Zhu: Generation: Awkward

Awkward interactions show the miraculousness of our age.

by Michael Zhu | 1/5/17 11:05am

Every year, during the holiday season, I find myself constantly cringing at interactions between my generation, the next generation and the previous generation. It’s painfully unavoidable. Whether it’s discussing relationship advice, American politics or nostalgic movies, there’s always at least one time per party where I wince at some sort of awkward discussion.

The worst interaction a college student can have with an adult is about relationships. It’s so inevitably awkward, because you go into the conversation knowing your elders will be infuriatingly didactic.

“How are the ladies?” your grandpa will ask, his face glowing red from wine. If you do have a significant other, it’s easy to inform grandpa of your relationship, shower praises on her looks and personality and assure him that everything between you and her is going well, even if it isn’t. If you don’t, it’s a whole different story. You can invent an excuse for why your irrepressible charm is just not working on people. You can blame a ceaseless academic schedule, accuse people of being too selective and denounce society for various vices. In short, you lie and you feel awful about it.

Then there’s the disappointment in your grandpa’s eyes, the pity in your grandma’s words that twist your stomach — and afterwards. And of course, the story of how your grandparents got engaged that you can recite verbatim already.

But at least relationship advice is easier to handle than political discussions. We’ve all met that one uncle who complains about liberals and society and millennials and President Barack Obama’s policies. And you want to cry out and say, “Obama wasn’t that bad!” or “Not all millennials are weak crybabies — just look at my perfect brother who actually has a job and couldn’t care less about our president-elect.”

The core of political discussions always involves the unending conflict between nostalgia and hope for the future — however dismal or disheartening it may seem. It always seems to be a clash between what used to be and what could be, their cherished memories and your vision of society.

“The good ole days were so much better,” someone would say. “What has this world become?”

“It’s my world,” you want to respond. “It’s a new world with a new generation.”

So perhaps the political discussions aren’t political in nature. It’s a conflict between two adversarial visions of the world, one based on past experience and another based on newfound optimism. In some ways, that’s a good thing. It lacks the divisive edge of politics and is grounded on an unchangeable, stubborn premise that old ways will always conflict with new ones.

But no matter the political or social arguments you can make against your elders, you can’t dispute the fact that there are some things in your life that you see as retro — Harrison Ford, perhaps, or Coldplay — and that your younger brothers or sisters just haven’t experienced your favorites as you have. Eight-year-old Adam might know every legendary Pokémon in Pokémon Sun but can’t describe the indecision when choosing between Charmander and Squirtle (nobody ever chooses Bulbasaur) in Pokémon Red on the Game Boy Color. Twelve-year-old Alana might be obsessed with Beyoncé but can’t relate to the Black Eyed Peas. And to ten-year-old Alex, Ford is just Han Solo or Indiana Jones. To me and many others in my generation, Ford was a hero, a worshipped idol, the legend with a blaster and a master with the whip; Charmander always turned out to be better than Squirtle; and “I Gotta Feeling” used to be the go-to song not too long ago (seven years isn’t too bad).

Sure, call me nostalgic. My generation has seen things that the next generation has not, but while it makes us feel proud, it also makes us feel old. It’s so peculiar that as we continuously battle our elders, we like to embrace our “old-ness” ourselves. I love to mock my parents’ inability to use Instagram and selfie sticks, but at the same time I love to show kids younger than me the trending hashtags or newest styles. I love the energy of the Chainsmokers but I can always enjoy the Beatles. Being at this age makes me laugh at both the stubborn seniority of my elders and the naïve youthfulness of the younger generation — even though I possess a little of both.

We should cherish this age of indecision, identity crises and divided feelings. We should treasure generational politics and relationship advice, no matter how frustrating or repetitive it may seem. We should laugh at our elders and our siblings, simultaneously teasing ourselves for their qualities. Being at an age in between two radically different generations opens up so many different viewpoints. It marks the transition from childhood to adulthood. It also magnifies the differences between childhood and adulthood.

And it always makes for terribly awkward conversations.