Asian American

Identity, what is it good for?

Some hats we wear are more ill-fitting than others. [Prayao, Thailand, 2013]
Some hats we wear are more ill-fitting than others. [Prayao, Thailand, 2013]
According to Marcel Proust, via Alain de Botton, “We don’t really learn anything properly until there is a problem, until we are in pain, until something has failed to go as we hoped. Though we can, of course, use our minds without being in pain, Proust suggests, we become properly inquisitive only when distressed. We suffer, therefore we think and we do so because thinking helps us to place pain in context.”

I wager you could make the same argument with identity, that is, you don’t really know who you are until your identity has been challenged.  It’s easy for a mother, a wife, a doctor, a writer to declare who they are, but once your motherhood or wifeliness has been taken away, what are you left with? Who are you? It’s been my experience  that when how you see yourself is questioned, put under fire, you burn red black hot or forge something new, maybe both, in that order.

Growing up Asian American wasn’t really a test, a trial or a task until I left the diversity of Hawaii at 12 years old for a landscape that was barren of people like me. Something as simple as not being accepted by our small 6th grade class, hearing the teacher tell the other girls to play with me and suddenly waking up to the idea of looking different, was sad. But I made friends with the other girl outcast, an overweight, very developed nerd with a hairy upper lip who stood by the walls of our school reading romance books.

I didn’t learn that Hawaii was this amazing special place until I was living in the Mainland or the Continental US, and I experienced the reactions, “OH, wow!”

“Can you take me back with you? Put me in your suitcase!”

“Did you have recess on the beach?”

My favorite though was when folks would ask me, “Sooo, what brought you to the States?” then gently reminding them that Hawaii is a state, and watching their faces when they realized their faux pas.

Being American wasn’t anything to ponder until I left the US for a life overseas. Truly. Americans don’t really know what the rest of the world thinks of them, nor do they care, I realize. Being asked about my country though is kind of interesting! Flying away from those stars and stripes gave me such a huge telescope on my culture, my perceptions of right and wrong, what I take for granted and how the rest of the world lives, that I’m grateful for the experience, the tension, the challenge that being an expat brings.

When I was a Waldorf teacher, I deeply identified with the role of a teacher. I was 30 years old and felt like I had found my career after what seemed like a wasted 20s of figuring-it-out. I enjoyed the reactions from bank tellers to butchers when I told them I taught 1st and 2nd graders.

“God bless you.”

“Ah, a teacher. What a thankless task, thank you for teaching our children.”

“We appreciate what you do.”

I’d glow from the gratitude and the burn out, but when I was fired, I felt identification-less.  Hell, I wrote a whole book about it, that’s how down-on-my-knees I felt about the whole experience.

But it was through the process of writing that I began to see how much identity is fickle, finite and fragile. And even though I eventually returned to teaching, 7 years later, I’m very careful not to identify too strongly with the role.

Hello, there. [Siem Reap, Cambodia, 2015]
Hello, there. [Siem Reap, Cambodia, 2015]
And even though I’m ethnically Asian, I don’t identify myself as strictly Asian American – or American Asian. I used to identify with being Chinese because of the way that I look. I don’t know if you are aware of this, I certainly wasn’t until my mom pointed this out, but I’m very Chinese-looking. Apparently I’m some sort of poster child for Central China.

But then people would have the audacity to mistake who I was, from “Konichiwa” to “What Native American tribe are you from?” and that was just in Colorado! When I told my brother what was happening, he said, “You can’t expect to know what ethnicity people are, British, Dutch, German, so don’t expect them to know what you are.”

When I moved abroad to Thailand, Ecuador and now Cambodia, my sense of what I looked like, my identity became such a whirlpool of confections that I learned just how sage Eminem’s lyrics, “I am whatever you say I am” are. I became comfortable with people believing I was a Thai native who spoke really good English, Japanese (the way I dress), Chinese, Korean, American, a banana (yellow on the outside and white on the inside), Cambodian, Ecuadorian Chinese and Hawaiian.

