I had a lovely conversation with a little boy this weekend while I was shopping. His mum was having a hard time trying to keep her three children calm in the store. The boy, who was the oldest, was causing quite a ruckus. As I was close-by, I gave him a warm but stern, disapproving, parent-like look. (Not remotely as bad as the look my parents would have given me at that age.) But he looked at me curiously as he calmed down. He introduced himself and told me that I look like his babysitter. We talked about his age (he was “almost” six),what he wanted for Christmas, and why he had to be a good boy for mum and a good example to his siblings because they would imitate him. He gave me a big hug at the end of our conversation and said, “You are just like my babysitter, we say she’s like a sour patch kid – you’re sour and you’re sweet!” I think this little boy knows me better than most people I encounter.
Identity or rather the construction of identity in terms of our communicative and performance markers – gender, race, nationality, etc. – is an area of interest for me. But beyond the constructions, on an individual basis, I’ve always found it fascinating how people describe themselves and others. Language constructs reality and our understanding of reality; it constructs our understanding of who we are in relation to other people and vice versa. It is for this reason that I argue that being multilingual is a greater subjective experience than being monolingual. I have a personal bias but I have always found that monolingual people and cultures often as a default, see the world and themselves and others, from a narrow or singular perspective.
It is a shame of course because the truth is I can tell you that even as someone who is most learned in the English language, I still can only explain some things in other languages. Particularly, I can authentically only explain some of my emotions, observations, and experiences in other languages; the honest reality of them would be lost in translation. But what does this have to be with people being multidimensional? I understand myself and others to be multidimensional in a way that is not always easily explained to many of my peers in this culture.
There is a tendency to view people statically in this culture. It is also generally part of Western culture, even in terms of Western morality, to see people as being one thing or the other. I think the language many times which is created by the culture but also creates the culture, tends to view identity as fixed. While the culture’s own academic institutions often challenge this, it has not necessarily been adopted by the lay culture. But this is just my observation, which is always wrought with subjectivities.
Still, it seems one of my most difficult experiences of living here – in fact, my only difficult experience in terms of integrating in this culture – is this need for people to put others in a box. For me, simply as a matter of multicultural experience, people are never in a box. Context and experiences and situations and the belief that identity is fluid and not static, allows for seeing that people as a matter of nature and nurture, are multidimensional. So to some people I am full of contradictions. In one instant, I am shy and introverted and like to be by myself, and in the next, I am very loud and charming and outgoing. In some moments, I am soft-spoken and kind and compassionate with humanity. And in other moments, I am stern and demanding and full of harsh truths.
But I don’t think I am unique in this way. I see this in all people with aspects of their identity depending on context and experiences. And I am sincerely against, even as a matter of personal morality, viewing anyone as the sum-total of one thing. And that one thing could be those identity markers, it could be personal beliefs, and it could be the very words we use to describe ourselves and others. People are not the sum-total of any one singular aspect of how we define them, or how they define themselves.
I can say for myself that those who know me best, know that I am indeed like a sour patch kid. I am very private but also given my writing, someone who is open. I am strong in my religious convictions but accepting of religious difference. I choose not to be politically aligned with any one ideology or party, but enjoy being around multiple perspectives in this area. I show love by being as honest as possible with people but I also make fun of people to show affection. (In fact, if I don’t make fun of you, it’s probably because I don’t like you.) Speaking of, I think it is a moral obligation to love everyone – that is, to help them in need. But I do not feel any moral obligation to like everyone or to be liked by everyone. Sometimes I prefer it when someone doesn’t like me, it assures me of certain aspects of my fluid identity when I encounter them.
My point is this: We can call ourselves “walking contradictions,” and we sometimes do given how limited the English language is. But I prefer to see myself and others, not as contradictory but as multidimensional. We are many things; many complicated, simple, straightforward, conflicting things. And we need to remember that as we go through the world defining ourselves and defining others. From the mouth of babes comes the truth: I am like a sour patch kid, and you are too.