Outliers: On Individuality, Illusion, and the Importance of Being Different

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General, Global Culture

I’ve always rooted for the underdogs. The outcasts. Those who live on the fringes either because they choose to or need to – or both.  Those who dare to be different – or just are different. The outliers.

Not simply because they are outliers, but because there’s usually a reason for it, that either I am (generally) sympathetic to or want to celebrate.

In Japan, there is a saying – “the nail that sticks up will be hammered down.” It is a pointed proverb of sorts that speaks to the long-held (but perhaps eroding) ideal of conformity. Convention is premium. Individuality is discouraged.

Of course, I can’t really speak to the intricacies and nuances of Japanese culture, as I’ve only just begun to learn about it. From what I have observed (briefly), I find many of their rituals actually quite beautiful (see my post on rituals in Japan). Indeed, it a culture that thrives on traditions. With my minimal knowledge of them, I can’t be critical of them (well, except when o-mikuji yields shockingly ‘bad fortune’, as it did for me!). In fact, I find the minimalism, the restraint, the subtlety, the carefulness that often characterizes these traditions, and often other elements of Japanese culture – as quite stunning. Traditions certainly have their place.

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Traditionally dressed members of a wedding party at Meiji Shrine, Tokyo

I can understand the desire to assimilate, to blend in with the masses. There is risk to standing apart. And context is so important. I think of my grandparents, who chose to assimilate as best they could as young adult Chinese immigrants in America – learning and speaking English, adapting to local American culture. Teaching their kids – my parents, aunts, and uncles – to mix well with others. Being different in that context was risky, even frightening.

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Young shoppers stroll Takeshita Dori in Tokyo

But there are downsides to that assimilation. In the case of my grandparents, a few chunks of my heritage got a bit lost along the way. I don’t blame them, to be clear. But what I wouldn’t give to, for example, be able to speak fluent Cantonese, especially now that I live in Hong Kong. To immerse more in the culture they once knew before they uprooted their lives in the hope of something grander elsewhere.

But they did what they thought was right – and for where they were, when they were, it almost certainly was. I owe who I am today largely to their brave decision to go to America and start over from scratch. The fruits of their sacrifices rippled through the generations, and I am a clear beneficiary.

Raised as a Chinese-American, I straddled ideals. Respect, restraint, humility, the value of money – these were all traditional values that I was taught, and I’m grateful for it. But I also grew up in a society (in the USA) that celebrates individuality – even idolizes it. Those who break the mold and succeed – we put them on a pedestal.

Yet of course there are always those ‘traditional’, ‘all-American’ symbols. Take Barbie and Ken. I remember the one and only Barbie doll that I had as a child – a well-intended, kind gift from my cousin. I also remember playing with her for all of 3 minutes, before I was totally bored out of my mind. Perhaps even as a young child, I subconsciously dismissed any potential relevance of her to me – because there was none. All the more entertaining (and slightly disturbing) it was to stumble upon Barbie and Ken again just weeks ago – in Tokyo of all places. Barbie was a bit more modern than I recall, with her asymmetrical bob and hot pink trench. But she was still as blond and buxom as ever. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course – but I do find it a bit annoying as a Western ideal and particularly fascinating in the context of Tokyo. There, it encourages becoming something different than Japanese, and aligning with a different, Western ideal. But it doesn’t encourage being ‘individual’.

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Barbie and Ken…in Tokyo

Sometimes we pretend to be someone we’re not. We delude ourselves, or create an illusion for others. Why? To make people look twice? Be the center of attention? Make us feel better about ourselves? Attract someone?

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Contemplating reality – and illusion – at a storefront in Tokyo

In some cases, maybe we just enjoy the idea of hiding from reality for a little while. Okay, in the case of the creature below, it’s probably just a job to help pay the bills. But many of us relish the idea of transforming or even completely ensconcing ourselves, even if temporarily. You might think about this mostly in the context of kids dressing up for Halloween, if that is part of your culture. But even as adults, that holiday, and/or others, represent opportunities to step into someone else’s shoes for a short while. They give us ‘permission’ to look, perhaps behave, outside our norms – or outside the norms that society sets for us.

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For some, maybe it’s not an illusion at all. Maybe it’s simply self-expression. We do it everyday – whether we intend to or not. It’s in how we dress, the expressions on our face, our gestures, how we interact with others. Some of us express a desire to blend, some of us exhibit a need to stand out.

For the talented among us, self-expression is also in their craft, their art – which at the end of the day, is another way of interacting with others and sharing a perspective with the world.

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Impressive street art in Tokyo, with aspiring break dancers hidden behind

One particularly intriguing manifestation of self-expression lies in Harajuku, an area within Shibuya, Tokyo and now oft-associated with a certain type of street style. Passing through Takeshita Dori once or twice does not qualify me or any casual observer to offer informed commentary of its origins or meanings. On face value, it seems like just a ‘teeny bopper’ mode of dress. For better or worse, singer Gwen Stefani almost made ‘Harajuku’ a household name – and received some flack for it (to her credit, she at least painted it in a positive light). But I suspect there may be more to it than just what meets the eye.

