Tuesday, June 05, 2012

"¿Es que Ud. es Tico?"

Q: Who am I?
A: Where are you?

A man actually asked me that today. The question in the title, that is, and it felt as if he'd carefully wrapped the moment of silence just before around my head and then yanked the string off, leaving it spinning on my shoulders.

I've thought and read before that place defines identity to a large extent, and that personality and cultural norms are also deeply shaped by place. Place-identity theory is pretty much the central theme of a recent read of mine, Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson, which is highly regarded for its dissection of Nationalism and the growth of the corporate self (or nation) as an imaginary body of like-selves. I will never meet all of the people that are considered my countrymen, and yet we are bound invisibly, invincibly. We are from a place that we share.

The person in question was Melvin, a biology instructor whom I was sent to meet by current Lincoln Tico, John Vargas, a PhD student in Chemistry and lifelong resident of San Ramón's neighbor town Palmares. John made sure I would stop by the Biology department and say hello to his good friend and work partner for the last few years. After talking to Melvin for a few minutes about how I knew John and what I was doing on campus, he dropped the bomb: "So, are you Costa Rican?"

It's difficult to know what Melvin was trying to ask, but there are a few possibilities: (1) Were you born in Costa Rica? (2) Do you live in Costa Rica? (less likely) (3) Are you Costa Rican? Now, the difference between one and three is quite subtle, but significant. It's probable that he recognized my foreign heritage. This is an unconscious leap for most Ticos meeting a red-beard. The second leap, though (that I may actually be a fellow countryman), is the one keeping the gyroscope spinning. To get past the first leap and actually consider the second means that one reality (assumed origin based on observation - visual) must have been trumped by another (our conversation - verbal) in his mind. I guess I've felt today that my fluency had come back after a month out of UNL, but not to the extent that a Tico would think I was one of his own--that he would think perhaps we are bound by the Costa Rican imaginary community.

This is for an entirely different post, but I do think one of the more pleasing aspects of fluency in Spanish (and for that matter being in another country) is that I get to start over with myself. I can be almost any "Aaron" that I like. It's taken years to feel that way about myself in Spanish, but I certainly wouldn't have had the conversation that I had today with a girl in the hallway if we were in English. It wouldn't have felt right. My tone was different than the me I think I am. My mannerisms felt alien to me. I felt Tico. This came just after conversing with Melvin, so there's no telling how much his question influenced the next couple hours of my day (or the next several weeks?), but it feels significant for the moment.

It wouldn't surprise me if language and place were the two most indicative factors of a person's identity. In that case (and now I'm getting into even more future posts), have I been living split in two as a Spanish-speaker in Lincoln? No, I don't think so, but it does make me consider why I get such a release when I roll into and out of conversation after conversation with Ticos knowing I didn't miss a beat. It feels like something I've been carrying around in a box (academic environment) has finally been set free (real world).

Tonight is ripe for reading books. I shall keep digesting this day and expect its nutrients will feed me for many to come.

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