Before you have got me all summed up and figured out, it seems about time I share with you the fact that I am having an identity crisis. Its one I’ve been having for awhile – 20 years in fact. Now be warned. This will not be the first time you’ll hear about an identity crisis of mine. Like many women my age, we are always checking and rechecking our titles (mom, wife, employee, what have you) trying to determine which door the real “me” is behind. But I have this very extraordinary point of reference, and it seems only fair to go back in time and revisit it. My most transformative identity crisis surfaced during that lovely time of all our developing lives: high school.
Now most of you are probably cuing up “The Breakfast Club” soundtrack as you think back to those days. That could work, but I might also play the “South African National Anthem”. Between the ages 14 and 19, I lived in Swaziland. You’re probably nodding like you’ve heard of it. In case you’re honest and admit you haven’t, it is a very small kingdom located between South Africa and Mozambique. My father worked for the State Department and plonked my family there in 1987.
I really don’t want to have to go on about how “no, we did not ride elephants to school” so please don’t expect that sort of explanation right now. It was not like that at all. Mbabane was a very peaceful town with everything any rural American town would have: a pizza place, a grocery store, a small mall, a movie theater, a bank and even a KFC. My brother and I attended Waterford Kamhlaba (WK), an international school with a British based curriculum. It was an excellent school, its academics were rigorous and the student body was as diverse as one could possibly imagine. And it was there my identity was sent into a tailspin, yet to be corrected.
I arrived at WK 14 years old and a bit chippy, thinking I knew how the world turned. I did not. And I came to find out fast that being American was not going to act as an advantage either. In fact, the other students had some serious issues with us “Damn Yankees”. Now don’t get me wrong, I had wonderful friends and some amazing experiences. But there was no doubt that the wrongs of the world were often the American’s fault, and even the teachers agreed. So, I tended to back down from my American identity. I tried hard not to have too much “twang” in my accent and did all that I could to do, as most kids in high school do, to try and not be too noticeable. But being blond, advantaged, female and American meant I got a slew of dumb blond, dumb female and dumb American jokes hurled (usual with harmless intent) my way. And the final nail in the coffin was that I talked a lot (shocking, I know). With an incessant bull’s-eye taped to my back, I could not avoid the fact that I was American to save my life. But what a great lesson to learn about being a minority, huh? Touché, privileged white woman, suck it up.
But there was an interesting flip side to all of this. After a couple years in Swaziland, I was hardly very American either. During my visits home, my clothes were weird, my music taste was weird and I had an accent. (I did?) What… was I trying to act like I was better than my American friends now? And DO you ride an elephant to school? Talk about a blond out of water, I wanted to get back “home” to WK as fast as I could.
After I left Swaziland to go to college, I needed to find a new home where being a talkative American was hardly something unique. But I also knew I would crave that diverse, intelligent community I came from. I found what I was looking for in every way at Mount Holyoke College. But those years in Swaziland, at a school with such an extraordinary political and cultural affect on its student body, have left me with a responsibility to remain true to the person I became there. I think back and wish I had grown up, further explored other cultural identities (rather than hide my own) and appreciated everything more than I did. And, today, I am extremely frustrated that I rarely live or discuss those lessons I learned long ago in my current life on a daily basis. Let me explain further.
After arriving in the U.S., I eventually assimilated right back in very well. So well, in fact, my “African-ness” was completely invisible. I mean, who are we kidding – no one would spot me walking down the street in Washington D.C. and think to say “Sawubona” (“How are you”, in siSwati). And being so “American” just got too easy. I didn’t tell the stories and lessons I had learned there to people here often enough. In fact, I was leery about sharing too much for fear it came across as pretentious. Again, I just wanted to be like everyone else. Ugh, what was wrong with me?
And now, it has been 12 years since I was back “home” in Africa. Apart from my cherished collection of WK friends that I have found again online, I have so little connection to that world before. I honestly feel as if I don’t have the right to claim those 5 crucial years of my life. But am I 100% through and through the American I look like? I don’t think so. I won’t forget what I learned. My classmates were NOT handed the kinds of rights or advantages I had as an American. My classmates lived in a perpetually violent world back in their homes. My classmates have now probably lost endless friends and family to the AIDS epidemic. My classmates know first hand what corruption does and what anger breeds. My classmates, I never comprehended half of it the way I should have, but I was by your side.
Anyway, so there lies one portion of my perpetual identity crisis. I guess, I am what I am (no Popeye jokes, please…). I can’t entirely blame myself for wanting to hang out and just watch movies with friends, and act my age in high school – rather than always discuss politics and human rights. We were all just kids, dressing badly, flirting awkwardly, and ungracefully coming into our own. And back here in the U.S., I suppose I can’t expect to find many people that would really get the significance of June 16th (the anniversary of the Soweto uprisings). So I need to make peace with that. But every once in awhile I find myself asking “who the hell am I?” when a friend balks if I refer to Swaziland. “You lived in Africa? What was THAT like?” and all I can think is “please don’t ask about riding elephants to school.”