Wednesday, January 6, 2016

How we Identify Ourselves

I'm about to make a sweeping statement and I want to be clear that I only speak about America (my roots and past) and Mongolia (my current home). I don't know if a more general statement about White/Asian or West/East would also be true. If you have an opinion or observation to share that would enlighten readers, please do so at the end of this piece.

When Americans initially meet the first question of conversation is usually something along the lines of, "What do you do?" People share about their jobs, careers, and places of employment. We identify ourselves by our professions, skills, degrees, and however it is we spend our 40 hours a week (more or less) of work. Until moving to Mongolia, I believed or assumed that this was normal and how conversations were initiated around the globe. Obviously that was a sheltered or limited belief/assumption. But then, you aren't forced to think or see differently until you are OUTSIDE what is  normal to you. 

With one of my first graders at ASU

Here in Mongolia people ask where I'm from (confirm that I'm American) and then they ask about family. More specifically, they ask if you have babies or children. Mongolians never ask about work or employment--that is perceived as too personal. But asking about family is not. Family is what identifies people here. Parents often post pictures with their babies or children; however, rarely with their spouse or partner. It's all about children.

I have mixed feelings about this. My initial reaction is to be a bit put off. I find it too forward, or too personal, to ask about children first and foremost. But I'm confident that is my conditioning talking. I'm accustomed to people asking about my work, my profession, what it is I DO. But are we really what we do? Or is our work truly what we do? What we are up to in life? And is there not great value in being identified by our family--those people we spend the rest of our hours with? A week has 168 hours in it. Generally, people spend a minimum of 40 hours working. Many spend more--as a teacher there is often lesson planning and grading that creep into your home or evening hours. But what about our hours outside of work? How much is spent with family at home? (And doesn't sleeping at home with your family count as hours spent with family?) With friends? Alone? 

With my friend Kantodeia
I don't think that being identified ONLY by my profession is best. But neither do I think that family should be my sole identifier (and I worry about people that don't have family, or have families that have harmed them). I am so many different things to so many people. I am a woman. I am a daughter, a sister, an aunt, and a cousin. I am a wife and stepmother. I am a teacher, a librarian, and a co-worker. I am a friend and mentor. I am a writer, a reader, and an optimist. I am a runner, a thinker, and a human being. I want to be seen as multi-faceted, as complex, as a person with layers, shades, and hues. I do not want to be defined in a single or two dimensional way. Nor do I want to see others in that way. I want human knowing of one another to go deeper. To share about dreams and hopes and wishes. To have thinking stretched, to be pushed beyond our social conditioning. But.....I can't say it's always easy or comfortable to be in the process of that kind of expansion. It's a process of progress. 

With fellow American wife, Michelle

The other question I often get from Mongolians is, "How do you feel living in Mongolia?" or "How do you feel in Mongolia?" I'm never quite sure how to answer this question. It's the word "feel" that throws me off. If they asked what I think about Mongolia, that would be easier to answer. If they asked how life in Mongolia is going, I could also answer that. But "feel" makes me hesitate. Is it about emotions? I can't imagine so. There is a deeper connotation, I think, when they ask how I "feel." Perhaps it is about my soul or spirit and how it feels in this place that is very different from where I came from. Most often I answer simply that I am very happy to be with my Love. 

Life here is not always easy, but neither is it hard. It is different. And we all know that being faced with change requires effort--emotionally, intellectually, and physically. And perhaps even soulfully or spiritually. 

I recently passed my 6 month mark of living in Mongolia. I am half-way through my first year. Some stuff I have sorted out (where to shop for what, how to get around, etc), while other things I'm still struggling with (where and how to be physically active in an Arctic world that lacks gyms that suit me). I've accomplished much that I endeavored to do--acquire suitable employment, make a new home, marry my Love, work to bond our blended family together, make friends. And yet, there is still much to accomplish--learn the language, figure out how to bake in our oven, and feel at ease when asked if I have babies/children and feel myself as being seen in a single dimension. This is assimilation in action.

So now it's your turn. What are your thoughts about how we, as humans, identify ourselves? Have you experienced a different identification process in another part of the world? How did it make you feel? Do you like how your culture self identifies? Other thoughts?

1 comment:

  1. LOVE this post. I appreciate your thoughtfulness and care with a complicated topic. I also appreciate a glimpse at regular life in Mongolia from a "former" outsider's perspective. I always look forward to your writings.