Considering the U.S. Insistence on Individuality

The last time I wrote an international student column for TSL, I was a wide-eyed first-year and I had been living in the U.S. for only a month. Over the three past years, I have grown to love this country and its ’Murrican ideals. I can hold my own in a dinner-table political debate and probably know more U.S. geography than the average American. Heck, I can even understand distance in miles!

In my three years here, what I have found most interesting and unique about America is the vehement affirmation of one’s own individuality. This comes in several forms and flavors, driven by one central concept: me, myself, and I. 

My opinions may be biased because I have lived in the U.S. during the crucial growing-up years in which one transitions from a teenager to an adult. Embracing adulthood implies gaining more freedom and developing one’s individuality. Had I mistaken plain and simple growing up to be a uniquely American notion? After some more introspection and observation, I decided I had not. A look at American popular culture, the education system, and society in general has shown me that embracing one’s individuality is rooted in the American psyche.

Some of the most popular songs on the radio ("What Makes you Beautiful" by One Direction, "Catch My Breath" by Kelly Clarkson, and "Part of Me" by Katy Perry, among others) reiterate the importance of one’s individuality to the teenage audience. But the indoctrination starts at a much earlier age. The underlying message of almost every American children’s movie is “BE YOURSELF!” in screaming bold letters. In fact, the most popular ones (I'm looking at you Lion King, Ratatouille, Wall-E, Shrek) are those that perpetuate the belief most emphatically.

The liberal arts education system furthers the cause. The college system tells each student that they are unique, that they have had important individual experiences and hold special individual interests. The liberal arts education system encourages students to go ahead and choose the most varied course load and prove their diversity. It would not be far-fetched to claim that no two 5C students take the exact same set of courses in an academic year, yet to most students studying in colleges outside of America this would seem absurd and amazing—“You mean I can actually pick and choose my classes within my major?”

Given my three and a half years in Claremont, I have grown to love my independent life. I defend it vehemently against my parents when I go back home for breaks: No, I don’t appreciate being told off about my sleep schedule or my diet, and no, I don’t want to visit Uncle Vikram and his wife who subject me to endless inquisitive personal questions. A few of my international friends who have gone back to their home countries in the Eastern Hemisphere often complain about how much more interfering family, friends and society are back home.

In contrast to the American emphasis on individuality, the Indian commitment to family and community dictates that the familial unit is more important than the individual. Important decisions like career choices and even choosing one's spouse are often collective family decisions, rather than the individual's own. The benefit is that the individual can depend on the family in times of crisis and difficulty. Parents know that their children will take care of them in their old age; siblings will always be there to help out if one of their own is critically ill. I have yet to reconcile my opinions on which perspective is better—American individualism or Indian collectivism. In the meantime, I’m still working on figuring out the Fahrenheit scale before I graduate.