One of the most humbling experiences that I have as a storyteller is telling stories from diverse cultural backgrounds to people from the culture to which the story belongs. Amongst storytellers and folklorists, there is a wide array of opinions as to whether or not people who are not of the culture should even attempt to tell such tales. Each teller must make their own decision one way or the other. Whatever they decide, if they choose to tell tales from other cultures, it is wise to do the research necessary to give an accurate telling and to choose appropriate material.
Care must be taken not to tell the story in a flippant manner or to make light of cultural traditions that we may not understand. For example, some cultures have stories that are only supposed to be told at certain times of year. In other cultures, certain members of society earn the right to become storytellers, and they alone are entrusted with the wisdom of special sacred stories.
I have chosen to tell multicultural folktales because I feel that the wisdom that they contain is something that our world needs now more than ever. The reason that I became a storyteller in the first place has a lot to do with a short Zen story that I came across in a collection of folktales back during my college days. That story taught me so much about myself, and I can’t imagine never having learned the simple, yet profound, truth that it taught me. In our modern era, many young people and adults are missing out on the opportunity to be exposed to such wonderful wisdom that leads to self-understand and self-discovery.
Another reason that I tell multicultural tales is because they reinforce the idea of our shared humanity. As people of all ages hear tales from around the world, they are struck not so much by how different we are, but by how much we have in common. Humans across all space and time share the same hopes, dreams, needs, desires, struggles, disappointments and frustrations. No matter how different we may dress, eat or speak, we all experience life’s ups and downs.
At the same time, the cultural differences that folktales highlight often lead to a healthy curiosity in my listeners. I have had the chance to travel widely, and it’s something I recommend to everyone I meet. However, I understand that many people may never get the opportunity to leave their home country. In that case, I can encourage them to learn more through books or by reaching out to the foreign-born in their communities.
Last Saturday I had the opportunity to perform my new program, A Chinese New Year Celebration, at a local library. I was surprised to see that nearly half of my audience that day was of Chinese descent! Despite the fact that I had carefully researched the stories I would present, even going so far as to meet with a Chinese professor at the local university to discuss their cultural context, I found myself a bit nervous. How could I even think of standing before this crowd in the role of “expert” when there were many in my audience who could claim these stories as their own while I could not?
Well, I decided that I didn’t have to. Given the circumstances, that approach did not feel appropriate to me. So instead of simply sharing the facts that I had gathered as rehearsed, I decided to open it up to the audience, calling upon them to share their understanding of some of the symbols and traditions tied to the holiday. I then allowed their answers to springboard me into the stories I’d selected to tell. I found that this approach worked beautifully. I loved the give and take that it allowed for, and I was also glad to see that their answers checked out with the research that I had done as well!
Similarly, in many of my stories, I like to say or teach a common phrase in the foreign language. Well, despite my practice, I don’t consider my Chinese pronunciation to be as accurate as say my English or Spanish. So in this case, it was wonderful to be able to call upon a handful of people for whom Mandarin Chinese was their native tongue. Not only did I come away enriched by this experience, but so too did the audience.
As a storyteller, I highly recommend making use of the audience members and the wealth of knowledge that they bring. Ask questions. Engage them in dialogue. Find ways to creatively build this interaction into your program. This is by no means an excuse to be lazy and not do the necessary research ahead of time. Neither, in my mind is calling upon the audience a display of ignorance. Instead, I consider it a way to show deference and respect for your audience while at the same time showing them that you are open to learning from them. It is also a way of empowering audience members to become storytellers in their own right.
In my next post, I will continue on this theme, sharing how some of the responses that I have received from audience members of various ethnicities have been instrumental in furthering my motivation to tell multicultural tales.