Age is Not a Number

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“The useless days will add up to something. The shitty waitressing jobs. The hours writing in your journal. The long meandering walks. The hours reading poetry and story collections and novels and dead people’s diaries and wondering about sex and God and whether you should shave under your arms or not. These things are your becoming.”

— Sheryl Strayed, Tiny Beautiful Things

I’ve always suspected that age is a flexible construct.

When I was 12 years old, I knew with certainty I was not a teenager, and did not want to be a teen, yet. Therefore, on what would have been my 13th birthday, I resolved that I was not turning 13. I announced that everyone around me continue to regard me as 12 years old. I didn’t have many friends my age, and the adults around me obliged. I still consider myself as never having been 13.

It’s not just me. Others have this intuition. When I later agreed to turn 14–as I did in the end–I was such a serious, stoical kid that people started saying of me, “She’s 14 going on 40.” There are other related formulations, including “I’m 54 years young,” or “I’m a grandma on the inside.” You can see it in this interview with Maurice Sendak (“I’ll never turn 10”) or this interview with Kanye West (“forever the 5-year-old of something”). We all are in our own ways trying to manipulate, subvert the rules of numerical age, to escape stereotypes of our empirical age group, our generation, or to try to represent some deeper truth of our selves and our personal identities.

But the rule-bending, I suspect, is indicative of a deeper problem: age is not a number. Of course, there are exceptions if, let’s say, you are a medical doctor examining a person’s physiology. But the truths that most of us seek when we ask someone their age, or that we communicate through the construct of our age, cannot be encapsulated in a digit.

Therefore, I believe the whole idea and practice of communicating age has to be deconstructed and redesigned.

What if instead of “I’m 26 years old,” I could say, “I am 23 countries, 3 major heartbreaks, 2 higher educational degrees, 3 emergency room visits, 5 tear-gassings, 1 house explosion, 5 internships, 1 near-death experience, 10 jobs, 3 divorces and 3 step-parents, 20 house moves, 60 students, 3 languages, 9 memorized poems” old? What if our age wasn’t a single, dry number? What if our age were the essence of our experiences and worldview? What if ever time we said our age, it was a story, an oral history, an epic poem, a song, a dance, a word?  What if our age were tied to something else, anything else more idiosyncratic or meaningful than a 1 – 3 digit number that represents a psychologically arbitrary number of planetary orbits around the sun?

If age were not a number–how old would you be?

Top image source here. Bottom image mine, taken in Jodhpur.

Difficult Names and Cultural Erasure

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It begins
with your second last name
gone missing from your mailbox,
school ID, and learner’s permit.
It is hard to explain to your relatives
back on the Island.
Your mother says,
you had it
when you left home,
where is it now?
You cannot claim
to have misplaced
your mother’s surname.

–“Crime in the Barrio” in Call Me María by Judith Ortiz Cofer (via)

“Give your daughters difficult names. Give your daughters names that command the full use of tongue. My name makes you want to tell me the truth. My name doesn’t allow me to trust anyone that cannot pronounce it right.”

–Warsan Shire

Weeks ago, I was proctoring an exam at my university’s law school. Everyone was stressed but one student was especially frantic. She had claimed a spot in an exam hall based on the first letter of her last name, but the official exam listing had assigned her to a different room. She was disputing it with the head proctor: “My last name is de la Rioja, Rioja, not de la. I should have been assigned to this room, with the R names, not the other room with the D names.” The head proctor was indifferent. “You need to tell the administration to change that.”

Some time ago I was getting dinner with a public school teacher. This person was white, but she worked in predominantly low-income black and Latino neighborhoods. “You would not believe the names!” she commented blithely.

During add/drop period at the beginning of a semester at my university, professors at my graduate school often begin with calling attendance. It should be quick, but it always takes twice as long as it needs to because of professors stumbling–apologetically to be sure–over the names of international students. The Chinese sanguinely provide their American names. Even I generally call my classmates by their “American names” if they provide them, and in Nagaland, I often interacted with people I met through their “Christian names” rather than their given names.

People’s identities are complicated–certain parts of our identities may come to the foreground in interactional certain contexts, sometimes prompting different variations of our names. But the patterns of whose names tend to be changed, and in what ways, by whom, and with what consequences, is clear. Is this a world we want to create–one where cultural backgrounds are erased and given dominant-culture replacements? A world where a supposedly global-minded educational institution does not know how to handle its international students’ last names? A world where certain names are written off as difficult compared to an arbitrary standard?

I say no, and that we all have reflection, self-work, listening, and targeted learning to do to put a stop to this erasure in the domain of one of the most intimate words that an individual possesses–their name.

Photo: “Lady Liberty” by SETH at the Museum of Public Art, LA 

Language of Locality

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 “I’m not a national at all. How could I come from a nation? How can a human being come from a concept? … Histories are real, cultures are real, but countries were invented. … All experience is local. All identity is experience. I’m not a local. I’m multi-localMy experience is where I’m from. What if we asked, instead of ‘Where are you from?’–‘Where are you a local?‘ This would tell us so much more about who and how similar we are.”

— Taiye Selasi, “Don’t ask where I’m from, ask where I’m a local

To be clear, nation-states (countries) are just as “real” as cultures and histories. Culture, histories, and nations are all social constructs. All are “invented concepts” that are real in their effects and consequences. A nation may be newer, larger, or more abstract than a culture or a history, but fundamentally, nations and cultures are the same types of conceptual thing–all are social constructs based on shared cultural knowledge.

The crux of the matter, though, is this: given a wide range of social constructs at our disposal, which constructs more accurately reflect and describe our individual identities? Nationhood, as we all assume when we ask “Where are you from”? Or something like “locality”?

Where am I from?

