What does it mean to be an individual?

Stacey-Nguyen-full

Instead of watching fireworks, my friends and I fruitfully spent our Fourth of July rewatching clips from the gory postapocalyptic anime series “Attack on Titan,” in which naked, 60-meter tall Titans violently destroy cities and casually eat humans. Action and drama propel the show forward — the ominous soundtrack and characters equipped with 3-D maneuvering gear make for very captivating viewing. Although ostensibly ridiculous, the show is refreshing, drawing upon themes like will, fate and the unknown. Still, what particularly draws me to the show is the protagonist Eren Jaeger, who maintains a relentless mindset toward demolishing all the Titans after one of them killed his mother.

The beauty of the show lies in how it unfolds the vagueness between individuality and collectivity. Jaeger, like most coming-of-age protagonists, is — to put it most eloquently — an arrogant little shit, but a relatable arrogant little shit. What he lacks in talent he makes up for in hard work and a sense of purpose. Still, his hard work often doesn’t cut it. He’s not No. 1 in his squad, and he can’t kill the Titans alone. His efforts, though noble, are not enough to defeat the giant human-eating monsters. Ultimately, the series asks an important question: “What does it mean to be an individual?”

My Western education in high school and college taught me to undermine the values of American individualism, with the typical example being Jay Gatsby. But at home, I was the American Dream for my parents — talk about double consciousness. They have worked incredibly hard for as long as I could remember; a few years after being put into re-education camps following the fall of Saigon, my parents came to America. In their late 20s, they navigated America humbly with the little English they knew, working minimum wage jobs. Even today, my father’s back is worn from lifting heavy boxes at work, and my mother’s hands are hard and dry from taking care of me and my brother. My acceptance into UC Berkeley was as glorious for them as it was for me.

Like Eren Jaeger, I grew up with a sense of duty and responsibility. But like Jaeger, I’ve also been an arrogant little shit. When I did succeed, my ego became wholly inflated. I devoured the “follow your dreams” and “be you” rhetoric that polluted the air around me through mundane things from sappy movies to beauty product ads. One of the things that struck me most as I listened to Zadie Smith’s commencement speech to New School graduates was when Smith rhetorically asked whether or not her college education made her better than her father. Strangely, something about college makes us more desirable. We become unique commodities that are more distinguished from the collective. We are not dissolved.

As I grew up, my parents reminded me that their sacrifices weren’t for them. When I was still a stubborn, self-righteous teenager, I didn’t believe them, but they were right — most of the money my dad made went to taking care of me, my grandparents and my brother. I believe what distinguished my parents from Jay Gatsby was their sense of sacrifice. Their vision of the American Dream was not a lonely or boastful one. My parents recognized how valuable other people, specifically family, was to them. From them, I learned the value of community, and I learned that I needed other people as much as they needed me.

My cohort is allegedly narcissistic and selfish. Recently, LinkedIn found through a survey that 68 percent of millennials would sacrifice a friendship for a promotion. Ouch. I, too, could feign superiority and look down upon my generation, but that would be disingenuous of me. I don’t think our fears and anxieties are unfounded. The cost of living is higher. More than a quarter of a million college graduates last year had minimum wage jobs. Still, I am hesitant to say that the academy has turned students into immoral, irrational players of commercial interest, as Allan Bloom suggests in “The Closing of the American Mind.” If anything, I am rather uncharacteristically optimistic about the broadening of disciplines and diversity in the modern university, which, though imperfect, opens up the potential for collectivity. And I am rather optimistic about what my generation has to offer.

It is ironic for me to communicate through writing, which is as individual and introspective as it gets. I’m not suggesting that we should all be the same or that we should sit around in circles preaching love and communism. Rather, I’m suggesting that we not be afraid, every now and then, to lose ourselves and understand that we’re part of something bigger. It’s only through understanding different experiences that we can even begin to fathom the existence of our Titans. They might not be as conspicuous, but they’re just as malicious — environmental degradation, corporate greed, violence … the list is too long. Only after that can we begin to defeat the Titans.