I was fortunate enough to participate in a semester abroad in Malaysia where I got to meet the most wonderful people within a self-created environment of unconditional acceptance and tolerance. Thanks to this group of people from all over the world, who randomly gathered in one place, not only did I learn a lot about their individual experiences, but also in the course of adapting to these new cultural norms I had to completely readjust myself. The potential to develop myself seemed to be endless in such a safe and versatile environment. Thus, I experimented with several cultures and religions in which Islam played a big part.
As a white Western woman I have never experienced much of this lifestyle, but I took the opportunity to try and become a fully active member of this society, with the initial goal to be respectful towards this welcoming network, in which I had suddenly found myself in. However, in contrast to my Muslim friends there, not everyone seemed to be pleased with my decision and after having sent a selfie to my parents wearing hijab with my tongue stretched out, I received an answer I didn’t quite expect:
“This is not you. Please stop sending us pictures like this. “
After being rejected as the person who I was proud to have become, it was time for a declaration of my new self to kind of update not only my parents but also myself about who I was and who I had become. Since this letter still presents a reminder for me in regard of my development I want to share it with you and everyone else who is struggling with being their true self.
“My beloved parents,
I don’t know which one of you wrote this message, but I assume it comes from both of you. I was sending you a picture and you asked me to not send pictures like this anymore, because you obviously think this is not me.
This is not me, with my tongue stretched out and wearing a head scarf, a modest Indian dress in discreet colors, an unconventional nose piercing and fake lashes. Yesterday, I was told to look particularly pretty and I felt very comfortable including all the given components. I was not only dressed appropriately but also felt most represented by my look. Within a complex environment like this I often fail to make the right decision regarding my look since many cultural aspects need to be considered to not offend anyone. But yesterday I succeeded and was very happy with my outfit until your message reached me.
This is not me. Even though it is obviously my face and body shown in the picture. You didn’t ask me who the person at the picture was. Hence, you recognized me. So what provoked your answer, apparently are the associations created by this picture. This association isn’t me? So I am not a blonde, Caucasian girl with a slightly big nose and a lightly sunburned face? So I am not a person who likes to use some makeup every now and then and gets some fake eyelashes to give more expression to the curious look out of my big blue eyes? So I am not a typical Western girl with a certain interest in fashion of any descent and shape, as long as I feel comfortably dressed? So I am not an individual who likes to express imaginary differences towards the outside world, from time to time with weird facial piercings which has become quite a handy sign since it makes people recognize me whenever I return and, thus, creates friendships out of random, continuous human interactions. So I am not a happy being which is bored by the medial flood of perfect, expressionless faces that can only be fought by simply human grimaces?
This is not me, you say. But if that’s the case, who is this person? Are you reducing me to the idea that you have of me, the same idea that prevents me from moving out of my comfort zone and exploring myself? I can’t express how lost I felt today after I read your message. What is this assumption about my identity based on? I find it presumptuous to tell a person who she/he is or isn’t. You can’t read a person’s mind. Especially with regard to your empathy, psychological experiences and the parental love, I didn’t expect you to ever questioning me in such a way, just because I don’t confirm the image you had of me.
As you both know, we always try to create a role which represents the ideal image we’d like to have of the others. This process usually happens automatically and subconsciously. Therefore, you never really know someone but just have an idea about this person which is based on the information you have. I rate our relation as very honest and assume the transferred information as close to the truth. However, it is simply impossible to ever get to know all aspects of a person’s identity, just as I don’t know all of yours. (I’d like to be updated once I returned.) And I will tolerate them, even though they might not match with the concept I have of your personalities. But who am I to tell you how to develop?
This is not me. Translated to: “This is not the image we have of you.” So I should better give you a quick introduction to what my identity is based on now.
Let’s start with my nationality, my old headache. Due to its omnipresence, the idea of a nation state seems to have become quite fashionable lately. But since neither my character, nor my political attitude, nor my visual appearance is matching with any nation state, especially not the German one, I have a hard time letting my identity be based on this. And to be honest, it doesn’t make any sense to me to let something important like my identity be based on a concept which was literally invented by humans in terms of power political interests. It appears quite random to me that I was born in Germany, such as you were born in the former DDR. And if I try to connect my identity with a nation the frame seems way too broad. How much do I have in common with the people from the North or the South? I don’t even understand their dialect. My origin is Windeberg (a very small village in central Germany) where I experienced the very meaning of “Geborgenheit” (this is untranslatable, I swear!), a feeling I will always connect with this place, where I know in advance who I will meet at the bus stop at 8.20am or at which garden I need to hold the leash of my dog a bit tighter. I am lucky because my origin is a home which represents safety and predictability. And I am even more grateful for these circumstances since I know that this makes me belong to a global minority.
Hence, my identity neither is national nor multi-national, but rather local, a complex composition which emerged from several local experiences related to different contexts and cultures.
I am home where I am local. I often try to explain what home means to me. And many people struggle to understand the fact that it is rather a feeling than a place to me.
And fortunately, this feeling I have towards so many places, people and cultures that I simply can’t limit it to one particular place. Why are we creating borders in our mind and believe we have to limit our home and identity to our origin without paying consideration to all the other aspects that form our identity?
