I grew up in Los Angeles and I am going to validate the fantasy that so many people imagine life growing up in the shadow of Hollywood might be: I knew and saw celebrities all the time. A valuable lesson that I learned from my famous friends is that with exposure to strangers who immediately feel familiar with them, my friends had better act in a friendly way or there will be repercussions. For instance, if a famous friend is in a rush to get through the airport and doesn't stop for someone else's selfie, the person asking for one will say "Oh, yeah, I've met so-and-so and she is such a bitch!" And via that one encounter, that story is forever attached to her and is repeated over and over and over again, even by people who weren't there, didn't see it, and have no right to tell it. On the other hand, if this same friend stops what she is doing, is kind, and makes eye contact, the encounter is relayed more along the lines of "Oh she is AMAZING, so pretty and so nice! I love her!" And that story, too, is repeated time and again, reaching friends of friends.
This microcosmic, Los Angeles example of interactive repercussions has much broader implications. Who you are, who I am-- these identities represent more than we think. We are more than just ourselves. We are symbols, we are emblems, we are examples, and we will have diplomatic ripples when we travel.
For example, when I lived in Kenya I was the first white person some rural children had ever seen, and they ran away in terror because they thought I was a ghost. I was in Paris on 11/13/15 and became a walking, talking emblem of 9/11, though I was nowhere near New York on that terrible day. Maybe you're the first Latina, Muslim, or Vietnamese person someone will meet. Maybe you encounter a group of kids in Iceland that think Americans are all fat, or all racists, or all in love with Brad Pitt or Lucy Liu, and you're more of a Steph Curry or Sofia Vergara, slim, bi-racial-type. Maybe you're the first transgender vegan hydroponic farmer at your university. Whatever you are, there's a good chance that when you leave home you'll be someone else's first something.
And how cool is that? Suddenly you're not just you and I'm not just me: We get to represent something bigger than ourselves. We get the opportunity to set the tone for what a stranger might think of an entire group of people, an entire school of thought, even an entire country. Obviously we are not entirely anything but unique, so let's remember that when we become de-facto ambassadors of something or someplace, we must rise to our highest selves while our uniqueness is expanded out to a represent others. Let's be the most generous, kindest, honest versions of ourselves and make the journey of the next person walking our same path more pleasant. Let them encounter welcoming strangers, people who anticipate good things. Let us be remembered for our best traits. After all, this world is getting smaller and more crowded. If we make the effort, we can make it more hospitable and set the tone for greater communication, greater compassion, and, ultimately, a better place to live.