17 October 2016
The Literacy of Growing Wiser and Growing Up
Leaving home for the first time changes each and every one of us, it plunges us into an unfamiliar and challenging new world. One cannot learn how to survive as an adult, in the so called “real world.” By “real world” I am referring to life outside of your parents’ home, for many, life after high school, for some, life after college. You cannot learn how to exist in this discourse because there is no one holding your hand and explaining and teaching you how to survive in the terrifying and alienating “real world.” Although it can be terrifying and filled with blunders, we all seem to (well those of us that can say with confidence that we have reached “adulthood” and feel successful at it) have acquired the knowledge and know-how to “make it.” One way or another.
James Gee defines a Discourse as how one establishes their identity within a certain community or group. Discourses ingrain within us a way of thinking, acting, talking, walking, socializing. So when one reaches a certain age, in a certain place, they need to be able to survive in the adult world. Discourses often originate from specific groups and experiences. For example, one can master an academic discourse, a sport, a club, a hobby, a particular relationship such as a marriage. Discourses can be learned or acquired; our primary discourse is acquired, which means that we are not conscious of taking on the information and knowledge of that discourse. Placing yourself into a discourse of adulthood is acquired, no one is giving you formal instructions and teaching you step-by-step how to pay bills or do dishes.
Your primary discourse is acquiring the knowledge of how to be a person. One’s primary discourse is the process of establishing how to act, walk, eat, drink, etc. At first within the family and home-life. Primary discourses originate in childhood, they are what you learn from your parents, basic socialization. Secondary discourses are any discourses that come after your primary discourse. For most, the first secondary discourse they will experience is school education. Secondary discourses can be acquired or learned, for example taking on the discourse of mathematics is most likely learned, requiring formal teaching in order to capture and master the discourse of a certain field of mathematics.
It took me some time to feel comfortable in a discourse of adulthood, and to decide who I was within this discourse, and more importantly, which one I needed to choose. Did I want to be a young professional, a home-body, a devoted girlfriend? Up until now I had always considered myself to just be a child or a teenager. Although I had been surviving more or less “on my own” for sometime before I moved from the comfort of my mother’s house in a sleepy small town in Northern California, to dreary and dreamy Bellingham, Washington. By “on my own” I mean that I had been able to pay for things I wanted and needed since I had my first job at fourteen, working under the table as a dishwasher at a local, and considerably “backwoods” steak house. My mother is an amazing woman who is highly involved in the local community and politics, and extremely social. Because of this she was often out late dancing, with girlfriends or boyfriends, at social events, etc. So I learned by the time I was eleven or twelve how to cook, clean, make a fire in the woodstove, put myself to bed, wake myself up for school. So, more or less, I was independent in some ways. But this was nothing compared to moving two states north to an unfamiliar and somewhat startling place. I had mastered many secondary discourses at this point. I was successful in school, did well in the sport of gymnastics, had established a close knit group of friends. But the difference with these discourses was that I always seemed to have someone to hold my hand through them.
I was enrolled in college, trying to learn the discourse of being a respectable undergraduate student. I was working in a rather hip and new-age breakfast joint in the heart of downtown, and attempting to compile at least a small group of friends to maintain a social life. I found myself trying on new personalities and interests as if I was on a shopping spree. One week I would be the girl obsessed with working out, the next the Anthropology nerd, the next the party girl. It took me three or four tries before I found the right fit, and even now I believe that that fit is still changing constantly.
The academic and writer Fen Shen articulates in his essay Classroom and Wider Culture: Identity as a key concept to learning English, how I felt in many respects. He talks about how he had to “re-learn” a second identity in order to make it in American schools, specifically in the Westernized way of writing, which is vastly different from his Chinese background. He notes that slipping into this “American” discourse or identity was like putting on a new outfit. His Chinese self was still there, but he was now able to transform at any point into his American self, morphing in order to make it within a particular area. This is precisely how I felt when I first moved to Bellingham.
