Saturday, March 10, 2007

Culture Clash

Context Information:

Most of you who read this blog know that I come from a working class family. Well, we're working class when things are going well, and I clearly remember a few years when things went spectacularly poorly and we were underclass. (Again, that information is purely for context. I have few complaints at this late date.) I generally pass for middle class, though, because I grew up in an affluent town. This is not to say that I currently pretend to be something that I'm not, although there were many years in which I tried to do just that, but rather that I have learned most of the dialect markers of the middle to upper middle classes and know how to use them a lot of the time. For social survival.

When I was an undergraduate, I thought the startling differences in beliefs and attitude between me and my peers were mostly attributable to our age difference. I mean, I knew that some of their "woe-is-me" stories were laughable, but it didn't really sink in that these stories were partly a product of privilege rather than pure immaturity. My family required my financial assistance as soon as I was able to give it; I needed to work full time right after high school. I got 'technical training' and worked for nine and a half years to be able to save enough to a) pay for college, and b) be able to work 4 days a week rather than 5 so I could actually make it to my classes. I was old, and I had a lot on my plate. So, I only encountered my fellow students on campus, preferring to socialize with my friends from work whenever I had the time. And I just assumed that all the things that struck me as weird about these kids had to do with the fact that they were, you know, kids. In ten years, maybe after they had kids of their own, and knew the experience of having people count on them, we would be able to interact more. What can I tell you? I'm dense.

The Point Lives in Here Somewhere, I Hope:

Then came the mind-bendingly selfish choice to go to graduate school. I won't bother you with a description of the emotional maelstrom that surrounds that choice every day. If you're a working-class person in the academy, you're experiencing it yourself. If you aren't, you don't have the structure in place through which you can understand it. Just as I can't understand the moment I'm about to describe to you.

While we were all sitting around enjoying a grad student neurosis-airing moment recently, a friend of mine put her head in her hands and groaned, "I don't want to be a loser." And several others expressed the same sentiment. (It was a glum meeting.)

Now, my cultural background and current weirdness led me to read this part of the conversation entirely incorrectly. I mean, I nodded knowingly because I thought I understood what they were saying. I, too, have the fear of being the loser. I am the child who has excuses made for her in conversations with extended family and close family friends, because:

  • I don't do work that builds anything tangible.
  • And I don't make good money at this ephemeral non-worky work I do.
  • And I don't want to marry and have kids, which is just weird.
  • And it's unfortunate that I'm so booksmart, but can't really DO anything anymore.
  • And I never go to Sunday dinner.
  • And I'm always late with the money for my mom's medications, so my sister always has to front the money for me.
  • So, what good is it that I think I'm so smart when I'm practically committing matricide-by-failure?
  • And everybody else has to do the emotional heavy lifting for me because I'm at Microburg, and I always have homework to do. At 35.
  • And I'm not really a snob once you talk to me, even though I'm always reading. You just have to think of me kind of like a recent convert to religion who annoyingly tells everyone all the new stuff I've learned, but not because I think you're going to hell for not knowing it, too, but because I'm excited by it for reasons no one understands.
  • And there's proof that I'm not just lazy and avoiding work in graduate school, even though it's clear I don't do work here, because I did do work for so long. There were paychecks.

So, I started to respond with comfort that I would need if I made a similar statement. Which earned me confused looks.

Because, when these people said they didn't want to be losers, most of them were talking about their parents both finishing PhDs in 5 years or less, and their siblings all being accepted to the #1 graduate programs in the world in their respective fields, and progressing even faster, or having gotten a T-T position at a "great school" on their first year out after finishing a PhD in 3 years. The others were talking about the low salary they could expect as academics, and how that would make them look stupid in front of their families when their cousin Bob is making the GDP of three nations already.

What they were emphatically NOT talking about was the fear that they would get their PhDs, and then not get jobs, which would cause several generations of their family after them to refuse to go to college at all because Aunt Heo spent half her life at college and was such a spectacular failure anyway. Or that the debt they'd acquired was so beyond the scope of their ability to imagine it that they were having difficulty sleeping. Or that they really were afraid that they were literally killing their relatives by not having enough money to give them, in a timely fashion. Or that they fear that all the "you're not quite good enough" messages one often gets from one's professors doesn't so much speak to the quality of a sentence, or a paragraph, or even a whole draft of their work, but rather to their quality as people. So that one person, having a bitchy day, or needing to prove his/her power over others can send them into a month-long tailspin of crushing angst.

In Short:

You know how, when you speak a language really well, and you go to the country where that language is spoken, and you begin to lose your accent, and you start believing you are indistinguishable from the natives in a lot of ways, and then a folk song comes on the radio and you realize in that instant that you are, and will always be, a foreigner living in their land?

Yeah, that.


Dr. Virago said...

