Identity – More Than The Sum Of My Parts

A fluid identity

Thanks to all of you for commenting, sharing your experiences and being so warm and responsive in recent days.

The Tooth Fairy shenanigans helped dispel my sense of disconnection caused by last weekend’s anniversary (trust the children to pierce my funk) and the discovery our furnace wasn’t working coinciding with the start of real winter temperatures gave me other things to think about.

Luckily Monday morning dawned thoughtful and entertaining with this great TED talk about Identity and how we perceive it, a subject that’s long fascinated me. You might think identity is something that comes from within, but copying and assumption have a huge influence in how we see ourselves.

As an expat and someone with BPD, identity is something of an enigma. Both conditions significantly influence my self-perception.

For the expat, the support networks cemented through shared behavior/views (copying) and comfortable familiarity (assumptions of both ourselves and our peers) are stripped away when we move somewhere else, leaving only our core character elements to rely on. Over time we integrate features of our new surroundings into our personality (copying) and are shaped by the assumptions we both make and encounter in regard to others.

BPD offers a revolving mirror reflecting my most recent exposures back at me until their potency fades or is replaced by something else.

For me, there’s no clear answer to the question “What makes me Me?” Is it nationality? Not if a number of nations occupy a space in your heart. Is it culture? Depends on what you were exposed to where. Language, dress, perceived relationships to gender, elders, other nationalities – all play their part. Religion, belief, spirituality – are they set in stone or a continuous journey?

Thus my identity has become fluid; a molten mass of collected experience whose various elements are drawn, in turn, to the surface by an external echo. The music of Turlough O’Carolan calls up a fierce pride in a now distant piece of emerald earth, while a dry rejoinder delivered with a dash of sarcasm in a British accent warms my heart with the joy of a known opponent. A shalwar qamiz gives voice to a femininity in me western clothes fail to, and the wide open spaces and warm pragmatic inhabitants of the Great White North have made me more comfortable in my own skin than I’ve been for a long time.

Together these converge to make my identity more than the sum of its parts.


Mid-way through the week a piece I’d written about veiling was published on the popular British parenting site Veiling, and the niqab, have dominated UK headlines in the last month so Mumsnet ran a piece by a pro-veiling blogger followed by my article on why I don’t cover.

The comments are interesting in their reflection of how many people approach a subject with a closed mind, determined to dismiss/debunk the material, to the point where they’ll argue points that were never raised, or twist the words to mean something different. Perhaps they think they appear knowledgeable and Paxman-like, but they just remind me of the kid at school who didn’t read the question properly.

When I approached Islam I was completely open-minded. I had no knowledge or experience of Muslims and no preconceived ideas or prejudices, I didn’t even have an intention to convert. I’m still open to changing my opinion on veiling if someone can show me the evidence for it in the Qur’an, but the same open-mindedness was absent among some commenters.

Perhaps a more fluid identity is not without its benefits.


Author’s note, June 2014: Since the time of writing I’ve been re-diagnosed with Aspergers and Bipolar II. I no longer meet the criteria for BPD and given the existing cases of Aspergers and bipolar in my direct family I have to admit this re-diagnosis seems a more accurate explanation for my symptoms. Oh, the beauty of hindsight… 


By Aisha Ashraf

An autistic Irish immigrant in a cross-cultural marriage, Aisha Ashraf is the archetypal outlander, writing to root herself through place and perspective. Published in The Rumpus, The Maine Review, River Teeth, HuffPost and elsewhere, her work explores the legacy of trauma, the nature of being an outsider and the narrow confines of belonging. She currently lives in Canada.


  1. Your posts always make me THINK – and this is another great one. What is exactly does make me, ME? I like to think that it’s less about cultures and locations and more about the people – I am the sum of parts gifted to me by those who have left their impressions on my heart. And yes, I know that sounds sappy, but it’s true – I often break into a smile thinking of people and moments that are miles and years away, but still as current to my identity as when I was sitting right there with them.

    1. You’re right Rachel, it is true, and it stretches to include not just people but also the impressions of films, books, brief moments in time, things overheard, things never spoken – identity is built, brick by brick, layer upon layer, by connections. Without the knowledge of all we’re not, how would we know who we were?

  2. Beautifully written, Aisha. Doug Ota does a great workshop on identity in which he uses the petals of a flower to show parts of who we are, showing them, necessarily with sets, subsets and overlaps. I love how Rachel thinks she is the sum of the footprints people have left on her heart. I guess I too am a sum of thing, but like you, I think it is fluid. Arriving in KL in Sept I feel stripped away, naked again, a blank canvas. But to my cyber friends I remain the same. To me, I guess I can be both schizophrenic and a chameleon. Thought provoking. Thanks

  3. I just read your article on Mumsnet – really interesting, well written and thought provoking! Reading the comments there were a lot of people with close minds, but don’t get discouraged I noticed that there we very many with open minds as well! I really enjoy your writing Aisha!

    1. Thankyou 🙂 With veiling being such a fiery subject you can never be sure what to expect, but it was heartening to see so many commenters were well informed about the subject, although I thought the non-muslims displayed a higher level of open-mindedness in this instance. It would be nice to see more moderate muslims commenting. Thanks for your encouragement.

  4. Wonderfully thought-provoking. When I first moved abroad, I lived in Ireland and, somewhat mysteriously, lost a lot of my accent after a few years, to the point where English people tell me they can’t hear a trace of American. At first I used to take this as a compliment, but more and more lately, I feel a sense of loss. It sounds small, but I find myself taking on sounds and inflections that I know sound like people that are from the same place I am, I think in order to recover a part of me. Strange.

    On the matter of veiling, I only realised over the summer after a somewhat heated debate with my father that St. Paul says more about veiling than the Quran does!

    1. With regard to the loss of identity or sense of self, it’s the small – insignificant to others – things that carry the most weight: a curling, yellowed photo or a snatch of half-remembered melody. The things we never considered back then now ignite a guilt for a love unlauded. Makem & Clancy, the smell of freshly baked soda bread, splinters from a warped wooden slide – at one time they were constants, now their mere memory is like a rare celestial event.
      And veiling? Well that’s my whole point – everyone else says more about veiling than the Qur’an does.
      Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Pete.

  5. Fascinating and thought-provoking. It reminded me of something I’d forgotten – during some counselling many years ago, my therapist said many British people define themselves by their job or career – I know I did back then. That question was an opener in all conversations, “And what do you do?” (After commenting about the weather, of course!)

    Since taking on the accompanying partner role and meeting others in my expat situation, this question is no longer asked – it’s not the ‘done thing’. It is not relevant and usually can’t be answered in the acceptable British way, ie with a job title.

    Thankfully I no longer have an identity issue as I am old enough and life-experienced enough to be comfortable in my own skin. That sounds unbearably smug but isn’t intended to! Blame insomnia…

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