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Living as a foreigner in Turkey is hard enough to explain sometimes, but it gets more complicated when I go on holiday from Turkey to another country.

Where are you from? People ask me this in London, Prague, Paris. The ambiguity of the question in the context strikes me. Yes, I am “from” the US, but the city I just came “from” is Istanbul. Which one is it? The desired answer is of course the US, though I feel that doesn’t accurately represent me and my situation in life. Yet I also feel that going into my whole life story (“I’m from America but I live in Istanbul”) is too ponderous and too “TMI” for transitory interactions.

It’s further complicated by my odd confused loyalties. When some Turkish backpackers ended up in my dorm room in Prague for one night, I felt more in common with them than with the American tourists in the hostel, and I conversed with them more easily than the Americans.

A fresh layer of from-confusion was piled on in the Islamic Art wing of the Louvre last week. A man approached me, first speaking in Italian, then French, then English. “Excuse me,” he said, “Where are you from? Are you from Italy? You have a northern Italian look.” I hesitated. “Well, I’m American, but my family is originally from northern Italy.” It turned out he missed his country and wanted to speak his native language with a fellow Italian. We amicably bid each other farewell and returned to viewing the artifacts. After all, neither of us could be blamed for the ways that the American model of civic identity has screwed up the accuracy of ethnic markers.

Residency, citizenship, ethnicity–it seems complicated keeping these straight and knowing which one is salient in a given context. It sometimes makes me resent the phony superficial ways we judge others. But that’s another issue. As it stands, negotiating different aspects of identity is a fact of life for most. The majority of the world is bilingual or multilingual. Ever increasing numbers flock to countries abroad for different reasons, ending up in hard-to-encapsulate life situations. Basically, I should get used to the ambiguity of not being quite accurately represented in every interaction.

Still, I always feel relief when I return to Istanbul and I don’t have to fear the question “Where are you from.” At least in Istanbul, I know where I am from.

Social pressure

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Note: I wrote this three months ago, prior to teaching my first class, and am just posting it now.

Usually we think of social pressure, or the outside expectations of society, as a negative force: the pressure to conform, change negatively, to be inauthentic, be someone else other than who we are. But, like all forms of power, it can be used for constructive purposes.

Last week, literally shaking with nerves, I approached the classroom where I would be teaching my very first class of students in Turkey. It was my first time teaching this age group (university students, some the exact same age as I), my first time as a solo lead teacher (in the past, I had always co-taught), and my first time teaching Turkish students. More than these first times, though, I was nervous about my the legitimacy of my role of authority over a group of my peers. I’m not a real teacher. How can I possibly run a classroom and be responsible for the education and life chances of thirty individuals? What right do I have to be here, telling other people what is wrong and what is right? I can’t even answer that for myself. What do I have to offer?

Finally, I reached my designated room number, torturously stepped into the classroom, delayed the fatal moment a bit longer by twiddling with the computer and my books, and finally straightened up and faced the students.

They looked back at me for what felt like a long, long moment.

“Hi, hoca!” one of them said. And in that moment, I was a teacher. In their eyes, I was a teacher, so I became one. They expected me to be a teacher, with all the knowledge, confidence, and leadership to offer–so I became one.

“Good morning, class!” I responded back.

We can always choose who we want to be, but sometimes to become better than we are, we need the social pressure and expectations of others to push us forward.

(This is also known as the Pygmalion effect)

Photo: “Identity map” made during one of my early classes

From a letter

From a letter I wrote to a friend:

I hope we can stay in touch going forward– I think old friends are important in life. It’s so easy to believe that as time passes and as we experience seemingly epic and life-altering successes and setbacks and dramas, we are changing so much. Abandoning our principals, our passions, our personality. But the people who’ve known us forever see that we’re still essentially the same underneath all the superficial changes that time wreaks on us. I don’t know what identity is or believe that the “essence” of a person exists, but somehow, old friends help to elucidate it, or maybe bring it into being, and in a confusing mercurial world (or, in my confusing mercurial world) there is something anchoring about that.

There are two corollaries to this idea:

1. What is anchoring can also be stifling and constricting, but in society as Gesellschaft it’s the stability and anchorage we lack and want and seek.

2. When we lose a friend, we lose a piece of our identity. That is why breakups and separations of all kinds are so difficult.

For more on friendship, read Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Also this Yale philosophy course (from way before EdX was trendy) has some thought-provoking digressions into the philosophy of identity.

Identity

“I can’t go back to yesterday because I was a different person then.”

Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

I think about identity a lot. Although thinking about it is especially hard to avoid at the end of the year with all the advertisements proclaiming “New Year, New You,” there is a year-round, never-ending American rhetoric about being yourself, expressing yourself, finding yourself–all without any explanatory force. What is the self? What is the source or where is the seat of my identity? Who am I? Am I the same person I was last year, five years, ten years ago? Am I a product determined by my environment or are there parts of me that are inborn and unchangeable?

These are typical formulations of questions about identity. They ask for a philosophical, psychological, biological, and/or neurological answer. But I have also begun to think about a more anthropological variation of the question. Do we become different people in different places?

When I first came to Turkey in 2007 I was shocked that people looked at me as an American. On my most recent stint there I was surprised when my new friends perceived me as a Christian. Before going abroad I had never actively thought of myself as an American, and my relationship with Christianity has never been as straightforward as my abroad friends assumed. On the other hand, nobody had any idea that I had any interest or talent in art, yet in the US my artistic interests seemed to define me.

In different places, it seems that different parts of our identity become salient. Do you agree?

PS: This Open Yale course on “Death” covers some of the basic problems and classic thought experiments on the philosophy of identity. The RadioLab podcast about “Memory and Forgetting” adds complexity to the question (specifically, the idea that our memories are not static).