Tag Archives: Identity

In Search of Cultural Balance

I’ve never been particularly attached to the clothes I wear.  I have always happily worn different outfits to fit the social situation required — unlike others, what I wear does not define me or so I thought…

I wore a hijab for the first time as a Peace Corps volunteer in The Islamic Republic of Mauritania, a country three times the size of New Mexico in western Africa. It’s a sunny, hot, and dusty place that is almost entirely covered in sand.  Almost all of the women in the town where I lived wore clothing that covered their entire body – only exposing their face, feet, and hands.  Wearing a hijab is as much for practical reasons as it is for religious and cultural reasons; it offers protection from the sun and sand.  In order to be respectful and culturally appropriate, I wore an ankle-length skirt, a short-sleeved blouse, and a headscarf, which left only my face exposed – shining white out of the center of a colorful frame. I embraced this outfit, even in the heat, because it was exciting and new and I could feel that I was more accepted in my community as a result of my efforts.

About four months into my two year stint as a volunteer, I realized that I was feeling rather strange and couldn’t pinpoint exactly what was troubling me. I thought about my daily interactions, the very friendly exchanges I had with Mauritanians. Then it hit me—I didn’t have any real friends.  As an extrovert, I had never struggled to make friends. As I thought more about why, I realized that I had lost my sense of self, my past, my individuality.

In my efforts to be culturally appropriate – wearing a hijab and politely interacting with people – I had suppressed my own extroverted, American self. I realized it’s hard, and almost impossible, to make connections with people when you aren’t revealing your true personality, expressing your opinions and being you. It was in that moment, that I rediscovered Alison within Mauritania. I opened myself up to women in the community, communicating my opinions, interacting with them from this new perspective, all the while still wearing a hijab and my conservative clothing, and almost immediately, I had friends.  Not surface friendships, but real friends.

In The Convert, we watch as two cultures, two religious perspectives compete for the souls of the characters.  To me, Jekesai’s struggle is very real — even though my own personal struggle had much less at stake. Discovering who you are within a different cultural framework and trying to reconcile your own culture and the new culture is a challenge faced by all Peace Corps volunteers.

As a recruiter for Peace Corps, I try to set realistic expectations for potential volunteers, telling my personal story, and encouraging them to watch movies and plays that depict what it takes to live in a culture that is not your own. The Convert gives Americans a glimpse of what it might be like to find cultural balance while they are serving as Peace Corps volunteers.

If you would like more information about how you can serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer, please visit the Peace Corps website at www.peacecorps.gov and contact Alison McReynolds at amcreynolds@peacecorps.gov.


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Permanently Impermanent

Map of the world c. 1550

It’s the age old question that we are all asked at some point in our lives: where are you from? For some people, it’s easy. They can answer without hesitation countries such as Italy, Spain, Russia, Japan, etc. Their family traditions are strong and their understanding of the culture is clear and accessible. They were the kids in elementary school who instantly knew what country they were going to pick for their heritage project and the exact recipe their mother was going to use for the ethnic food portion of the presentation. But what about the rest of us lost souls wandering around the world, unsure of our exact roots? I’m aware that my ancestry is a smorgasbord of countries (whose isn’t?) but I have rarely felt an overwhelming presence of familial heritage in my own personal revolution. Ultimately, how can I say I’m from some place I’ve never been? Is my identity defined by my genealogical origins or by my cultural practices?

In The Convert, culture and traditions are placed on the same pedestal as performance and Jekesai shows us that religion is a practice, not an inheritance. With inheritance comes the falsification of what we believe to be permanence; but how can something stay forever when life is not a permanent promise? In this sense, it would seem that because nothing can remain forever, than our roots are easily, uproot-able. We are a transient species as Chilford proves: he becomes a Jesuit priest after growing up in a household with a “witch-doctor” father. He shows us that religion is centered on a foundation of performance and not an internal inheritance. Although he was raised in a Pagan house, he denies his upbringing for Christianity, and although he is of African blood, he considers himself a European (“in an African’s costume”).

