Photo credit: Brandon Hartwig, freelance photographer
Four months into my internship and I have come to realize that identity is a much more fluid concept than I had originally thought. Identity struggles are also not a factor unique to regions or countries in conflict, where people are at times forced to rediscover themselves, but they are just as common among those who could otherwise pinpoint exactly who they are.
One day, walking home from work I was joined by my colleague and she, aware that I know several languages, asked me what my personality is like when I speak this or that language. She was particularly interested in knowing what language I joke around in the most. I had never been asked such a question so I was a little taken back. It took me a moment to process what she was asking (and then a few additional minutes of thinking out loud) before I could give her an answer; I think I was more surprised at the conclusion I came to than she was. I recognized that people acted differently based on who they are surrounded by, but I had never before considered that people assume a different persona based on the language they speak.
This brief encounter really got me thinking and I was reminded of all the times my Ukrainian friends would ask me what language I think in, attempting to establish whether I am more “American” or “Slavic”. I was also reminded of the times I had carefully considered in which language (Russian vs. Ukrainian vs. English) to speak in to waiters, Uber drivers, or others…in some instances being labelled a foreigner was more desirable. Other times, knowing that language in Ukraine is a particularly sensitive topic (i.e. Russian vs. Ukrainian), I would first listen to determine if an individual was Russian or Ukrainian-speaking and then strategically choose my approach. And then there were days when I felt comfortable enough to communicate any which way and would not give my language choice a second thought. Some would say that the ability to freely use either Russian or Ukrainian is a win for social cohesion and reconciliation. Others would consider it to be a sign of disrespect.
In the Ukrainian context, there is also a divide in what it means to be “Ukrainian”, not just with respect to the language one chooses to use, but how that choice contributes to one’s affiliations. Because of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, there is a disconnect between the ways in which western and eastern Ukrainians perceive one another. Those in eastern Ukraine are often not considered to be “Ukrainian”, since a good number of eastern Ukrainians are either pro-Russian or wish to see the non-government-controlled areas of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts recognized as separate countries. Clearly, more factors are at play when it comes to identity in a conflict-immersed country, and yes, maybe in countries experiencing conflict, identity issues are starker, but those living in developed, peaceful states are not exempt from similar struggles.
Until the brief conversation with my colleague, I hadn’t given much thought to my personal identity – I assumed I had it figured out and that once established, it was permanent. Now, after several weeks of reflection, I see that back home in Canada I would often identify myself as Belarussian because my parents come from Belarus (even though I was born in Canada), while in Ukraine I adamantly self-identify as Canadian. I have come to realize that identity can be context and setting-specific and that one’s identity can change many times throughout their lifetime. Now that I am more conscious of all of this, I am left to wonder if I will still continue to self-identify as Belarussian when I return home…