By Corey Heller
Photo credit: Scott Calleja
Have you ever listen to This American Life with Ira Glass? I listen to the podcasts each week while making dinner and am always, always moved, inspired and touched by the stories of humanity – at its best, at its worst and everything in between.
The stories remind me that we are all in this life together. Yes, together.
We all feel pain, joy, love, disappointment, success, failure, indifference, happiness at one point or another. We all long for connection, to be seen as we really are, to make choices that are good and right and positive for ourselves and our families.
A few weeks ago, I was listening to This American Life’s Secret Identities show. In the second chapter we are introduced to a girl who is shy, unassuming and average. She doesn’t like to be in the spotlight and doesn’t see herself as anything special. She is just your normal American girl getting by in life under the radar. However, we soon learn that due to a particular sequence of events, she ends up as the wild and crazy mascot of the school’s sports team; a giant tiger who instills inspired cheers and wild frenzies from spectators in the stands.
Not all of us would have the wherewithal to take on this role. It takes more than just putting on a costume. It takes gumption! Or so one would think, right?
As the tiger, our average American girl is transformed. She is wild. She instills feverous applause from her audience as she performs crazy gyrations and antics. The audience comes to see sports being played as much as they do to see the tireless tiger.
But the catch is this: Our heroine can do all of this only when she is the tiger. Only when she has on the costume can she let herself go. She can’t even do a cartwheel when she is no longer the mascot. But with the heavy costume on, she can cartwheel like a champ across the field. Really!
I loved this episode of This American Life. It created in me an inner glow, one imbued with a sense of faith in humanity. It reminded me that when push comes to shove, we find ways to tap into something deep within ourselves. When that tiger is in us, we find ways to let it out.
However, I was left with a few nagging questions: Was the girl in the costume pretending to be someone else when she was the embodiment of the tiger or was she tapping into her true self; her true nature? Did the costume give her an excuse to run away and hide from herself; to avoid facing who she really is? Or did it give her an opportunity to finally express a side of herself that was hidden under her shy exterior; to finally stretch her arms wide and shine?
As I pondered these questions about the tiger and myself, I started asking questions about my own identity: What do my different languages and cultural identities say about me? I feel like a different person when I use my different languages, what does this mean? When I cling onto an identity that I developed while living abroad, is it an attempt to deny my Americanness; to push away that which feels so ordinary and bland? Am I trying to become someone else? Or am I simply feeling close to a particular part of myself?
As multilinguals do we use a specific language to unleash the tiger within us when we feel the need for expression in a more vibrant way? And alternately, do we hide behind one of our languages when we long for the safety of anonymity; of fitting in?
Are our languages and cultural identities costumes or disguises that we put on at will; a way to show the world a particular side of ourselves that we want to display? Or are they simply unique elements of our personalities that blossom, fade and then blossom again throughout the course of our multifaceted lives, like our emotions or states of mind? Are we ever completely authentic? Or is this back and forth our true authenticity? Our true selves?
With today being Halloween, the day that allows us to become anyone or anything we want to become, what better time to ask ourselves: Who am I? Where do I belong?
I think most of us will find that we belong somewhere between here and there. We are both shy and average as well as the vibrant tiger cartwheeling across the field.
And when it comes to our languages and cultural traditions, they are forever destined to be both who we are as well as who we are to become.
What do you think?