Identity is something I think about a lot. It also appears a lot in my writing, especially lately, and it could be due to my phase in life, the experiences I’ve been having, or the recent events that have awoken my spirit.
I grew up in a country that, while for the most part nationally homogenous (citizens were from the country, not immigrants), was still multicultural. The Philippines is a country comprised of so many different cultures and dialects, depending on which region one belongs. I never had to define who I was outside of how I saw myself: I believed that the way I perceived myself was the same way others perceived me.
Then my family immigrated to the States, and that changed things. I was placed in a neighborhood where they weren’t a lot people who were like me. I had a different upbringing from my classmate. I couldn’t relate to many of the things that connected them: certain topics in pop culture, American slang, inside jokes. There were people who looked like me, but at once very different from me: they were not Filipino, or if they were, they were born in the States. And I felt that I was seen not for who I was as a person, but for the characterizations I was given and the boxes I was placed in. People saw me and placed me in the typical Asian American box: the one who took the hard classes, got good grades and went to prestigious schools. Yes, that all of those are true about me, but I am also so much more.
By the time I was in college, I was very aware that others perceived me first as a member of my race before they consider anything else about me. That prompted me to see them in the same racialized lens through which they saw me: you are made up of your racial stereotypes until you prove otherwise. This assessment of others is acutely inaccurate, and not seeing them as unique individuals denies us of seeing their complex identities, compositions of their being that cannot possibly be fully deciphered in a few class meetings. We went on to be civil with one another, we kept comments that involved race to ourselves, and if we do mention anything that involves race, these are shared through humor that have far too often led to awkward silences or end to conversations.
Many times in college and the years after, I found myself in situations where I’m the only person of color in the room. And I am reminded of this through the dismissive attitude people have toward me, which was illustrated in slight remarks that I am passive and non-participatory, which signaled insensitivity to my plight. I do not know if I’d rather have them notice me for my racial difference, or have them ignore this facet of my identity completely.
In Asian culture, there is this sense of community and often times, I’ve seen Asians give space to others who haven’t participated yet. Sometimes, people’s lack of participation does not mean they are indifferent or do not want to participate; it could be that culturally, they let others speak first so they can listen and offer their thoughts after. I realize that in a non-Asian environment, this does not happen. People always try to make themselves be seen. They pounce at the chance to say something. Whenever I’m with folks who grew up as part of the majority, whether it’s race-related or socio-economic related, they assume that the norms of the culture they grew up in is shared by all. I think the norm is to self-promote, to become the squeaky wheel who gets the grease. I do not feel like I’m invited to contribute nor given the space to voice my opinion. It must be that the way to win this game is to play offense. To assert your opinion at every chance you get. To fight for your voice. To define your own voice before others define that for you. To not stop talking even when there is nothing important to talk about. This is something I would understand deeply this year.
In certain circles, I am the loud one. I was the child who couldn’t stop talking, who was always told to turn down the volume of my voice but never does, or who was bouncing around the room talking to many different kinds of people. Yet in environments where I feel like there isn’t much support nor acceptance of who I am, I feel uncomfortable to speak. My suggestions or comments are often left unheard, or worse, dismissed. I feel like I don’t belong, out of place, or I don’t have the right. I learned this year that we must stop asking the question, “what am I doing here?” but focus on remind ourselves, “I’m supposed to be here.” This is a way to come into any conversation uninhibited and share the gift of ideas and participation– which ultimately benefits the group. Every time I’m in a group– whether meetings at work, in class, or a networking event– I am very much a part of that group and have the same right to express myself as others do.
It turns out, the feeling of discomfort is not some nebulous thing I imagine on my own, but it is evoked in me by the situation I’m in. So whenever I feel this unease about being conscious of my difference, I would think about what beneficial thing I can do with this knowledge of my difference. My difference that is perceived in a negative light by others (“she’s an outsider,” “different,” “not one of us”), is something that I can fully own and actually turn into a positive (“she offers a unique perspective,” “she can bring new knowledge that we don’t know yet”). This led me to remind myself to own my difference every time.
Do understand that this was not won overnight. Defining my difference goes is a continuous process, and it goes beyond racial consciousness. I can list all the ways I am different from others, even those who are members of my race. With that list, I would supplement it with a list of ways I am the same as others, including those from another race. Understanding the makeup of the group, the social structures in place, and your place in all of it is important because it helps you assess the situation in order for you to determine how to act effectively.
In graduate school, I realize I’m one of the very few Asians in my class. I’m not surprised by this, since when I moved to Chicago I was shocked my the size of the Asian American population here, even in the city. For an internationally recognized city, you’d think Chicago would have more representation of Asian Americans. Apparently, that is not the case. In my graduate class, my peers were quite welcoming, and my initial discomfort at the beginning faded and I felt I was very much a member of the group. However, I think sometimes they are unsure of how to characterize me– I am an Asian in the Midwest where they are so few of us, and my classmates may have had limited exposure to people of my race, but I am also a foreigner, someone who grew up in a different country, and who has spent a significant amount of her formative years in another American city.
I went to Asia this past summer, and to my surprise, I felt that in China I was seen more as an American, as part of the class that I went there with. I am indeed, American, but I expected that in Asia I would be seen more as Asian. One thing was clear: I was not seen as being from there. I was not seen by local Asians as one of them. Even my Asian experience in Asia was striated; I was incredibly aware that I was Southeast Asian in East Asia. When I was in Singapore, I felt that others treated me as one of them. In fact, a bakery owner asked me which neighborhood in Singapore I was from, and was surprised when I told her I’m from the States. In Manila, I was told I looked “imported,” which signified that they saw me as someone who was not from there, demonstrating that I was not seen as a local, but a foreigner. Someone from a different land. I was seen as a stranger in the country, the city, I was born in.
If there aren’t many places where people think I belong in, then where do I stand? What do I call home? Who makes that call? If people don’t know which group I belong to when they interact with me, then who owns me? If people from my very place of origin don’t even see me as belonging in their place with them, then to which group do I belong?
I am part of a group of people who share my experience of living in a variety of cultures across countries and cities. I am a Third Culture Kid. If nothing else, I am part of a group that recognizes that identity must be asserted. You reserve the right to shape your own image of yourself, and preempt others from doing it for you. It is a constant battle. And an invitation to participate in conversations with people different from you will never be given, it must be fought for with the courage gained from defining, fully owning, and asserting your own identity.