Last week, I slammed my Costco-bought “Thermoflask” into a trash can in Anabel Taylor Hall, gave it the finger, then angrily strode out of the building. It was right after Friday prayers. Call it a spiritual awakening.
My $10 cerulean Thermoflask from Costco was a point of pride for a while before it started leaking all over my readings. I’d spent the first month or so of school flexing that I’d essentially gotten the same product for a fraction of what people were paying for trendy Hydro Flasks, joking that the only downside was that my Costco water bottle might give me BPA poisoning. (It’s actually BPA free — please don’t sue me for libel.)
I shelled out $30 for a Hydro Flask (on sale!). I put a sticker on it, too. I’ve gone through the same push and pull my whole life: I thought AirPods looked stupid until I didn’t. I successfully resisted getting an iPhone until last year. I entered middle school resenting the name-brand hype, but by the beginning of 7th grade you could fully catch me walking down Bull Run Middle School in my half-Aeropostale half-Hollister ’fit, looking like an absolute hypebeast.
Why do I cave in so often? Wanting to fit in, be trendy and engage in the cultural moment isn’t unique. But for third-culture kids, the pressure of fitting in sits heavier on our backs. For us, popular medium-luxury brands were and remain more than just trends. They serve as heuristics for coolness, which signals greater things: wealth and, more importantly, Americanness.
Growing up between cultures often means trying and failing to live like our white friends. If our lives had little in common, at least we shared things. And by sharing those things, we shared all of the connotations that came with owning them. The accumulation of these items was supposed to draw us closer and closer together, like a curve approaching an axis. I would ride the curve, not knowing it was asymptotic the whole time. Whiteness would always be just a skip away.
I think I did a good job of assimilating, which is a grim, but honest thought. But when you enter a place like Cornell or a similar conduit into the world of upper class elites, the goal posts start to shift. Now, it’s not enough to be in line with the trends, to signal that you fit in with a water bottle or Herschel backpack or whatever. To continue your upward trajectory, you have to be ahead of the curve. Accumulate trends for too long and you’re basic, or worse: a wannabe white kid. There’s something unfortunate and sad about third-culture kids who follow the curve for too long, who try too hard to jump the gap between themselves and white culture. Like they’re unaware that that’s not where they belong, not really.
Hydro Flasks are, of course, probably one of the most inane and innocuous symptoms of this greater, more terrifying process. But the lure and ease of commercial coolness — of commercial whiteness and wealth — are everywhere. It’s challenging (and expensive!) to simultaneously try to fit in to a harmless stereotype (e.g. preppy, fratty, artsy, Zeusian) and avoid being placed into others, for which we’ve invented slurs: Twinkie, Ho-Ho, banana.
Honestly, maybe I just got it because it’s a durable water bottle and a worthwhile investment. But I can’t help but still feel that twinge of shame every time I buy one of these signaling objects, like I’m betraying some countervailing force inside of me. It’s as though the price tag includes some greater, more abstract cost: Something more malicious, more complicated.
Pegah Moradi is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. All Jokes Aside runs every other Monday this semester. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The title of this column has been updated.