Identity – An Overrated Concept
“You are the future,” a friend of mine said to me when I was thinking about my identity and who I was a couple of years ago. Back then, we were sitting in a café in Shanghai, China, talking about how it was to be living as a foreigner in China. Him as an Australian National and me as an Egyptian-German mix. “You are like my son,” he continued. “You are neither Egyptian nor German, but rather a special mix combining everything.” I didn’t know if I liked that.
Me, the future of what exactly? Besides, he compared me to a five-year old born in China to a Singaporean mother and an Australian father, as I was about to move to the UK. I was 36.
Ever since I can remember people used to ask me who I was, Egyptian or German? My answer always used to be the same, “Well, I have the best of both somehow.” Growing up in Germany with an Egyptian mother and a German father was a challenge on its own, and characterizing what I would call my identity seemed to be an ambitious quest for many years.
During puberty, I revolted against anything and anybody, like every normal teenager would do. I didn’t even want to find myself. I only wanted to escape from whatever they called me I should be: good student, well- behaved daughter, nice companion, great granddaughter, silent neighbor, good Muslim… you name it. All attributes that make up kind of an identity, but never really came close to who I was.
My German friends saw me as German. They didn’t understand that I was not allowed to have a boyfriend, drink alcohol or party hard. I was 17. My Egyptian friends treated me like an Egyptian. They couldn’t grasp the idea of me living alone, meeting boys and doing whatever I wanted to. I was 22. And I didn’t understand myself either.
I envied those who were born into only one nationality. They seemed to have less problems than me. While I was struggling with finding the "right German way" or the "wrong Egyptian way" on my way to becoming an adult, they had a compass directing them to only one road. This was in the 80s and 90s where people weren’t that exposed to other countries, cultures, and ways of living.
I was German, but as long as I can remember I embraced the Egyptian culture. Although I had never lived there I loved the country, like my mother did. I missed it like my mother did. I visited it as often as my mother did. But did it make me an Egyptian? I didn’t know. What I knew was that I wanted Egypt to live inside of me too, somehow.
So I started to avoid any form of definition for me. I was Selma. I was 26. I refused to attach my being to anything that would put me in relation to something, I wanted to be just me, whatever that meant. I refused to be limited in my behavior, believes, or values. I wanted to be my own individual self. Instead of deciding for "either or" I chose "as well as". This was the start of a balancing act. At that time, I wasn’t aware that it would take me so long to master it, and the act probably will never end until I die.
Psychologists, philosophers, and scholars all have been defining the term "identity" for decades, but never agreed on one single conclusion. As it includes lots of different aspects of one’s life, Identity is rather a too complex concept to be described as something fixed, let alone to completely define who you are.
There are types of identity we are born into such as national identity, gender identity, cultural identity, and family identity. Then there are others that we adopt over the course of our lives like college identity, work identity, social identity, or expat identity. With the birth of the worldwide web we even developed a new form of identity, which is known as the online identity. Shortly after, the terminology “Third Culture Kid” was created in the early 1990s, and gave a new form of identity to children of expat parents. Expats themselves become Third Culture Individuals, often seen as global nomads with different nationalities, yet with a similar affiliation to a country located in their heads.
Amidst this potpourri of identity, the question concerning what makes a person unique remains. I never met people with an identical background who were the same. No two Germans, two Egyptians, two Muslims, two tennis players, or two vegetarians were ever the same. There seems to be a gap between self-conception and external definition. It’s the space in between how we see ourselves, how we want to be, and how others see us. Something neither tangible, nor describable, or even fixed.
Ironically, when I moved abroad I became more German than I ever was, at least that’s what I thought. I was 34. And still wasn’t drinking any alcohol. International relocation shakes your foundation and if you aren’t self aware you can get lost in knowing who you are. So I thought these feelings during the move was only due to me holding on to something I didn’t want to lose. But later on, I discovered that it was a result of an inner reflection that made me conscious about different parts of myself, which had built my whole mosaic.
My friend was right. I’m a mix of everything. When I recently moved to Cairo, Egypt, I met Egyptians living according to what I thought is the "German right way" as well as the "Egyptian wrong way".
I discovered that it doesn’t matter at all how you define yourself. Identity is flexible and, in our times of globalization and limitless possibilities to self invention, maybe overrated.
I’m living a life according to values and beliefs I adopted along the way. Choosing the best aspects out of other concepts of identity makes me richer. It enables me to understand myself and others more, to embrace instead of to judge, to be open rather than full of prejudices. My home is everywhere and nowhere. I’m 40.