During my childhood, I unknowingly held two beliefs about the world. First, I thought individual choices were largely independent of cultural influence. Secondly, I viewed cultures around the world to be externally different and nuanced, but internally driven by the same universal goals. Over the past 14 months, I've lived in three different countries: Samoa; the United States; the Czech Republic. From this experience, I have discovered that culture and one’s sense of self are intricately connected.
As an exchange student in the Czech Republic, I've viewed the world through a pair of Czech glasses for the past five months and it’s revealed much about my home country. In the United States, being an exceptional individual is revered. Walking through the hallways of my American high school, I was bombarded with images of the iconic greats-- Einstein, Martin Luther King Junior, Babe Ruth or Louis Armstrong, to name a few. Their faces captured on posters, alongside an inspirational quote, remind myself and my fellow classmates, exceptionalism is possible for us, too, if we persist. As these great figures become our societal ideal, we fear their polar opposite: "averageness.” The popular cultural standard of awarding participation ribbons for all children in competitions exemplifies the American fear of mediocrity. American culture teaches us to strive for individual distinguishment from our peers.
In the Czech Republic, for the first time in my life, I’ve met many fifteen year olds who aspire to be pharmacists. Whether a by-product of their communist past or general cultural pessimism, Czechs are very practical about their lives. Few of the peers at my European high school dream big. Dreaming big may bring Americans happiness, but all of my Czech friends seem very content about their lives. There's something more: europeans believe talent is innate, rather than cultivated. School systems are divided early on by ability. If Czech children are not academically inclined, they attend trade school. Czechs acknowledge not everyone is equal; not everyone will become Einstein.
So where do my dreams of becoming a Senator, publishing scientific research and writing a few novels in my lifetime come from? In fact, my dreams have more to say about my culture than they do about myself. If I had grown up in the Czech Republic, I might be just as happy being a pharmacist. Pharmacy is a respectable field, after all.
It’s critical to understand your cultural values to understand yourself. Once we have goals, we Americans blindly chase them. Instead of asking why we want to achieve, we focus our efforts on how. We may be a flock of talented sheep, but who is herding us?
It’s time to discover what compels me to chase my dreams. For the next 5 months of my foreign exchange, I’m going to analyze which life goals are truly my own. When I land back in the United States, I hope that my new glasses won’t be as tinted as before.