A long-winded rant.
When I was little, my favorite Disney sitcom was Hannah Montana. Huddled in the dark basement with a bowl of popcorn, my best friend and I would watch episode after episode. We knew the theme song by heart and would sing along during the opening.
“You get the best of both worlds
Chill it out, take it slow
Then you rock out the show.
You get the best of both worlds
Mix it all together and you know that it’s the best of both worlds.”
Maybe part of the reason why I liked this show so much is because I identified with Miley – small-town girl by day, international pop-star by night. And although my experience was definitely less glamorous and dramatic, I knew what it was like to be torn between two different worlds.
As someone who has adapted to both Chinese and American culture, yet feels like she doesn’t fully belong to either, I’ve constantly had to reconcile differing cultures and confront issues of identity.
My preoccupation on identity isn’t unique. As college students, we inevitably focus on the self. After all, we’ve essentially been given four years to figure out who we are, what we want out of life, before being shoved into the real world. Through classes, internships, the people we associate with, we spend copiousness amounts of time and energy to find ourselves and create our identities.
But how much of one’s identity really depends on the self? While our identities are defined by who we are and what we do, without other people, there is no one to interpret us.
When I was at the Beijing International airport this past winter break, boarding a flight back to LA for school, the officer at security check told me to open my bag in her broken English. I cringed slightly.
Why had this woman spoken to me in English?
The most obvious answer was that I was holding a navy blue passport instead of a red one.
Still, I couldn’t help but wonder if it was something else about me. Could it be my more western style of dress? Some manner I had of carrying myself that was distinctly foreign or un-Chinese? After all, there were plenty of Chinese who held foreign passports, weren’t there?
How do others perceive me? People back home look in envy when I recount my experiences living abroad and studying in the United States, but do they also see me as different, other? Is it possible for an experienced on-looker to simply tell, through judging someone by their manners and appearance, whether someone westernized or not?
My time at an international school in Beijing allowed me to form a fragile balance between my identity as a Chinese and Canadian. My classmates were largely Asian Americans who were expats in China. Surrounded by those with similar experiences to myself, I grew comfortable with my niche identity. My friends and I back home would switch carelessly between Chinese and English in conversations, using whatever language best expressed our thoughts at the moment.
When I moved to the U.S. for college, despite living here for the first time, I didn’t have trouble adjusting to the culture. It was a culture that I was familiar with. I had grown up with it constantly in the background. It wasn’t new.
However, I am surrounded by Asian Americans who had grown up in the U.S., well-meaning Americans who knew little about Chinese culture, and Chinese international students. There is no one exactly like me.
It’s a different environment entirely that I had to adjust to.
Chinese? American? Canadian? Does it really matter?
As human beings, we long for a sense of belonging. Our insecure adolescent selves crave that sense of security, and one way to achieve it is through attaching ourselves to a certain group of like-minded people with similar interests, music-taste, religion, and yes, race.
Although you won’t learn a lot, there’s something comforting about being surrounded by people who look like you and think like you. People who are predictable and familiar to you.
At Pomona, I’ve been exposed to people from so many different walks of life. International students from foreign countries who have dismantled my misguided preconceptions. Students from underprivileged backgrounds, who didn’t have half the advantages I had growing up, yet still got into an elite college with a full scholarship. Undocumented students working towards a better life for their families. I’ve grown more open-minded. I’ve learned that how we think and see the world is heavily influenced by the way we were brought up. No one is inherently superior to each other.
Although such diversity can be disconcerting at times, I’ve realized that I don’t need to look towards culture for a sense of belonging, or feel pressure to conform to a certain identity. My ethnicity does not define who I am or where I am headed.
We are all simply products of our environments, the sum of our experiences. Identity is fluid. It is constantly changing to reflect our surroundings.
We grow so fixated on how others view us sometimes. But it’s also important not to get hung up on how view ourselves. Who am I today is the result of the opportunities and experiences I’ve had up to now. But I will continue building and shaping my identity into who I want to become.