When we were little, everything was up in the air. We were taking dance, tennis, swimming, piano, soccer and skating lessons because chances were good we’d excel in at least one of them. Potential was in endless supply. Our best qualities were groomed, our worst ones subject to intervention, and only few taken for granted. Mostly, our nebulous futures were targets for grown-up criticism, even if we didn’t get it, or maybe because we didn’t get it.
“Honey, don’t dress like that,” some relative might have said.
“Huh? What? What??” we might have questioned.
“Like a hippie/bum/snob,” would suffice; and we absorbed it.
Later, as young teens, the advice grew more concrete: “You’re definitely a this kind of person, so go for that.” And whether we accepted or rebelled, we heard it.
However casual they seemed, comments like these were powerful catalysts for lifelong opinions. A simple remark could ricochet for years before becoming an assumption about our world at large. We just never knew which ones would. Childhood was like a constant audition: we were choosing the person we wanted to be.
Now, in our late teens and early 20s, we’re not the societal empty canvases we once were. After two decades’ worth of feedback, grade-school labels and looks on other people’s faces, we can describe ourselves by ourselves, thank you very much. Maturity, after all, is the stabilization of role-playing.
Or so I thought, before my “role-playing” recently started looking less “stable.” I got to wondering: if the tryouts have really ended, have we learned to typecast ourselves for life?
The question plagued me this summer, as I found myself acting with a very new cast of characters. I was working with co-worker interns who shared my ethnic background, which was a first. In fact, sharing that much space with similar-heritage people was a first. Nevertheless, I entered the scene self-assured and armed with the things I knew would distinguish me. I was confident. I was cocky. Whatever I was, I was ready to present Nina Chung. I knew this girl, and I knew how to play this game.
Yet as the weeks went by, it became clear that my new friends perceived me a bit differently than I was used to. Their picture of me featured adjectives I was unaccustomed to, not necessarily bad or good, but sometimes downright unexpected. Several times, I came home thinking, “Well, they don’t actually know me.” It was clear they didn’t see the Nina I was…or was that someone I had purposefully prepared for the situation? Sure enough, denial eventually popped into awareness the way it usually does, and my thought became, “Wow, they really know that part of me.” And I had wasted precious time trying to convince everyone I was another particular person I thought was still me.
Perhaps we do this more than we think. We promote our identities like products, and post-epiphany, I became conscious of others also blaring personal infomercials as well. It’s not always intentional, of course. But it’s inevitable even when we introduce ourselves to new people. By now, we’ve made some conclusion about who and what we are that guides our style, our “type” or what we want to be associated with or known for. It feels so permanent and thus secure. But belying that is the risk that we’re wrong — or that we never let ourselves be wrong.
Back in the day, we effortlessly doubted the roles we played in our families, relationships, parties and group projects. Can we still? Is it too dangerous now? Indeed, it might be more dangerous not to. I know for sure that our skepticism lives, even if we forget to apply it to ourselves. So we should keep checking to see if, in reality, we’re following a new script, lest we trap ourselves in a costume that no longer fits. A very famous man once said, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”
And when the time comes, we should let ourselves play differently, too.
Care to critique or send a review? Nina wants to hear it all, and all it takes is an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Good luck on your first week of classes!