Essay

The question of identity

By: Karoline Wimmer

“How do you identify? Do you feel more Austrian or more Indian?” my grandfather asked me last week during our family lunch. I had not anticipated this and was silent for a minute as I contemplated my answer. Sitting across from him, at a corona safe distance, the summer heat burning down mercilessly, I wondered what prompted his question. The air was heavy with a silence that could only cease with my response. Determined to break the quiet surrounding the table, I calmly stated: “International. I identify as international”. A quick look of surprise flitted across my grandfather´s face, followed by a glowing smile, reserved for instances where he was pleased with an unexpected twist. I recognized that smile, for it was the same one I had when I was confronted with the pleasantness of the unforeseen

In the past few days, I kept wondering why my grandfather asked me this. I also pondered over the paradox mixture of ambiguity and clarity that surrounded my answer. I was born in New York in 1997 to an Austrian father and an Indian mother. I grew up bilingually, with both German and English being spoken at home and have lived in the U.S, England, Austria and Saudi Arabia. Most of my formative education took place in English and American Schools. If I am being honest, the question of my identity never occurred to me as a conscious thought, yet at the same time it was ever present within me. It seems odd to say it like this, yet this is my reality, my truth. As a young girl, whenever someone wanted to know where I came from I would dignify the question with a short yet concise response: “I am half Austrian, half Indian”. I never delved more into the subject, and the recipient of my answer was usually content. Over the last couple of years, however, I noticed a change sneaking up in my answer as well as my attitude. At my university in Vienna, many were keen to know my cultural roots, and I realized that the short statement that I always delivered came up short. It left out crucial elements, like a book that was only halfway complete. My prior answer no longer satisfied me. That being said, at first I did not quite know what to say and how much to say. In this state of uncertainty, I amended my previous statement to include the following: “But I was born in New York”. My full answer now was: “I am half Austrian, half Indian, but I was born in New York”. I would watch the wide eyed response of my university colleagues. To my peers I was unusual as most of them grew up in one place. The feeling, however, that something was incomplete stayed. I came to the conclusion that whilst my new answer was certainly an improvement, it did not satisfy me. It was a mere snapshot, unable to capture the whole image. I felt incomplete. So instead, I opted for an unorthodox response, one that was rather descriptive for a question that generally required a short answer. I chose to say: “It is a bit confusing. I am half Austrian, half Indian but I was born in New York and I grew up in the U.S, Vienna, London and Saudi Arabia”. This particular response lead to colleagues who went from being wide-eyed to literally having a brief moment where their jaw dropped, as they let my words sink in. If I was unusual before, it was nothing to how I was viewed now. I was labelled as exotic, as different, as a person to be in awe of. And yet, I never felt exotic, I never wanted to be different or be admired. It made me feel like more of an outsider, even though I know that this was certainly not the intention my peers had.

Over time, however, I have learned to fully embrace my cultural blend, and the reactions that come with it. Young girls in school often express a desire to fit in. Whilst this was certainly true for me, the cultural factor never got added into the mix, as most schools I attended were comprised of students that came from all corners of the world. It never occurred to me that this was not the norm, that this was only a small percentage of reality. The moment I graduated from school, I realized just how privileged (and unusual) my situation was. I could not give a definite answer to where I was from and for a time I felt isolated from those around me. This isolation allowed me ample time to think and I realized that just because I could not give a simple, short and clear answer, it did not mean that my peers and I were worlds apart. It simply meant that my experiences allowed me to be open to various cultures and that each of them have a place in my heart, and whilst this may seem unusual, it is something to be proud of. So when my grandfather asked me how I identified I realize now why I said international. I am a global child, an honorary citizen of several countries and I am truly lucky to have so many places to call home. This is my biggest truth, my uncontested reality: my heart beats an intentional rhythm and I think that in the years to come, that heart will have expanded to encompass new and deeper songs. 

 

 

Categories: Essay, Literary criticism

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