Another take on the topic of introversion

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I traveled to Senegal last March for my thesis project. I traveled with a classmate I did not know prior the project.

It was a difficult trip, probably for both us but I’m going to talk about why it was difficult for her.

Over the course of our project, which spanned 9 months, I came to know Olivia* as being largely extroverted. When I learned we would be travel partners, I wasn’t immediately concerned. In fact, I was relieved. Save one other team member, I was very happy that she and I had been selected to travel to Senegal. Once we arrived in Senegal, these sentiments quickly changed. Her extroversion ‘clashed’ with my introversion.

Whereas she would ask very detailed questions (unrelated to the project) about people’s lives with white, invasive curiosity, I would put my hand out as I gently beckoned a child towards me or go sit by the female head of household and observe, impressed with her command of a household that could sometimes hold more than 20 members.

After a long day in a remote area, should we have returned to Dakar, I wanted to sit in the hotel lobby and stare out at the beach-and recover. Olivia wanted to explore and attend live music concerts.

To be fair to her, this was her first time in West Africa. It was not my first; although there were differences compared Ghanaian and Togolese cultures and ways of life, these differences did not feel stark. In a way, I felt at home. But for Olivia, this comfort  and my desire for solitude (despite being) in this exotic and beautiful country was perceived as distant and  generally unenthusiastic.

I was actually ecstatic to be in Senegal. I was looking forward to experiencing this particular West African culture, laced with French perspectives. It was interesting for me to observe the incongruity of this imposed relationship and I was eager to understand the repercussions  of it.

I ended up suffering for this. Olivia reported to our Adviser, that I had not ‘adequately contributed ‘ to the project. I can tell you all the ways in which I did contribute and guide the goals of the project-Olivia’s enthusiasm frequently took us off course. But this is not necessary because Olivia’s complaint had nothing to do with my work ethic and everything to do with my personality.

My friends describe it as ‘resting bitch face’. This points to my ability to be expressionless in a point in time yet, later describe how happy,excited or impressed I was at said time. I understand; more often that not introversion is perceived as a deficiency. But I don’t lack social skills, I don’t like being lonely, but I do appreciate (and need) solitude. These traits aren’t always welcomed in a society that demands you make yourself known at all times.

I have committed to reading a new book every month.  For February, I selected  Introvert Power: Why your Inner Strength is your Inner Power. I have been motivated by Helgoe’s unapologetic description of introversion. Her description of her introversion, precise and inclusive, has begun to foster a better understand of myself and social situations . In fact, her contents page alone had me feeling like she was in my head.

 

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Introversion is largely perceived to be a deficit or coming from a place of deep pain, depression or anxiety. It is only a coincidence that I have experienced all the above. What might comes as surprise is that I have also relied on introversion to remove me from these dark places.

In the past, I have readily apologized for myself and labeled myself to sooth other people’s fears and discomfort. Now, I think I about the ways in which I could have made Olivia feel more comfortable around me but to do so would have been apologetic: Sorry for the way I am, here is a list of ways to successfully navigate the glacier that is me, see below–literally. 

Given the brevity of our work together and no detected desire to develop this partnership into a friendship on either part, it’s true that I did not feel any obligation to ‘help her understand me’. What would be generally helpful, is a social shift in our understanding of personality traits. We might also want to consider breaking assumed links between extroversion and success.

So far in my reading, Helgoe has made two important points. The first is that introverts are not in the minority: we actually make up 57% of the population according to large-scale population study. The second point is that no one is either an introvert or a extrovert.

 I suspect that her book will inspire a few more posts on introversion. So happy reading to the both us!

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Creating a culture of self-love: Loving my body wherever I go

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When I was living in Saudi Arabia, I was between a size 6 and 8. Being relatively thin, I was less concerned with how much I weighed and far more occupied with how I looked. I was an ultra-conservative dresser—even under my abayah. I wanted to be a virtuous girl and woman; this would be achieved through my choice of clothes, which would influence my actions and ultimately, how I was perceived.

When I arrived in the U.S. I became more aware of my body type. For the most part, I continued to dress conservatively. With the cultural shock of living in the U.S. after a lifetime in Saudi Arabia, combined with a familial incision, I began to eat differently. Increasingly, I found comfort in foods that I had rarely consumed. By the end of my freshman year, I was a size 10.

My eating habits made me more conscious of my body. I think this is a point largely missed by others: It’s not that I was eating because I didn’t notice my body or take pride in how I looked.  I was acutely aware of my body and how it was changing. In fact, I was obsessed. I felt powerless in swapping my current habits for healthier ones. As I continued to lose autonomy, I relied more on food to distract me from my growing discomfort with myself.

This experience was aggravated by mass consumption of the female body in the U.S.  I couldn’t escape the reminder that thinner was better. As a naturally curvy person, even in my smaller-sized days, watching hip-less, flat chested, thigh gapped women be portrayed as the only type of beautiful woman was difficult and fueled a more destructive view of myself.

There were pauses in my self-hate though. When I visited Ghana in the summer, I could temporarily abandon the idea that skinny was better. Not because Ghana didn’t celebrate her thinner women but because it mattered less whether I was thin or not. In fact, it was a wonderful thing that I was curvy. My body type was desired and celebrated to an extent. Interestingly enough, when I visited Ghana in the summer, I could lose up to 20 pounds without any effort or intention to. My mind was healthier in Ghana and I was kinder to body.

