Identity. Such a huge topic, and one that I have been giving a lot of thought to lately. What components make up my identity? Are they all equally important? Who decides how I should identify? How do I navigate changes to my identity? When do I show it? What parts are obvious and what parts are operating in the background? Why am I comfortable only sharing certain parts of my identity?
It’s hard to consider only one part of my identity. There are many lines that I choose to identify on, they are amplified (or muted) in different situations, and they often intersect. For the past 3 or 4 years, and especially during the pandemic, I have been thinking a lot about being Chinese – what it means to me, what I think it means to others, and why this is important for me to examine.
I almost talked myself out of writing this blog post. I have so much fear about exploring this part of my identity. I am afraid of sharing how I’m feeling when I barely understand it myself. I’m scared that what I choose to share might inadvertently unsettle people closest to me and lead them to overthink or walk on eggshells around me. And my biggest fear is the fear of being perceived as performative in this moment. Of course, I feel outraged, sad, tired, scared, and inspired in response to recent news stories or social media posts. But this also feels like noise and I don’t want to get lost in the reactivity of it all or feel overwhelmed by the thought of figuring out what to do. I want to understand and unpack what this all means to me.
I’ve never spoken about this before, so why start now? This self-examination has been simmering in my mind for a few years and I finally feel ready to go deeper with it. My catalysts for exploring my Asian identity have been 1) an increase in Asian representation in arts and entertainment and on social media, and 2) an increase in anti-Asian sentiment and violence in Vancouver and North America. And, after the tragic mass shooting that happened in Atlanta last week, it’s like my brain has reached a point-of-no-return in accumulating Asian experiences and stories. I am now at a point where I can no longer choose to unsee what is in front of me or deny this part of myself.
I have a new appreciation and understanding of the phrase, “I’m processing.” A few friends reached out over this past week to check in. I am grateful and appreciative for their thoughtfulness and I know that it comes from a genuine place. But it did get me thinking about the advice many people have been given to check in with their Asian friends and colleagues and the pressure that some of us might be feeling to answer that question in a meaningful way. I’m speaking for myself, but I don’t think I’m not alone in saying that this question is extra stressful because 1) I have never spoken of these things before, and 2) I feel a deep internalized obligation to respond. I’m not saying don’t check in; just know that the true answer is likely more complicated than the response you will get back.
My response to the check-ins was to say, “I’m processing.” But was I really processing? I was feeling something for sure, but I’m not sure that I can say that I was processing. And then I realized that saying I’m processing is a catch-all phrase for a myriad of possible responses. It’s a polite and effective way of shutting down a conversation. It’s a way of saying thanks for asking but I don’t yet understand what I’m feeling and thinking, I don’t feel like talking about it, mind your own business, I don’t have the energy to answer that question, or I’m not sure what I can say that you will understand so I’m not going to bother.
When I said, I’m processing, it was another one of my auto-pilot phrases. It was a reflexive response used to buy time to gather my thoughts. But I was feeling upset, so I decided to take the time to process and understand. This wasn’t processing so that I could answer the check-in question for you. This was processing to understand and answer the question for myself. And I did it in a way most comfortable for me. I wrote about it.
Tears are information. I cried during the opening scene of Crazy Rich Asians (which I saw on opening day). I cried when the director (Bong Joon-Ho) for the movie, Parasite, gave his best picture speech at the Oscars. I cried during Sandra Oh’s speech when she won a Golden Globe award. I have cried multiple times listening to Lainey Lui talk about her Chinese family on The Social. I cried watching news stories over the past year about elderly Asian people being attacked. I cried hearing the news of the Atlanta mass shooting.
When I say that I cried, it was me “small c” crying. It was a welling up of emotion that led to tears. A quiet signal to myself to ask, what are your tears telling you? On the surface, I understand why the tragic examples led to tears. But my tears in reaction to the celebratory examples were an unexpected reaction and they signalled a subconscious pride that I feel when I see East Asian representation.
It’s amazing what tears can uncover. What was way below the surface was my repeated reaction to seeing and experiencing East Asian representation – good, bad, intentional, and accidental. These events and my tears brought my attention to a deep-seated and unexamined part of me. The signals have always been there, but until recently, I was not willing or ready to notice them.
I’m not sure how to embrace my Chinese identity. Even though I am visibly and ethnically Chinese, I am not sure what it means to be Chinese. Being Chinese has not been a go-to part of my identity. I’d like to say that it is buried deep, and I can dig it up and put it back on. But the truth is, I’m not well acquainted with it. It feels like a long-lost relative that I’ve just been introduced to.
This part of my identity is invisible to me because I’ve let it be that way. I’ve internalized fitting in over belonging, I’ve let microaggressions bury themselves deep inside me, I’ve deliberately focused on the parts of my identity that I thought would be most important to others, and I haven’t taken the time to understand my family history or understand why my family doesn’t have knowledge of our family history. I have been slowly erasing this part of my identity my entire life.
It is hard to tease apart when I’m fitting in (i.e., intentionally hiding part of myself) and when I’m being adaptable (an important and necessary skill unless you live in a bubble). When am I intentionally self-editing and compromising my values and when am I being flexible and adaptable to the situation I find myself in? I don’t have a clear answer (yet), but even the realization that this is something I should learn to distinguish is an important start.
I have a lot to unlearn. There are many reasons that I have consciously and unconsciously erased this part of my identity. I am a 3rd generation Chinese Canadian who grew up in the 70’s and 80’s. During that time, my prime directive was to “fit in”. No one told me that I had to fit it, yet it was implied at every turn. I also fell into a stereotypical Asian achiever role. The result…. I fit in super well. A-plus for me!
I’ve never talked to my family about this. It wasn’t our way. It still isn’t our way. We are a family that keeps the peace, accepts what life throws at us, pulls up our bootstraps, and gets on with life. No fuss. No muss.
Part of getting an A-plus in fitting means that I feel shy and unsure of how to embrace my Chinese identity. I often feel like an imposter in my own ethnicity. I don’t speak Chinese, I can only cook Chinese food by referencing a cookbook, and the extent of my participation in lunar new year is thoroughly cleaning my place before the new year.
But are these the only ways that I can lean into this part of my identity? What else might I do to remember to see things through a Chinese lens, support my family and community, and express my Chinese background?
I know that I have a lot of inner work to do and more importantly, I want to do that inner work. I am inspired and uplifted by Asian family members, friends, colleagues, and public figures who share their stories openly and unapologetically. Every time I read or hear a story, it increases my understanding and empathy for who they are and who I am. And it also gives me permission and a desire to want to do the same.
This is all part of my journey to get comfortable being seen. When I wrote about this last week, I had a paragraph in that post about my ethnic identity, but I took it out. I was still scared to examine that part of me. And yet, here I am now. What a difference a week makes!
At the end of the day, I can’t expect others to see me if I am not willing to see myself. And I won’t be able to influence or change outside circumstances until I start to understand my own circumstances. It is scary to start this journey. And, of course, now that I’ve started, I am berating myself for not starting sooner (note to self: in this instance, please stop with the A-plus overachiever mindset).
Do you have any unexamined parts of your identity? What could be different if you chose to examine them now?