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Authentic Eagles: On Cultural Identity

As Boston College students, it can be tempting to hide our struggles in the constant quest to appear perfect. Embracing our  truths can help us to understand ourselves and experience the world around us as genuinely as possible. Authentic Eagles is a series that gives a voice to the people who have experienced firsthand the trials and tribulations of being one’s authentic self at BC.

Troy Johnson, A&S ’14

I woke up early to take the bus from Newton Campus for the first day of classes my freshman year at Boston College. I had not yet spoken to many of the people sitting around me, but I recognized a few of them already. The most popular attire appeared to be pastel shorts, Sperry’s and button down shirts. I looked down to see flip flops on my feet, khaki shorts and a striped t-shirt. I did not look like I came from the Northeast and this pleased me. Instead, I tried to look like I didn’t care about what I was wearing, like I had just opened my drawer and threw on some clothes. I tried to fit the sort of laid-back, surfer mentality associated with Southern California. But, instead of just throwing on some clothes, I did actively select my outfit. My clothes purposely differentiated me from many of the other students on the bus. I made sure that my outside appearance matched the personality that I embraced.

I liked the fact that there were not too many students at Boston College from Southern California and even less from the San Diego area. It set me apart from the majority of my classmates. I wanted to fulfill the role of the cool, interesting outsider. I wanted people to ask about my hometown and see me as an interesting person because of where I am from. According to my explanations, everything was better in San Diego.

Everything about me reflected the ideal of the alternative Southern Californian kid. I wore board shorts to class not because I enjoy wearing board shorts (I do), but because it reinforced my narrative of a Californian. I wore flip flops in the winter to the dining hall not because it was convenient for a short walk (it was), but so that others could see me wearing flip flops to the dining hall. I had a large California flag on my wall and next to that a vintage San Diego tourism poster. These were the first things that anybody coming into my room would see. I liked these decorations not necessarily because they showed who I am, but instead because I thought they showed a side of me that I thought would impress others. I hoped that those around could clearly see that I am from California, and if not, I tried my best to make this the case.

This façade went much beyond my outward appearance. In conversation, I made sure to tell people that I lived a few blocks from the beach or that it was 70 degrees in the winter. When asked if I surfed, I would respond that I did from time to time, even though the last time I had been on a board was probably been over a year ago. I enjoyed this alternative, Californian identity and pursued it in other ways. I didn’t attend the Boston College fall concert not because I didn’t want to go, but because I was too “hip” to go. The majority of my social actions worked to further this exaggerated Californian persona.

This trend of me allowing my identity to fully encompass that of a San Diegan in a sea of New Englanders and, in my opinion, other less-notable outsiders, persisted. Instead of letting my upbringing and hometown complement my personality, I developed my identity about those things according to what others believed they should be. In that sense, my peers ended up dictating my behavior and style. As such, I ended up defining myself by what others saw me on the outside instead of by what I genuinely am like. I would see what I viewed as the typical, popular BC male and would purposely orient myself to be this alternative, Californian kid who was cool by being different.

Despite this early shallowness, I ended up opening up and becoming friends with a great group of guys who still are my best friends at Boston College. With them I was able to break out of my exclusively West Coast shell. We became close not because they thought it was cool that I lived near the Pacific Ocean, but instead because they appreciated me for who I am. Even though I had opened up to these friends, I still tried to appear as that Southern Californian kid to my more casual acquaintances. As time went on, I began to let go of this pressure to live up to my California persona. San Diego merely became the place that I grew up. It still influences me in the language I sometimes use and in certain personality traits, but it is only a complement to my identity.

After my first year at Boston College, and especially my first semester, I strove to not just be a student from San Diego, California, but instead to be myself and to embrace all aspects of what makes me who I am.  The connections that I made with my good friends helped me to realize how much more there can be to a relationship. I began to appreciate how special an authentic connection is and I began to realize how it cannot happen when I only cared about my outward appearance and what others thought of me. In order to grow and reach out, I had to break out of my fabricated identity and really move beyond the surface of my being.

I was able to start developing more sincere connections through being attentive to myself instead of characterizing myself by outside factors. But more than that, I began to stop viewing others in a shallow manner too. In the same way that I let myself be seen as the kid from San Diego, I had viewed many of my peers merely as students who weren’t from California. A big step in creating genuine relationships has a lot to do with the mindfulness of the others around me. Acceptance of my cultural identity started with me being okay with myself, but acceptance of others’ identities is what has been truly worthwhile.

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