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8th July

The many jackets I wear

In a small park in Tokyo, an elderly couple and their two teenage children, a boy and a girl sat at a bench next to mine.

Listening to them talk, I thought in passing they might be Mexican, so asked them in Spanish if they were. “No, we are Americans,” the man said in English with a strong Mexican accent. He sounded slightly defensive.

I felt a bit taken aback. Did he think that he could only become a real American by forfeiting his Mexican heritage?

But then I thought about my answers when Japanese people I met asked where I was from. I often started out explaining that I’m originally from the Netherlands but that I now live in Barcelona. When that sentence turned out to be a bit too complicated, I just said that I was from Barcelona.

I wonder if identity is a jacket you put on and exchange for another according to circumstances.

I’m a different person when I talk to a close friend than I am when I talk to my account manager at the bank five minutes later. When I walk our dog Lucy, my identity is different from when I hold a talk in the auditorium of the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo.

I’ve noticed that my tone of voice and even my use of vocabulary changes according to the language I use. In Castilian Spanish I’m more decisive than in Mexican Spanish, when I talk in a softer, more melodious way. In Catalan I’m a bit more hesitant because I feel I have not fully mastered the language, in English I’m more thoughtful, in French my voice goes higher, in German I’m formal and more distant, and in Dutch I’m far more direct than in any of the other languages.

It’s as though each language is wired into my brain in a slightly different way, so I wear a slightly different jacket when I speak them.

But what would it be like for each of these jackets to merge, to soak into my skin so that I could be all these versions of myself at once? Is there a core me beneath the languages, or am I constantly in flux through my interactions with people and the world? How do I make sense of all these different identities?

I wonder if our need to connect during the lockdown was so urgent because we could only be some version of ourselves through what we shared with others.

When the couple and their children stood up and walked away, the woman trailed a bit behind her husband. Then she turned around and softly said, “Hasta luego.”

She made me feel a bit Mexican, a jacket I very much enjoy wearing.

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