On Cultures and Sub-Cultures in America

If there is one word that I think gives some sense on what things are like in the United States, it is “diversity.” America has the wide range of racial, ethnic and religious diversity that it’s known for, but there are also a wide variety of lifestyles and opinions in this country. These also form identities to some degree, and groups rally or coalesce around such aspects of society as clothing, music, slang, the arts, or politics.

What you wear and who you are

That’s not to say that such diverse methods of defining identity do not exist in other countries, but in Armenia, for example, they are mostly marginal phenomena. In fact, what really got me interested at first in this question of subcultures is the recent trend of police targeting “emos” in Armenia. I did not even know what emos were when I first heard about this, so I spoke with a couple of friends at college and did some research online to discover more about this group. It turns out to involve adopting a certain style of music and clothing, which is very expressive and angsty (there also seems to be some documented correlation between emos and self-harm, but why they are being so seriously investigated in Armenia remains a mystery to me).

Although I can’t say I can confidently point out specifically emo music and clothing, I have noticed the way music and wardrobe define various subcultures here in the U.S. The manifestations of those two elements stand out very clearly in the hip-hop world.

B-boy culture

I had the great pleasure of attending a “b-boy” dance contest event in Santa Fe, New Mexico a little over a year ago. B-boys and b-girls – breakdancers – are part of hip-hop culture, but hip-hop, as I found out, is an umbrella term that includes many sub-genres of music and dance.

The movies often portray gangs or violence as being associated with hip-hop, but nothing could have been further from the truth at this event I attended, which had moms bringing over their kids for the junior b-boy dance championship, as the older participants cheered on and supported the next generation of dancers. I was really impressed to see eight-, nine-, ten-year-olds move and contort their bodies to the music, to say nothing of the older dancers matching balancing acts to the rhythm and the beats in the background. It was truly a cultural experience to witness it.

Are hipsters cool?

It can be really hard at times to put one’s finger on what defines these various subculture groups. Many are fleeting or always evolving, others are specific to regions or to their eras. Some gain resurgence, others fold into more dominant movements. Unless you are a part of them, I find, you cannot be fully aware of all that they entail. And, as with many things, stereotyping and making sweeping generalizations are dangers to be avoided.

The word “hipster,” for example, entered my vocabulary recently. This group has nothing to do with hip-hop, but, in fact, associates itself with an alternative, indie lifestyle (whatever that might mean), Hipsters are also a kind of exclusive, snooty crowd, as far as I can tell, and have therefore ended up as the butt of a lot of jokes and ridicule based on stereotypes about them. Hipsters have a very defined cultural sensibility of which I can only ever hope to have merely the broadest understanding,, and Wikipedia is a good resource to get that kind of general idea.

The nerds of St. John’s

But my favorite subculture – and the one I’ve come to identify with the most – are the nerds.

We have a diversity of students at St. John’s College, but if there is one characteristic which is more or less shared by our student body, it is a tendency towards nerdiness. Due to our college’s unique “great books” curriculum, we have to love to read, after all.

Dungeons and Dragons
A Dungeons and Dragons game in progress (Creative commons photo by Flickr user Chorazin)

For example, I remember a friend once telling me about a conversation over a meal in our dining hall about the technical feasibility of making lightsabers like those in the Star Wars movies.

Plus, many of our students are fond of role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons. If that’s something you haven’t tried as an international student in the U.S., I strongly urge that you do. It is the sort of activity which is truly an American innovation, impossible to pull off pretty much anywhere else, and if it is something which you find enjoyable, then it can really be a life-changing experience, no exaggeration.

These and many other subcultures are present in one way or another on campus, or more widely in the States, and so it is helpful to be aware of their existence. Interacting with such groups often turns out to be interesting for one reason or another. They can certainly enrich one’s experience in this country.

I cannot pretend to ever know enough about any of these subcultures, of course, particularly as they can get extremely nuanced even within any given group. Within the nerd subculture there’s an ongoing debate over using the term “geek” vs. “nerd,” and what characteristics make someone one or the other. I am still not sure which I am or which I’d rather be; all I can confess is that I am waiting for the day Harry Potter is included in our college’s required reading list.