BY TUMA HAJI
I don’t know who the hell I am.
I know my name. I know where I’m from. I remember where I’ve been.
I don’t know where I’m going or who’ll I be. Whether I’ll grow up to travel the world as a news correspondent who lives in different countries for a little while or whether I’ll be living my back-up plan as a psychiatrist, throwing pills at patients like they’re Skittles that offer the cure of tasting the rainbow. Or, even more alarmingly appealing, if I’ll drop out tomorrow and become a hippie nomad with facial piercings who belly dances herself around the world.
All of those possibilities of my future have one thing in common: there is a lack of motivation to compel myself towards achieving any of those lofty goals because I am struggling to feel like I belong.
The nature versus nurture psychologist in me makes it a hobby to count experiences instead of counting sheep to lull the insomniac tendencies away. I pride myself in being able to point out which parts of myself I can attribute to my mixed Muslim, African and American environments of upbringing, but I still don’t know where I belong. I assure myself, many nights when I feel as if I don’t fit anywhere, that I’m still young, that it is not about who I’m meant to be, but who I’ll become in this gruesomely beautiful journey known as life. Yet, I still long to belong somewhere.
I had this foolish idea when I first came into university. I would join all of these groups that reflect parts of my background, that I would feel a part of many things to appeal and glue together my fragmented selves and experiences, only to discover that it is harder for me to commit to a group than it is to commit to a workout routine or boys.
I was raised Muslim for a majority of my life, and I hold on dearly to some remnants of the comfort and solace religion brings while not clinging to the beliefs. Yet, joining MSA does not interest me because I feel like my mixed African upbringing brings in different elements of being culturally Muslim more than a majority of the MSA members. That is a shallower reason than the deeper qualm that I have: that I’ll feel fake for being part of a group that I don’t believe in simply in a desperate quest for community. Many things may lead one back to God, but I don’t think wearing a hijab to cover up the horrible haircut I subjected myself to last week is a sufficient form of worship to our good Lord!
I tell myself that I cannot join the Coalition of Black Students because I have not lived the African-American life. I have experienced the African and American life, respectively, due to my two key upbringings, but not the African-American life. Without defining the premise of what it means to be American or African, I can attest that it is quite nice being able to selectively pick which nationality I want to claim whenever it is convenient for me. Americans are ridiculous for adding ice to their coffee? I’m African, so I can’t relate! Africans are annoying for talking too loudly in grocery stores? Can’t relate – I’m American!
Yet, I’ve come to realize that when I don’t dress in my traditional Somali/Muslim clothing with the hijab, people are quicker to place me under the label of African-American as opposed to foreigner until they hear me speak into the phone in my language. Even more interestingly, it seems that people assume that just because a millennial lives in America he or she has experienced the “American” ways. This, I pretentiously entitle, The Dilemma of the Melting Pot. The assumption that people from foreign countries are assimilated into the American lifestyle simply by default of being in the States fails to take into account human beings’ natural connections and strong tendencies to hold on to their cultures.
One would think, then, that it would be easier for me to join ASA, but it’s not. There are no May-May people at Drake that I know of, and believe me, I’ve hacked into the University’s systems for the sole purpose of finding anyone even remotely Somali-Bantu but to no avail! Sure, I can connect with my East African fellows over ugali and broken Swahili and the rest of the regions with the reminiscence of the fear of the dreaded flip-flop whacking our little behinds as kids in a form of discipline. Yet, there is no one who could even begin to understand just how hilarious Somali-Bantu insults can be or the things that all May-May parents say and do.
Human beings, as largely social animals, have a tendency to break and categorize themselves into groups, some groups spanning a wider social net than others. In my ongoing and desperate search for belonging, I have come to realize two things.
Firstly, I base my identity off of where I’m from and what groups I think I should be a part of, yet, rather contradictorily, believe strongly that we as individuals shape ourselves through the experiences we expose ourselves to. The older and more autonomous we get, the more leeway we have in controlling who and what influences us. We can join whatever clubs we want, attach ourselves to whatever political or religious affiliations our hearts desire, and we have no one to blame but ourselves in how those experiences shape us. It’s sort of like building and customizing your own personal reality in this bigger and fake reality called consciousness, so it is of utmost importance to be conscious of what we expose ourselves to.
Secondly, I am only now beginning to embrace the fact that I will never truly “belong” in one or even a few groups because I am a dynamic individual with a diverse kaleidoscope of experiences formed through the exposure to different types of environments. I’ve come to realize that my previous criticism of ascribing to groups as simply being willfully close-minded to different experiences was merely my saltiness manifesting in bitter disdain and jealousy of those who feel like they belong.
We are all fragmented individuals, not in the depressive sense that we are broken, but rather in the beautiful sense that we all are constantly developing into bundles of different experiences, and we can either decide to close ourselves up into one group that we feel best represents all our pieces, or we can scatter those experiences across different groups. Either way, we can still grow as individuals, and that, in my humble opinion, is more important that feeling like belonging.