We all strive to be unique. But we want to be one of the guys. Therein lies most of the stress in life. Trying to fit in while hoping to stand out makes huge demands on our psyches. Belonging to something provides us safety—a soft blanket if you will, to shield us from harsh oblivion. Soon, the blanket turns into a cocoon we thrash against, trying to shine amidst the tapestry we so desperately wove ourselves into.
You know, for a Gujju guy, he doesn’t wear a whole lot of cologne. He’s fair for a Madrasi. Hey I may be Marwadi, but I spend money like it’s going out of style. She’s Punjabi but she won’t get married at 23. I’m Indian but I tip well. He dances well, you know, for a white dude. Or there goes a black guy with a stable job.
Stereotypes have a grain of truth to them. There are traces of cologne in the air in Ghatkopar well after the wearers have left for New Jersey and a lot of Madrasis are dark-complexioned and wear pants that show way too much ankle for a morning class at IIT. More pennies have been pinched by Marwadis than stewardesses by Warne, and plenty of Punjabi girls are sealed, labeled, and shipped off into matrimony by 23. Most desis would cough up a gall bladder before leaving an acceptable tip at the Olive Garden on a special night. And Caucasian rhythm disorder has been talked about to death. We are all clichés, bundled in statistical noise. As much as it hurts, we are all cookie-cutter.
James Russell Lowell — ‘Whatever you may be sure of, be sure of this, that you are dreadfully like other people.’
But not me right? I’m different; it’s obvious that I stand out. I speak so well—at least it sounds great in my head. And I don’t drive a Toyota like the other desis. I may live in New Jersey, but not by choice. I am South-Indian but I’m lighter, and yes, I occasionally pronounce khaana as kaana, but I cover it up quickly and move on like the smooth operator I am. And I drank Jack Daniels, not Royal Stag, before I started drinking single malt, not Jack Daniels. Even the most thorough meta analysis of how we analyze ourselves doesn’t protect us from thinking there’s something really special inside us. Why did we evolve this delusion? Growing up, whenever I scored average grades, mom wanted me to do better cause I was worth better, according to her. Solid unbiased evaluation there, ma. Who can blame her? We are all Keanu Reeves waiting for a big black guy in ‘what if I told you’ glasses to tell us we are the one and that gravity is just a guideline. So we need to set ourselves apart for the second coming of our personalities.
But non-conformism is a 24-hr job, and it’s thankless and self-defeating because the harder you try to not conform, the more stereotypical you become. Pretty soon, you’re the one watching social trends just so you know what to scoff at. So people dumpster dive into the early songs of popular musicians, or that short film made ten years ago by today’s Oscar-winning director, just to lord their refinement over the lemmings being swept by the zeitgeist. We out-gourmet each other by waiting in endless queues for cronuts and laugh at those shopping at Whole Foods as wanna-be yuppies, all because we buy our quinoa directly from the source at the extemporaneous market that sets up every time the house tries to repeal Obamacare.
In today’s politically correct world, where self esteem is the most endangered species, it seems imperative to tell the newest entrants that they are pretty little snowflakes and each one is endowed with something special that the world will eventually recognize. While it’s true for some—the brainiacs, the athletes, the hunks & babes—for most people, all that awaits you is the realization that you’re hopelessly mediocre with a few sprinkles of accidental genius that might, if you’re lucky, be noticed.
And so, failing to be unique by design, we strive to be unique in our choices. Even in the most pointless ones.