The first “outfit” I tried on was that of a female rugby player on Western Washington University’s team. These women were unlike anyone I had ever interacted with before. They were tough, scary even (well I was scared of some of them) most of them seemed to place the majority of their identity on their strength and independence, physically, mentally, socially. These girls were daring and loud, they were hard working, but also mischievous. They were also fiercely loyal. You could rarely find a rugby player out on a Saturday night without also finding five or six of her friends with her. They played hard and partied harder. I found myself doing the same. I was acquiring their discourse by trial and error, slowly walking, talking, and acting like them. While on the team, I didn’t have to try to make friends, (which has always been a challenge for me, being by nature quiet and also judgmental).They came to you. They had events organized and would take offense if you were not there. The time I was most out of my element within this strange discourse was at the famed rugby social-a post game event that consists mainly of drinking and drinking activities, most of which are incredibly loud. I wasn’t the only one who was out of my element. At least three rookies (new team members) ended the evening with a teammate holding their hair back while they puked in the driveway. I remember pretending that I “loved shot gunning beers” and sports. I pretended to chant along with the old rugby chants, (even the ones I didn’t know) and even pretended to be flattered by being recognized as attractive, and I played up how sexually experienced I was. It was a quintessential college experience. I Felt like I was staring in a cheesy coming of age story. It didn’t take long of me faking to be in with that crowd to realize that, I simply wasn’t, and that I never was going to be. I lasted with these women for nearly two months of my first quarter of college, and then, just as quickly as I had been accepted, I faded away from them.
I had acquired what Gee calls meta-knowledge of a discourse, this means that one can see outside of the discourse they are involved in and therefore be able to understand other discourses. One must be able to be in a different discourse and look back within the discourse they just exited in order to have meta-knowledge. I could see into the discourse of the rugby team because I could place myself in my academic discourse, and see it with fresh eyes. I could be the student, the eager academic, and look back into the rugby girl I was before with fresh eyes. Because I had acquired this knowledge I could see exactly what the rugby team discourse entailed, and sort of code-switched out of it. I still had my other discourses, other ways of acting and being. One of them being my private one, the one where I took long walks and scribbled poetry secretly, the one where I sat in coffee houses and wrote things about strangers, dreaming up funny scenarios or grand romances.
This meta-knowledge is also required to be able to “mushfake” your way through a discourse. During this period, I did a decent amount of “making do” or “mushfake.” This is the concept of being able to exist within a discourse because you have the meta-knowledge of it, without actually having the experience of it. People do this constantly when cultural references are brought up. They know the reference, so they can participate in the conversation, even if they do not have the “insider experience” of it. Popular things such as Brad Pitt and East of Eden are so widely known that it is possible to fake being literate about them.
Because of the meta-knowledge I had acquired I could see that this was not the discourse for me. I wasn’t sporty, I wasn’t team oriented, I didn’t want to spend my weekends chanting and playing drinking games. I would rather do what I had done before, sit around a wood stove with my two good friends and a bottle of whiskey. This team sport was something new, and though I could fit in and fake my way through it, I didn’t want to. I left the discourse of “sporty Viv” behind me and descended back into the world of the classroom and late-night lonesome walks. I was lonely, and because of this I stumbled upon a second social realm, one that I fit into a little more easily, that I already had some knowledge of.
