Friday, February 28, 2014

Surface tension

Random Anecdote Friday!

Some time during my senior year of college, I was hanging out with a few of my friends and discussing plans for the post-graduation future (as seniors are wont to do). One of my friends mentioned hearing about a program that would pay recent graduates to relocate to Japan and teach Japanese students about American culture. In case I haven’t made it abundantly clear before, I basically had no idea what I was going to do with my life after I was done with school, right up to (and pretty well beyond) the point where they handed me my B.A. At best I was narrowing things down by process of elimination: I was not going to grad school, and I was not interviewing for any of the corporate positions that recruiters passed through the campus career center looking to fill. The full extent of my plans encompassed going straight to Beach Week after graduation, then heading back home to my mom’s place in New Jersey and figuring things out from there. I had vague notions of possibly tending bar for a while, just as an amusing way to make some money. I might have also had a glimmer of aspiration to an entry-level job in publishing in NYC, but that would be getting ahead of myself (on numerous levels).

Point being, I was susceptible to the appeal of any remotely interesting opportunity the world might serendipitously make me aware of. So I remember responding enthusiastically to the novelty of the idea of the Japan gig. Not so much, “Ooh, tell me more, I want to do that!” as that would have required far more effort and commitment than I was willing to give at that juncture in my life. But at the very least I expressed something along the lines of “That would be pretty awesome” in a tone of voice that heavily implied it was something I could see myself doing.

What really sticks with me about that exchange, though, is that another friend taking part in the conversation rolled her eyes at me with profound exasperation, and pointedly smacked down whatever I might have been envisioning: “American culture, dork, not pop culture.”

Now, I know, there are numerous affronts I could have taken there, when unpacking that particular riposte. The implication that I was either ignorantly or willfully misconstruing the minimal details about the job our friend had brought up. The assumption that I might genuinely believe the only American culture is pop, and the further assumption that at the very least pop is the only thing I’m particularly knowledgeable about. The overall dismissal of pop culture as disposable trash that no one wants to hear about and obviously no one would sponsor a person to move to Tokyo to teach about. The conversation moved on pretty quickly, so we didn’t get into a prolonged debate about, and maybe that’s why it continues to stick in my craw, lo these 18 years later.

Context is everything, so it bears repeating that this was second semester senior year, and everyone was grappling to one extent or another with Big Life Concepts like growing up and being productive members of society and responsible adults and so forth. (And, to be fair, as I sketched out above, pretty much everyone else was actively engaging with these open questions more deeply than I was.) Nit-picking the difference between culture and pop culture could very well have been a coping mechanism, a way for my friend to assure herself that she was ready (or readier than I was, which, again, not that high a bar to clear) to be a sophisticated adult who would not attempt to land any kind of gainful employment by pointing out how many times she had beaten the SuperNintendo Star Wars game or seen Tank Girl on VHS. Another aspect to consider is that this was 1996, which was one of the more contentious points of the Culture War era, and if some of my friends (particularly, not to open too gnarly a can of worms, some of my conservative Christian friends, of which I had a few, present anecdote-subject included) felt particularly vested in choosing sides between traditional cultural values and edgy pop culture iconoclasm (all as defined by the political zeitgeist), then, you know, I get it/got it.

But in retrospect it’s pretty clear that that moment, that offhand comment on my part and the fleeting yet derisive response it merited, was kind of pivotal for me. On the one hand, it made me double down on my devotion to pop culture, and caused me to dedicate a lot of brainspace to finding the value in the assumedly valueless, the content in the allegedly content-free. I’ve pondered and pondered, thought about and written about, whether there really is any American culture that’s wholly separate from pop culture. Clearly this very blog is in large part just a recent outgrowth of that whole worldview and mindset. But on the other hand, as I’ve copped to in the past, for a defender of pop culture I can also be highly defensive. I’m hypersensitive to the fact that there are people out there (and they are legion) who could never be won over to my way of thinking. Not that they think pop culture is intrinsically evil (granted, those whackadoodles are out there, too, but I try not to spare them any waking thoughts) but simply that it isn’t important, that any amount of excess attention paid to pop culture is an obsession in the worst sense of the word. There are people who divide life in this world into things which matter, and things which do not, and basically heave all of my beloved interests over the line of NOT.

Maybe it shouldn’t faze me, but it does. And if you’ve ever wondered why, a big chunk of the answer is that someone once scoffed at the idea of me imparting cultural knowledge abroad. These things tend to echo.

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