted validation, and turned to the clothing of the WASP elect (even though this has become so cliché that the WASP elect are now scrambling to diversify their wardrobes). Or, perhaps, you wanted to stand out when you went home, wearing “I go to Yale” because it was too obnoxious to say it aloud. Or, you just liked pink.
All these explanations are probably somewhat true. Yale is full of middle and upper middle class kids who resemble young, fit, hungry dogs: They’ve tasted meat for the first time, and their eyes have a crazed intensity about them. Go to the next J.P. Morgan information session, or stop by the News, if you really don’t know what I’m talking about (or, for that matter, read through Yale College Council election histories since time immemorial).
But as these questions of success and identity clash, weird things start to happen – and the effects certainly aren’t limited to any class. People start to become their “hyper-selves,” and soon it feels like campus is drowning under the influence of its own individuality. People become all kinds of archetypes: the bubbly (often wealthy) guy with the great hair in all the photos, the Yale Political Union hack, the YCC bureaucrat, the radical activist, the conservative crusader, the Gaga, the jock. You could go on. As colleges like Yale become ever more diverse and international, these archetypes take on all sorts of new variations, but the fundamentals stay relatively constant. None of these categories are bad in themselves (debatable, I know), but they all present the possibility of their own pink polo moments.
When these moments happen, if personal experience is any guide, another hard question can sometimes present itself: Which is the bigger joke — that my self has been narrowed into this specific identity that only represents a small part of who I actually am, or that I’ll have to pretend to be the same person I was before I left?
Look, some people don’t end up asking themselves these questions. Some feel like their developed identities represent them very well, and that’s fine. I remember my personal surprise at seeing how comfortable a group of students I was on a summer trip with felt in their suede shoes, pants and jewelry. It wasn’t showy masquerading as understated, it was just understated. Ostentatiousness in America really is, more often than not, insecurity or class-consciousness in disguise.
Everyone has heard the cliché that you should be yourself, because everyone else is taken. But what do you do when you’re already taken? Everywhere you look, personal lives are individualized and planned: parenthood, relationships, even relaxation. This makes the urge to distinguish yourself on established, tangible terms very strong, and it suggests something deeply wrong with American university life. It leads to inadvertent close-mindedness, and it phases out a deeper connection to intangibles.
John Aroutiounian is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.