I work thus I am

For the longest time, I dreaded starting to work. To my young, ‘hip’ student self, sitting behind a desk all day seemed to be dreadful. Now that I’ve done that for a couple of years, it’s turned out to not be too bad. But something that is very clear, are the generational differences. I’ve different ideas on the work I want to do, with whom, and in which way than my younger and older peers.

Work’s life, am I right?

Fist bumping around the workplace, that’s what we millennials do all the time

Based on: How to lose your mind and build a treehouse

Who am I? Exploring the millennial employee
Work’s part of my identity, and that’s fine

To me, ‘real life’ more or less was always about having a job.

In high school I was quite inept as to what was happening in the world and around me. In university, I tried to catch up all that fun I missed during high school and did some further soul-searching. I still remember the realization hitting me like a brick: in a few months I will graduate and need to do something for money. What can I do?

After living the ‘real life’ for a couple of years now, I am finally realizing how unreal my idea of the working life has been. Developments such as the open office, personal marketing and ‘fun’ workplaces seemed far-away, but the ultimate ideal when I was still studying. In reality, it’s been more difficult to really find my own place in the mix of startups and established institutions I’ve worked at.

Who am I? Exploring the millennial employee

Let’s take a look at the larger picture first, because I found this research report by KPMG about the millennial workforce. Especially the points about female millennials really spoke to me:

1. They’re more hesitant when it comes to job applications
2. They’re less confident and optimistic
3. They’re more sociable
4. They’re less keen on technology
5. They’re more likely to suffer from imposter syndrome
6. They’re less likely to actively pursue a promotion opportunity

Basically, it’s a hard yes on everything except point 5 and 4 since I’m (belatedly) learning and developing an interest in programming now. Point 2, 3 and 6 stick out the most to me. To be honest, confidence and optimism are things I’ve never had that much of, and it’s something I still point to as something to improve, personally and professionally.

Point 3 and 6 point to things that are at once making us different from previous generations and more connected to each other. When looking at companies, I’ve often looked at ‘people’ pages and felt I either really wanted to become part of the family or I wouldn’t fit at all. And even though I’ve worked in startup environments where ‘hustling’ was important, I didn’t feel that comfortable with the attitude and still needed something different from my employer.

Looking to the Medium article, I recognize a lot of the anxiety and questions the writer has. His highlighted quote is: “It’s easy to say someone died. It’s much harder to say, “I think I’m having a nervous breakdown.”” Although this doesn’t apply to me specifically, the mindset is recognizable. I’m very focused on my work mentality, but feel things should also happen spontaneously and above all, make me happy. I know I’m needy, but I want others to acknowledge it, while at the same time fulfilling them.

Work’s part of my identity, and that’s fine

Even though I tend to say I am more than my work, having no work at this moment feels as if I am incomplete. This frightens me as well, but I’ve learned to accept that it’s only natural the thing I’ll be doing at least 40 hours a week will be that meaningful to me. And that’s again leading me to search for a workplace that’s as cool as I dream it to be.

It’s been a paradoxical and bumpy road. I worked in startup environments, which were cool because we did something wholly new, but also very stressful. I cried a lot. I worked abroad, leading the expat life while working at an international organization. It was cool to attain a certain elite status and feel like I was actually doing long-term meaningful work instead of just making money. But it also made me complacent and lose a certain drive. I cried a lot. I had the opportunity to work in fast-paced, international business environments with smaller teams and directly trying to start something from zero. But I felt without the proper structure I was just building dream castles.

In the end, I’m now again looking to larger companies, more stability and mentorship. If I may need to forego beanbags or a Nintendo switch in the office, then I’ll take it. Mr. Pavelski said in an interview:

“The reason I wrote that essay in the first place was about catharsis, and I wanted to walk through my thought process and figure out what was going on with me.”

I’m not sure what’s going on with me yet either, but I guess I’ll enjoy the discovering it for now.

Identity crises

Jubilee recently came out with a video showing mixed-race teenagers giving their opinion on what it’s like to be mixed race. It showed the bias other people often have towards multi-racial people, and the struggles (mainly related to identity) they face. I (Sarah) am mixed-race, so I kind of relate to these issues. Li-Anne has a different background, but faced a lot of the same issues growing up.

Recently I’ve heard people say that racial identity is mainly internal, and that it depends on whether or not you take other people’s opinions to heart. To me that’s only partially true. To me, lack of identity is an internal struggle, perpetuated by the outside world.

Based on: Jubilee: Do All Multiracial People Think The Same?


The mixed-race identity problem
Floating identity

I found this quote in an article related to mixed race on Psychology Today:

“We tend to think of race in terms of skin color and typical physical characteristics. But at a more fundamental level, racial differences are really about differences in culture.”  

It seems that the experiences of mixed-race children are vastly different, and personal identification is more-so a personal matter/feeling than a racial one. But across the board it seems that the vast majority of mixed-race children struggle with some form of identity problem. From experience, three major issues come to mind that arise with growing up mixed race: (1) not fitting in, (2) not being accepted, and (3) not being able to identify yourself. I mostly had to deal with the latter. 

I’m half Egyptian, half Dutch, and I grew up in the Netherlands; a primarily ‘white’ country. My parents and I used to go to Egypt every year when I was young, and I vividly remember my “other hometown” :  the call to prayer, the noise, the dust, the Macarona Bechamel, the music… 

My parents divorced when I was just a kid, and I’ve struggled with identity most of my life. There’s a level of acceptance, now being 30 years old, but acceptance merely helps to deal with things in a more rational manner; it doesn’t magically take problems away. 