Great post, Heo. Lots to think about, including, how to relate to my students, many who have stories like yours.

But I also wanted to say that there are those of us who weren't exactly working class who still understand your story. If I heard fellow grad studenst saying "I don't want to be a loser" I would've interpreted it exactly the same way you did. I think the difference between you and those folks has a lot to do with the fact that many of them, it seems, come from academic families. I also often found myself befuddled by the words and pronouncements of these kinds of grad students.

My family, as I was starting to say above, consisted mostly of the lower ranks of the middle class and professions -- bankers and teachers and self-made businessmen (including some in manufacturing) -- and my siblings and I are the first generation to actually finish 4-year college, let alone get advanced degrees. (Mom and Dad went -- being the GI Bill generation that they were, flooding the state universities -- but they didn't finish.) My mom kind of fetishized education and always demanded that it be put first, because to her it was some kind of golden ticket into a higher class of people, so that's where your life and mine differ, but still, I've always felt that I either couldn't quite understand the culture in which I've found myself, or else I'm aping assumptions and values that are the very things that keep me from getting that culture in the first place -- if that makes any sense.

So, I hear you. I speak your version of the language, or some analogue of it, anyway.

Dr. Virago said...

PS -- Comments from family members often made about me: from Dad: "She's too smart -- that's why she's still single" and also "She's a medievalist -- what's she going to do with *that*?" (The latter said to buddies to gain their sympathy.) And then there was mom's gem, when I was in grad school: "I'm sick of telling people you're just a student when their kids have real jobs and careers." Oh, and Mom worried, too, that all my education was making me "too critical." This from the woman who fetishized education. Can you say "mixed signals"?! Sheesh.

Bardiac said...


I wish I could say something more usefully supportive.

Frank said...

I come from a solidly middle class background. I have a bachelor's in English, so I know all about that infuriating question, "Well, what are you going to do with THAT?"

Both my sister, who has a master's degree, and I have had trouble finding jobs. In fact, nearly two years after graduating, I'm still unemployed. If my parents weren't so insanely wonderful, I'd be really screwed. Month after month of no reply to applications, or interviews that lead nowhere, is discouraging to say the least. Thus, I worry about "being a loser" all the time. I feel like a failure a lot. Explaining to people that I'm still looking for a job is humiliating. Every time someone asks, "What do you want to do?" I cringe and sigh (inside, anyway). "I DON'T KNOW! I JUST DON'T FRICKIN' KNOW!" is the truth, really, as is, "I don't want to be a loser."

Not to toot my own horn, but I'm a smart fellow and everyone expected me to do really well right away, so I feel like I've let everyone, including myself, down by not. The worst thing is the thought that maybe I never will, that I'm not good for anything and just a bum who will never make anything of himself.

So, if I had heard your colleague's statement, my reaction would have been delight that someone else felt the same way as I did. I would have been greatly excited to have someone to talk to and commiserate with. I really wouldn't have even considered what they really meant. I will say that I can understand it, though. It's all about expectations. For your family, it's expectations that you "do something real" and "help support the rest of us." For other families, it's "be the smartest, richest person ever so Aunt So-and-So sees that her kids ain't so goddamn great!" It IS class-based, but it's also highly particular to individual families, too.

Sorry, BTW, that I went off on my own problems a little. I didn't realize how much I needed to vent about that until I started typing. It's not that I don't say similar things to friends and family, but I feel like such a whiner and I also feel that I CAN'T say all of that, so I think it just all spewed out.

Jarod said...

An excellent and honest post, Heo. An interesting question about what makes one feel they are a "loser" - is it defined by career, outside expectations, etc?
Personally, I never felt a career defined success. Although I am doing exactly what I wanted to do since I was young (well, besides being a Jedi), I still don't look at my career as the "ultimate goal" (To make a long story short, I am not going to rest until I build a full 14th century Pele tower on my land in NC, damn up a bunch of ponds, build a stone circle, etc, then mission complete)

I've never understood what a "money job", wife, kids, the whole thing has to do with success. To me, it's more about being self-sufficent, having some honor, being honest with yourself. (insert full chorus)
I suppose one is a "loser" if they know what they need to do to make themselves happy but for whatever reason don't do it. Then they have sort of "lost out", haven't they?

Anniina said...

Hey Heo, I can relate. I often feel like a "loser." But perhaps Jarod has the right of it, when he says "it's more about being self-sufficent, having some honor, being honest with yourself." But on the other hand, "the bad stuff is easier to believe." (points to whomever can name the quote)

Here are a few sillies that might make you smile:

1. Billy the puppet singing What Do You Do With a B.A. in English from Avenue Q.

2. The real Avenue Q cast doing It Sucks To Be Me

*big virtual hugs*

medieval woman said...

This is a fantastic post, Heo - I just wanted to say that!

zelda said...

