My May beer of the month is the Tall Poppy India Red Ale by 8 Wired Beer.
I thought I’d picked it because I tried the 8 Wired HopWired IPA last month and found it kind of blah, but 8 Wired promise the India Red Ale is intense, sharp, complex, big, and bold. And indeed it proved to be. This was much better than the IPA: huge flavors, tons of caramel, and a bite that won’t quit. Would definitely buy again.
But maybe I didn’t buy Tall Poppy because of the IPA. Maybe it was because I heard Meghan Trainor’s Me Too in May. I was literally struck dumb with shock at the transgression of her saying “I like myself” for three minutes and three seconds.
This is because I grew up fertilized by tall poppy syndrome. All Kiwis did. There were two worst insults thrown around the schoolyard: saying “You love yourself!” and calling someone a “Try hard.” As in, to try is wrong. Not, you’re so dumb you have to try, but rather, it is wrong to exert oneself – especially intellectually – for the sake of achievement. Unless you’re playing a team sport. Then it’s ok. As long as you don’t celebrate winning.
These epithets weren’t just for kids, either. I clearly remember on the first day of a new job, right out of school, being asked to lunch by three new colleagues. In the lift on the way down I surreptitiously checked my reflection in the mirrored tiles surrounding the lift buttons, looking for smeared eyeliner or lipstick. One male colleague immediately cried, “Ew, she looked right at herself. You love yourself, you love yourself!”
Peter Hartcher describes the purpose of Australian tall poppy syndrome as a defence against superior airs, that “it isn’t success that offends Australians” but someone thinking they are better than the next guy. That wasn’t the case here. It was success itself that had to be downplayed. And Wikipedia has it wrong, too. Tall poppy syndrome wasn’t “resentment or envy of the success of a peer.” It’s not wishing you could have that success too. It’s egalitarianism as oppression: enforced equality at the lowest common denominator.
When I was in university I was approached by a lecturer who asked me to attend a function that evening. A bunch of students were receiving awards. But, she said, “Please don’t tell anyone. It would make other students feel bad if they knew some people were being singled out for achievement.” So about a dozen of us received our awards under cover of darkness, with no one the wiser. The following year they did away even with this small ritual. I got a certificate and a cheque in the mail, and no one ever said a word to me out loud.
You’d see this in our sports, too. Check out this brilliant intercept try by All Black great Stu Wilson, in 1981.
He stands and walks away like he failed. Like he’s just been told his dog died. His team mates turn their backs on him and jog back to the restart. This was more than normal, this was admirable. This was the only way to comport yourself and still hold the respect of those around you. A girl I knew wasn’t allowed to do gymnastics because her dad – a professional musician – was afraid she’d get “full of herself” i.e. develop a smidgeon of self esteem.
This doesn’t just hold us back as individuals, it holds the country back economically, too. Happily, things are changing. All Blacks actually celebrate tries, now. Their team mates congratulate them.
Now Kiwis can see for ourselves that the world is wider than our tiny cloudy shores, that people in other places don’t mind standing out. Success can be good. Outperforming other people can be beneficial. I admire Americans so much for their cultural self-confidence. I’d like to get me some of that.
But the culture I grew up with is still ingrained in my bones, to the extent that I half-pie look around when Trainor sings, “If I was you, I’d wanna be me too,” and wonder how long until someone stops her. Until someone cuts her down with a scythe for being so presumptuous to say, “I fucking rock.” Changing the habits of a lifetime is hard work.
I bought Me Too. It’s on my iPod now. You better watch out. I may become unstoppable.