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Virtue of heterogeneity and dynamic

haabibi's picture

A shower bag, a shampoo, a hair conditioner, a couple of clothes hangers…and, finally, a couple mechanical pencils for me and my roommate. I thought over and over millions of times what I should get for her to deliver my overly excited feeling toward meeting her. The high school where I went to was a boarding school, an hour and a half long distance from my house by car, three hours by bus. It was possible to go home on weekends, but I decided not to except for the monthly mandatory “Going Home Weekend.” The time it would take me and my parents going back and forth to the school and the repeated poignant moments of saying good bye to my parents every weekend were some kind of considerations that made me decide to stay at the school even on weekends.

So I had to live without the help of my parents for three years. But before moving into the dorm and before the semester –or the new chapter of my life as a high school-er –began, excitement, anticipation were the feelings that overwhelmed me. I was ready for all the new encounters waiting for me ahead. I hoped my roommate and I would share a lot of commonalities that may lead us to have an amiable relationship.

But little did I know how few commonalities that we had with each other. It was not homogeneity, but heterogeneity between people that makes the relationship healthy. The more strengths and weaknesses that we encountered, the more we learned from each other. The process Michelle and I went through in overcoming the desire for power taught me that what makes a relationship beneficial for both people is conflict.      

My roommate, Michelle, and I came to the dorm with bunch of ideal ideas that we had in our mind on decorating our room. Thinking the dorm to be our next “house” or “refuge”, we wanted to make it really comfortable, welcoming and embracing. I carefully cut the magazine paper into our names and put it in front of the door. She printed landscape pictures and hanged some decorations on the ceiling. Step by step, we were making the room as we had idealized before coming to the school.

Since the very first day of the school, we had been together all the time. We started the day together; we ate breakfast together, not to mention, lunch and dinner too; we took the same class; we used same mechanical pencil; we studied at the same room during the self-study hours; we ended the day, talking incessantly until we were too tired to talk.

I was greatly thankful because I felt like I had found the right “community” –the place where I felt most comfortable with a person who I could share a lot of my personal life. It seemed like we, together, were making “[a] safe house” –a space where we could represent ourselves as “horizontal, homogeneous” with “trust, shred understandings, temporary protection from oppression.” (Pratt, 40) We were there for each other to fill up the vacancies of parents; we provided an umbrella to each other when the utmost intension of adjusting to new environment poured down.

As we were adapting and adjusting to our new society well, the bond that held the homogeneous community became more brittle until it totally shattered into pieces. Our relationship resembled an empty egg with some cracks on that made it seem like it would break sooner or later. Before the semester even began, Michelle and I were too busy to form a community that fit into each other’s needs, and there was not a time for both of us to fully submerge ourselves into the “contact zone.”

Before we even got to know each other, before we “met, clashed, and grappled with each other,” (Pratt, 34) we were just in a desperate need of somebody to cling onto. We were scared before the encounter of other contact zones that we would confront in our new society: whether would it be academics, new teachers, new friends, new environment, and a pressure of going to a good college.

 As we started to look back at the community that we had hastily made, as we had enough time to look back at ourselves, we began to notice each other’s differences, strengths and weaknesses that we hadn’t yet realized. I was out-going, while she was more timid and careful; I wanted to make more friends and spend some time with them, while she wanted only one or two friends that she could hang out with most of her time; I enjoyed being alone, walking at night or having some time for self-retrospection, while she always wanted someone beside her for chitchat. Also with a matter of communication, we were at the very brink of two opposite sides. I was careful not to hurt other’s feelings when expressing my opinion and tended to suppress my feeling. Michelle, on the other hand, directly told others what she felt uncomfortable.

The realization of each other’s differences and weaknesses was gradual, but the greed of power, so sudden.

Because I trusted her so much, I once told her one of my deepest family secrets while we were chitchatting in the dark before we went to sleep: how my family was going through the toughest time because of economic difficulties and how my younger brother was going through the utmost stormy period of his puberty, leading interminable tension and quarrel inside the family. I told her earnestly how much I envied her and other students who go to private institutions on weekends; but asking for money for additional education would be too burdensome for my parents, since they were already too exhausted to pay for my tuition. Michelle, however, who was the youngest in her family and lived an affluent life I could ever ask for, did not understand the deepest and the darkest of my secret –instead she started to belittle me. She tried to dominate my life and my area of privacy by insinuating she would not give me the materials that she had gotten from the private institutions if I did not have lunch with her.

Whenever I did not feel like to have meals, but for a walk around the campus, Michelle became really anxious as she had to find somebody who could sit in front of her so that she won’t feel lonely. Since it was the first semester of our freshman years and she had spent most of her time with me, she hardly knew other students only to have meals together. I could see her anxiousness on her face –and that anxiousness gave me a sense of inexplicable pleasure. The kind of pleasure of discovering what her weakness was.

Pratt described “interaction” as “a single set of rules or norms shared by all participants,” where “all participants are engaged in the same game.” (Pratt, 38) Interaction couldn’t be realized between us. As our own ways of communication differed, the cracks on the eggshell got even deeper. We both were the colonizers and the colonized to each other. When one tried to dominate through the other’s weakness, that other one suffered anxiously in agony with a feeling of ignominious betrayal. We were hurting each other. We were “clashing and grappling.”

The past days when we had movie nights with little snacks and cup ramens seemed like imaginary days that would never happen again. The fancy name tags that were put on the door and all the dangling decorations coming down from the ceiling seemed nothing more than futile trinkets that did not make me feel safe at all.  

But I needed to survive. I couldn’t waste any more of my time and emotion on our little war of colonialism. I started to adapt her strengths and supplement my weaknesses –because weaknesses could not be defects anymore that acted as Achilles tendon. And so did her. The community that we were in and both of us went through the process of tortuously dynamic “transculturation.” Coined by ethnographers, the word “transculturation” is used to describe “process whereby members of subordinated select and invent from materials transmitted by a dominant culture.” (Pratt, 36) I tried to adapt more of her communication style: speaking directly, but carefully, to others about what I feel uncomfortable about. She started to enjoy the virtue of being alone sometimes. In that wild battlefield of colonialism, both of us were growing up to be more mature and were trying to improve on our weaknesses.

Being able to grow up through reflecting other people is one of the best virtues of contact zones. We all have “imagined entities” which “images of communion” reside “in the minds of each other.” (Pratt, 37) We are in constant search to find a community, where we could be fully embraced. But I realized that in reality, community can never be homogenous or have horizontal alliance, because each one of the members is discrete –and that fact makes the community itself “heterogeneous.” And I also realized that the contact zone where all different kinds of people encounter, clash and grapple, is the place where they all can grow up through the process of “transculturation.”

I grew up too. I learned how it is better to voice out my opinions or complaints rather than suppressing them. I started to be braver with new relationships and meeting with diverse people. Because I came to realize that difference and diversity does not mean that any of us are wrong or that one of us can hold power through others’ weaknesses. When there are clashes, transculturation will follow, and one will grow.

Diversity makes the contact zone dynamic. Heterogeneity makes the contact zone healthy.  

It was the night before the semester ended. Michelle prepared some snacks; I put boiled water into cup ramen. And we were ready to stay up our last night together watching three movies in a row. 






Pratt, Mary Louise. "Arts of the Contact Zone." Thesis. 1991. (n.d.): n. pag. Modern Language Association. Web.