During a drive to Ann Arbor with three other people in my car, I asked each of my companions to queue two songs on Spotify for us to listen to along the way. Two were quick to add their songs, but one of my friends was hesitant to add something to the queue. “I don’t know what to add, just skip me,” she insisted, but I demanded two songs from her. So she reluctantly queued two songs.
I suspected her hesitance stemmed from embarrassment about her taste in music — I wagered a guess it was K-pop. The first track, a bossa-nova-esque indie ballad, was perfectly inoffensive to her audience of artsy people in the car. Then the second track played: “dayfly” by Korean R&B singer Dean.
“Were you nervous because you like music in other languages?” I immediately asked. I told her, I may not follow K-pop, but even I have listened to Dean, and I think his music slaps. Only then did she spill her interest in Korean R&B and other genres of international music.
The last few years have seen so many hobbies that were once considered “nerdy” or “lame” become mainstream and cool. Video games are vanilla. Mid-40s office workers who couldn’t name a single Pokémon before 2015 are often the most devoted of Pokémon Go players. Just five years ago Reddit was considered (by its users) to be a geeky website you couldn’t talk to other people about, but today it’s almost as normal as using Facebook — it usually hovers in the top 10 or 20 most visited sites on the web nowadays.
Still, there’s a hesitance to fully embrace some of these things. Many people won’t adopt the label “gamer” or admit the true extent to which they play video games. Dungeons & Dragons players remain fairly low-key. The breakout popularity of BTS has still not fully normalized open interest in K-pop, with many listeners opting to keep it on the down-low. Reading young adult novels has seemed to constantly fluctuate between feeling “totally normal” and “utterly uncool.”
I’ll never forget my chief paranoia of 2012: hiding my obsession with anime. There was nobody going around saying “anime is for dweebs,” but the pressure to hide my hobby was like a heavy weight over my shoulders. Anime turned out to be just a phase for me, one that I would keep secret for several more years. Then at some point in college I finally stopped caring and covered my bedroom in posters of anime I hadn’t watched in six or seven years. It’s almost like I needed to make up for all those years repressing my hobby.
I know I wasn’t the only one hiding it, and the feeling of embarrassment still exists: A plea for subtle anime wallpapers was posted on Reddit just one year ago (The caption reads: “I need some new phone and desktop wallpapers, but im not going to expose myself as a weeb to everyone i know just yet.”) Though a sense of shame seems to run particularly high in the anime community, I can imagine some K-pop fans or D&D players similarly looking for subtle ways to express their passions without “outing” themselves.
When I think deeply about it, I struggle to pinpoint what exactly is so “different” about these “nerdier” interests. Maybe the perceived obnoxiousness of their fans, but there are just as many bad apples in more mainstream fanbases like sports. So what’s responsible for this overbearing sense of shame and embarrassment?
I think most people are just looking to feel welcome and accepted, even at the expense of showing who they really are. Society has trained us to feel validated by the thoughts of others. Hiding our true selves is an unfortunate consequence.
I say stop hiding what you love. Taking pride in it is not a cardinal sin.
As I’ve grown older I’ve sought to shift the dynamic. Today I prefer to make the things that matter to me loud and clear as a sort of litmus test. I’ll proudly blast “Flamingo” by Kero Kero Bonito out my car windows, and if someone were to give me a weird look for listening to music sung in Japanese, then they probably aren’t worth getting to know. On the same token, don’t take your anime posters down before bringing your Tinder match into the bedroom. If they think it’s weird, then they’re probably not worth another date.