Earlier in January, I was flying back to Georgetown University via Qatar. In what was ostensibly a mundane trip back to school, I was reintroduced to questions of self-formation and how our identities are mirrored through a process of both individual and shared creation. We can choose how we exhibit ourselves to the world, but the way in which others perceive us and impose their own views on us also shapes our identity. The creation of our full identity, therefore, is often less autonomous than we would like it to be.
“Between Worlds” aims to evoke an alternative script for the realities of living between different cultures and provides a reference point for reflection in navigating through the hard questions of identity, politics and belonging.
I began to understand the process of identity formation at the airport in Qatar. At the lounge, everything initially seemed normal: a woman crunching the arugula from her salade de figues au chevre, a group of Arab officials striding across the room in their traditional bishts and an American family with two young kids playing with their forks and knives. Yet an unexpected twist came when a woman entered the lounge dressed in all black: a fur coat, leather gloves and oversized sunglasses. She sat down on the couch next to the fireplace across from me.
The woman pointed at “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho, which I had started reading just minutes prior, and told me it was her favorite book and that the author was a friend of hers. As I shifted my eyes back to the pages of my book, the woman’s aluminum luggage caught my attention: Her carry-on was adorned with stickers of flags of over two dozen countries, including United States, Brazil, France, England, Egypt and Morocco.
Seeing her stickers from different countries, I figured she wanted to portray a certain image of herself to the world — cosmopolitan, well-connected and, to some extent, ambiguous. Some parts of her identity were open for public viewing, yet certainly others remained concealed. In my mind, I began to fill in these gaps in her identity, effectively drawing a mental character sketch. I had a realization: in that exact moment, a mixture of the woman’s self-identity and my imposed imagination shaped who she was to me.
We sipped the saffron tea that was served to us. The woman broke the ice again: “So where are you from?” I glimpsed briefly at my watch and tilted it ever so slightly to check the time without seeming rude. 11:14 a.m. By the time I was done narrating my introduction, it was 11:16 a.m. I had told her that I have lived in Switzerland, Pakistan, France, Connecticut, New York and Washington, D.C., and that it’s hard for me to pick one place that comprehensively defines me. But the two-minute answer was not enough to satiate her curiosity.
“So do you call yourself Pakistani?” she inquired. I could not limit my identity to one word, especially not before a 14-hour transatlantic flight! “Maybe Swiss-Pakistani?” she suggested. “Why not Pakistani-Swiss?” I proposed jokingly. “Well, it matters what you put first,” the woman said. Though I had initially not taken her questions seriously, I felt as if her labels for me left an effect on my identity. At that exact moment, her perception of me became a part of my existence.
It was my turn to launch questions. I asked where she was traveling to. “The New World,” she said. Ambiguous and undefined, her self-identity was not for display. But I still began to craft a perception of her background, even with very minimal details on her life.
As young people, we are often empowered with the belief that our identity is entirely self-made. Yet this idea is simply not true. Identities are inherently co-created. First, we can choose to self-identify as we want to be perceived. But we also have an imposed identity, the way that others recognize us. The two identities fuse — in harmony or in conflict — to create a dynamic sense of self that we carry with us as if it is a living creature breathing, evolving, changing and sometimes dying just like us.
It is imperative that we start framing discussions on identity not as disconnected pieces, but instead as shared collectives.
Ali Shahbaz is a senior in the School of Foreign Service. Between Worlds appears online every other Thursday.