When I decided to embark on this blog, I did my research on how to start. Every article I read pointed to the importance of dedicating my blog to a theme or 1-2 topics. My first instinct was to write about issues related to economic development: poverty, women’s empowerment or micro-finance. These topics cover my passions, I just didn’t want to have to write about them in a blog.
So I subjected myself to an abrupt exercise of trying to figure out who I was; I figured that such insight would lead me to a theme or at least narrow my choices to a few topics. I wrote my name on the center of a page and I wrote every answer that came to mind to the question: What defines you?
I was thoroughly disappointed; my answers were geographical. I had written countries.
I always get stuck on the Who are you? What defines you? questions. When I was living in Saudi Arabia, I never thought about who I was. I was a girl and by virtue of this, who I was, how I was expected to behave, was all somewhat prescribed. My Ghanaian parents never asked me who I thought I was either. It was just as well; I wouldn’t have had an answer. I was asked, What do you want to be when you grow up? I had an answer. For a very long time, what I wanted to be had nothing to do with me personally.
It wasn’t until I came to the U.S. that I was really confronted with the burden of “I” and defining it.
I’ll put it this way: for most of my life, I was who I was perceived to be. Was I decent? Was I proper? Respectful? Studious? A good daughter? Obedient? I either was or I was not. Once I had that acceptance, I was ‘free’ to do whatever wanted. I didn’t need to define myself; the definitions were there—I just had to match my name with an acceptable definition.
When I moved to the U.S. to attend Michigan, I found myself not having the presence or pressure of a culture that would guide me through established dos and dont’s. Suddenly, I was in a place that afforded me the expensive opportunity of making mistakes—mistakes that I couldn’t have imagined before.
And it was terrifying.
My first two years at Michigan, were also my first years in the U.S. since my birth. I didn’t know what was expected of me. Yes, of course, I was supposed to get good grades. But suddenly, I could get good grades and wear a halter-top. Call my parents regularly and stay out till 3am. Whatever audience I have on this blog is probably waiting to read that during my college years I went crazy, what with all that freedom. I didn’t really. In the back of my little mind, even though I was in a completely different country, I still felt those eyes on me.
This was not in my mind either. The eyes had been real. They were neighbors, friends and strangers. I remember being about 8 years old, going to the playground. It was unusually quiet that day. When I got home, my mom asked me what I did. I told her that I had been playing by myself. She said that so-and-so had seen me climbing a tree in a dress and I should never do that again. If I went out and my clothes weren’t properly covered by my abayah I would hear of it. When I was in Ghana and I made the grave error of walking by an adult without greeting them, I would get home and hear about it. The feeling that my errors were observable and constantly preyed upon didn’t leave me for a very long time.
I was finally able to shake the ‘I’m being followed’-mania when I started graduate school in 2013. I went a little wild—and let me tell you friend, graduate school is neither the time nor place. I balanced meeting UN under-secretaries, sharing hallways with Jeffery Sachs and the intellectual load of graduate school with—let’s call it, intense social activity.
Truth be told, I was not partying every night. But when I did go out, I felt the need to test myself: what were the boundaries I would create for myself? It is said that character is who you are when no one is watching, so who was I? It wasn’t just that I went out at night but I was more social than I had ever been: talkative, willing to meet new people, I accepted every invitation and I even dressed differently.
In many ways, my experience may not be different from anyone who has left home to attend college. College brings a certain freedom for everyone. It’s an experience that puts you in control of the choices you make. But living in Saudi Arabia for 18 years, being raised by Ghanaian parents (both wonderful things!) created friction for me and it wasn’t until years after I left Saudi Arabia that I was able to acknowledge this.
Bottom Line: I shouldn’t have been so disappointed with my answers. There are also probably research-based methods of self-discovery that I could have sought. But for now, it is okay that I find it difficult to define myself outside of my time Saudi Arabia and outside of Ghana. From my experience, neither culture really supported self-identification/discovery. I was a small part of something bigger, and that something bigger was attached to something greater. In Saudi Arabia, I was my father’s daughter. In Ghana, I am attached to more people than I can count. The social nets were comforting. I am now standing on the net though, trying to walk around. Perhaps trying to find my way off. But it is like trying to walk off a trampoline when everyone else is still jumping.
4 thoughts on “Finding “I” in We & Us”
I really enjoyed this thoughtful, introspective piece. I never know how to define myself when someone asks, either, because I don’t know how much information is enough to string together as an identity. Do they want to know my name? My profession? Who I am when I’m not at work? What I long for most in this world? I overthink the question so much that, in part, I think THAT’S who I am: I am the kind of person who can’t define herself without over-analyzing every possibility!
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I like the questions you ask—they can all sum up a person. If you are the analytical type (or over analytical type) defining who you are can be an endless exercise. And maybe it’s suppose to be.
You said you “don’t know how much information is enough to string together as an identity”—I’d say as much as or as little as it takes . If someone wanted to know who I am, I really could just stop at “ Hi! My name is Ayawa. It’s a Ghanaian name from the Ewe tribe and it means that I am born on Thursday”. But even within that, there is so much more identity to be found: Ghanaian, Ewe, the day I was born (I’m thinking about something similar to zodiac signs). Thanks for your post!
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For a while, after the who are you questions are gone, we are confronted with the What are you type of questions. Sometimes you feel as though the name of your company, your school or some other identifiable institution to which you belong to should be replaced with your surname. The first comment about not knowing what to respond to is very key. Once I mention my name in an introduction, the next question ( I can always guess) is “so,where do you work?”. That brushes pass the acknowledgment of your own identity to something else created through social engagements and expectations. Who am I???
Dear Charles, You are absolutely right. With as much pressure as we can feel to make claims on who we are, it’s amazing how quickly that effort can be dismissed. What did I do all that work for?! I really like that analogy you make though, “I am Ayawa TEACH FOR AMERICA”, because everyone expects my being to be related to teaching or being a mad crusader for education equality. (I am, but I’m other things too). I guess the important thing is developing a sense of self that doesn’t seek the approval of others? Being able to answer the WHO/WHAT are questions without then going back to question yourself? Thanks for your post, Charles!