In and Out of Context: The Freedom of Fitting Into Boxes

Carrie Watkins 1
Me with my public bicycle outside the office

I’ve entered into an outrageous phase of self-expression and growth-mindset this year, and I chose to work abroad this summer in large part to add more fuel to that fire. In my experience, traveling allows me to put myself out of my usual contexts to see what remains, creating fertile ground for self-discovery.

The prompt to write about my identity has put an interesting spin on this for me. Exploring my identity is not the same as self-discovery. Self-discovery is personal, quirky, unique. To me, identities are boxes, categories societies use to eclipse the individual in order to give order and sense to the otherwise nearly infinite. Moving alone to a new country with an appetite for adventure, I’ve been finding my identity a hard thing to want to keep on my mind.

On my mind or not, it turns out, the identities remain. They continuously shape, frame, and color my lived experience. Some thoughts and reflections so far:

I carry with me the inherited joys, traumas, comforts, wisdoms, and laws of being Jewish.

 I stepped across the threshold, kissing the mezuzah on the doorpost, and went from being a stranger on a Dutch street to a part of the deeply familiar. The Rabbi spoke to me in Hebrew, our shared language. The old men lifted up their voices to the same tunes I use at home in a cracked and dissonant unity that makes it all the more beautiful. And then the Holocaust, the omnipresent burden of the European Jew. Many synagogues here are far larger than the remaining communities can fill, the cavernous spaces still echoing the unspeakable.

Carrie Watkins 2
Outside the grand and recently rebuilt synagogue in Munich

 I drag along the pride and shame of being an American.

Strangers love to tell me their opinions on Trump, even when I try to communicate that I don’t need to hear it. I hold down the impulse to apologize on behalf of forces so much larger than the airplane luggage limit allowed me to shlep across the Atlantic.

I wield the privileges and weights of every other social identity I represent.

Last week, I asked a female coworker her thoughts on our male-dominated workplace. She shared that many women in Holland are not “ambitious” about their careers. Quality of life is too good here, she said. Many women start working 3 days a week when they have children, while the fathers stay at 5. The combined salaries is plenty to raise a family, and gives the mothers time to be with their children. Working only 3 days a week, she said, is not enough to build a competitive career, so women are consistently the minority around boardroom tables. Workplaces would benefit from more gender balance, she believed, but the cultural will is not present. Part of my role this summer involves making recommendations for organizational growth. How do I navigate these gender dynamics and my opinions on them in a culture not my own?

These identity boxes in many ways are contexts that I cannot escape, despite my occasional attempts. Yet I am finding the outer limits of each to be fertile ground for creating connections and learning about myself and the world. In this summer of exploring my limits, these edges are adventure, self-expression, and home.

Carrie Watkins Bio PhotoCarrie Watkins is pursuing her Master’s degree in City Planning. This summer, she is cross-pollinating ideas between two mediation organizations in the Netherlands, mapping their processes and facilitating the sharing of best practices.

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