Tuesday, May 01, 2012

tuesdays in turkmenistan: a sham?

This isn't going to come out well. I know because I've tried to write this entry several times, but today I'm just saying screw it and we'll go for it and see what happens. Even the post from two weeks ago was an attempt at this, but it ended up going a different direction. Related to all that is this concept of who you are. Who you are is in theory a pretty specific thing. You occupy a set physical space and are a particular being. Your concept of self should be well grounded, but I have this idea about people as symbols. I've held this idea for a long time. Not held in the sense that I firmly believe it and base significant portions of my worldview around it as a central tenet of my existence. More like I have had this idea for many years and use it to help understand how people perceive their relationships with one another. The core of the "people as symbols" idea is that we never really know each other. We don't know the very core and essence of another person. Instead, we only know them for what they represent to us, what they symbolize about the world for ourselves. Think of the person you are closest to in the entire world. Do you know them as them and understand how they see themselves and what they perceive? Or, instead, do you see them for what they mean to you in your life and even when you support them, it's because of the reciprocal feedback and enjoyment you may get from that? This isn't meant to be a cynical idea though it can come across as such. Perhaps the real point is that true empathy is impossible since you can never know exactly what another person is feeling or thinking. It is entirely possible that my interest in this idea says a significant amount about the relationships I have with those around me, even with people to whom I am relatively close.

Why does this matter and why is it "all a sham" in my post title? It's complicated and I'm desperately trying to steer this entry into a direction that will eventually sort of tie into that title. Maybe. Amongst the thought about this people are symbols idea has come some thoughts about what I represent to other people. It is the natural reflection of what other people represent to me. And it makes me wonder about who I am for everyone. See, this also ties into another idea which is that we all act differently around different people. Again, I tried to write about this three weeks ago and did a dismal job then. The point is that we're a bit different in front of our parents compared to our siblings compared to our friends compared to our co-workers. And even within these groups, we have specific behavioral patterns and roles which we fill and how we complement (not in the 'hey you're cute' way, but the 'hey, this piece fits nicely way') others in different ways depending on the relationship we have with that person or group. I've been mulling this over. Yesterday, I was not literally on fire at lunch and dinner. It's my free-zone here in the canteen to say anything and everything that comes to mind. For all the childhood shyness and general dislike of public speaking, I really enjoy talking during mealtime here. Perhaps it's partly out of a not-so-secret love of the sound of my own oration or a dislike of the awkward silence of a bunch of semi-strangers eating together or one of the few precious times where we're not "at work" in the sense that we're not metaphorically (nor literally, I hope) chained to our desks or maybe I just have a lot on my mind and like to make people laugh. If I may humbly submit, I am very funny at mealtime. I'm not entirely sure how or why this is possible. It's a mix of filling an otherwise silent void with my inane ramblings about the absurd peculiarities of both this work and this place, my willingness to say anything (perhaps too often for shock value), the sarcasm that never ever ends to the point where people have told me it's hard to tell if I'm actually being serious at meals even during those times I am trying to be serious. Evidently, along with having this seemingly odd rep for talking a lot during mealtime, I also have a rep for pulling all manner of statistics and citing research on whatever the topic of the day might be. If you're talking about it, apparently, I've read about it. Well, why not. I consume a lot of news. All sorts of crazy news too. People believe something more if it rhymes? Sure, why not?

That was a long-ish tangent but the point is that I am a certain person in a certain context with the people here. For the most part, these are not people I work directly with in my own segment, which helps me further compartmentalize. Is that person any more or less the "real" me? I further joke in a somewhat meta-sense that "my whole life is a sham" which is a line I am shamelessly stealing from Seinfeld. In that show, George is responding to someone who has just said that he (not George) is living a lie. In response, George says "I lie every second of the day. My whole life is a sham." I use that line frequently here because, well, because there's a bit of truth to it. Not that my existence is somehow not true, but that the projection of me that people see here is not entirely accurate. It's difficult to say if it is more accurate than other facets of my personality though because that again touches on this concept of self and who you are and if there is somehow a core you that is always there, never-changing. This is coming out so badly, but I need to soldier on. I even carry on this joke a bit further by pointing out the suspicious lack of photos and how I've never shown any real evidence that I am who I say I am. It is all part of my ruse as a Chinese guy from Kazakhstan pretending to be American but secretly working for the Russians. Perhaps I am Burn Notice. Referring to a person (in this case, myself) as a TV show reminds me of a Simpsons quote. Humor me here:

Homer: I think the government has better things to do than to read my mail.
(cut to agents reading letters from a bag called 'Simpson Mail')
FBI Agent: Most people write letters to movie stars. This Simpson guy writes to movies. "Dear Die Hard. You rock. Especially when that guy was on the roof. P.S: Do you know Mad Max?"

