A case study on pretending to be someone you are not

Tuesday, October 16, 2018 - 12:44pm

.

Illustration by Christine Jegarl

For a population that bears the seemingly perpetual stress of finding a place to live near campus, it is curious how college students have such wanderlust for the world beyond. The evidence is glaring: World map tapestries draped across dorm room walls, screens of people lustfully googling flights during lectures and laptop stickers with cliché adventure quotes.  

This ubiquitous focus on the next destination translates to my own tendency to view college as a four-year excursion rather than a home address – the feeling of being a tourist rather than a permanent resident.

When I say tourist, I am not trying to allude to the postcard definition of a vacation with palm trees and no reason for an alarm clock. But rather, the transient nature of the college experience that manifests a lack of permanence.

Of course, there are certainly instances during which college produces an intense sentiment of belonging. One could argue football games provide this feeling of inclusion, motivating even those who don’t understand the sport. For me, whenever I witness college tours traversing the Diag or squeaking through the library I feel a rush of pride and connection to the institution. The entrance of wary high schoolers and eager parents into my purview embodies a physical distinction between tourist and resident. I find myself standing up a little straighter and relish my affiliation with the University of Michigan.

I have always been fascinated by the distinction between considering yourself a true resident of a place and a fleeting visitor. It is why when I am sitting at an airport gate eating Cheez-Its and thumbing through a magazine, I try to guess who is a tourist and who is a local of the destination typed across the gate screen. I quietly sit collecting the empirical evidence of accents, conversation snippets, appearances and personalities contributing to my conclusions of each traveler. My inferences of who is a tourist and who is a local are rarely confirmed, but that is not necessarily my ambition.

If anything, the most rewarding compliment while traveling is when people assume you are a local. Visiting a new place gives you a chance to shapeshift, to be a chameleon with the local crowd. At least for a few days, you can imagine yourself living somewhere else. Some destinations are easier to fake the criteria of being a resident than others.

For example, in order to bear the title of a true New Yorker, the lore of the Big Apple states you must have endured the city for a decade. Not only that, but the city conceals a list of unspoken rules far beyond what we learn from Buddy the elf. These criteria should have been enough to deter my desire to look like a New York local.

When visiting New York, you have two choices. You can embrace the persona of Times Square tourist — walk in the middle of a sidewalk, take a selfie on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and wear the most comfortable shoes you own. Or you can attempt to apply your education of how to be New Yorker learned from a curriculum of “Sex and the City” and Nora Ephron movies.

On this particular trip, my friend and I opted for the latter.  We wanted to be effortless, to blend into the gilded city. Our moms thought we were crazy.

After a Sunday morning diet of bagels, we meandered through Central Park, perhaps one of the few landmarks receiving the same respect from both New Yorkers and tourists alike. We had no idea where we were going, but we tried to act like we did.

An adorable family that could rival Prince William and Kate Middleton’s brood approached us asking if we knew where the carousel was. Confession: We had absolutely no idea where the carousel was. But this was our chance for just one person to believe we were New Yorkers.

That we belonged.

So, we played the part of two girls who looked like we knew how to navigate Central Park and responded with a general wave in the direction behind us. Looking back, this was not the most tactful decision. I honestly still feel guilty about it. Our own ego of an image blinded the more honest answer. We were responsible for leading this idyllic Sunday morning family in a direction we certainly could not guarantee was the location of the carousel.  

The moment the family continued onward, my friend and I ditched our New Yorker status aspirations. The image with which I had become obsessed suddenly now seemed utterly ridiculous. Karma surfaced as we spent the rest of the afternoon hobbling with blistered heels as we regretted not choosing a more practical footwear option.  

The transience of college can easily aggregate a desire to find a home or sense of belonging beyond Ann Arbor. The wanderlust constructed from caricatures of jet setters and adventurers often lead us to want to assume a different lifestyle, even if it is just for a few days. Yet, the social politics of these images can often leave you feeling inauthentic — with a side effect of bad blisters.