When I was in kindergarten, I was asked to draw a picture of myself in my dream profession. I drew myself as a horse. Someday, I told my amused parents, I would grow up and be a really great horse. The picture still hangs in our kitche, but over the years that idea changed. I wanted to be a superhero, a veterinarian, a famous ski racer and finally a teacher.
Growing up, I patiently explained to countless friends and friends' parents that my father worked in education and my mother worked in marketing. Somehow this piece of information seemed important for constructing an idea of who my family was and who I was. It was here that I was introduced to the idea that a person is defined by their job; by how they make a living. To me, my father was a hockey player, a loving dad, a terrible fisherman and an amazing Asian curry cook. To everyone else he was Mike, the writer.
When I was in high school, "The Question" that I heard most often was about my future college plans—where did I want to go to school and did I have any ideas about what I wanted to major in? In my first few years of college everyone I encountered—friends, family, family friends, strangers, bank tellers—wanted to know what major I had chosen. The speech became second nature; I could say it in my sleep.
"I'm majoring in English, with a double minor in Education and Italian. I'm not exactly sure what I want to do yet, but I'm going to Italy this summer to teach English and I'm really looking forward to it." Somehow these two sentences had come to define me. There were a whole lot of people who heard those 39 words and decided that they knew me, they knew exactly who Adele was and where her future was headed.
But the truth is that I didn't even know who Adele was. I had no idea where I would be in one year. I may have identified myself as a full-time university student and an aspiring teacher, but I had trouble grasping the idea that this was the best representation of me. Why didn't people ask my favourite food, or what my biggest fear was? Why did The Question label me as Adele, the ESL teacher and no more?
Growing up in the United States, from a young age I was infused with the concept that our job defines us; that everything we do in our lives is intended to make us successful in our profession. And I flew out of my home country fully planning to build and maintain my status as an English teacher. But away from the defining walls of my own culture I slowly began to find new priorities, and to make my decisions based on what I felt and needed in that moment, not for a pre-mapped and far away future.
In the past two months I have found myself working as a photographer for whitewater rafting trips, a van driver, a tour guide for bus groups of tourists and a freelance writer. I am an English teacher. But I am also a traveller, a girlfriend, a lover of mountains and rivers and an enthusiastic eater. . .and I will do whatever it takes to continue exploring these parts of myself. If jobs are the most important indicator of our identity, then I should be a lost and fragmented soul, drifting through these different methods of surviving. But instead I'm more sure of myself than I have ever been. I now know that a job is just one small part of the entire package; it is not the definition.
One year ago today, I identified as a full-time university student, an English major and an aspiring teacher. Two months later, my introduction speech changed. "Hello," I would begin, "my name is Adele and I'm a first-time ESL teacher living in Chile." But it didn't take too long for me to completely abandon the speech. Now I just wing it. Now, when people ask me what I do, I smile and shake my head. I don't know, I tell them, but I can tell you that I love teaching, I'm currently learning how to whitewater kayak and I live for travel. Maybe without an official profession title it will be difficult to come up with a good snap-judgement idea of who I am, but I'm still in the process of defining myself anyway.
I may not be the horse that I one day dreamed I would become, but I now know I'm much more than what can be captured in one "When I Grow Up" drawing.Add this article to your reading list