Culture Shock, part 2

I had some unfinished streams of though from my last post. Mainly, I talked about all the segments of society that I’ve been exposed to and am comfortable with, but I didn’t fully articulate why that was relevant to my new office. So I’d like to do that now. It can be summed up in one phrase:

A lack of diversity

For much of my life, particularly during the teenage and early adult years (which psychologists agree are when worldview is formed and solidified), authorities around me were extolling the virtues of diversity. In high school, I remember Tolerance Days, where we talked about the value of different experiences and preached tolerance for those who were different from us.

As I chose a college, diversity was a big topic on the list of attributes to look for. Schools were eager to prove that they were more diverse than their competitors, and I think mine did well on that front for a private school of its caliber.

I internalized and believed in this. To me, a diversity of students meant a diversity of viewpoints which would be brought to the classroom and that translated into a better, broader education. And I believe that it was. In college I gained comfort and familiarity with many accents and foreign names, taking the time to ask my new Indian and Chinese friends to teach me proper pronunciation of their names. I asked them about their parents and their families and learned about different cultural expectations. I witnessed first hand how those affected the decisions of my peers – in what subjects to study, what social activities to engage in, and even in who to date. To me, this was a valuable social and cultural education earned outside the classroom.

But it was more than that. The wide variance in backgrounds, tastes, and interests combined with the school’s individualistic culture to significantly increase my comfort and confidence in being myself. Not only did I feel less pressure to be like everyone else (because what would that be, really?), but I felt that the culture which championed diversity maybe even went so far as to value my differentness.

Practically speaking, this meant that I grew into a love for my inner geek. I no longer stayed quiet about the computer games I was enjoying or my excitement to visit the science museum. I might excitedly tell others about a new scientific discovery I had learned about. I combined that with a newfound respect for my body, for my appearance as-is – finally dispensing with the strong desire to look like I thought a woman should appear (thin, with some curves, but not too many).

Maybe these are things that everyone feels as they enter young adulthood. But based on my experiences, I suspect that I was even more liberated by the diversity of the community I joined. I’ve also spent time in communities that were probably over 90% white middle class or higher – and it didn’t feel the same.

By being surrounded by difference, I no longer experienced as many assumptions from others about who I was, what my background included, or what I most likely do with my free time. At least that’s how I perceived it.

But now, I feel like my environment at work – my community there – is more like my high school experiences than my college experiences. I perceive less understanding for differentness and more expectation of shared experiences and desires. I can’t help but be strongly reminded of high school community – and who wants to feel like they’re in high school?

Culture Shock

I hardly know where to begin. When in doubt, start in the middle. No no just kidding.

The beginning, well I guess that would be background. Through my life history, my friends, my family, my environment, and the pursuits I’ve chosen and been fortunate enough to dive deeply into…through all of these things I’ve seen a wide strata of society. I’ve gotten closer to some parts than to others, but I’ve been exposed to a lot.

From my own family, on one side from a dark history during the Great Depression to the behaviors that desperation helped develop in my grandfather, and from the lives of immigrants in the early 20th century to the multi-generational struggle towards both accepting and respecting ourselves. On the other side, from an American history spanning back to pre-Civil War North Carolina to growing family during the Great Depression to a classic post-WWII 1950s American family to life with those Yankees up in Massachusetts. With all these different personal histories merged into the story that led to my existence, I grew up learning how to be compassionate, open-minded, and accepting of different backgrounds and the personal struggles that so many face.

In my youth, I also met all sorts of people, mostly New England suburbanites. From the kind and gratious modern immigrants who attended my public school for it’s strong English as a second language program to the friends whose parents worked extra jobs so that their kids could train in competitive figure skating to the richer skaters who drove only Mercedes and lived in the huge houses in the Boston suburbs with the best schools. Despite our varied backgrounds, we learned to work together and support each other, many of us driven by the shared passion for the sport of figure skating and our dreams of achieving within it.

