What's your first answer to that question--did you immediately think of your profession? Your relationships with others? Your ethnicity or religion? Were you even able to define yourself?
While studying for a Spanish midterm earlier this week, I found "Who are you?" (or, in reality, "¿Quién eres?") on a list of questions that I'm responsible for knowing how to answer. The list had more than a hundred entries, each one getting progressively more difficult. And "Who are you?" was the first question, the easiest one. Supposedly.
I scrawled a brief answer that I hoped was what my teacher was looking for: una estudiante (a student), un jóven (a young person), una escritora (a writer). At the time, I was just relieved that the rest of the questions had more obvious answers, so I kept working on the homework because I didn't want to spiral away on a philosophical tangent and turn a twenty-minute assignment into a two-hour-long ordeal. But now it's been a few days since I read that question and it's still nudging at the sides of my brain.
Is the answer to "Who are you?" so simple that my Spanish teacher can expect me to be able to communicate it in a language I've known (and I use the word "known" loosely) for a year and a half? I don't even have the vocabulary to ask if you could please pass the salt. Why is "Who are you?" considered easier to answer than "What do you like to do during the summer?" Why is self-definition, in general, considered easy?
I'm not quite sure about that yet, so I think I'll discuss what makes it difficult: there is no set self-definition. In contrast to when you're asked, "What are you like?", in which case you have an array of adjectives at your disposal, there's no correct type of response to "Who are you?" Clearly, you're supposed to answer in some sort of noun form--but there isn't a category of nouns that consists of words that sum up the cores of people's existences, the way there is a category of adjectives that consists of words that describe people's personalities. There are also no clichéd answers to "Who are you?" the way there are to "What are you like?", no point to start and then develop variations on in order to discover your more personal response.
But if you believe that self-definition is easy, then maybe that's why--there are no boundaries or stereotypes to limit the way you see yourself. You can think of yourself as a compilation of traits, or as a scrapbook of past experiences, or as an ever-adapting being who becomes different on a fundamental level depending on environment. And all those self-definitions can be considered right, because ultimately, you are how you think you are. For me, though, the trouble isn't that I don't consider my self-definition correct; the trouble is that I can't fathom my essence into a word or phrase to begin with.
In fact, how can anyone? Words that are used to describe personality always seem flat and dimensionless when I try to sum up who I am. I can say that I enjoy discussing politics or that I want to major in English when I go to college, but how does that tell you about the core of my being? You truly get to know me by becoming familiar with my mannerisms and speech patterns, by noticing my habits and verbal quirks. If I told you that I learned my expressions of disbelief from the movie 1776, for example, you would get a better sense of how I act than if I described myself with a generic trait (i.e. "funny"). But even in this case, you don't immediately learn the Fundamentals of Rowana--you learn one of my characteristics, albeit one that may lead you to make assumptions about other aspects of my personality.
Throughout this, though, I keep coming back to one thought: there's no way I could say any of this in Spanish. In my simple, halting words, the best I could tell you in answer to "Quién eres?" is "Soy complicada." I'm complicated. To my Spanish teacher, I probably am a student. To my friends, I am the sit-down comic. To my parents, I am the mature but anxiety-prone daughter. And to myself? I'm layered. I'm the two-year-old who wanted a membership to the Museum of Natural History for her birthday, the eight-year-old who regularly drew cartoons of Harry Potter, the twelve-year-old who decided that she was going to actually finish the book she's writing this time, and the fourteen-year-old who spent afternoons at her computer until she really did. I'm also a shadow of whatever anecdotes I will be able to tell in a few months or years. Toss in some vaguely poetic adjectival phrases, sprinkle on a couple of British insults, and stir with a ladle of satire. And, maybe, that's the answer to "Who am I?"