Full Potential 


By Janelle Jajou

The first time I broke a mirror, I was 16.

It involved no fumbling or dramatics; the stand simply could not bear the weight of the mirror anymore, and so it collapsed.
In the moment, we chalk these things up to fault or coincidence. It was an accident. But in hindsight, it’s easier to see how things - how people - become worn down by circumstance and burden. How susceptible they become to breaking.
As a teenager, I wasn’t thinking anything so profound. Rather, I was coming to terms with my curse. My friends gave me a wide berth and cited superstitions. “That’s seven years of bad luck,” one helpfully pointed out.
But my bad luck began long before that.

Mirrors are one of the simplest tools of understanding - what you see is what you get.

We depend on them to show us who we are. We establish a relationship with our reflection, a two-dimensional sense of self.

As a child, I was blissfully unaware of what my reflection represented. Mirrors were a game of hide-and-seek with myself. It was as simple and wondrous as, “There I am!”

Growing older as the daughter of Iraqi refugees in the States occluded this simple image. My self-awareness plunged from a solid “There I am,” to the more nebulous “Who am I?” The dissonance between my home life and community with my school and American culture at large was enough to create a crack in this mirror - a fissure that ran straight down the middle, with my reflection distorted on either side.

As a child, I had a simple understanding of this break. On one side was the girl who spoke Assyrian at home, went to church, and did what she was told. The other side showed a girl who valued fun with friends, was allowed to dress and eat the same, normal things as the other kids in school, and boasted an impressive English vocabulary, rather than two. The former was reinforced by my family, but the latter side was preferred. Each reflected normalcy and acceptance in their respective culture, but together, were incomprehensible. However, no matter how much I wanted to be normal by either standard, neither side could render the other inconsequential.

They were both part of me, and I had to reckon with them.

As I grew older, the relationship with my reflection extended outside of myself. I was no longer alone in my reflection, but was accompanied by others in comparison. Naturally, we seek to recognize ourselves in other people - whether it be our family, peers, or somewhere in the parade of images we see around us in the media. We gain a better understanding of ourselves through our relation to the world around us. To some degree, we expect differences based on background, phenotype, and class. I received encouragement - and unsolicited scrutiny - to think about and compare my appearance in stricter, more insidious terms.

“Who was I?” was answered by comparison and contrast from others. More cracks ran through my mirror. I became too much to contain in one frame. Too fat, too hairy, too short, too crooked, too revealing. My features became attached to taunts and comments meant to instill shame, like manly, ugly, poor. Shame facilitated change. But I could not contort myself to any of these standards. I didn’t look exactly like any of the women in my family, and I didn’t look exactly like any of the women outside of it. What do you do when you only find bits and pieces of yourself in others?

Other people tried to make sense of these cracks and distort me to images they understood. Instead of Assyrian-American, I got “Arab,” “Middle Eastern,” “Jewish,” “Muslim,” and a slew of other miscellaneous labels that I didn’t see myself in. I felt like a web of intricate cracks ran through my skin, and in each crevice, something else burrowed in and widened the chasm.

If only it was so easy to mold ourselves to distinct, separate parts, or to allow ourselves to be framed by simplistic or binary understandings.

To compulsively seek to sort people by static images created and perpetuated by colonial ideas, and to ignore the broader picture, is more dangerous than seeking a flawless, polished surface.

Some days, I look and admire the iridescent labyrinth of fractures. On others, I want to shatter the mirror and render it obsolete. I am not meant to be trapped. It is being cognizant of this maddening binary that allows me to look beyond the finite boundaries of a mirror.