In my college years I moved to NYC to attend a very selective school, and there I met a whole new slew of people. There were hard-working kids that were the first in their families to go to college, over-achievers of middle-class means (where I’d place myself), and no shortage of students who had spent most of their summers working to improve themselves in educational or athletic sleepaway camps or travelling the world with their families. They were the most foreign to me; they chatted about the latest Tiffany’s fashions, had a credit card from Daddy and a fake ID, and many had not yet worked for pay themselves. But still among this diversity of backgrounds I found unity with many, for we shared an intellectually curious attitude and were lucky enough to be a part of a great academic community, full of energetic people eager to make a difference in their communities.

Then I met my husband, and I learned up close about another stratum of society. His family history included Irish Catholic and German Jewish immigration to Brooklyn in time to see the mobs and ethnic strife close up, extreme intelligence of the sort that sends a kid to college as a young teenager, and some serious hardships that would have tested anyone’s emotional resilience and ability to carry on. That side of his family was poorly equipped to deal with the things thrown at them, and by the late 20th century had lost most of the resources their family had developed towards decent lives in Brooklyn.

His family history also included a large Guatemalan family, of which one particular daughter faced many struggles, losing her first husband to what she later learned was an escape into exile to protect his life in the face of an imminent coup, finding herself left alone to raise their young son. She later remarried and had another son, but his father didn’t treat her right, and she realized she had to get out for her safety and sanity. That was when she found her way to America, meeting a man in late 1970s Brooklyn whom she would marry and have two more sons with. The oldest son was my Husband, who spent his childhood in Brooklyn before his father disappeared and his mother, his brother, and him moved to a cheaper apartment in the Bronx. There they witnessed and experienced many hardships, but always were buoyed by the love, strength, and the incredible will of his mother. Despite their material struggles, his mother, a teacher, always emphasized the value of education, and with her support and the intellect passed to them from their father, both he and his brother were accepted into an exclusive upper east side private school, the tuition covered by the school’s endowment. There my husband made friends that he’s held on to since, people who I’ve come to value as friends as well. Despite their varied backgrounds, they too bonded over shared intellectual curiosity and worldviews and their shared environment during that formative phase of life.

Now I’ve started my first real-world job, in an office setting, and it’s a new adjustment. I thought that everyone here would work together towards the office’s shared mission, but if that’s happening I’m not sure. People seem mired in their daily struggles, which is understandable. They have a wide range of attitudes towards work, and it doesn’t leave me with the feeling that we’re all working together towards a shared goal.

In that absence it seems that they try to bond over what they assume to be shared experiences or mundane small talk: the weather, their summer vacation destinations, the search for housing in NYC, marriage struggles, or drunken nights. Somehow it turns out that my experiences in these areas are dissimilar from those of my colleagues – I dread summer; the only destination vacation I’ve taken in the last 5 years was my honeymoon and we still carry debt from it; they seem to think that $2,000 is a reasonable or even affordable and good rent; I’m incredibly happy in my marriage and don’t take it for granted; and I have little interest in bar hopping. I often come away from these conversations feeling more disconnected from my coworkers instead of less.

But what really gets to me is their attitude. Sometimes it seems like they’ve all given up. Throughout my life I’ve always given immense thought to my choices and whether they were likely to maximize my happiness. I’ve always tried to separate those choices from the general “expectations” that I perceived society had for people my age. As a result I feel immense pleasure and drive to do the work that I’ve chosen. I’m struggling to shake off my surprise and disappointment that my colleagues don’t appear to approach work with the same attitude. There is a lot more negative energy than I was prepared to handle. And I’m lost to find things that can help me feel connected to my coworkers.

The positive side of this is that I’ve begun exploring resources intended to aid my generation to adjust and succeed in the workplace. I’ll definitely write about this as I learn more. Meanwhile, dear readers, I would love to hear your thoughts on this.