But as I continued to gain weight, being in Ghana become a painful reminder of my weight gain. If you’ve read my post The Trouble with Words (Part I), at a point, it became increasingly difficult for me to be in Ghana because I despised being called obolo. If I knew I would be traveling to Ghana, I would schedule the latest possible departure date so I could give myself more time to slim down—this never worked.

Being away from my family and the constant feeling of displacement, are two of possibly four reasons I have continued to gain weight. Different events in my life have fueled my reliance on food as a coping tool and I’m currently wearing a size 12.

I realize now that I am the worst person to be mean to myself. I never give myself a break; I am always present and ready to take myself apart.

I would love to have the body I had in Saudi Arabia. But I was so disconnected from my body then, so ashamed of what society said it could do, so afraid to use or portray it incorrectly that I did not love my body. Even though I am less satisfied with my body now, I think I love my current body more than I ever could have in Saudi Arabia

Bottom line: A nomadic life style has exposed me to different ideas on what defines a woman’s beauty. These ideas have either been uplifting or burdensome. Despite the richness of variety, my happiness and self-confidence should not be subject to locale. I was late in coming to the realization that regardless of where I am, I am always with me. My body is the place where I live. And maybe, in that sense, the relationship I have with my body is actually a culture. So, I could construct a culture that positively influences my body. I can create my own beliefs, behaviors and values towards my body. I can even choose foods that celebrate and encourage my well-being. I have adopted different cultures anyway, what’s one more?

An adventurous and quiet introvert

A life of adventure, overseas travel, comparing your high school student body to the UN General Assembly, coveted trinkets from around the world, multi-lingual, frequent flier before it was even a thing—yes, the glamorized life of Third Culture Kid (TCK). At first thought, it may seem odd to be a TCK and an introvert. How would an introvert manage the constant change and chaos, engaging with different people and cultures?

In my view, there is an expectation that TCKs are extroverts.

I am a TCK and I am an introvert. I have no reservations about identifying as either, especially being an introvert. I’m more reserved than I am shy, more contemplative and observant than I am talkative. I’m less likely to say what I really mean, and more likely to correctly express myself in writing. How does that fit into being a TCK?

Being an introvert means that I am very close to a small circle of people. It means you either know all of me or you know nothing at all. It means that if you want to go out tomorrow at 11pm, I need to know a week in advance—preferably. It means that when I agree to go out, I’m already looking forward to coming back home. It means that before I go out, I’m mentally preparing to have conversations I don’t really want to have. It means that being around ‘too many’ people exhausts me, and that however loud the room is, in my mind, it’s louder.

Being a TCK means that I know it might be several years before I see friends and family again. In the case of Saudi Arabia, being a TCK means that I know I might never see many of my friends again. It means that each time I move, each time I make that decision, I am consciously risking friendships and relationships. It means that I will make that tough decision knowing it will hurt me, hurt others, break me, but I will make that decision anyway. It means that I can be incredibly mature. It means that I am very empathetic; that sometimes I understand others more than I do myself; that I can associate as quickly as I can dissociate; that sometimes staying is just as hard as leaving; that my parents are my anchor; that I have had mid-life crises in different area codes, that it’s sometimes easier to pack than unpack, that I’ve had to learn and unlearn who my race is; that the U.S. is a foreign and exotic country, that I sometimes have to be content with not being understood; that I have to put effort into making myself understandable, that the first time I heard someone say don’t throw the baby out with the bath water I wanted to call the police.

I think sometimes it’s hardest being a TCK when you’re introvert. It’s not like I can throw myself out there and easily get to know a whole other group of people again, and again. But I can, I do, and I have. As an introvert and TCK, I create meaningful bonds with my environment and as often as I have had to break that bond, it’s never easy. With each environment, I am immersed into a culture, a way of thinking, a new lifestyle.

I am highly perceptive, hyper-flexible and while it might take me longer to form intimate relationships with people, I can adapt to new surroundings. I’m more than just a perpetual traveller; I can go beyond participating and observing surface culture to truly understanding and even adopting different facets of deep culture.

In revising this entry, I have questioned whether to post this at all. It can read as being extremely arrogant. But I think that is because I still have an incorrect definition of introvert hiding in some unreachable corner of my mind. I am not weak because I am an introvert. I’m not socially inept or lonely. As an introvert, a sense of adventure is not absent within me. It’s there—it’s a quiet curiosity that poses questions and carefully sifts through observations, and experience to get answers. In this way, I don’t over-burden the people I encounter with questions to make them appear exotic and foreign; I don’t exemplify the differences, I discover as what makes ‘ them, them’ and ‘me, me’. I engage with the people I meet and speak with them as I would others—their nuances; whether personal or cultural, are naturally revealed. And for me, I have found that too often TCKs, non-TCKs, attribute tangible differences to culture, rather than a person’s being.

Me, my mother and my Turkish friends in front of our house in Saudi Arabia.

Me, my mother and my Turkish friends in front of our house in Saudi Arabia.

Bottom line: Being an introvert is not a setback. Neither extroverts nor introverts are better at being TCK; we are equally aware of the blessings and challenges of being TCK. Being TCK means that I don’t have a better half, I have better halves and they are scattered all around the world. I am product of different cultures and I am extremely grateful.

Finding “I” in We & Us

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.

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