#WhoIAm: I Don't Know, And That's Okay

I was on a phone interview, the other week, and I felt like I was doing pretty well — I’d memorized the most important keywords from the company's website, had practiced hypothetical answers in the shower and needed the money badly enough to sound extra passionate about the job — until the interviewer asked me: “So, who is Carissa?”

All the synapses in my brain fired at once, and all I could come up with was: “I don’t know.”

Scrambling to salvage the interview, I elaborated. I said, "I don’t know, but I’m in the process of figuring it out, and that’s what inspired me to apply for this job in the first place." I then told her the basic facts — where I’m from, how my academic and personal interests led me here, what skills I could bring to the position — and, miraculously, the interviewer seemed to like my answers. Even as I was talking, though, I felt like the labels listed on my resume and the labels I was regurgitating as an answer to this universal but dreaded interview question weren’t really describing me.

I got the job (no thanks to my mid-phonecall existential crisis). So, yay?

But the interview did leave me thinking a little more about the labels I use to describe myself. The first thing I say during class introductions, in the beginning of the semester, and the one thing that consistently appears on my social media bios, is “I’m South African.” I feel like being an Afrikaans-speaking South African is a big part of my identity; it’s the place where I was born, where I went to school and where I had many of my firsts in life. It’s also the place I left at 19 and haven’t returned to in four years. In the grand scheme of things, four years isn’t a long time. Yet, my life in South Africa feels more and more like a hazy dream as I continue to put down roots in the U.S. I’ve even lost some of my accent. I’m definitely not American, but I don’t feel completely South African anymore either, so who am I?

Another go-to label I love to use is “university student”. I love university, I love my major and I love academics. I’m comfortable with being a student, and it’s really the only thing I’ve been doing for most of my life. But I’m a senior, set to graduate at the end of the year. I’m totally burnt out, and I want to try not being a student for a change. As excited as I am for that though, losing that label feels scary too. I have no idea who I’ll be after I graduate, or what I want to do with my life.

This year was also the year I came out to myself, followed by my brothers and a few close friends. It was a long time coming, but finally acknowledging this new part of my identity was hard for me. I spent 20+ years thinking I was one thing, but suddenly, I didn’t know where I belonged. I already knew I couldn’t reveal this side of myself to my conservative-minded parents, but for a while, I also felt like I wasn’t allowed to take up a space in the LGBTQ+ community either. I didn’t — and still don’t — feel ready to declare my sexuality because I don’t feel like I fully fit under any one thing. Having to perform a different side of myself in front of my parents and not being able to put a name to something that’s quickly becoming a big part of my identity is… alienating, to say the least, and it, once again, begs the question: who am I?

The answer is "I don’t know." And I’m learning how to be okay with that. I’m figuring myself out, and, if I let it, I know this process of self-discovery can be just as exciting as it can be scary or lonely. Cliché as it sounds, I look forward to getting to know myself in the years to come.