The search for selfhood

What really matters is the desire to find.

I was raised in an old city called Calcutta, in India, under the towering social pressure to speak in a foreign tongue which was not my own. While I grew up eating tarty green mangoes dipped in salt and sweetened tamarind pickles out of glass jars, when I spoke in public, I was conscious enough to replace my Indian flavors with British ones. Maacher jhol thus became “fish curry”, idli turned into “rice cake”, and the warm wheat roti found an anglicized substitute in cold sandwiches— the latter being more fashionable compared to their native counterparts. However, the more accomplished I felt in my ability to whitewash (pun intended) my world, the more palpable my sense of being lost got.

I felt equally lost the first time I landed in Seattle. The enormous size of everything around me—from the airport-lobby doors—to the baggage sizes—to cars was mind-boggling. It was a space straight out of Gulliver’s Travels, and as I was chuckling to the thought of Brobdingnags, while stepping into a car sized like a truck, I fell and found myself awkwardly dangling by the truck’s door. Now, this, was a reality-check for it gently reminded me that my feeling of being lost was about to find a new definition in this new land.

I am not aware if everything that is lost can be found, but teaching at community colleges in Washington did make me realize that what really matters is the desire to find. I have had several tête-à-têtes with students over these years, who have confided in me their struggles with belonging to and fitting into a new cultural milieu. They probably sense in me similar insecurities with identity and belonging, but I realize that my struggles are often feeble in comparison to theirs. Take for instance, the agony of a young man fleeing the Somalian Civil War and paying strangers to smuggle him out of hunger and displacement. He thieves his way through thirty-three countries in a span of six months, replacing the gnawing need for food and water within him with dreams of freedom. Or, for that matter, a young woman from Congo who frets over her heavy Congolese-scented English, and is asked at a job interview if people live on trees in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Being a part of Highline College has introduced me to a new definition of diversity— one enriched by the private struggles to find a sense of belonging. I asked this young Somalian man about his plans for the future— subjects he wanted to study, a career he wanted to pursue. Wide-eyed, and looking happily lost, he said, “Good question, Miss. No one has ever asked me that before. I think I would like to work with people … how about HR?” Now, that makes for a start to a re-discovery of the self! As educators, I find my colleagues and myself nudging these bright young minds to find better versions of themselves. For I reckon, we all have a sense of our authentic selves, but are too afraid to be who we are. As the famous Saint Lucian poet, Derek Walcott, remarks:

The time will come

when, with elation

you will greet yourself arriving

at your own door, in your own mirror

and each will smile at the other’s welcome (“Love after Love”)

We are all lost in some form or the other, trying to discover a home away from home, a safe haven to be ourselves— to ditch the spoon for hands, to speak English and Lingala or Lingala-flavored English without the fear of being judged, to eat mashed potatoes or dal-chawal, to be comfortably hetero/pan/homosexual. The real essence lies not in remaining lost but in this collective desire to look for our real selves, and create ourselves anew.

Jayendrina Singha Ray is a PhD (ABD) in English, with a research focus on the works of the South African Nobel Laureate John Maxwell Coetzee. She teaches English Composition and Research Writing at Highline College, WA, and has previously taught English at colleges in India.