A year back I developed a deep interest in understanding what made me who I am. This all started when moving to Cambridge for a year caused a bit of a culture shock that made me want to better understand my personal biases and cultural influences. It wasn’t until I took a moment to sit down and write my opinions on personal and political matters and create a map of what influenced those opinions that I had a better understanding of how my Ethiopian and American roots played a part. For example, I get disproportionately disappointed when a friend is eating near me and doesn’t offer me a bite. 99.999% of the time I don’t actually want the food but the Ethiopian side of me is so used to people begging you to eat their food that it’s become deeply engrained in who I am. The other side of the coin was about understanding where a lot of my opinions actually come from. Growing up, and up until recently, I was a serial flip-flopper. No opinion I held was ever set in stone. All it took was a conflicting opinion from a person that I admired to switch sides completely and abandon any ties to the other side. It was so bad that I would leave a movie having really enjoyed it, hear a friend of mine didn’t like the movie, and would go find reasons why my original opinion was invalid. I found it so difficult to define who I was because I was just a jigsaw puzzle of other people’s opinions. In making this map of opinions I could pinpoint the people and years that my current set of opinions was made of. Now I’m not saying it is bad to be influenced by those around you, in fact that’s how it should be, my problem was that I took these opinions at face value and never questioned them.
Now you’re probably wondering how any of this is related to MIT or college life in general, or at least I hope that’s what you’re thinking so I can continue with this train of thought. Going to university puts you in a dorm with dozens of people with conflicting ideas. There will almost certainly be times where you have to agree to disagree but talking with people you disagree with forces you to look inwardly in a way that you cannot survive only justifying your opinions at face value. There have been tons of times where I blurt something out, someone calls me out and I have to respond “oh man, you’re right, sorry”. The first few times this would happen I would leave frustrated and dejected but eventually it became a series of growing experiences. I’ve found a group of friends who will question anything I say and vice versa and it has without a doubt been one of the most rewarding parts of college.
Now if you’ll allow the non-linear nature of this post to continue I want to jump back to my first week in Cambridge and the conversation that sparked all of this. I was having tea with a pair of guys I had met the night before and the topic came to American politics, as a large chunk of my conversations did. We were talking about domestic spying and one of the guys was adamant about the “if you’ve done nothing wrong, you shouldn’t have anything to hide”. This was an argument I was used to but as I listed reasons to reconsider, none of them were landing. We agreed to disagree and parted ways but the more I thought about it the more I realized that a lot of my arguments made assumptions that were specific to Americans and more specifically American college students. That a general distrust of your government isn’t a trait that all countries of the world share and that it was my time spent learning about the US government that had pushed me to these feelings. As the year continued there were many other cultural differences that reared their heads in the places I least expected them. Reading about and immersing myself in this different culture helped me better understand the motivations, opinions and actions of those around me and this was invaluable.
When I came back to MIT and had a chance to choose the HASS-S class that would round out my graduation requirements I leaned towards sociology to be able to take a scientific approach to everything that I’ve talked about above. The class has done a wonderful job of not only helping me better understand what happened in my time at Cambridge but also better understand my interactions with people at MIT. If you get a chance to take the class, I highly recommend it!
At the end of the day I don’t think I’ve fully answered the question “who am I?”. Every attempt just raises more questions that require more time to elaborate on. But this is a good start. I’m a jigsaw puzzle of influenced opinions.