Why Would you Want to be the Same as Everybody Else?
Conformity, compliance, and complacency among carbon copies
The sameness of America scares me.
Go anywhere in any town or city and you find the same strip malls, the same fast food outlets, the same hotel chains, give or take a couple of local variations.
Whether shabby or spanking new, those blocks are as bland as Lego bricks, anonymous, unremarkable, standardized. Even the local climate no longer is a reliable indicator of your whereabouts thanks to global warming. The landscape might be unless you’re somewhere nondescript and flat, which is much of America.
As a French-born European I’m confused by this corporate uniformity, this unwillingness to show character which also spills over to residential areas.
As Pete Seeger sang, “Little Boxes” is quite accurate. I lived in one of those, the mirror image of the house across the road.
But unlike anyone else around, we painted the front door sunflower yellow because it’s a cheerful, happy color that brightens up even the rainiest Pacific Northwest day. Our ancient Beetle is yellow, too, and very popular with small children who point and smile and wave at it on a regular basis. “Look, a lemon on wheels!” They get us, the human pips inside the lemon who wave back at them.
But their folks in their pick up trucks and SUVs? Not so much. They tend to give us the side-eye.
Blending into a sea of bland was never going to happen for me, neither in Europe nor in America.
I’m too curious not to forge my own path, too uncomfortable with conformity to adopt it even if it means I have to learn everything the hard way and take an uncommon approach to common issues. Rather than stay put, I’ve lived, studied, and worked in several countries to date.
And I’m not done yet.
Because I fear stagnation more than I fear failure.
Stagnation may be comfortable but it also prevents growth.
Failure is always preceded by a steep learning curve and the exhilaration of trying something new. And afterwards, you’ve generally gained some knowledge.
I stagnated for five years as a result of depression but the illness never became my comfort zone. I’ve never had one of those, which is also what spurs me on and keeps me looking for some balance I yet have to find.
Oddly perhaps, the outcome doesn’t interest me as much as the process.
This seems at odds with my surroundings.
Where are the seekers? Where are the thinkers? Where are the people who are willing to push themselves as far as they can go, constantly questioning, exploring, and learning?
I don’t know. Instead, life is awash with hackers constantly trying to game it, always looking for the next shortcut, the next productivity tip, the next get rich quick scheme.
Even many of the books I’ve been reading have a disturbing sameness to them. Humdrum privileged adolescence of shopping malls and TV, troubled college years, drugs or mental illness or both, redemption, or any variation thereof. It’s as if a vast swathe of contemporary American adult fiction were painting by numbers, probably a result of the lack of diversity in American publishing.
This, too, confuses me: In a country so very large, why is life so very similar and so very small? Why are the voices we hear all the same all the time when the fabric of America is so gloriously, so richly heterogeneous?
That I should still decide to add to it by taking to the page to rebuild my life from scratch and venture into the murky waters of public confession is the most American thing I’ve done to date, uncovering a scrappy side that is more vocal than I’ve ever been, unapologetic even.
But sharing my narrative piecemeal with as much openness as I can muster is a particular form of torture, one that requires stretching beyond my natural restraint and getting personal with strangers and thankfully one that also delivers some relief on occasion.
While I’ve done this on a one-to-one basis before, I’ve never used the page as a megaphone like I do now. Although I used to write a newspaper column, it was always context-specific, much of its meaning concealed between the lines.
These days, I have to do without my meandering tendencies, endless sentences, and double entendres. I’ve learned to communicate in a way that doesn’t require many — or any — frames of reference as I yet have to acquire most of them. I’m also almost completely impervious to pop culture, which is proving surprisingly problematic.
At this stage, my America is still a half-formed idea, a collection of memories, hopes, shortcomings, and searing, all-consuming embarrassment.
Ido not fit the cliché.
I have a blue passport now but I do not eat burgers or fries; I do not go to the mall unless I can’t avoid it and I certainly don’t “hang out” there; I do not have “my shows” (I don’t even have a TV but obviously I have internet access), and I do not feel any sense of entitlement to anything whatsoever.
Despite the baffling number of people who do, I’m not sure what there is to feel entitled to in America besides a free library card, which is a wondrous gift I’m very grateful for. I had to pay for mine in France. Not that I resented doing so, but I’ve always believed culture and education should be accessible to all regardless of means otherwise how can a nation ever progress?
Trickle-down theory doesn’t work, be it with economics, or with knowledge. Why else would America have elected some orange grifter whose most notable achievement was to humiliate people on TV against a fee?
And try as I might, I do not understand American exceptionalism at all.
To me, there is nothing exceptional about looking down on other countries or about placing individual achievement ahead of the common good.
Alas, this point wasn’t covered in civics when I went through naturalization.
While I had a strong affinity with the America I immigrated to back in 2013, I still can’t figure out what kind of country I live in now.
Nor why so many people are so apathetic, so complacent about the horrors of the Trump administration.
My Americanness feels like an organ transplant my heart and mind are rejecting with all their might because it has been contaminated by the politics of evil.
Maybe individualism is to blame for my reject, this “me first” mentality that doesn’t account for others, this natural and frightening inclination to comply without question because the TV says so, this disdainful disregard for warnings from a history that happened elsewhere because exceptionalism means it can’t happen here.
But it is happening here.
Then again, as long as you’re not directly under threat and your shows haven’t been cancelled and the burger joint hasn’t run out of fries and the mall doesn’t ever close then life is good, right?
Because the world caters to you just as it’s always done, just like you’re used to.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.