Last year, around this same time, I created a post reflecting on the different experiences I’ve had in making friendships over the years. Given the end of one year and the start of another, it seems that I tend to look back upon my past experiences in the process of anticipating the new year. This year, I once again found myself doing the same, but found my thoughts fixated more on the lives of some of the people I know, rather than merely our company. Truth be told, I had a lot of difficulty organizing this post properly, and its text has gone through a number of iterations that have changed based on my mood. But at the end of the day, perhaps the best way to sum up the thoughts foremost in my reflections would be something my father told me back when I was in middle school. I do not recall the exact context in which he said this, but I distinctly remember his encouraging words, “as you get older and meet different people, you will naturally become curious about what their lives are like.”
It probably took until high school for me to realize the significance of what he was telling me, and since then I have went on to meet many different types of people between undergrad, medical school, the work place, and nursing school. In undergrad especially, when I first began to live on my own with room mates, I learned so much about the different perspectives of others that I still steadfastly encourage anyone to room with a “stranger” at college at least once in their lives. To me, who has practically zero extended family and grew up only around my immediate family members, it was eye-opening to realize that others may do things differently from the way you have done them all your life — and you won’t even realize it until you finally get close enough to them to observe it for yourself. With this in mind, over the years, I began to more curiously consider the perspectives of others — their lives… their stories… again, to a fairly sheltered person like me, I found dwelling on such things absolutely fascinating.
Given the size of my family, our lack of family friends, and the underlying sort of cultural disconnect at home, I often think about what the holidays are like for some of the people I have connected with over time. Most of the time, the people most prominent in my mind tend to be older every year as I too grow older with the people around me within my professional pursuits. However, 2015 brought to me a sort of unique experience that is allowing me to see things from a perspective different from one I would normally expect.
As a result of my departure from medical school and my admission to nursing school, I have found myself re-exposed to individuals of a younger age group. While in medical school I was among the youngest of the class, I find myself to be in the middle-road in nursing school; I am neither on the younger side nor on the older side of the class. Of course, even in saying this, the reality is that those who are younger or older than me are still typically only around three years apart from my age. Even so, in a class of students who have their high school memories and 21st birthdays still brightly burned into their minds, I cannot help but look back and re-contextualize my own memories of the past. At the end of the day, I gain new insight into what some of my classmates’ lives must be like, and better understand the significance of some of my own past experiences that I had since shelved away among my memories.
Now, in considering the perspectives of the younger, less-independent portion of my class, I am naturally compelled to ponder about what their family lives are like. Given that my parents are immigrants, I know well what the lives are like for immigrants and their children growing up in the US; based on their roots, such individuals have slightly different values and problems regarding cultural-appropriation, but their stories are usually similar to mine — familiar. However, there are many factors that shape value-belief systems — factors such as socioeconomic statuses, the presence or absence of parents, growing up around crime, childhood friends, childhood trauma… the list goes on. There are so many details that can steer the direction of one’s life. So many different molds to shape the person that can become.
Despite having met my share of colorful people over the years, I have still always been fortunate enough to be surrounded by educated, decent people. Thus, the aspects I find interesting about the stories of their lives tend to focus on more everyday variances, such as the number of people in their family, the jobs of their parents, their mastery of childhood hobbies, etc. But there is one concept that I have always found fanciful, and when I encounter people who are undoubtedly products of such backgrounds, I find myself infatuated with the construct of their lives.
The American Dream.
People debate as to whether it is attainable anymore; even those who have realized the ethos often do not recognize it themselves. To those with foreign perspectives such as my own however, such lives stand out.
The Dream isn’t just a distinction — it’s a lifestyle; a new status quo for a family. For example, let me consider one of my friends whose life I enjoy hearing about. Not so much because I believe her life to be so much better than mine, but because of the fact that it’s so… different. The blissfully ignorant life of an American girl born and raised in Texas without a clue about what life can be like overseas. A person who is actually quite intelligent, but completely naive in the complexities of culture-gaps and differing ethnic values. When I talk to her, I hear about a cushy life with the support of an extended family network, cultivated over generations, to weather through whatever difficulties the clan may encounter. If one family has difficulties, the other families can help out. If another family needs some extra finances, someone else can pitch in. Someone’s son is having a hard time finding a job because he dropped out of college? Another family has connections. Because of this unspoken shared responsibility, each family’s own individual responsibilities are lessened. It doesn’t matter if someone screws up or makes bad decisions because there will always be someone within the extended family to help pick up the pieces.
Now these qualities aren’t exactly uncommon among well put-together families, but the point to appreciate here is the scale. The immense diffusion of responsibility that can only take place across a thoroughly grounded network of families and generational family-friends. A life that is surrounded by vague familiarity to the point that its cultural values and rites of passage are implicit. From an outsider’s perspective, it can be seen as blissful ignorance. But from their perspective, it’s an unquestionable way of life — one free from questions about cultural assimilation and the reinterpretation of past ethnic values. With it too comes a decreased obligation to simply propagate and sustain the family, and allows for a more impulsive, self-gratifying, short-term minded lifestyle. For them, the consequences that would normally be present have diminished.
I realize of course that such things are not particularly the norm in most of the melting pot regions in America, but having grown up in the South and having lived in the Midwest, I have come to find a certain nescient charm in observing such families. To me, it harkens back to when the United States was an overall more secure country in its values and culture. The days when the country was united in the final months of, and after, World War II, displaying such fervent political efficacy that Roosevelt gained the legacy of becoming one of the greatest presidents of the United States.
In a time where such an uncompromisingly free spirit is best captured in games such as Bioshock, Left 4 Dead 2, and Fallout 4… in a world where our consternation of offending others self-imposes a censorship to our freedoms, I feel that we will only move further away from such ideologies. To someone like me, a life such as the one known to my friend is very difficult to attain or even fully comprehend. It’s not a bad thing of course, and there are other ways to immerse oneself in such a romantic spirit (e.g., by sharing adversity with one’s classmates), but I suppose when there are just so many factors that shape people into what they become, one simply cannot help but be curious about the lives of others around them.