Comedy gold.

Back on point. I keep answering the same basic questions to people. I try to be patient because while I have been here surprisingly close to a year, I have not told everyone everything about every facet of my life. The basic questions usually cover these four topics:
1. Questions about past: Where are you from? What's it like there? School? Degree in?
2. Questions about family and friends: Parents? Married? Why not? Brothers/sisters?
3. Questions about interests: Hobbies? Days off plans? Play sports?
4. Questions about work: Previous work locations? What was it like?
Yes, it is all polite conversation. And yes, all the answers should stay the same, but every time I answer a question, it's not that I give conflicting information, but sometimes I give a little more or a little less. Do I go into the particulars of who I lived with in college? What level of detail do I share about my plans for days off? I share different things with different people. Is that because it is what I think they want to hear out of polite conversation? Or do I share more or less depending on what I want from that person and how well I want them to know me and thus in turn how well I want to know them? In the end, everyone knows me, but a slightly different version of me which makes perfect sense. This isn't a phenomena that is somehow unique to my existence. Everyone you know has a largely similar but still different set of information about you based on their unique experiences with you. Combined with their own experiences of everyone else they know, they have formed and shaped some perception of you that fits with the rest of their worldview.

Thus far, I have managed to expend a great number of words to basically say that everyone is unique and we can never know exactly what someone else is thinking/feeling. So what? The what is that while I am unique in the sense that everyone is unique, I suspect my uniqueness has the quirk of being more different to more people. My compartmentalization of my life has led people to fill-in aspects of my life that I do not otherwise share. Perhaps their attempt at filling in the blanks is incomplete and even largely sub-conscious, but people see what they want to see. I think this is why people here will often say I look Turkmen or Kazakh. Sure, I might look local, but contextually, that is what people here would expect to see so they fill in whatever they need to in order to complete the context of my existence. This is starting to not make sense (or perhaps never made any sense) so before this entry ends, again in relative failure compared to its ultimate objective, I want to get across this idea that if I'm different enough to different people, do I actually change? Is my awareness of others' perceptions also shaping my own actions and ideas and becoming "self-fulfilling"? It's not like there will be some problem of inherent inconsistency between different perceptions people have of me that will lead to some incompleteness-induced implosion. (That sentence has too many words that start with the letter "i".) The problem is about being able to hold and shape one's own vision of himself or herself, specially my vision of me. No, scratch that. That's not the problem. That is merely an attempt to make the problem sound more important than it really is. The problem is why do I even think about this in the first place. What does my interest with this subject say about what I think of my own life and my own choices? This goes into ideas about the Dunning-Kruger effect and Impostor syndrome. It is a deep interest in self-awareness and what that means and implies. So close, but so far from where I wanted to go with this post.


Buickguy said...

My man, my Man! One hell of a post here. Let's see; where to start. Conversations over meals; why have them? Because that is your only time to socialize. Comments about most everything? Because you are well-read. I, too, surprise my audience by being able to comment on a huge range of subjects. Sort of fun, it is.

The real question is why does this post exist? You, sir, are trying to put some greater purpose into your life. Not too surprising, you are finding it difficult to do so in far away Balkanabat. While there, you may expect much the same month after month. Want a greater purpose? You are going to have to spread your wings some. Maybe a lot. Which way? Ha, your call and your call alone. There are almost an endless number of possibilities; I am reasonably well read and can make lots of suggestions, especially over a meal.

Sciencebunny said...

You're cute today - compliment
the way things fit together - complement


Brian said...

Sciencebunny - Thank you for pointing that out. It has been corrected. I am now mildly embarrassed.

Brian said...

Why does the post exist? Searching for purpose? Maybe, but that's not strictly what it was about. If I can ever get to a part 2 and finish the entry...