Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Pressure to Conform

I've spent a lot of time lately thinking about the need to conform. This first becomes keenly important to us in our teen years when we are either working hard to fit in or battling to stand out (and often both simultaneously). It's part of Erikson's stages of psychosocial development and in the teen years we sort out Identity vs. Role Confusion. I remember clearly wanting both--a group of people to hang out with that were like me (I had this briefly in Gaylord, MI, during my freshman year) and then doing so many things to stand apart, to be different (getting a tattoo at 17, wearing black lipstick and bold clothes, joining the Army at 17, etc). There was always the constant push and pull of wanting to be like those around me and feel part of a community, while also wanting to be sure of my uniqueness. 
The Nonconformist

In high school I created this silkscreen of seahorses and titled it "The Nonconformist." It hangs in my bathroom now and is the impetus for this blog post. As I looked at it this morning, I thought, "jeez, I fought to NOT conform then, and now I'm fighting the need to conform. It's never-ending--this cycle."

Nowadays I care a lot less about what others think of me. I wear the clothes I find comfortable, drive a car that meets my needs (good gas mileage), and don't feel the pressure to purchase *stuff* to keep up with the Joneses, as we say here in America. That said, these past few weeks have taught me about a different need for conformity. 

I first became aware of it while Zorig and I were visiting my father in Michigan for New Years. He had been in the US just over a week at that point. After being at my dad's about a day and a half, Z took over the kitchen. He needed soup. At first I tried to tell him he couldn't take over a kitchen, that we don't do that here, that he's a guest, etc, etc. It took me a couple hours to right my brain. I tried to put myself in his shoes and I thought, after a week of eating American style foods, he was probably missing his own. (And I suddenly saw myself experiencing the flipside of this once I'm in UB---desperately craving a burger and fries.) I thought.....he's NOT American, so why am I wanting him to act American? 

Of course it all boils down to the reality that I want him to be accepted and liked. But if so many of the things I like and love about him are how he is different from Americans, then why am I wanting to put him in a box to be like everyone else I know? If I just let him be himself then everyone else will see what I see. Our society puts a lot of pressure on us. To achieve. To accomplish. To want the same stuff as those around us. To share our political viewpoint. To convince others that our way of thinking or seeing the world is the right way. The list goes on and on.

All this to say that this new relationship, this love, is pushing me to analyze and really think about WHY I feel the things I do and WHERE do those feelings come from. And perhaps more importantly, how will I deal with the pressure to conform once I am living in Asia, in Mongolia. I will be a Westerner, an American, living in UB. I will want to maintain those aspects of myself that are my identity, of course, but I will also want to be accepted by Z's family and friends. I won't want to be in a restaurant eating noodle soup with all of his friends and worrying that they are talking about how I won't slurp it (they slurp because it makes it taste better--he says). I don't want to be seen as the snobby white woman. So will I learn to slurp? And will I observe their way of dress and begin to conform, consciously or unconsciously? Will I be able to NOT react negatively to some of the foods they eat and love? (For a crash course, watch the Mongolia episode of Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern, it's on Netflix.) 

These are ultimately cultural differences. Will they be difficult to work through? Perhaps. Are they insurmountable odds? Of course not. Will they take conscious and intentional work? Yes. This is far different than any other relationship I've been a part of. It will require different growth and development. It will require an open-mind and a desire to understand. I suspect I will fail here and there and make missteps. However, my commitment is strong and I'm excited to see what I will learn about the world and about myself through the cultural assimilation that lies ahead of me. While I will always be a strong and independent individual, there is something exciting about knowing that my boundaries are going to be stretched, that I will not have a comfort zone to retreat to (at times), and that I will grow in ways I have never predicted. Take that, Conformity!

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