Today it rained, quite a lot.
This called for my trusty Sebagos and super-duper thrift-shop raincoat.
Anyway, this morning I worked on things for the Urban Education Collaborative, read Freire’s The Politics of Education, and ate lunch. Part of it was a soup with what I initially thought of as furry squid, but I was later informed that it was (I think) cow tongue.
Then we went to see the abuelitos, where we played Bingo because that’s what they wanted to do. It definitely helps with my Spanish numbers, though.
The keychain in the top right is a souvenir Ricardo gave us, to remember Colombia by. His friend makes them, and it was a sweet gesture.
Afterwards, Paola, Jana, and I got coffee before heading off to the University del Tolima for dancing lessons!
That’s pretty much my day, so I think I’ll discuss (without pictures) a conversation I had with Javier and his friend last night.
We were discussing what I study and everything I do, because we were going through my Facebook pictures so they could get a glimpse of my life. For those of you reading who don’t know, here’s what I told them, in a nutshell: I double-major in International Studies and Political Science with a minor in Russian; I work two jobs; I help to run an organization at school, part of which includes me teaching; and in my free time I volunteer.
They were surprised and Javier’s friend asked, “so are there any people like you in America, so special? Surely you are special since you do all of these things.” A conversation ensued about how no, I’m not special.
You see, in Colombia, there is a strong culture of you work, but you don’t overexert yourself. You don’t live in the nicest place- some places are akin to shanties- but you are happy. You don’t work on Saturdays, Sundays, or some Mondays; you don’t work more than eight hours a day, if that. You spend a month in the summer vacationing. You come home and rest, and have time to go to the gym, or watch TV, take naps, and relax. Javier’s friend told me that students go to school in the mornings or the afternoons, not both; and sometimes just a Saturday.
I explained that, in America, it’s very different. Some people do the above, and that’s awesome. But most people work, many more than eight hours a day. We work according to our schedule, which very often doesn’t release us from Saturdays, Sundays, and definitely not Mondays. Unless you’re a school teacher or an affiliate of the public education system, you don’t get a vacation in the summer months. You come home but you don’t rest, because very often you have more work to do. Students have school every day, six hours a day, Monday through Friday. When students aren’t at school, they’re involved in extracurricular activities, work, volunteering, or homework, all in preparation for applications to college.
That was another thing- Javier and his friend were unused to the fact that students have to apply- and can get denied- from public and private universities. This led to the description of why I wasn’t special. I explained that, for a large segment of the American population, the culture of competition begins as early as middle school or even before. I explained it this way:
The ultimate goal is to get a good job and to “be successful.” For the purposes of the conversation, let’s just assume that in order to get a good, stable job in one’s field, and to excel, one must have a Master’s degree. In order to get a Master’s degree from a good institution, one must have excelled in undergraduate. In order to be accepted to a good undergraduate institution, one must have excelled in high school. In order to have access to top classes in high school, one must have excelled in middle school.
In order to gain access to these “levels” of life, one must strive always to be the best. So, if I’m an employer, and I’m choosing an employee from a list of twenty resumes, and I only have one spot, I’m going to pick the best, right? The one most suitable to my needs. Now, imagine that you are one of the applicants. You must have ensured, prior to the application, that every moment of your time was spent maximizing the potential and quality of your application. If you didn’t spend that time, you can rest assured that one of the other nineteen applicants did spend every moment of their time doing so. Even in spending every moment of your time, there is no surefire way to ensure that your application is the “most special” or “the best.”
I explained that that was just the job application process- the last step in your trajectory to stable success. I explained that every level of this trajectory- entry to a Masters’ program, entry to undergrad, entry to high school classes, and so on- followed this formula.
In America, you know you can work hard enough to make yourself “better” than others. But you also have to know, always, that you will never be the best because there is always someone better than you.
You speak two languages? Awesome. This other applicant speaks three.
You double-majored and minored? Awesome. This other applicant triple-majored and double-minored.
You interned twice with local nonprofits? Cool! That’s great! This other applicant interned three times, once with the State Department and twice with international, high-profile non-profits.
You made a 2100 on your SAT without studying? Fantastic! This other applicant made a 2370 and he didn’t study or sleep the night before!
You see? In America, there is a culture of competitiveness because it is the land of opportunity. In being the land of opportunity, however, it means that everyone has come to vie for the same opportunity as you. The thing is, you have to fight, every second, for the best chance at that opportunity. If you relax, you’re not utilizing time for improving your self that someone else, vying for the same opportunity, is utilizing.
It’s a killer environment. It’s a stressful one, one in which people are diagnosed, by professionals, of over-exhaustion. It’s one where people are rarely happy. It’s suffocating, it’s binding, and it’s smothering. But we do it, because after this upcoming fence, the grass will be greener, right? Except there’s always another fence.
And the conversation raised two questions for me: one I’ll address here, and one I’ll address in another post.
1) I only discussed this major culture difference with adults. The young students I see here work very hard, too- running organizations as large and intricate as AIESEC while still functioning as students- but I haven’t discussed it with them. I wonder, perhaps, if this isn’t a cultural gap so much as it’s a generational gap?
2) Not all Americans act as I have explained. But that isn’t bad. Something I’ve run into, here, is trying to explain what an overarching American culture is. Because, I’ve found, there isn’t one. It’s a very case-to-case basis. America’s culture, it seems, lies in the fact that there isn’t really a definitive culture that everyone follows. Which leads to irony, but like I said, I’ll discuss that one later.
So, to address the first question. It’s obviously a bit of both, but it might primarily be the reality that it’s a generational gap. More students now have so many more opportunities, but that means exactly that: more students now have so many more opportunities. There are more of us fighting for these spots, and there are only so many prestigious places for us to go, so many prestigious positions for us to fill. It’s easy, now, to individualize your experience, but your individualized experience will be infinitely cooler than some, and tragically less cool than others.
Rather than America being a competitive culture (which surely it is), I think that the world has become a competitive culture. And it may be selfish, to still want a prestigious, stable, and “successful” position that speaks to the “best-ness” of your journey to that position; it often seems as if it’s selfish, especially when, in your heart-of-hearts, you know that you could be happy and change the world by simply staying in a small town, somewhere, and never being known outside of that miniscule vicinity.
I think it speaks to a human need to be remembered, a human need to be known. If you stay in that small area, if the integration of your life from point A (birth) to point B (death) isn’t remarkable enough by society’s standards to be remembered, are you still special? History books won’t say you are. Documentaries shown to high school classes on substitute days won’t say you are. Everyone who might say you were won’t exist after a period of time.
So yes, it might be selfish, to want to get those prestigious positions. It might be stressful, and exhausting, and suffocating, the journey to those places, and it might be painful, the impending failure. But every human wants to be remembered, for something, and increasingly, for the younger generation, we have a need a) to be remembered, as stated above; b) to change the state of the world in which we live, at this point for our very survival; c) it is increasingly easier to accomplish a and b, meaning that there are more people vying for fewer spots.
It’s a competitive thing, infamy. And it’s not only in America.