I met Blu outside of my dorm room. He was wearing cut-offs and a dirty tee-shirt. His legs were covered in scars and homemade tattoos. He looked, for lack of a better explanation, cool and collected. He was one of those people you meet that are extremely impressive, because they don’t seem to “give a shit” about what other people think. Although that rarely turns out to be true. He seemed to be more free-spirited and uninhibited than anyone I had ever met. So I approached him. Hoping that maybe some of his confidence and gusto could rub off onto me. We smoked a cigarette together on the dirty tennis court outside my room and became fast friends. Blu rode bicycles, built things, loved music I had never heard of, and didn’t seem to be afraid of anything. I fit in fairly easily with him and his friends. They were very accepting and appreciative of me. I was at least five years everyone’s junior, so I ended up taking on the roll of the kid sister within the group. I acquired how to talk, act, and dress like them, mimicking them, through trial and error, seeing what they complimented me on, what they didn’t. They would bring me to shows that I hadn’t have heard of before. Grungy punk or stoner metal in some college student’s living room. And they would show me things I never would have found without them: Makeshift; the community arts spot, bike trails, swimming holes, the independent theatre, the community bike shop. They were all crafty and DIY. They modified bikes, wrote comics, played music, made knifes, stews, sewed their own clothes, gave themselves tattoos. I did the same, I learned to fit in.
I eventually ended up moving out of my dorm room, where I no longer felt that I could exist in that discourse, and into an old-run down mansion with Blu and his (now also my) friends. Although I had acclimated to my new social discourse, it became clear that I was still different than them. I was involved in many discourses that were very foreign to them. I was a student. I still secretly wrote poetry in my room, listened to old country music and not just metal bands. So it became clear that I was straddling two discourses: that of my friends and housemates that meant going on bike rides and camping trips, drinking whiskey on the porch at night, going to concerts, spontaneous (often dangerous) adventures. And my other main discourse, my academic, home-townie, California girl self. Like I had with the Rugby girls I learned to code-switch, and became fairly good at it for a while. Megan Foss talks about this in her essay “Love Letters.” Foss was living life as a prostitute on the street but was also secretly a writer. Eventually she earned her MA and became part of an academic discourse. She is still able to inhabit her old discourse of the streets. Similar to Megan Foss I could be my “fun bad-kid self” and my “academic put-together self” but not at the exact same time. Like Foss I spoke differently with my friends, put on the front of “not giving a shit,” even though I always have, and always will. I was doing all the same things as my friends outside of the classroom, but I had a sense of Impostor Syndrome, I wanted to be a fun-loving, not caring, daring young woman, but I wasn’t sure I was. Impostor Syndrome is the sense that even if you have achieved a level of success within a discourse you still feel that you are not a part of that discourse, or that you do not belong. They were not going to college, nor did they want to. Not doing dishes was “cool.” Staying away from mainstream culture was crucial.
I have since moved out of that dirty old mansion and into a cleaner, quieter apartment. I am still very close friends with most of the people that lived there, but as I have changed, they have to. The owner remodeled the house and it is almost unrecognizable. Instead of being covered in strange art and hand-welded sculptures, with piles of bikes in the front yard and burn piles in the back, it looks like a clean-cut, white-picket fence, suburban home. Like the house itself, most of us have moved out of our “bad-kid DIY” selves into a more adult and responsible self, found other discourses. Many of the people who lived there have “adult” jobs, and houses. Even Blu works full time at a dam, welding, making good money and going to sleep at nine at night. He is looking to get engaged to his girlfriend and start a family. But we all still get together, get rowdy at a concert, grab a pint of whiskey and bike to the beach at night, feel young and invincible, fall back into our not-so-often exercised discourse.
The longer I lived in that house the more I realized it didn’t matter if we don’t exactly fit the mold of one particular discourse. None of us belong to only one, because we are multi-faceted individuals. And how we change discourses from the inside is by using our experiences and meta-knowledge, “outsider information.” So I learned to straddle my two lives, and finally became myself.
Foss, Megan. “Love Letters.” Creative Non Fiction, vol. 9, 1998, pp. 13–33.
Gee, James Paul. Social Linguistics and Literacies: Ideology and Discourses. 5th ed., Routledge, 2015.
Hirsch, E. D. Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. Houghton Mifflin, 1987.
Richard Rodriguez. Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez. Bantam, 1982.
Shen, Fan. “The Classroom and the Wider Culture: Identity as a Key to Learning English Composition.” College Composition and Communication 40.4 (1989): 459. Web.