Learning how to be authentically inauthentic

By RUDY MALCOM | March 28, 2019

An acquaintance recently told me I was the personification of suburbia. She said that I was very clearly from Long Island, that I fit all the stereotypes. 

Her declared observations of me provoked a mild existential crisis. Not to exaggerate, but I’m literally the most self-conscious person I know. How could I be so unaware of how others perceived me? How could I have become the embodiment of the values I’d grown up despising and seeking to distance myself from? I was downright flabbergasted.

So I interrogated her, hoping to understand how her impressions of me had emerged. Did I come across as materialistic? In the hamlet where I was born — that’s a fancy word for a type of “community” within a town in the state of New York — your neighbor down the street might not know your name, but they’ll link your face to the car you drive. At the bus stop, parents brag about their vacations. At Hopkins, on the other hand, someone asks, “How was your spring break?”; the other person responds “Good” and then they change topics.

I’m scared of contact lenses and have worn glasses every day of my life since getting them in fourth grade, except for one day during my sophomore year of high school because I’d broken them. When I got to class, I discovered that my friend — let’s call him Carl — was really the myopic one. He failed to notice that my face was bereft of its usual optometrical ornaments, instead immediately pointing out that I’d gotten a cellular device. I’m not kidding when I say that people at my high school kept track of each other’s phone models. I did not want to be that type of person.

Silently admitting to myself that Instagram likes regulate my self-worth, I frantically asked my friend if I was superficial. Could it be that I was fake? She assured me that she’d been merely kidding. 

“I know you’re from Long Island because you don’t talk about, like, growing up on a farm,” she said.

I was a bit exasperated. I tell Hopkins people I’m from Long Island only because I don’t feel right saying I’m from New York. I’m not comfortable potentially deceiving people into thinking I’m from Manhattan. I’m not bragging when I say I’m from Long Island; my friend doesn’t even know that I grew up on the same peninsula as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s inspiration for East Egg in The Great Gatsby. I kept that to myself.

“Oh, did I not tell you about the time I helped deliver twin lambs on my ranch?” I asked. “Really got up in that fleecy birth canal.”

Granted, I was sleep-deprived during my conversation with her, which made me a little melodramatic, but her initial remarks upset me because they brought me back to how I’d felt in the metaphorical closet in high school. 

In a previous column, I wrote about how coming out as gay my freshman year here helped free me from a two-and-a-half-year-relationship with a girl in high school (Maybe I shouldn’t have called Carl myopic; for me, denial wasn’t just a river in Egypt. For most of my relationship, I didn’t think I was gay). Part of the reason I’d been scared to come out was that I worried people would think I was fake; would they think I’d lied to her? And as I wrote in a different column, during my senior year of high school, after I’d broken up with her, I felt “I was hiding my sexuality behind a perhaps paper-thin veneer of straightness. I was fake.”

In a similar vein, last week, I grappled with a sense that I was inauthentic. Whenever I go home for break, I am reminded how surreal being a college student is. It’s weird that my parents pay for my tuition, housing and the vast majority of the food I consume, but ultimately I’ve established an independent life of sorts here at Hopkins. 

But when I go home, I immerse myself once more in family drama that I don’t think deeply about on a daily basis. It’s hard to make time to keep in touch. Realizing that I’m away from my parents and brother, in a sense, makes me feel like a fraud. 

I applied to study abroad next fall but rejected the offer when I got in, partially because I decided I’d feel even more fake even farther away from my family. (To be fair, my decision to apply in the first place had been impulsive and last minute.) On top of that, I decided I would’ve felt detached — academically and socially — from my already somewhat inauthentic reality at Hopkins. 

By forgoing Hopkins Madrid, I am missing the huge intellectual opportunity to immerse myself in a different culture. Yet I don’t regret my decision, though I’m sure I will for a fleeting moment as soon as someone in the program drops their first Insta in Madrid. I know that I will continue to find purpose and meaning in my courses, extracurriculars and friends here. 

I’ll read that seemingly dull Christian theological text, even if doing so won’t influence my grade; otherwise, that class will feel pointless. I’ll contribute my fullest to The News-Letter, so that I feel like I’m making a difference on campus, and I’ll make sure to find time for Bananagrams and perhaps less wholesome activities with my friends. I won’t be at Hopkins forever, and I will make the most of my surreal life here.

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