This is not me. But primarily I am a human being with an identity independent from the cover of my passport. What counts to me is its content, hundreds of stamps giving an idea of which localities my identity is related to. However, it doesn’t capture the thousands of small encounters including the resulting lessons which contributed to my self-definition. I don’t sheer off my origin and the people there but rather my mind became more complex by all the impressions of the past years of traveling. So far, I assumed any identification with my origin as limiting to my experiences abroad, but now I finally noticed that the understanding of home simply has broadened and my origin forms the basis of it. Homesickness means to me the longing for Geborgenheit (protection, comfort, love) which is my very definition of home. Origin and home aren’t the same, and neither are they opposites. Home is an extension of origin. And we have to leave space to this broadening process to be able to feel a comprehensive experience of Geborgenheit. I am very grateful for you have enabled me to notice and accept this enlargement of my mind and emotional composition. I am constantly looking for new homes and found the basis of my urge to travel in this longing. To broaden my mind and my heart.
This is not me. Who do you see then? A person with a linear identity? Is this identity stable or fragile? Shouldn’t we say goodbye to those concepts and look for an alternative, maybe anti-fragility? The creative force of this concept lies within the fragility of identities which collapse by every new, yet lasting impression and forces us to constantly readjust. Is this to be seen as something bad? Or isn’t it actually adaptive capacity, curiosity and courage which makes a human being good? Maybe the foundation of this anti-fragility can be seen in the origin and, thus, the experience of Geborgenheit. Due to the stability of my origin-related identity aspects, this readjustment is made possible in the first place. And the fact that this origin still exist makes me brave enough to move on and discover more of this beautiful world.
This is not me. Broken down to the obvious core, it is me wearing hijab which is shocking you the most, isn’t it? Who are you seeing when you meet women wearing hijab in the streets of our hometown? Is it fear or apprehension? According to classical psychology, fear is defined as avoidance of a certain, potentially harmful event or experience. Apprehension, however, encompasses the same behavior but with the absence of a particular stimuli. One is a real danger and one is a created one. Be aware of this. So what is the case here? Please take some time to explore the triggers and causes of your fear.
I am not very familiar with the situation in Germany these days. But I think, the prevailing fear is the one which is created by implementing stereotypes due to the lack of real experiences. But encountering the unknown bears the possibility of a positive result as well. Man is a creature of habit. And the breaking-out of routine symbolizes stress. I don’t want this to get too psychological but I would like to ask you to give your fear a face and evaluate whether apprehension or trust should be the appropriate reaction.
This is not me. Because I am wearing a head scarf which represents a form of self-expression? Not do I only find it pretty but it also protects me from sun, rain and wind, from cold and sometimes from loneliness. I live in a Muslim country. And just as you expect foreigners to adapt to the customs and dress code of your own origin, I am simply doing the same. And the feedback hitherto is entirely positive, not because I am losing my rights as a woman, but because I am forcing people to focus in that part of my body which represents me the most, my face. Including all its expressions, and with a stretched-out tongue from time to time. I frame my expressions and, in doing so, create a stage for my words.
What are you afraid of? That I’d convert to Islam? To a religion which is so ridiculously similar to my own, Christianity, and even follows the same God?
Do you really think, my belief could be forced into a fixed religious concept notwithstanding that it would require a reduction of my identity’s complexity? I would love to talk about what I believe in and what you belief in once I am back. But in the end the attempt to define a belief just results in different verbal covers for the same thing. Call it universe, destiny, nature, God, Allah, Jehova, Krishna or whatever; who cares? In the end, the quintessence stays the same: Don’t be an asshole and respect one another, with head scarf or without.
I won’t tell you anything new, when I remind you of the medial creation of the “Islamic terrorist”. And Germany is simply using this US propaganda to justify its struggle in dealing with refugees who are coincidentally Muslims. This nice little ideology package provides the perfect reason to remain inactive and ignore the fact that we are dealing with other humans just like us. That saves us independent thinking and leaves us in our comfortable bubble of blaming the others for our own faults. Instead of blaming the ones who actually are taking away our money by corruption, lobbyism and this beautiful myth called Capitalism, we prefer kicking the ones who are at the bottom anyway.
Just because it is so much easier to use this preconceived attitude package provided by an elite to distract us from what is really wrong with this society.
So I am asking you to not be the ones kicking down. Be the ones asking questions, explaining, sharing experiences and tables. Every person is the sum of her/his experiences and just as both of you got an individual composition of experiences, so does everyone else as well. And that ultimately creates the beautiful music of our identities. Everything is relative. Get to know the causes, the cultures, the people. And you’ll figure out that generalizing is the death of humanity.
This is not me.
Oh, this is me. Including all aspects this picture encompasses. And even though they might appear contradictory to you, they make perfect sense to me and represent the composition of my own identity best. It might even be the perfect manifestation of the total sum of my experiences. And how I choose to represent those is exclusively my own decision. I am not responsible for the image other people have of my past. But I can shape the idea they have of me right now.
This is me.