A college student’s guide to spending time alone in a collectivist culture
On solitude: being in your element & reclaiming ‘Me’ time.
By Tanashya Batra, Contributor
Growing up in a collectivist South Asian family has defined my identity in many ways. I have internalized the idea of spending time with people as productive and spending time with myself as a lonely, sad exercise in more ways than I can fathom.
Moving away from home at 16, I went to boarding school where I also inevitably spent most of my time with my roommates and friends since we followed the same schedule. Even coming to college I didn’t spend much time by myself, purposely busying myself with an on campus job and multiple clubs. I was avoiding being alone and feeling homesick.
I grappled with the idea of spending time alone during my study abroad program in London.
I attended a small program of about 30 people—most of whom were from 2 universities and already knew each other. I met some great people, and thankfully had friends and family in London already. But 3 weeks into my program, everyone started their internships and became busy, while I was awaiting an internship that was delayed due to the Brexit recess. I barely had schoolwork, and my friends both in my program and otherwise were busy.
I spent some time exploring London, some days just sitting in the library getting ahead in my assignments, so I had something to do, and some days just complaining to my mom about how I was all alone and feeling unproductive. It didn’t feel great in those 2 weeks, but as my internship started and I got busier, I spent the weekends with people from my program or my family, craving the alone time again.
I saw this book in a store in my second week in London, and at that time, I felt like I would never be able to spend time by myself:
photo credit: Tanashya Batra
I found it very strange in the beginning;
I’ve always dreaded spending time with myself, especially if I’m out in public alone.
I feel vulnerable, and to be honest, like a loser. Dining by myself is a nightmare for me. I can do cafes, but if it’s a sit-down restaurant, I could cry. The first time I really felt confident alone in public was when I was waiting for a friend and she was running late, I just ordered coffee and read my book without thinking much about it. It was only later that evening, after I was back in my dorm and reflecting on the day when I realized that I didn’t think twice before sitting down alone in the cafe. Truth be told, I think my friend arrived late on purpose, because I had told her I was uneasy with being alone (Thanks, Sharu!).
I saw this in a restaurant in London when I was eating alone (yay!) and found it funnier than most people would’ve:
photo credit: Tanashya Batra
Taking what I learned & reclaiming ‘Me’ time at home.
I’ve been home for the last couple of months quarantining in India. My 10-year-old sister routinely asks me to leave her alone for some ‘me’ time when she can just draw. I love that she’s reclaiming those boundaries that I was never taught to have. For me, her emphasis on alone time represents a generation gap, as I’m 11 years older than her.
This also represents a culture shift in India and around the world, where people are setting boundaries within families and focusing on self-preservation.
Now, after spending the last 10 months at home with my family and ready to head back to Boston for school,
I’m sure it will be a learning curve to spend time alone again, but for the first time in my life, I’m not dreading it.
If you’re in the same boat as me, here are some ways you can learn to reclaim alone time, feel productive, and break away from the expectations of a collectivist culture:
1. Start Small: If you’re feeling intimidated about spending time with yourself, start very small! Maybe even 10 minutes a day, just spend time with yourself, away from your phone and laptop. In an age of constant connection and now with COVID, we’re even more attached to our phones and we’re not alone. If it makes you feel better, stay on your phone as a starting practice but eventually wean off of it.
2. Set boundaries: Like with any new habit, keep at it and be consistent. If you live with family or roommates, it can be very hard to assert boundaries and get into this practice. Make sure to convey the small time that you set aside for yourself to people in your household so you’re accountable for actually going through with it and so they can respect your boundaries!
3. Find something that occupies you: Like I said earlier, find something other than a communication device that keeps you occupied. I started with reading or writing as it fuels me and gives me a much needed break from just sitting idle with my thoughts. Some other things you can do are meditation, workout, journaling!
4. Spend alone time together: This is a trick I think a lot of people employ even without realizing! You know sometimes when you’re sitting with your friends not talking just doing your own thing? It’s one of the hallmarks of a very comfortable relationship but also a modified version of alone time for me! So if it’s too much to be all by yourself, FaceTime a friend or family member while you just do your own thing.
About — Tanashya Batra is a 4th year student at Brandeis University, studying Global Studies and Business. Originally from India, she has lived in a bunch of places, currently in Boston. She loves writing about all things media, representation and skincare!