Identity Crisis

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May 31, 2021

Sunlight spills through green foliage onto gray cobblestones. The intense heat of midafternoon smothers Shanghai in a sluggish haze, but below ground in the subway stations, the air grows cooler and life speeds up. Here in China, I am just another face in a sea of people, but this illusion is quickly shattered as soon as I open my mouth to speak. One woman compliments my parents for raising such talented English speakers. “You should hear their Chinese,” my dad responds dryly. Within a minute, I have lost the comfort of conformity. I am an American. Inversely, in my predominately-white Midwestern suburb, I stick out like a sore thumb. Even though my English is indiscernible from anyone else’s and I was born in the same local hospital as many of my classmates, I’m still an outlier, a component of my district’s small Asian population. As an American-born Chinese, I’ll never truly fit into either of these two worlds.

I live a life of dualities, a life of insecurity and self-hatred, a life of perpetual identity crises. When I look in the mirror, the girl I see isn’t the girl I want to be. Sometimes, my lack of self confidence shocks my parents. They ask why I think so lowly of myself. Was I bullied as a kid? Has anyone ever said anything that made me think like that? The answer to their questions used to be a resounding “No!”, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized I was wrong.

Fourth grade, lunchtime. “You actually eat this?” My classmates poke inquisitively at my lychee jelly cup. “What even is it?” One picks off a tiny piece and flicks it towards Logan. The translucent jelly trembles on the table in front of him, and his face changes to one of repulsion and nausea. “I actually think I’m going to throw up,” he cries out. Sixth grade, every day on the bus. The neighborhood boys greet me with wide grins, eyes pulled back to mimic mine. Their new favorite joke is imitating broken English. “Isobel Ree, what you eat fo din-nah? Fry lice?” Seventh grade, my best friends. “Shut up, you Asian.” “You’re such an Asian.” Eighth grade, the boys that I gave homework answers to. “Your face is like a pancake.” Jokes that increased in graphicness. Jokes that weren’t really jokes. Yet I swallowed my discomfort through it all and pretended to not notice people that I considered friends laugh along freely.

A part of me has always believed that if I was prettier, I wouldn’t have been harassed so often. But what constitutes pretty? Throughout middle school, I desperately coveted a ski-slope nose and freckles; I wanted wavy blonde hair and blue eyes and long lashes. My side profile was one of my greatest insecurities. Comparison eroded my self-esteem because there were miles of distance between my actual appearance and my ideal standards of beauty. In the perfect realities I liked to imagine before I fell asleep, I was always white. When my own “beauty” became unattainable, I began to fixate on my only other measure of self-value: academics.

There are many overachiever stereotypes about Asians that apply to me: I play piano, I play cello, I debate, and so on. In middle school, embarrassment would flood my body when I had to turn down plans because I had lessons or another extracurricular. The thought of being shamed further for being such a “tryhard” made me nervous, so I avoided telling people that I was actually busy everyday in favor of saying that my parents were just insanely strict, which wasn’t much of a better stereotype to feed into. A distorted sense of self-preservation made me ashamed to be myself. Truthfully, I liked my rigorous schedule of school and afterschool activities, but I refused to admit it. When high school began, my mindset flipped: if I was going to be stereotyped no matter what, I might as well enjoy myself and work even harder. Today, I don’t feel pressured to hide who I am. Doing well in school is not a source of shame, and I’m glad I’ve finally realized it.

This path to accepting my Asian-American identity has not been linear. Even now, I am still in the process of unlearning self-hatred. People say there are two sides to every story, and in this case, there are two sides to every life. I don’t completely fit into Chinese society in the same way I don’t completely fit into American society. I fight to break free from stereotypes yet simultaneously work to fulfill them. Each day brings another conscious battle against internalized racism; insecurity permeates deep from years of normalized microaggressions. However, I’ve discovered the valuable lesson that individuality should be celebrated, not hidden. I don’t need to choose between my Asian side and my American side because the absence of one is the absence of me. I am a lot of things, but above all, I’m proud of my identity as an Asian-American.

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One thought on “Identity Crisis”
  1. It’s such a joy to ride through your journey to find your own identity. Thank you for being truthful to the readers and yourself.

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