Wer Bin Ich?

Author Note: In the fall of 2014 I began studying German at Penn, which I pursued for two years until the fall of 2016. It was a language that had interested me since my days at United World College of the Atlantic, where I completed my secondary school education, and where I had always felt secretly ashamed of the fact that I really only had mastery of one language at the time— English — as opposed to the two, three, and sometimes four languages many of my peers so seamlessly flipped between. This particular instructor’s pedagogical paradigm for second language learning was to not merely teach students the technicalities of a language, but to guide students from the beginning of the class in forming a self and an identity within the language, such that eventually the language becomes not just learned, but deeply internalized. For one of our first projects, then, she asked each of us to give a presentation in class on “Wer bin Ich,” or, “Who Am I,” in German, and then to follow up the presentation with a blog entry in English on our class page in Canvas. The photograph above is the display I brought into class with me for my spoken presentation; below is the follow-up blog entry.

I gave my first Präsentation of this class on Monday evening. Although I am not normally attached to class projects, it seems I did become attached to this one, for when Frau Frei asked if she might be able to keep the presentation board itself I balked ever so slightly, just enough that she noticed it and said, “Just send me a picture, don’t worry about it!” Being the introspective person that I am, however, I got caught in my mind on the question of why I’d even balked in the first place — this was a 5-minute class presentation for Introductory German, all the photographs are merely prints of digital files I already own and have seen over and over, and I only paid 58 cents for the presentation board — because if I technically already owned everything on the board, then it didn’t make any sense to now want to keep it.

I realized that at the center of the pause was the chief (only!) question of the presentation itself. “Who Am I?” In thinking about it, I realized that I have moved around so much, changed houses, changed schools, changed countries, and leaving much behind each time, that choosing to reside inside the borderlands between being a citizen of the world (dual nationality, passports filled with stamps that are not merely from vacations and work, but from time spent with the friends and family who make my life what it is) and being an unchanged country of one (my internal reality as a negotiable, boundaried concept unto itself) has been the methodology by which I have navigated the question of living successfully in a world for which the typical constants of a life do not apply to me.

This is another way of saying that I succeed in my world by divorcing myself from the notion of anything as true and inviolable except change itself; while I embrace and own each moment of my experience in this life I do not take any part of it as being more important than the other. I identify as Malawian-American in German 1 because that is as far as my language capability in German takes me right now, but I in fact identify as Malawian and American, because inside the Malawi space I qualify on Malawian terms as completely Malawian and in the American space I qualify on American terms as completely American (including and especially my identity as the child of immigrants and then as a re-immigrant myself), with no modifying hyphenates required in either space. There are, furthermore, part of me that are significantly influenced by the fact that the countries I spent meaningful time in are Commonwealth countries, so even though I technically spent only two years in the UK there are meaningful identity clusters within me that are discernably British (affects of speech and spelling, first learning to drive on the left side of the road), right up to the fact that my parents were born at a time when Malawi was technically a part of the British Empire, and can recall things like using pence and shillings as opposed to tambalas and kwacha as it is today.

This presentation, then, was the first time in a long time that I have really to sit down and think, “Who Am I?” If you look at it carefully, you will notice that every single picture but one has their borders crossing over into another picture — that one stand-alone picture is the picture of myself, solo, in the center of the presentation. This was at the time something that was not quite conscious, only something that seemed to make sense in terms of the concept I was building; now, in reflecting upon it, I realize that this reflects precisely the manner in which I straddle the question of an identity that is by necessity a totally global one, versus an identity that is also by necessity an entirely self-contained one. Both are me; but the entire tableau of the presentation represents the borderland in which I choose to exist in order to navigate the question of ‘Michelle.’ I printed about 30 images, with these being the final 20 or so that I thought best represented what I was exploring; every single picture with people in it has me in it, and all of the landscape photographs are photographs I took, which is also to say, in a more indirect way, that these also have me in them. It was important to me that each picture contain an aspect of my perspective in the world as Michelle.

Additionally, though it was not directed or intentional — I noticed upon further reflection that, for a significant number of the images, the particular life-phase peer groups being photographed (Atlantic College friends, Penn friends, New York friends, etc.) were not actually placed in the originating setting for which I first met them. There is a photograph of my New York friends in Boston; a photograph of my running friends from New York in Philadelphia; a photograph of my closest Penn friends in Houston; a photograph of my Atlantic College friends in New York; and the photograph with my family was actually taken in Canada, 18 years to the month after we left, at the house of our closest family friends from our time there in the early 90s.

In other words: even in the way that I subconsciously chose to present the different aspects of ‘Ich,’ I chose to represent these by way of transitional spaces (all of the locations were locations where at least some people were merely visiting, or that we had agreed upon as a central meeting point), and not through static spaces. Interestingly again, there is only one picture set in the exact space that I would have called home, and that is the picture with my and some of my girlfriends at our Atlantic College 10-year reunion; not only was the Atlantic College experience itself a necessarily transitional and impermanent space — one of the first things that is enforced upon arrival is that this will only be two years, and so to live the fullest out of it as once it is gone it is gone and can never be recreated — but the space of a reunion was even more so, as enforced both by the limited time we had there (three days) and by the sheer globality of the students, now alumni, that meant that we would never again all be in this space in quite this way.

