“So, you’re Jenniviv?”
“Yes,” I responded, unsure if my passport had a different name on it. The airline employee took a third look at my passport and then at me. I’ve heard stories, watched videos and been asked about people’s travel experiences. With all the diverse answers I got, I didn’t know what to expect as I embarked on my journey to the United States.
Unsure of how the process worked at the airport, I timidly responded to several questions the airline employees posed, which felt more like an interrogation, especially at 3 a.m.
“... And when’s your birthday?”
“uhh, 29th March, Ma’am.”
“Oh, that’s today, happy birthday.”
“Uh, thank you?”
I responded with the “thank you” being more of a question because it felt like she was sorry that I was born on that day, as if she had a bad experience on a March 29.
All of this felt so sudden; I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye to my friends, I didn’t know what to expect, and more importantly, I didn’t know how to act in a different world. My stomach ached and all I could think about is food — I wasn’t hungry, but as a food enthusiast, I wouldn’t deny food if I was offered any.
A few seconds passed and the security personnel says, “Ok, you’re all set. So you’re gonna be an international student.” — I’ve never really heard of that term before she said it.
“You know, because you’re not a US citizen but you still want to go to school there, that makes you an international student.”
Still unsure of the meaning of those words, I grabbed my passport and headed on to catch the plane. It was my first time on a plane and I couldn’t stop thinking about the words, “international student.” I felt these two words carried baggage that immediately said something about who you were. Either good or bad, the words “international student” meant you didn’t belong. At that moment, I was imposed an identity. It felt like I was trying to solve a puzzle, and someone else was setting the boundaries for me.
Rather than an opportunity to present myself as I’d like, my identity as an international student overrode my other identities. Most interactions that I’ve experienced at Syracuse University are in the style of, “Oh, you’re from Ghana? But you speak perfect English.” Am I not supposed to? Maybe I shouldn't have led with the statement “I’m an international student” because that draws a stigma in their minds — being international equates not speaking English, let alone a person from Africa. Imagine that.
The concept of identity was not clear to me when I was growing up in Ghana. I did not have to define who I was maybe because almost everyone was the same. We were all from Ghana. As such, we didn't need to define ourselves any further. The only justification I could think of for the need to define my identity now was the U.S. being a hub of diverse cultures. Even so, I should be able to create and define my own identity, without being given one.
To be completely honest, I don’t know how I would define my identity if I was asked. At times, I rely on the words “international student,” so I don’t go through the trouble of defining myself. If I can play the role of an international student, then maybe the need to claim an identity will slip through the cracks, among many things, I thought. And I don't have to explain what it's like living in Ghana: waking up at 4 a.m. every day, wearing a uniform to school, not using calculators at school, or going through 50 interesting facts about Ghana because I'm just foreign.
I like to define my identity as a Rubik's cube. It's made up of six unique colors. Each color represents a part of my identity, one color representing my identity as a black woman and another as a Ghanaian. That just makes up two colors on a six-sided Rubik's cube, hence allowing me to explore — in a new country — how identities can be woven through experiences.
In the US, I proudly hold my identity as a black woman because it is formed by the history of African Americans living in the U.S. My identity as a black woman is inspired by the trail set before me by other empowering black women who teach us to set our own boundaries. As a Ghanian, I carry the values taught by my father: integrity, authenticity and humility. These values govern every thought and action I take. And as I reclaim my identity as a Ghanaian, these values are reinforced.
Maybe the airline employee calling me an international student didn’t faze me because there was space on my colorful, multifaceted Rubik's cube for more identities.
After arriving in the U.S., however, I realized that I felt trapped in the boundaries set for me by someone else. I was automatically an international student before a black woman and a Ghanaian.
Being in the airport, the words “international student” simply felt like an identifier. If someone is wearing a dress, they are a girl; maybe a black woman with an accent is an international student. With my experience in the U.S., the words “international student” send a signal to people as a result of systematic structure and influence. A signal to treat someone a certain way, but also a signal to justify why one acts a certain way, making them feel limited.
A signal that made my classmate feel the need to say, “Shut up, Jenniviv. You’re an international student,” when talking about politics as a way of silencing my opinions, as if I’m not qualified to talk about politics because I’m foreign.
So as I stared at the airline employee questioning my identity, I tried to solve my literal Rubik's cube for comfort. It was given to me by my father, whom I was leaving back in Ghana. The Rubik's cube that once represented home, now symbolizes an ever-shifting pattern. And with every step, there’s a twist or turn made on the Rubik's cube that brings me closer to solving my identity.
Jenniviv Bansah was a freshman studying communication and rhetorical studies at Syracuse University at the time this article was written. She now studies hotel administration at Cornell University.