Identity Crisis

Lily Shaffer - Ecuador


January 4, 2011

I want you to take a minute and think about what makes you you. We each have our own story comprised of experiences, friendships, families, opinions—our histories that have gotten us to where we are today.  These backgrounds can be compartmentalized into what makes our identity. There are the physical aspects that may affect the way people view us: ethnicity, race, body type, hair color, etc. Then there are the invisible aspects that define who we are—religion, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, political stance.  Regardless of these compartmentalizations, we each have a personality. I am sarcastic and goofy, I crack terrible jokes, I am intellectually curious, I seek justice, I am compassionate, protective, and I care about the people who mean something to me so much that sometimes it hurts. What defines your personality? I want you to really, really think about this for a minute.

Now try to imagine someone ripping that away. Imagine if all of a sudden, you were a different race and everyone viewed you differently, or lying about your political stance because it wasn’t generally accepted.  Try to picture taking away your most valued quality because you simply can’t find the way to express it. Maybe it’s how you can turn any awkward situation into a funny one, or how when someone else feels pain, you feel their pain. Imagine an inability to express your fun-loving side because no one understands the words you’re using, or jokes you’re making.

Welcome to my life. I think I’m going through an identity crisis.

The primary reason I took this year was to begin to figure out who I am and who I want to be. I thought I’d get to think about it. I’d have the opportunity to experiment in a field I’ve considered going into, and hopefully have a better idea of what I want to study in college. I anticipated leaving the pieces of me I don’t like back in Reading and starting fresh. I could express the parts of me I love more gracefully, and experiment with the person I want to be.

But parts of this are more than I bargained for. Let’s start with the language. I am only just now finding my voice in Spanish.  I’m finally beginning to express my goofy, sarcastic side. I spent nearly three months stumbling over myself, laughing right along when I try to say that the water’s boiling but instead say something I’m not going to repeat.  The language aspect is definitely a challenge. There are parts of my personality I simply cannot express because I don’t have the capacity.  I’ve found a way to express the most vital aspects, but there are still many pieces missing.  I’m beginning to realize how much I took for granted the ability to express myself; the ability to speak with my mouth and facial expressions, and understand how other people perceive me.

The second facet of my identity crisis is perhaps more difficult. I come from a rather homogenous community in Reading, but an incredibly tolerating one at that. Here in Ecuador, there are parts of me I simply can’t express. I, along with pretty much all gringos, have been put into a box: I am a rich, Catholic, straight American descending from Ireland, Germany, or England, and I know everything that doesn’t have to do with Ecuador or Spanish. This is the assumption that is given to every gringo I’ve met, and it’s both an incredibly difficult and remarkably simple label to break out of. I can tell my family what my ethnic background is. I can explain that I received financial aid to be here.  I can tell a taxi driver that, thank you very much, I live here and know that it’s a dollar to anywhere in Ibarra, not 1.50. That’s easy. But let’s take a more challenging aspect: religion.

I’m realizing that I feel a substantial connection to my religion—more of a connection that I realized. I work at a Catholic organization; my bosses are nuns.  I’ve explained to them, among many others, that I don’t believe Jesus was the messiah, and that I’m not Catholic. And right after I finish explaining, I often hear, “So, what do you do for Christmas?” No one gets it because I’m pretty sure I’m the only Jew in Ibarra—that’s not an exaggeration. It’s dawning on me that this is an important aspect of my identity and I took for granted having an amazing, supportive temple. Lighting a makeshift Hanukkah menorah made of Santa Claus candlesticks and green and red candles with my mom was a very enlightening experience (hah…), but, despite retelling the Hanukkah story over latkes, she didn’t get it. I miss feeling Jewish with other people, and I’m struggling with that.

I’m definitely getting the chance to think about who I am and who I want to be.  There are parts of me I need but can’t express. But I can see, now that I’ve been stripped down to my bones and forced to rebuild myself, how and why I need them. I think it will be easier to express those parts come May, now that I’m recognizing what makes me me. At the same time, it’s been easy to cast aside the parts of my past I don’t want. I always need to think about what I’m saying and doing.  Ecuador has me on my toes 24/7.

I anticipate a much easier time redefining myself once I get to college. Not only have I had the chance to start over once, but when I do it for the second time, I’ll do it in my first language.

I’m learning about who I am whether or not I want to. I’m discovering what’s important and what I need to express based on what’s being repressed. I’m not going to lie—this is the most difficult part of any of my work here:  working on myself.

Lily Shaffer