09 February, 2017

A question of identity

Sometimes I've felt like a shadow of my
former self, like all substance has been
taken from who I am.
When we first arrived in Japan I felt like I'd lost my identity. It was like my past had been wiped clean. No one knew my past, I felt like I was back in kindergarten. Completely dependent for tasks even as small as reading my mail, buying milk, and going to the doctor. 

I read a blog post yesterday by a new OMFer who talked about the struggles of going with her young daughter to a "Snow camp". She wrote: "It’s hard, exhausting and discouraging to be the only one who has no idea – ALL the time." Those kinds of experiences will change you, will change your identity, but not take your identity from you.

I like this post called "Dear Life Abroad—I'll keep my identity thanks." It is based on the common idea that life overseas will result in a loss of identity. However the author counters the idea, saying that rather life overseas has shaped his identity, much like life at college does, or any significant experience does, really.

I remember struggling to fit back into my university life after a short five weeks away in Indonesia when I was 20. I toured the country with a group of other keen Christians, learning about the religions of the country and missionary life. Returning to Brisbane and my old life was very difficult. Even in that short time, I had changed, as had the people I'd left (for example, my best friend at church had begun a relationship with someone who later damaged her). 

But the main change, in that short time, was in me. I'd experienced intense Christian fellowship under, at times, trying circumstances. The spiritual experience was closer to heaven than I'd ever had the privilege of being a part of. I just couldn't slip back down easily into mediocre church-going. I had trouble relating to pretty much everyone at church. Oh, I also had a serious crisis in my uni course, which didn't help my state of mind. But overall, it was a difficult period.

However, my pain wasn't related to a loss of identity, but rather that in my new understanding of myself and the world, or my new identity, I struggled to relate to those who my former self had related to. Mind you that wasn't everyone in my life. Some precious friends who I lived with were a mainstay at this time. I often came home after church and ended up in tears on their shoulders.

And again, when we came back to Australia in 2004, after four years in Japan. Everyone had changed. Everyone had moved on in their lives, most not leaving a space for us to fit into again. But I think the bigger changes were probably in us. Our identities had changed. Four years in a completely different culture, being reduced to child-like dependency, learning to function in a completely new language, and doing a job you never felt qualified to do, does that to you. We were humbled, even crushed (or at least I was).

My identity now, after 16 years of living this life overseas (or in Australia temporarily, but talking about our life overseas), it definitely irrevocably changed. Japan will always be a part of who I am, no matter how many years I live somewhere else. These days I generally relate best to those who have similar identities: ones who were born in one country, but have lived in another for many years. I do always struggle when I go back to Australia, to fit in. To not be the person who always says, "Well, in Japan they..." or "There was that time that we were driving through Tokyo when..." And to patiently answer all the questions about Japan and our family's lives. Or to sit impatiently through conversations where the speaker clearly has forgotten where we've spent most of our lives.

Identity. It's an important topic and something that is unique to an individual. But don't be afraid you'll lose it as you encounter a difficult situation (like having children, or changing jobs or cities) or consider moving overseas. You'll be changed, for sure. For a time you may feel as though you've lost touch with who you were. But in the end you'll discover that actually, your old self is being changed into something new. If you're a Christian you can be sure that God will use this experience to make you more like him, if you're willing. 

We have long lists of people we pray for. Most of whom, for which, we don't know what's going on in their lives. So sometimes I pull out this passage by Paul and pray it for them:
 For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you. We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. (Colossians 1:9-12, NIVUK) 
It's great to be reminded that God gives us his spirit that grows us in a way that pleases him.

And James 1:2-4 gives us encouragement that in the midst of challenging circumstances we grow: 
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. (NIVUK)
So let us not be afraid that we're going to lose (or have lost) our identity here on earth. In fact, if you are a child of God, that is your ultimate identity (Romans 8:14).

Here are some other times I've written about identity:
Mixing up role and identity
Your experience of culture shock
The struggle for identity

1 comment:

Ken Rolph said...

"There was that time that we were driving through Tokyo when..."

This is inevitable when you have varying experiences to others you are with. My wife was an ancient history teacher, in the last few years for a private school. Part of her job then was to take students on tours of sites in Europe: Italy, France, England, Turkey, islands in the Mediterranean. The other night we were watching an old movie, Topkapi. At one point she paused the disk and explained about the street on the screen. How it went one way to a market where she had bought apple tea and fish spices, and the other way to the harbour. I was trying to watch the movie.

We can't watch any sort of movie set in Europe without some steps or seat or street or market popping up that she needs to tell me about. "Oh the Louvre. On our last trip one of the girls vomited on the floor inside and another had her passport stolen on the bus." Do I really need to know this? We were watching an old 1940s British movie set in the town of Upper Slaughter. The central pond was shown, with a bench overlooking it. We had to stop the movie while she explained that the bench was still there, but had been renovated with new materials. And that she had sat on it.

I hope we never meet and watch movies together, Wendy. At least at the moment I can watch Japanese movies uninterrupted.