Finding Identity in the Tribe

We began this journey to Thailand as a group of very different individuals; while we were all under the same cultural umbrella of SDSU, each of us came from a separate walk of life that was unique from the rest of the group. The beauty of study abroad is that it unites people who are unlikely to make an effort to hang out with one another outside of the trip, and pushes them to get to know each other.

And it is for this reason that we developed such a tight bond.

Each individual in the 2018 winter session had a unique contribution of character that they offered to the group. It was as if we were a tribe, where we had no opportunity to choose the community around us, but were required to get along no matter how incongruous we were.  Instead of providing different physical talents like hunting, gathering, sewing as tribe members would,  each of us discovered that we could use our distinct personality traits to cultivate and maximize the success of the community.

A couple people brought comedic value, some brought contagious energy, others brought reserved clarity, some brought unique perspective — just as a tribe delegates activities to its members, which allow for its function and survival.

However, while this communal belonging was a comforting mental refuge in such a new environment, it also seemed to bring conflict with each of our individual identities (or at least mine). Should we sacrifice a degree of individuality in order to be accepted by the whole?

Speaking for myself, I know that it was much easier to enjoy nightlife, go to the events that everyone else was going to and generally get to know my fellow classmates instead of following my personal agenda to experience the culture. If I were to separate myself by choosing different activities over group hangout time, I would expose a lack of interest and therefore become an outsider.

Others may change what they say or do when in order to fit in. The point being that the individual changes the way they act depending on the values of the surrounding group, and it is difficult to choose how much individuality to concede in order to satisfy the natural instinct to belong.

I think that in this situation my desire for acceptance in this community won out because I saw how cool every component of our tribe was. I benefited more from being a part of this community of Americans than I would have if I isolated myself to experience more Thai culture.

(Side note: This isn’t to say that I was the only one who wanted a culture experience — there weren’t many opportunities to recreationally explore culture while located in the bustling city of Bangkok).

Ultimately, It was interesting to observe how unknowingly attached I became to this group. Upon leaving, I was hit with a rush of emotion. Fear of continuing my journey in Thailand alone. Sadness for the natural loss of intimacy that would occur upon our return to the states. Pain in knowing that I would not see our tour guide’s smiling face again. I even felt as if I was leaving behind a unique part of my identity that I had forged with them.

It is interesting how these thoughts of negativity cloud the all the positives from the trip. But maybe that is the quintessential reason why there must be endings — so that we can fully appreciate new beginnings and new journeys. There must be loss in order for there to be happiness, and that’s how you know it was a beautiful experience. It was also interesting to observe how much I rely on others to validate my own views/sense of self.

Lastly, I find it beneficial to be cognizant of this spectrum that exists between desire for acceptance and diligence in achieving one’s own goals. In the past, I think I would automatically assume that being a part of the group would bring me the most happiness, as long as our goals were similarly aligned. However, while it is easier to let the lens of others dictate your experience, I think it is absolutely necessary to develop aspirations and identity outside of the group, so that your unique personality can have maximal impact on the group.

There will be many more tribes or communities that we will all encounter in life and want to fit in with, whether it be family, workplace, among spiritual communities or among party communities. Maintaining the continuity and confidence of self amidst the desire for communal acceptance is a frequent challenge that we must all take on.

So thankfully to have learned so much about myself and met such great people!

Isaac Christian is an information systems senior. He is studying in Bangkok, Thailand over winter break.

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