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A young girl sells her stuffed wares on Takeshita Dori in Harajuku, Tokyo

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While it might be tempting to discount Harajuku as simply a smiley, sugary-sweet, cotton-candy pink bit of trendy cultural ephemera, I found it surprising, and a bit saddening, to see several unhappy faces in this area. And more camera-shyness than I would have expected. As I thought about this more, I wondered what drives these young (mostly but not all) girls? Do they feel pressure to be like everyone else but compelled to dress differently? Does their Harajuku style actually make them feel more like they fit in? Is this just an expression of who they truly are, and do they wish observers would just let them carry on?

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Do the more ‘average-dressed’ in this area actually wish they dressed or lived more ‘Harajuku’ but cannot?

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Of course, how we dress is just one small element of who we are. But it does send clear signals to those around us. As humans, we almost need to categorize things, and people, around us, to be able to put it all into some comprehensible context. How we literally see our environment (and everything and everyone in it) helps us do just that.

What matters more though is how we think, and how we act. And to those brave enough to be different in a productive way, to think outside the box, to truly be outstanding – you have my utmost respect and admiration. Being different can be lonely. But I think it’s worth it. Here’s to individuality.

[Special thanks to Takenori and Satoko for being such fantastic guides!]

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Globetrotter based in Hong Kong, travel and street photographer, Getty Images contributor, award-winning blogger of WanderFong.com - seeking true beauty in travel and life!

12 thoughts on “Outliers: On Individuality, Illusion, and the Importance of Being Different”

  1. what a great post! i’ve wondered the same thing, when i was visiting tokyo. it seemed like such a contrast, to see women all wearing black, gray, or navy wool coats during the winter, and all men dressed in black or gray suits. if anyone deviated by wearing anything colorful, it certainly stood out in the crowd. then to go to harajaku to see colorful, eclectic styles. so interesting…

    regarding assimilation… i can totally relate. Growing up and working in an immigrant community, the first generation americans either assimilate well or have difficult transitioning. i’ve witnessed both sides: immigrants who can’t adapt (because they don’t have the education nor resources to adapt) so they cannot read/write/speak english. it poses a huge disadvantage to their success. at the same time, they retain their heritage, and their children benefit by being bilingual.

    then on the other end, immigrants who assimilate and acquire their new culture may become more successful and independent, but then their children lose the language and cultural traditions of their motherland. it’s a tough balance.

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    • Thanks, as always, for reading and commenting with such kindness and thoughtfulness! I can only begin to imagine what it is like for 1st generation immigrants in a new country. To your first point, I think that was exactly what my grandparents were thinking – adapt, assimilate, learn the language, learn the local culture – they also worked like crazy to achieve what they did with a whole slew of kids in tow and trying to ensure their education and a better life. I will be forever grateful for their sacrifices and selflessness, as I know it helped pave the way for me. Some of their original culture got lost along the way – it would be impossible to do/keep it all intact. It is unfortunate, but I understand it. And I take responsibility too for not pushing a bit, asking more questions – as it was only when I became an adult (when it was already too late, after my grandparents had all passed away) that I started to understand the importance of continuing the cultural thread. A huge lesson learned.

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  2. Another impressive written post. How you start with the underdog, talk about different culture and then segue to upbringing. The kind of this unique fashion in Japan really can spark interest and trigger conversation about culture and individuals. I do feel like there shouldn’t be any calculation, even analogy or understanding, reason, or judgment on how you appear in the public. Whoever you are, the “you” will come out, be it strongly influenced by heritage or by the society. And I agree, how we look doesn’t speak all about our entire personality.

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    • Thanks so much for reading and your kind compliments! I think these issues are certainly not isolated to Japan, but even my brief visit and observations there really sparked my thought process on what it means to be an individual and to think independently. And yes, we all fall prey to the idea of judging people superficially. Knowing that it is human nature to do so also however compels us, places the responsibility on us, to ensure we present our individuality and our true selves.

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    • I completely agree. There are definitely cultures in this region that have become very accustomed to mass thinking but not independent thinking. I see this even in HK quite a bit. There is so much potential, though, and I think the evolution will happen over time. Trailblazers lead the way – and others will begin to see the benefits and hopefully branch out on their own, too. Thanks so much for reading and for your kind words!

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  3. Machelle D says:

    Great post Deb! I loved my trip to Japan- seeing the traditions in Japan vs the individuality of the younger people…..I thought it was fantastic!

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  4. Very perceptive post, Deb! Somehow, it reminds me of the movie Ichi, where traditional samurai lore confronts punk bad guys. In the end tradition wins, but not after the female lead loses the love of her life. Is there some implied message there for the Japanese?

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    • Perhaps! Ah the nuances. I suppose there is always a trade off or compromise. Thanks for reading as always, and for your thoughtful comments!

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