Tuesday, September 21, 2010

My Identity in the Form of a Graduate Paper

I had to write a paper about my identity for a class in this new Intercultural Relations degree I am aiming for. After writing it, I knew it needed to be posted here. So here it is...

Enn Ti Zacko Blanc

“Where are you from?” is the most irritating question in the world, in my opinion. This is due to the fact that my nationality or birthplace has nothing to do with who I am. Depending on my mood, the position of the moon, and the blowing of the Eastern winds, I have different answers.
When I am in the company of good-natured, jovial people, I laugh and say, “It’s complicated!” Sometimes, the rest of the group enthusiastically proclaims that they would love to hear this complicated story that I had just advertised. Sadly, they missed the point of my laughter – to me, it was a social queue meaning “I’m laughing because I don’t really want to talk about it and because it is, in fact, way too complicated.” A few times in my life, the other people recognize that I am trying to shy away from the subject and either poke and prod me for at least a little about myself, or they respect my desire to stay silent on the topic. When the latter happens, I breathe a huge sigh of relief.
On a bad day, when I have had it particularly rough, I respond to the question with a sharp “It’d take way too long to explain.” My tone of voice is not of the easy-going, carefree Khadeja in the last situation. Instead, I am pointedly irritated by the question and it is obvious. Again, some still ask for more, some stay silent, and others just smile and try to turn my nasty spark into a kind of joke. Again, the latter allows me to let out a sigh of relief. I like it when people use lightheartedness to improve a situation. I usually feel guilty, no matter what their response is. They are only trying to make conversation.
In the end, there is one thing that one may notice about these two polar situations. The truth is, I do not enjoy explaining my background in one fluid paragraph or flow of words. I need to break it up, little by little, over the course of many conversations. This is mainly because the first explanation I try to give does not encompass the vast amount of knowledge I need to portray to my listener. Sadly, the first impression counts for many, many people.
However, there is a question. What do I do when people ask for more or practically beg for some kind of answer? I am a fickle lady, one who cannot take too much begging before I start to feel bad. In the end, I give them something indeed, but up to this point I think that what I have been answering is incorrect.
Before today, I used to give them a rundown of the places I have lived in throughout my life. I was born in a suburb of Chicago, near to where my father was born. My mother was born in Mauritius, a small island off the coast of Madagascar and the land of the dodo bird, which is now extinct due to a plague of Dutchmen and rats. When I was one and a half years old, my father accepted a job opportunity in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Since then, I have become a forced nomad, as my parents (mostly my father due to his job) made us pack our things and leave on many occasions. At one point, we moved back to Saudi Arabia, but this time to the holy city of Makkah. We used to go to the Friday Jummah prayer at the Masjid Al-Haram, and we would see the Kabah at its centre. It did not occur to me, when I was so young, that there are millions of Muslims that would never get to see the Kabah due to health or financial reasons, but there I was. At another point in time, much later, I was living in Mauritius. My father moved back to Saudi Arabia alone – this was the time right after the tragedy of September 11th, 2001. Foreigners in Saudi Arabia were being targeted, especially international schools, so my father did not want my sisters and I to have to live that kind of life. After my years in Mauritius and graduating from secondary school, I went back to the United States with hope in my heart and dreams of a great, free university life. I thought I would finally begin to find myself…
Instead, I got even more lost. Is it not apparent why none of that chunk of story matters? What does it say about where I am from? I think it says very little, if anything at all. It took me 21 years, but now I see that who I am does not lie with the countries I have lived in, no matter what anyone tries to impose upon me. I am from none of these places, in the end. The longest I have ever lived in a country was in Mauritius, but even there I was not accepted fully into the society. Even with a Mauritian mother, the fact that I had a white American father mattered more. I feel President Obama’s pain when people constantly label him as a black president when, in fact, his mother was white. This is the kind of uphill battle I am constantly involved in, but in this battle I have no armor to speak of. It is as if everyone is better equipped than I am.
When I was in Mauritius, people chose what I was – I was that weird English-only-speaking girl who tried too hard to make friends. In every other country, I was labelled as an expatriate testing the waters but never going in too deep – except the United States. Here, I am an exotic, interesting woman who has lived in places most people would never dream of visiting. I am sometimes scrutinised, and at others idolised merely for existing. Back in Mauritius, for an extremely long time, I was the epitome of everything that the society hated: a “white” girl who claimed to be a Mauritian, but who knew nothing of the culture itself because she only began living there at the age of eleven. To be honest, I feel like I am an intruder upon the cultures I visit, and that the Mauritius got it right. In the Creole I claimed as mine, I am enn ti zacko blanc ki envi rentre kott les pli grand noirs[1]. The harsh truth is that I don’t fit in anywhere.
However, when it comes to my flexible, unknown identity, I can at least say this: the ti zacko blanc (little white monkey) was able to, and is always able to, coexist peacefully with the pli grand noirs (bigger black ones). Sometimes, we even become friends and share experiences.
My identity is an endless ocean, with life and death as well as stagnancy and waves. It is a mixture of colours, textures, and movements of things dead and alive. How can I possibly describe it? Where could I possibly start? I feel sometimes that I am incapable of doing so, because I am but a small creature; floundering, swimming and gasping for air in this sea of emotions and experiences. And the imposed labels that have been forced on me are like oil rigs, tankers, and fishermen who plunge into my sea and destroy me.

[1] A little white monkey that wants to be with the bigger, black ones.


  1. Loved this post, so much I can identify with even if the countries (except for the US) are different. But I have to say, I felt the same way in the US and funnily enough I lived in a suburb of Chicago, too. But we're the lucky ones because we can see things from different perspectives for all that the others are constantly afraid of us and thus have to put us in some kind of safe bracket - for them.

  2. Thank you for finding and commenting on this post so positively! We are lucky, in a very significant way...let's hope our minds stay open.