Fellow working class grad student here. I think I know what you're saying in this post. I just had this discussion with an extremely well-established Big Name in my field who was telling me that class couldn't be a factor in my grad school experience. Excuse me? I dared him to name one other grad student or peer in our field who's father was blue collar. He couldn't.

Hunter said...

Hey, I'm just a random web surfer who found your blog through IHE. Thanks for putting this out there; it really resonates with my experience as well. The one I always here from family and friends is, "Anthropology? Now what are you going to do with that?" My neighbor's son is just about to start college to study something called turf management, which is apparently much more exciting to everyone.

Will said...

As my daughter says "Isn't it tragic when unfortunate things happen to privileged people?" Note that she is the daughter of privilege and went to an upscale private school, and is very aware of the nature of privilege.

Anonymous said...

Another working class grad student here. Thank you for posting this. Especially the piece about family concerns. My (single) mother is going to retire in a few years, and might get fired (again) sooner, and I'm terrified that I'm not going to be able to help out because I'm living on a graduate stipend.

It's good to know there are others who have had similar experiences.

MCH said...

great post. working-class/poverty class, i went back to grad school at 38 and had many similar experiences to the one you describe :-) and they continue in my tenure track job. i actually left a factory job that my wc/pc family considered to the pinnacle of success and told them "i was gonna go be a writer." they understand the university teaching--it's sort of a job--but they do think i only work 12 hours a week :-)and yet, i deal with that much better than i do with the interminable faculty meetings where 30-40 minute discussions/wrangles/out and out academified brawls can take place over where a comma is supposed to be in the by-laws...argh. it took me years to be okay caught between the worlds, and now i console myself with the fact that if the university ever goes bankrupt, i always know how to drive a forklift. excellent post--thanks for sharing. there are so many more of us than we ever realize.


Barbara Peters said...

Check out our online discussion group.
We exchange e-mails and have been having conferences for 12 years. The next one is in July at UTEP in El Paso, TX

Barbara Peters

squadratomagico said...

Wow! What a smart and thoughtful post! I, too, am a working-class, first-generation type, though my parents did manage to send me to college right after high school, without needing me to work. But there are so many things to deal with in this situation: as you note, you can feel out of sync with your peers from more privileged backgrounds, as well as somewhat alienated from your family, since they don't understand what you are doing or why. It's a lonely place. In my experience, however, it gets better once you have a job.

I must share my own favorite memory in this regard. Right after I passed my final oral exam, I called my mom to tell her that I had completed all the requirements for my PhD. Her response? "Well, now that you've proved that you can do it, why don't you let [Husband] have the important job, and if you still want to work, you can become a secretary?" It was one of the only times in my life when I literally was speechless.

Dr. Virago said...

Heo, I'm a little worried that I came off as a "lower middle class folks have it bad, too" whiner asshole in my comments above. Didn't mean to. Just wanted to empathize.

And thanks for a great post.

HeoCwaeth said...

!@#$%^& Blogger keeps losing my comments!

Abridged versions:

Wow! I'm overwhelmed by the response to this post. I'm a little embarrassed too, because, although I was perfectly happy to tell the truth in public, I assumed very few were listening. Meh, I would have done it anyway; no use pretending to have shame now.

- Dr. V., I didn't think you came off as whiney at all. Seemed like you were telling me about your experience, which actually helps.
Also, "that's why she's still single"? Wow.

- Bardiac, thanks. That was plenty usefully supportive. :-)

- Frank, it's funny that you ended your comment that way. That's kind of how the post got formed, actually. I started to type about weird thing X, and before I knew it...blam! spleen juice all over everything.

_ Jarod, what's the big idea, coming in here all deep-thought-y? I do think you're probably right about defining loser and non-loser for yourself. Also, I want to see the tower!

- Anniina, I totally <3 Avenue Q, thanks. And now I want to know who that quote is from?

- Zelda, you may have given Big Name something to think about. Class can't be a factor, indeed. Spoken like a true son of privilege.

kdegruy said...

Boy do I get this, and am glad to read it. My aunt, the single mom (like me) slogging on in spite of not getting any child support (like me), keeps saying, "That's great you defended your thesis. now you need to learn Spanish so you can get a job in this region."

When I try to explain to her that I'm learning Old English and Latin "so that I can get a job in any region that'll have me" she looks at me like I've grown a third eye. And she's all I've got for close family who've done the higher ed thing. anyway, I really get the awareness you convey of the "next generation" -- the weight of being that "Aunt SoAndSo" whose retold stories shape the lives of all those siblings and cousins right there in the cracks and margins, poised to go somewhere, but not sure where.

Thanks for posting this, and you have my empathy on the family obligations too, though I'm not willing to be as forthcoming as you about the details of them ;-)

The Urban Scientist said...

WOW. I so understand!