The questions I chose to write between the lines of the pictures are questions that, as a person with my background, I actually still have difficulty answering, right down to the question of “Wie heiβt du” (which best translates to, “What are you called”). I answer to four distinct names (Michelle and Alipao, that are on my birth certificate and official documents, and in that order; and then Nkhondo and Akuchisanga, that are not) — these are names, and not diminutives or denoters of one’s situation within a familial context — and the answer to ‘Wie heiβt du’ changes depending on who I am speaking to and what space I operate in with them. Just as with the question of national identity, I am all of these names, but never any of these names at the same time, unless I am traveling and need all of the names (on my passport, on my driver’s license) in order to be identified completely as me. I furthermore do not permit bleeding over of nomenclature between identity clusters — my American and Canadian friends are not allowed to call me Alipao, my non-blood relatives are not allowed to call me Nkhondo, and I absolutely hate it when blood relatives call me Michelle. Most of the time I do not tell people any other names aside from that which I have decided is context relevant; I have found that people resist the notion of the simultaneous existence of a fluid identity space and a completely self-determined identity space, and assign the identity to you, as represented by your name, that they think is best for you according to how they see the world and not how you see yours.

Per the issue of the identity questions at large, you will notice that I repeated several of them throughout the collage; this, I felt represented importantly not only that I keep being asked these questions — and in different languages — but, importantly, that I continue to ask these questions of myself. I say I live in Philadelphia, for example, except that when I tell people I’m going home for Christmas I mean Malawi; I say that English is my first language, but it is not — Chichewa is — only that English is the first language I acquired complete mastery over, and that I do most of my thinking in. But I sometimes think and conceive of things in Chichewa, and I sometimes think and conceive of things in French, and with enough real learning and living inside of German I am certain a time will come when I will think and perceive the world in German. The questions themselves have more than one answer, and the very best answers to them are answers that straddle many spaces at once.

I had trouble immediately letting go of Meine Präsentation, thus, because the presentation board itself was about as definite an answer to the question of who I am that I have had for myself in a while. There are conspicuous absences from the board — friends who were everything to me in my college years and early post-college years, who are not a part of my life anymore but without whom my life’s narrative cannot be told; both of my parents’ villages, which are critical because the first question any Malawian asks you is where are you from, and they don’t mean the city you live in but your Mudzi, your village as defined by where your people originate from. It was partly a matter of space, but also partly a matter of the choices I have made as to how I choose to identify in the world — my Mudzi is so intrinsic to who I am as to be almost strange to mention (nobody acknowledges the air, for example, in thinking about why it is they exist in their particular permutation in this moment) and while I cannot tell my life’s narrative without those absent friends, they are absent today for a reason, and the assignment was not “Who Have I Been” but “Who Am I,” which I chose to interpret as meaning a current cross-section of what it is that bears relevance to the world I have chosen to create for myself in this phase of my life.

But the truth is that I don’t actually need the physical manifestation of the presentation — it will, like much other clutter one acquires over time, end up neglected and molding in a corner of my current and future apartments, another object I thought I needed in my occasional desperations for a grip on something static in the world, but truthfully do not; and I also have the distinct hunch that should anyone else come upon it they may find themselves upset at the physical representation of their being one of many, many important stories that have made me, me. A big part of living successfully in each context has been the act of total commitment to that context; not that commitment in that moment is not true, but for a lot of people the notions of change and hybridity in identity are frightening, and I’ve more than once run into trouble with people who wanted a perception of permanence out of my life, that would in turn bind me to them in a manner close to obligation, that I simply could not then and cannot now or ever give them. I know too much that things change, and living inside change and impermanence feels the most honest way to live a life; but I recognize that not everyone can live this way, and perhaps it is not the most truthful but I nurture to an extent the image of permanence as a way of keeping peace and of building relationships.

So in both these veins I am relinquishing the Präsentation — it’s simply not true to how I live in my world to keep it, and because I think that to have and hold the original, to feel the raised edges of each photograph, know the places where my hands smoothed down each image, and to see the completed work in its full weight, brings a level of meaning to it that simply having a photograph of it won’t. I think that, for the purposes of this class, that level of meaning is too important to lose by way of an insufficient second-best of a photograph of the same; and, in all honesty, out of gratitude for the gift of the (gently) enforced space in which to even think about this, I would really like for Frau Frei to have the final product that came out of that meditation. Wer bin ich? Many things, certainly; but nothing that rests definitively adhered, as in the case with Meine Präsentation, to a singular place in space or in time.

[September 2014]

Michelle A. Chikaonda

Written by

Philadelphia born, world raised. Find me at www.michellechikaonda.work

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