With each new story is a different – but familiar – way of understanding how different types of social structure produce different types of individual. Mary’s story, in last week’s episode, illustrated the notion of the individual as a token of a particular, recognisable type: ‘I was one of those…’ This week we hear from Christina, who tells a story in two parts. The first part is about the economic downturn of her hometown, Awayville. The second part is about how she got out of there. In fact, she got out as soon as it was possible for her to leave:
I graduated from high school and moved out that night. I was packed before I went to graduation, and I graduated, and went to party and left. Like, that night.
Later she constructs a group of people, using the existential process there is and the definite determiner the, which signals that the listener will be able to figure out which group of people she’s talking about:
There’s always like the people who you just figure are gonna stay there forever.
With a new story – Christina’s story about getting out of Awayville – we have a new image of how the individual relates to the community. In Christina’s vision of the social world, the community is a group of nameless, indistinct people who will stay in Awayville forever. The individual is the one who separates herself from those people and that place.
The image of the individual here is the isolated individual, who has to rely upon her own resources to move away from a difficult economic situation. This story, from my point of view, is very similar to what has often been called ‘the American dream’: the idea that all Americans have the chance to ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps’. The idea, that Christina reflects here is something like:
It’s up to me to change my own life.
The questions Christina’s story raises for me, though, are these:
Who’s changing the social structure that made your life so difficult in the first place?
How can we both be an individual and be contributing to the reshaping of the community or the social structure so that it isn’t quite so oppressive and so difficult?
How can I be both an individual who is reliant upon my resources but is also fully supported by my community?
I also speak about different notions of the individual in so-called ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ cultures, and speak a bit about the difference between using kinship terms and given names when referring to family members. If you’re interested, there are some illustrations of kinship terms in Korean in Alan Hyun-Oak Kim’s chapter, ‘Politeness in Korea’ in Politeness in East Asia, edited by Dániel Z. Kádár and Sara Mills.