The mixed-race identity problem

I initially wondered if there’s a correlation between (interracial) divorces and identity issues: if couples had a healthy and stable marriage, and there was a perfect cultural blend instilled in the child, would that mean children are less ‘aware’ or more accepting of their identity? I realised that, yes, being a child of divorced parents, among living within a culture that is only partly yours, could be part of the larger identity problem that some people face (that’s not directly related only to being mixed race), but the perceived difference is probably the biggest indicator for feeling like you don’t belong: how others see you and how that makes you feel.

In primary school I was often asked if I was adopted, having a mother with blonde hair and blue eyes. Then when 9/11 hit, kids started making fun of me looking Middle-Eastern (I come from a small, small town). I also used to have a very Arabic name, which was the butt of the joke very often, not only in school, but even within my very Dutch family. Kids commented on my larger nose, my “hairy” arms. Adults commented on my thick hair, my “exotic” look. As a joke, people called me Turkish or Moroccan, or they yelled some Arabic slurs. I’ve even been called a terrorist – a harmless joke.

Floating identity

I was never bothered by the teasing, but there’s one clear message in all of it: I was different. It’s funny because It’s not like I wasn’t excluded from anything. I was included, but not fully accepted. I never felt part of anything. I never felt Dutch enough to partake in the overall narrative of “being Dutch,” But I identified far less with being Egyptian, so a part of me just kept floating all over the place.

In the Jubilee video on mixed-race teenagers, the half-Iranian kid hit the nail right on the head. He said: “These past couple of years I’ve been trying to reconnect with that part, because I shoved it down for so long, and it’s been really heartbreaking(…). I too have tried very hard to become Dutch in the past. I changed my name, I rejected everything related to Arabic/Egyptian culture (I started learning Arabic only in 2018), I have no Arab friends, I haven’t been to Egypt for over 15 years… I don’t even know my family.

I tried really hard to belong (to one thing) and not belong (to the other thing) at the same time. And that is heartbreaking. And stupid. I adapted based on how others saw me, and then pushed aside what I didn’t want. But what I didn’t want was just as much a part of me.

“Mixed race identity, for me, comes down to how I see and identify myself and whether I choose to accept or reject the box other people will try to put me in.”  - some very accurate comment on YouTube

So now, the next step is not only to accept, but to fully embrace. And I feel like that message doesn’t merely apply to being bi-racial.


Put me in any box but not the wrong one
Include me too please

Looking like a certain nationality, but growing up in a different country, probably was a big factor in me not having a very strong racial identity.

To be honest, I always joke about the aspect of mixed race people being hot. I think it has to do with the fact that I find it would be a bit easier to stand out in society if you are good-looking and different, than when you are just clearly foreign-looking. However, I am able to escape the standard stereotype for Asian and Chinese people as well, since I have a fully Dutch name and no ‘restaurant background.’ I also grew up in a very white part of the country, which makes me stand out more, but also blend in better at the same time, since people assume that everyone, no matter what they look like, is Dutch.

So I don’t really belong in any common box; I don’t identify with Chinese-Dutch people nor do I identify as any of those 2 nationalities separately. For me, my racial identity feels very fluid.

Put me in any box but not the wrong one

Because of this situation, and the reason that Dutch culture probably puts less emphasis on racial identity than American culture, I found it interesting to hear what the mixed-race teens in the Jubilee video had to say about racial slurs and what ethnicity you pass as vs. your race. I don’t use racial slurs at all and I also don’t think too much about my racial identity. Therefore, I haven’t felt like I needed to hide part of me, but I have also been aware that I stood out and could be misunderstood for ‘something else’. In other words, I am always more focused on making sure I am not put in the ‘wrong’ box than making myself belong to a specific group.

I think this is also because the Netherlands still really prides itself on its multicultural society and being a real melting pot. Even being further away from the bigger, international cities, I still lived close to the German and Belgian borders. Such an environment made me less focused on something like racial identity. Even though I could pass as Chinese, people in my area knew I was ‘not the standard Chinese-Dutch girl’, because my parents didn’t have a restaurant and I spoke Dutch without an accent.

Embracing a fluid identity and living abroad as well, really made me more aware of my behavior in this regard. And also to find ways to use it to my advantage. Especially living in China, I became used to ‘taking on’ different identities. For western people, I would simple be a fellow foreigner. Saying I was adopted, was often enough to make them put me in a more ‘correct’ box as an international person instead of a second-generation Chinese person.

With Chinese people on the other hand, I often took full advantage of them thinking I was a local or a Chinese person coming from abroad. Speaking the language fluently, albeit with an accent, blending in with the crowd, conversing with locals without being explicitly seen as foreign was very comfortable. It made it possible for me to actually feel what it’s like to belong to a specific group, without really belonging.

Include me too please

Wanting to be part of a group, is a universal feeling. That’s why it saddens me to see many people becoming more entrenched and focused on, in my eyes, superficial characteristics that makes them feel others don’t belong. I think racism, especially in recent years, unfortunately always finds its way to the surface, whether in a national or international context.

At the same time, I really feel blessed with a multicultural identity that allows me to be more aware of these issues and provides me with more tools to move through societies as respectfully as possible.