Individuality and Feeling at Home

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

I stare down the long dark tunnel trailing away from me, searching for the two pinpricks of light that would indicate the train's arrival. Standing on the platform, watching the express pass by me and watching the frozen faces of passengers on their commute home, my stomach became soft, dropping like an empty sack to the base of my abdomen and resting there. The city I live in is a place where you catch these kinds of snapshots every day - the thin black man on the subway scowling into his newspaper or the young Asian woman frying eggs in her pink bra through the apartment window.

It's been written about before. In movies, they try to use it to symbolize human isolation - how we can be so close, but so distant from one another. Bleak urban life. The tragedy of the commons. But in some ways I find it refreshing, that we can carry on our own complex lives and others can catch snippets of them with just a casual glance. That our trajectories are shifting away from each other, even though we live in carbon-copy apartments just one floor above. I'll say it again: it's the complexity that allows us to see that we are not all part of a hive mind or a machine. Our communities must be forged, not taken for granted by being near one another.

This is the absolute opposite from the situation in collectivist cultures.

Even that phrase just sets me on edge (how can you determine who is a 'collectivist' and who is an 'individualist' if we are all a little of both?) In Bangladesh at least, there was a sense of interconnectedness between family members and even strangers because of ethnic background. I would look down crowded streets and see features that might look like my cousin or clothing that I might myself wear. There were threads that bound us all together, though not always because it was the desired goal. I went a bit stir crazy on that point. But now that it's gone, I miss it.

This week, I wrote a piece on the concept of home for my school's paper (coming out tomorrow!) and it had me thinking a lot about why we get attached to certain places. Standing on that subway platform, I am acutely aware of my being a lone person amidst thousands. It's a comfortable anonymity where no one has to know more about me than I want to let them know. On the other hand, being surrounded by people who - by obligation of society and familial ties - are generous and loving and just plain nice is a rare thing that I crave about my home in Bangladesh. There's no way to win.

The train arrives and I step on.