Recently, I wrote that in my experience so far, Peace Corps’ warnings about ‘reverse culture shock’ have been overstated. I still think that’s true, but wanted to relate the following:
It comes as no surprise that, as an unemployed former Peace Corps volunteer who, after five weeks, is still sleeping on his friend’s sectional, I am one of the most poorly dressed twentysomethings in DC. Not that I was ever on the cutting edge of fashion, but before I went into the Peace Corps I gave a lot of my clothes to Goodwill, and so now I have only what I had with me in Moldova plus two ill-fitting suits, a few dingy white dress shirts, and a suitcase full of grey, Tennessee-sports themed t-shirts my mom sent to me when I got back. In a town full of well-dressed yuppies and judgmental hipsters (not to be too pejorative), I feel like I fell off the turnip truck whenever I go out in public.
Although hipster-ism has been around awhile, I have never been around it, or at least, didn’t know I was. I lived in Austin for a year before I went to law school and didn’t think it was as awesome as everyone says it is: whenever I wanted to go out and do something fun, I ended up feeling like I wasn’t supposed to be where I was because I wasn’t cool enough. At the time I didn’t know the word for these people who thronged the dive music venues around Sixth Street, who wore oversized headphones on the bus, and who seemed to look down upon my apparently Springsteen-album-cover-inspired “look” and mainstream taste in music. They had just started to arrive in Nashville — a city I love and have long described to people as an Austin that doesn’t care how cool it is — when I left for Moldova, but still didn’t know who these people were. And it’s no big surprise that they weren’t around in the village in Moldova, where mesh shirts are high fashion. It’s only now that I’ve come back, to a relatively buttoned-down, slacker-free city no less, that I’ve come to know the hipster.
My second week back, still before I knew what hipster truly meant, I had an interview. The weather report said that there would be rain on the morning I’d be walking around in my suit, so I decided that after taking in a movie (my first in a theater in 17 months!), I would stop somewhere convenient to get an umbrella. Next door to the theater was what seemed to be, from the outside, a chain clothing store: pretty standard mall stuff, if a little trendier than the Gap or J Crew. (I went in only because it happened to be next door and seemed to be the only place in the immediate vicinity that might sell umbrellas. I don’t have a car, and the place I’d normally go — Target — is not easily accessible.) I expected that I might be forced to buy something like an umbrella with a PBR logo on it, but I rationalized the idea by saying it would be worth it to not have to walk all over the place. Thus began my first experience with a place called Urban Outfitters.
And I nearly had a panic attack.
The experience was more frightening than anything I ever confronted in Moldova — even hitchhiking with a car full of thick-necked, possibly drunk Russians. I’ve never been in a place where I so viscerally felt I didn’t belong, and while I was cautiously browsing through all of the ironic chatchkas in the accessory section looking for my umbrella, I overheard a girl who was wearing a fedora and a scarf on a 90 degree day call the band Grizzly Bear “too mainstream” for her. She saw me looking at her, stopped, looked me up and down, and (I’m pretty sure) rolled her eyes before continuing. I had to get out of there.
And so here I am, returned from the Peace Corps, wearing my ratty dad jeans out to bars where every dude is either in a suit or bearded and wearing a t-shirt with airbrushed unicorns on it. One of these is not like the others.
(If you want a good read today, check out this piece in New York Magazine on hipsters; I learned a lot, including that I apparently am a little hipster myself given my affinity for Dave Eggers, McSweeney’s, the movie Rushmore, and a v-neck shirt I have that I don’t always wear as an undershirt.)