Dancing to a New Beat
By Divya Murthy
Looking back on the first startling moments in an American residence-hall.
The first thing that comes to mind when I try to archaeologically dig my way back into my freshman days is High School Musical and its extravagant dance rituals. I had just moved into the residence hall with the rest of its occupants— my neighbours and fellow shower-corrupters, that is. But from where I was standing, it looked like my neighbors had known each other forever, even though they had all only met the previous day (and possibly once more awkwardly the previous night) and exchanged banter almost exclusively about Massachusetts and/or Pennsylvania.
My hallmates were all extremely nice and cordial with me, as was my roommate, but it seemed like the groups had been formed, the friendships forged and the cheap alcohol drunk much before I emerged from my room.
Nevertheless, I reiterate that my neighbors were very easy to get along with and they got along with each other as well as a new family would, upending couches in the common room and staying up all night together. And man is yet to discover a better way to understand American college culture than by watching the cinematic pinnacle of quintessential high-school culture, High School Musical. All three titles.
Before I proceed, there's one more fascinating thing that arrested my attention — most of the people I knew before coming here to college would only choose to break into one choice art form, i.e. song, if an impromptu stress-reliever was required. But here, the reigning fashion seems to be breaking into song and dance simultaneously, a feat that shook me considerably. Was I supposed to know the steps to the last dance in the basketball court in High School Musical before coming? I felt slightly indignant that this important cultural habit had failed to be highlighted at the international student orientation, and was very bemused when I saw this occur in the common room on more than one occasion.
On another occasion, when the common room required meager knowledge of dance sequences, the dialogue turned to more popular culture that I was and still am unfamiliar with. I had thought that my venerable experience watching Game of Thrones (and reading the books as well, naturally elevating me to a higher level of human being) would be sufficient to rally around the conversation. But my hubris came crashing down; far fewer people were into fantastical violence and intricate plots than I surmised. Inwardly, I fumed that all my ice-breakers were melting fast, especially in the heat of the high school dance floor that the common room often became.
Eventually, though, the conversation turned from choreography to curiosity. My American neighbors asked me about growing up in India, speaking more than two languages and the travails of taking three flights and a congested highway to reach home. I was grateful for their questions at that point — I had begun to re-evaluate solemnly all the things I had thought were interesting about my personality. But they were quick to ask and eager to learn. That was one of the first things that drew me to them.
I must have attempted to crack a joke during some of these conversations, because I remember the sense of relief when the joke found its mark and they all chuckled wryly. Not to worry, I thought to myself, I'll have them graduate from wry chuckles to peals of laughter soon.
I didn't have to try hard — most of them were boisterous, outgoing and ready to listen, laugh and cry with their new family. A pervasive atmosphere of supportiveness and optimism spread through those floors like the #2017mumps, like a security blanket over the darker and bitter secrets hiding. Until I came to the US, I didn't know what it looked like to have an abundance of warmth, positivity and encouragement smiling away and sitting next to a tight knot of anxiety and stress. My neighbors and friends only ever showed me the warmth.
I survived my first year at university without having known the lyrics to 2000s classics and the essential facts about American Horror Story. In their always-welcome and open attitude, my new friends showed and taught me a lot more than the dance moves I would fail spectacularly at.