Acceptable reason for being popular: awesome Halloween costumes.

Like everyone else, I hate people that are popular.

Growing up, most of the popular kids I knew were kind of jerks. They were uniformly white, and privileged, and blond(e) and terrible. They seemed to emerge fully formed out of descriptions of ideal Aryan youth from textbooks, or preteen novels about bullying. They were terrible in might and social prowess, ruthless and adept at gathering and leading the populace–gangs of miniature Musolinis; Stalins with cowlicks and sibilant /s/ sounds. They generally made going to school unpleasant for all of the social misfits, the grossly unpopular, and anyone else in the masses (yours truly). Our schoolyard was their fiefdom, and all other children their loyal serfs; moreover, the royal crown was handed down through the generations nepotistically, some grade fives graduating and bestowing the mantle of cruelest, prettiest, and most deranged to their horrible siblings or young tagalongs. It was a brutal, medieval kind of landscape, where our hardened spirits were forged through suffering, name-calling, and weak punches to the face or belly. It was elementary school.

That I continued on to middle and high school with many of the same people didn’t help. But I developed a nice, metre-thick layer of sarcasm and irony, like all good social pariahs should. I became funny and studied hard, and worked until I could finally get over it. I polished up all the ludicrous anxieties you get as a child and teenager about the social world, and blasted them with logic and university applications, and expelled them on my last day of high school like a series of traumatic socio-emotional kidney stones. I would likely never see these people again, so why should I carry them with me? They all sucked, anyway.

The people I no longer care about, but the overarching urge to recoil from the popular lingers.

When around large groups of people, I inherently develop a sense of mistrust for those who seem to be leaders–those too eager to join everything, to befriend everyone, to be involved in all the goings-on. Those people at the centre of attention, in the spotlight, wowing everyone with their dazzling smile, their winning personality, their beguiling blandness. What are they after, my scarred and warped psyche prods me into wondering? Adulation? Domination? Government secrets? Alliances? When the apocalypse comes, they will have the most people in their roving band of motorcycle marauders, no doubt.

It’s silly, certainly. They’re probably nice. They’re probably genuine. They probably don’t eat babies. But years of seeing people in social leadership as inhumane creatures of terror issuing forth like embodiments of darkness in the human soul is a hard thing to get over, and even as an adult I treat these people with heavy doses of suspicion.

It extends beyond this, too. I’ve become pickier as time goes on, and my hipster streak is strong and robust and douchebaggy. I tend to like music that’s unpopular anyway, but that it’s unpopular certainly helps. I generally refuse to read any book which one could feasibly acquire inside of an airport. If a restaurant or a store has a line-up outside of it, I turn up my nose. If the television show has a laugh track or is not constantly on the bubble of cancellation, something in my brain just turns off.

And popular people, though I no longer hate them, hold so little interest for me. My brain, ever suspicious and bitter and petty as it is, assumes popular adults to be inherently bland and flavourless people, acceptable by so many because they are inherently inoffensive. They are human Rorschach blots to be projected upon, but with no meaning or significance on their own.

It’s like I have a hardwired, ingrown need to cheer for the underdog, inasmuch as I like to cast myself as underdoggish, because I like to think that I’m scrappy and fighting against the man. And in this childish, warped way, the overdog is the enemy. Be that enemy a person with a robust fake tan, or a musical group that everyone is listening to, or goddamn Eat Pray Love, I will resist with every nerdy, pretentious, self-absorbed and self-indulgent bone in my body. Is it popular? Then set fire to it and keep it away from me.

It is thus with great horror I regard accusations from some of my friends in Korea that I am popular.

This is not to say that I’m widely liked, or to be some sort of braggart about social status. I’m sure there are still many people who find me offputting and officious, just as I like, and that an even greater number have no idea who I am, which I like even more. I just know an enormous number of people, that casts the illusion of well-likedness.

But I can’t deny patterns.

After meeting some people new to Korea for a drink, we headed off to a birthday party for a friend. These people later remarked to my friend Thanh and I that we essentially evaporated as soon as we entered the building, and were seen only like motion blur, social hummingbirds darting from pod to pod of various groups of people that we knew. We seemed superhuman in our bizarre sociability, they remarked, and everyone seemed to be talking to us or within our orbits.

More disturbingly, I’ve had close friends describe me as “popular.” They remark that I just seem to have a great deal of friends and know a lot of people, and that I am a person of connections. I treat these accusations as though they were attacks upon my visage, my ancestry, my intelligence. As though they are physically violating me with their words. Popular? How could you call me such a thing?

Part of it has been being rent from my social network back home. I’m used to knowing a lot of people, because my family numbers in the dozens, and when I moved away and left all of them behind, the niches had to be filled with new people. With friends. That I adopted several new hobbies which end up being shared by others means even further people have become involved. My modicum of Korean language skills ingratiates me both with the locals and with the expats. And then there’s this big dumb blog, which I regularly, self-indulgently plaster my image all over.

It’s like a viral infection, and I’m one of those medical hold-outs. I developed a popularity gout and I just wince and move on with the pain, not getting treated. Suddenly I just know hundreds of people, and then they’re introducing me to their friends, and acquaintances, and language exchange partners and their moms and dads and bowling teammates and bathhouse companions and their classmates when they take the food photography class at the university. Circles form within circles, and I know all the people.

Why do I view this as terrible? Having friends is not, realistically, a bad thing, but years of association made the notion of popularity the white rat to me, the Little Albert of this social Watson conditioning experiment. Popular = bad. Popular is evil. Popular is menacing and sort of bland and boring.

But popular has become me.

They only like me for the cake on my face.

10 thoughts on “Popular

  1. thats very funny. you sound exactly like a friend of mine.

    He claims he was an outcast in school (my school had only mild popularity issues) but he was constantly telling people who made friendly overtures towards him that they were idiots.

    I think he’s finally getting over it now.

    • Well, I actually just didn’t get friendly overtures back in school. It was a rough place.

      It’s hard getting over it, though, adjusting to the idea of life outside of the same incestuous, terrible social circle.

  2. Michael, you make it sound like you lived on the island of misfit toys, or at least wanted to, but even they became popular when Rudolf brought their plight before the eyes of Santa Claus.

    I digress, as once again you have shown wisdom and insight into how most children face school and the experiences of growing up; most survive but not all and certainly not unscathed or untouched by what they have experienced. And yet, like you, these experiences molded you and help define you and as such you are neither a follower or a leader of a pack but rather your own person who others will admire because they want to not because it is popular to do so.

    Anyway, once again, well written; I am sure; for now at least; I will not find your writtings at any aairport bookstore.

  3. Maybe it’s okay…maybe you’re nicer than all the jerks who were “popular”. (I mean, maybe you’re not, but, just sayin’…) There’s more than one way to be popular…

    Also (Murphy’s Law) I will laugh when you get an Oprah’s book club stamp on your book.

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