So how do we balance who we are with where we came from? Maybe it’s the little things that keep us grounded in our roots. Jekesai continues to wear her Shona necklace—a physical binding to old traditions—while the “far more educated” Prudence switches back and forth between English and her native tongue. But are these symbolic gestures enough? Can we truly combine two separate cultures into one, or are we constantly putting them at arms with one another?

Share your thoughts, loyal Mammoths. Come out to Pay-What-You-Can and tell us about your roots, your revolutions. Do they conflict? And how do you balance these somewhat competing agendas?

-Emily Wilson, Communications Assistant

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What Masks Do YOU Wear?


Photo by David Bjorgen

Last night, after seeing The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity for the third time, I realized I couldn’t shake the image of the way Mace clutches his mask. In the entire first act, he either has his mask in his hand, in his pocket, or on his face. He wouldn’t let it go, and that was powerful. To many it may have passed by, but how tightly he held onto that piece of fabric really struck me and got me thinking.

Maybe it’s just my actor mindset, or my love for understanding how and in what ways we think about questions like “what different masks do I wear”, but I have ALWAYS thought about this. I know I have several masks. One for when I interact with my Mom and then one when we are with her side of the family. I have one mask for my dad and his side of the family. I have a different mask for both of my jobs, and a similar mask for each of my group of friends yet with subtle differences that can change dealing with each situation. I think of my masks as a Mrs. Potato Head face, you can just take off and pop on pieces that fit for the occasion. I have a lot of different masks, to say the least. Not because I choose to have different ones, but because they subconsciously slip out.

You know how it is! You grow up, you gain new experiences, you learn to accommodate to each social/professional/educational situation and somehow they appear. Before you know it you have 5, or 27 different similar but different masks to choose from. That’s life.

How many of us know all of our masks? Are you overly aware of them? Do you not notice them? Do they control you or do you control them?

These are questions that we don’t think about often. If we do, it’s every once in a long while.  Yet, we should. Wearing a different mask all the time is a lot of work! Of course we’d all like to say that “I only wear one mask and that is who I am, and I know who I am.”  Impossible.  As a productive being in this society, you will not use the same mask in every situation. You simply can’t! If you completely disagree with me, leave me a comment because you have found the secret to life.

I digress. Of course we all have core characteristics that (we hope) radiate through our masks. For example, my core characteristic, my Mrs. Potato Head face without any features on it, would be kindness. You better believe that I make that radiate through whatever mask I might have on that day.  I believe that one act of kindness can turn someone’s awful day around; and we never truly know how awful someone’s day might be. It doesn’t always stay with me: but sue me, I’m not perfect.

Kristoffer Diaz, author of The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, understands all of this using a powerful metaphor. He uses wrestling, and theatre as a medium to explain these “masks” we wear. More specifically, the masks that humans of various racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds wear and the battles they face under these masks.

Many come to see this piece thinking it’s a show about wrestling, but through Diaz’s use of the mask metaphor, he has created so many layers through allowing the audience to see this work through three various different lenses; the theatre, wrestling, and humanity.  Diaz makes clear that masks in wrestling and theatre are not solely for the show. They tell the story of their “characters” life. Usually, we only see one mask in televised wrestling, and even in poorly written or performed theatre. The beauty of this piece comes from the offer Diaz laid on our table. We are given a look at Mace’s, VP’s, and even Chad’s different masks.  These men seem like caricatures, and they need to for THE business, but they are still people.

See if you can figure out the different masks they have to wear in their lives, and why. Even more importantly, see if you can find when their masks come off; when they are raw. Who knows, you might find these caricatures and the masks they wear more similar to you than you think.

We are all human, and therefore we all get caught in humdrum routines. Too often these routines make us are unaware that we use each other as props, or allow ourselves to be used. Too often are we solely fighting for ourselves and not looking out for our brothers and sisters, unlike Mace who desires communion through the creation of one perfect story.  While watching this show, take off your masks and allow yourself to be raw. It will be a nice change from that constant work to keep your masks in place and who knows? You might make some interesting connections to people you did not think you had anything in common with.

-Stacey Sulko
Marketing and Communication’s Assistant

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