Psssst. I’d like to make a confession. If I had to say it out loud I would only whisper it because it would sound very strange.
I identify with mythical creatures.
Now your eyebrows are probably raised, wondering what kind of weirdo you have come upon.
No, I don’t actually believe in elves, fairies and unicorns (um, not anymore, anyway). It’s not that. It’s that I often feel like a mythical creature.
If you have ever wondered what it feels like to move all the time, to always be the new person in town, the new kid at school, the new hire, the new face in the room—to always be considered a foreigner where you live. It feels like being Bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster, or the tooth fairy. Anyway, what I imagine they would feel if they existed.
It is not necessarily a bad feeling—more of a strange one. Though I must admit, at times it does hurt and it can also be dangerous. As an outsider, depending on who is observing you, you may or may not exist. Don’t get me wrong, of course you always exist in your mind. But at what capacity you exist to that other person may be just as chancy as a leprechaun, a centaur, or a yeti. It’s best that I explain it with a short true story.
One bitterly cold day several years ago, I walked into a store that was selling perfume and cosmetics. After I was done browsing, I gathered the items I wanted to buy and waited near the counter. There were two saleswomen scanning and packing the goods that day since it was a busy time for Christmas shopping, and there was a long line of customers in front of and behind me. The saleswomen were both pleasant looking ladies, in their mid-twenties, impeccably made-up, they chatted with each other cheerfully as they worked. Yet I began to feel a growing sense of discomfort when I noticed they perked up more with certain customers, trading witty banter with them as if they were old school chums rubbing elbows yet again. My body began to tense as my turn came up, I smiled widely and forced my shoulders to relax. But I couldn’t shake the assumption, one I had learned from previous experiences, that this was the usual prelude to me, a foreigner, being greeted with dead silence. To my relief, it was not complete silence, but it wasn’t kindness either. The women said their perfunctory hellos and scanned my items quietly. In contrast to the other customers before me, it was as if I didn’t exist. I might as well have been a robot or a coat hanger on wheels, pushed along by cats. When it was time for me to pay, I handed one of the ladies my credit card. The card was startlingly ice-cold to the touch because it was freezing outside. The cashier noticed this and instead of chatting with me about it, she turned to her coworker and began rambling about how cold it was. I was nodding and smiling the whole time, hoping that, at some point, one of them would realize that I understood what they were saying and that I was a nice person after all. But neither of them acknowledged me, they were, in fact, avoiding my gaze. Slightly frustrated, I turned away and found myself locking eyes with a well-dressed, middle-aged man who had been quietly observing the scene from another register just across from us. He had a weary look on his face and shook his head slightly as he noticed that I had understood everything the cashiers were saying and they never realized this. He sighed sharply, raised his brows and gave me a little smile as if we shared a secret joke between us.
I’ll never forget that unexpected moment of connection, it felt as magical as transforming back into a human after being turned into a frog, or say, a coat hanger manned by cats. It was like turning away from a scene you were observing from far away only to find yourself in the midst of that very scene, as the main character, no less. For an astonishing moment, I was face to face with my own reflection. A reflection that I could see in the man with startling clarity.
To that person, I did exist. Not as a burden, or a joke, or a shade less than normal, but a bright, shiny being, whole and worthy of acknowledgement. I wondered oddly, is this what a fairy feels like when she is accidentally discovered? She was about to fly off unnoticed as usual when someone pointed a flashlight in her direction and there she was, as clear as can be, caught hovering in that once dark space, butterfly wings glittering as they flap, smiling awkwardly, eyes wide as a deer in the headlights, not quite sure what to do next. Perhaps there are many magical creatures in our midst. Fantastic beings that we have somehow learned not to see?
I wouldn’t go so far as to say my entire self-worth hangs on the assessment of strangers. No, that would be a sure path to self-destruction—something I learned the hard way when I was younger. What matters most is what you think about yourself and what your loved ones think of you, not what strangers think. Yet I often observe that identity is like a costume other people put on you and when they do it often enough with the same pieces, certain roles have a way of sticking, especially if you become passive about it. As a foreigner or an outsider, you are a walking tabula rasa, a blank screen onto which people often project their fears and (often unrealistic) expectations. Sometimes it feels thrilling to be a mythical creature, sometimes it’s downright scary. Depending on who discovers you, you could be a terrible monster like Nessy or the Kraken, or something beautiful like a pixie or a unicorn, or something ridiculous like an elf or a leprechaun.
But wait, you might say, wait a moment there. You know, everyone does this. Stereotyping, judging, quickly assessing who is friend or foe—that’s a survival mechanism everyone has. Had I not done it myself with the saleswomen? Did I not make assumptions about them too? Yes, I must concede. I did. I am not so different from them or anybody else. The only difference was a very small one—that I was still open to the possibility of being wrong. In fact, in uncomfortable situations, I often hope to be wrong. Doubt, that was the only difference.
Perhaps Peter Pan got it all wrong. It’s not more belief we need, but doubt. We need just a little bit of doubt to let that magic in.
What is within the walls of that secret garden? What is inside that locked treasure chest? Who is that stranger really? Perhaps we may find something incredibly wondrous after all, if we are open to it. We may find ourselves staring into a magic mirror, one that will always tell us the truth.
Text and Images © M.P. Baecker and http://www.alightcircle.com 2017.