When Your Identity Seems Like A Seesaw
“Where are you from?” That is a question I have received questions from students probably a million times during my three years at Concordia. Maybe that’s why I know exactly how this conversation will play out. As soon as I utter those conversation-changing words, “Oh, I’m actually from Norway,” there’s familiar shock on their faces and the same statement almost every single time: “Wow, are you serious? But you don’t have an accent!!” For the rest of the conversation I usually see a new different kind of focus in their eyes, and I know exactly what they are doing; they are trying to catch my Norwegian accent when I’m speaking.
I don’t blame anyone for reacting that way, it makes total sense. I’m a Norwegian with no discernible accent, and that does shock people. Some people react with disbelief, and I have to actually convince them that I was born and raised there. Others start asking, “Why don’t you have an accent,” “Why do you act American,” “How Norwegian are you,” or where I’m actually from. Then there’s that rare group that asks a totally different question: Where do you feel like you belong? The first time I received that question I had to really stop and think, because I guess I’d just never thought of it that way. This question is completely different from the original question, because it deals more with feelings of identity and belonging than nationality or ethnicity.
I have always felt that something was out of place with my identity when I lived in Norway. It was something like a pit in my stomach, or the fact that I never truly felt like I belonged to the community I was in. Like something was missing. When I started learning more advanced English there was something that clicked and I fell in love. You know how people fall in love with a person or a place? I fell in love with a language. That’s probably the reason why I became an English major too. I was finally able to express myself, and it opened up an entire new world with books, music, films, and a culture that helped me explore who I really was. When I was in Norway, I had an aching feeling that the words I knew so well in Norwegian weren’t sufficient to say what I wanted to say. My argumentative skills and ability to discuss and provide intelligent insights never saw the light of day until I started using English to express myself. Another reason I did not connect fully with my environment was because I surrounded myself with English books, movies, and music, which made me connect to English culture more than Norwegian.
I thrived in this new environment, and when college classes started, I was in heaven. There was something about this place that made me come out of my shell and become more outgoing than before. It was as if speaking English and being around this new culture made me fill the hole I used to have. By speaking English here in the United States I was able to use my argumentation skills and speak in a way that made me walk away from a conversation fulfilled and satisfied instead of irritated and confused. Everything just kind of fell into place and I found my second home here and new friends that made the transition even easier. For the first couple months I did not speak Norwegian at all, and only with my family when I Skyped them. If I started forgetting words, I never noticed. All that mattered to me was the life I had developed here, and the life at home was put in second place. A lot of international students experience this, because they are thrown into a new culture and a new life.
Early on I realized that very few people could pronounce and remember Ellen-Marie; therefore, I started introducing myself as Ellie. This name change, without me even
realizing, kick-started a new identity for me. Ellie was an even greater student than Ellen-Marie had been, and had a nearly perfect American accent. Since it became important for
me to pass as an American, Ellie was a more American name than Ellen-Marie. Unless I
told professors or friends, they would not know I was actually Norwegian until a couple months in, and a part of me enjoyed that. That is not to say I was not proud of being Norwegian, but simply that I enjoyed having another part of my identity that was different from what I was before. I strived everyday to perfect my accent, and drilled myself on words that were difficult for me to pronounce.
It wasn’t until the beginning of my senior year when I started realizing the major change
in my identity and personality. The summer between my junior and senior year had been fantastic, but it had also been one of the toughest summers of my life. I embarked on a summer-long internship at a publishing company in Gretna, Louisiana, and temporarily moved down to New Orleans. There I was able to fully embrace my American identity and use what I had learned at Concordia in that incredible opportunity. It became apparent
that my marketing writing skills were less developed than the Americans’ skills, but that
was something I managed to overcome. Through this summer I started to reflect a lot on myself and went through every single aspect of my identity. The next fall I was in an Irish Drama class that reflected on some of the same aspects that I had been struggling with.
It became important for me to attempt to decipher what had happened to my identity
without me knowing it.
