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.