In Irish Drama we explored plays such as Translations by Brian Friel, Juno and the Paycock by Sean O’Casey, and By the Bog of Cats by Marina Carr. Through these plays and other scholarly readings, we studied how identities change under oppression and rapid change through postcolonial theory. In Friel’s Translations, there was a character that in a way had two different parts of his identity, and he was struggling to decide to which one his loyalties lay. When studying this character, I started to think about how my identity crisis has been a little bit more separate since I have the identities of both Ellie and Ellen-Marie. After I shared this crisis in class, I started going over this idea in my head and I made some realizations.
I had never really noticed how American I had become over the last 2 ½ years. Perhaps in some ways I honestly had not thought or cared about it. My friends started commenting on moments and situations where they almost forgot I was Norwegian in my interest in hunting, football, and development of my accent. I didn’t really have words or definitions for what I realized had happened. When thinking about this, I started realizing that I had developed two different parts of myself, parts that switched around depending on their need. First off there was Ellen-Marie, the quiet Norwegian girl that decided to attend college in America. Then there was Ellie, the “American” that had no discernible accent who was thriving in college and growing up. Being Ellie all the time simply became easier; therefore, Ellen-Marie was put on the back-burner permanently. She only appeared extracted for conversations with friends from home and while talking to my family.
Fall semester of my senior year I started taking organ lessons, both to get a 1-credit class and to get a break from college classes. It was fine in the beginning, but an hour-long practice everyday started stressing me out. But I still enjoyed those breaks, so I decided to keep going. It wasn’t until later that I started realizing that it was the stress from other classes that kept me from truly enjoying it. Therefore I decided to walk into every practice and lesson as Ellen-Marie instead of Ellie. That way, it wasn’t the stressed college senior, but the Norwegian girl who has always loved music. After this, those practices became easier, because the stress would be left on the doorstep, and then regained when I was finished.
In some situations it becomes increasingly harder to find my way back to Ellen-Marie, though mostly because she only surfaces occasionally. In my mind there is no way I would completely lose this side of me, but there is the possibility that she would be more and more difficult to find if I would have stayed in the United States. However, I have made the decision of temporarily moving back to Norway for the summer in order to work before permanently relocating to somewhere in the United Kingdom. English has become too big a part of me to completely let it go. Therefore I decided that moving to the United Kingdom would give me the benefits of being in the EU at the same time as being in a country where I can speak English. I doubt that moving there will completely remove Ellen-Marie, mostly because I will be in Europe and closer to Norway where this part of me is needed.
When I went home for breaks, there was a difficulty in who I would be. Mostly, I would be Ellen-Marie, but the Ellie part of me would be pushing from the inside since it was much more familiar to be that, American person. Most of the time I would only be home for 10-12 days, which would not give myself time to fully set into the Ellen-Marie side of me. This past Christmas break I went home and attended a family reunion where I was required to speak Norwegian. Fairly quickly into the reunion I was slightly made fun of because of my accent. Apparently, my mother’s cousin thought it funny that I had an American accent when I spoke Norwegian. It was especially the “r” sounds that gave me away, and after being made aware of this I became really confused. Until this point I had no idea that my fluency in Norwegian had suffered because of Ellie taking over.
Sometimes Ellie and Ellen-Marie will interconnect, which makes me confused or overwhelmed. When this happens I try to separate them, because the two cultures I’m a part of kind of crash together and blend together. In both cultures I have an extensive network of people that support me. And because of globalization, Norway and the United States have many of the same movies, music, books, and TV shows. The main difference between the two is the temperature, general measurements, and most of all: the language. When I attempt to connect these two, I end up feeling drained and confused. Unless I am extremely focused, the language gets all mixed up and it is easier to zone out than to attempt communication when my brain refuses to work.
Living abroad but still having a strong tie to your home country and family makes it difficult, but there is a way to balance the two. It’s almost like a seesaw, all that matters is which side you put the most weight on. It’s different every day, and there is very little you can do to control it. In my case, the only thing that helps is practice. Practice makes perfect, and it takes a long time to get used to switching between the two personalities. Ellie and Ellen-Marie will forever be two parts of my identity, and with me living in the UK there is a chance that one will partly take over the other. However, the most important issue is to be aware of the two and attempt to control this seesaw of identities.