Does it really matter if people get it wrong? It’s hilarious when Chinese tourists come up to me in the grocery store and ask me for help, and my white bf replies back in Chinese, “She’s not Chinese.”

“You really should learn Chinese. Think of all the tourists you could help.”

This coming from the guy who thinks it’s great fun to say, “Expensive.” “Delicious,” “Don’t cut the cue” and other phrases in Chinese to Chinese tourists as we walk by. It’s ironic, really, how much Chinese tourists embrace me, meanwhile it’s my lao-wai bf who’s learned their language, lived in their country and taught their children. That’s some external versus internal differences for you.

But now social media has created a new way for us to perfect and shape how we see ourselves and how we project ourselves.  I find it fascinating that we can create who we are on an electronic and global level and it’s a real as the device you are using to read this.

Sports teams are another big way many people identify themselves. Anyone who has watched a stadium full of frenzied fans can attest to the power sports have, from “we” won to “we” lost and the highs and lows that physically manifest as a result of however a team or two played that day. And they say we no longer live in tribes…bah.

They also say ‘you are what you eat?’ but what about what you buy? Our identity also feels caught up in the brand names we use, too. Stores like Target know what we buy and what we like and cater coupons in the mail just for us. They’ve tapped into our habits and social media and the Internet does the same things with “suggestions” and advertisements.

So are we none of these or all of these? What is at the root of you? I remember a friend asked me, the quintessential metaphysical question, “Who are you?” and told me that I couldn’t use labels. I couldn’t say a daughter, a sister, a friend. That was 20 years ago and I can’t say that I’ve found a good answer.

I do think it changes though. Your identity. I know I’m me, but me has changed.

Recently, my sister-in-law decided to submit her and her son’s DNA to DNA ancestry dot com and by doing so revealed what my brother and I are. We knew we were Chinese and Thai and my grandmother told us that we were also a little bit Russian and that was confirmed. But the surprise was finding out that we’re 10% Polynesian and a smidge Middle Eastern as well.

May Day, Mililani Waena Elementary
I’m so ethnic, yo. [May Day at Mililani Waena Elementary, Oahu, circa 1985]
I wish DNA testing could be made available for everyone so that everyone would know on a scientific level that we are all mixed.

Because at the end of the work day, we all want the same things, a nice safe home, a fulfilling job, good schools for our kids, healthy food in our bellies, etc. But if those needs aren’t being met, if they’re being taken away, if we’re fighting for some basic rights, people, all people are going to lash out. Identification suddenly becomes important and feels very necessary in labeling the haves and have nots, or in the case of WWII, who you are, becomes the target of ethnic genocide.

So, who am I and who are you, I would imagine become closely linked, intertwined and the labels we once thought were so important, peel off to reveal a common language we all understand and a false division that time will hopefully forgive.

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42 thoughts on “Identity, what is it good for?

  1. Once again, I find your writing inspirational and of course fun to read. And I agree with the philosophy.

    If only we could shed our supernatural misunderstandings and subscribe to science in all our philosophical endeavors, including DNA identity discoveries, maybe we could stop killing each other in the name of who we are as defined by those supernatural beliefs. And then as humans maybe we would understand that as you so eloquently describe our needs and wants, our identities, that we are as similar to every human on this planet as we are to our biological brothers and sisters.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, JP! That means a lot coming from you. Yes, I’d be curious to hear what the racial climate is like during your holiday visit back home. I feel like everyone has gone mad between buying guns and pointing fingers at the “enemy”. It’s a modern day witch-hunt that I hope will end soon.

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  2. This DNA test sounds very very interesting and now I am trying to figure out if its worth spending 89 Dollars on it :p
    I never really thought about identity, never cared too much about it. Thinking about it I can’t just see what a real identity is when you take away certain things such as “Father” “Brother”, etc..

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is pricey. I think some DNA testing companies offer different benefits like knowing more about your family’s health history, too, not just genetic makeup. So, that might be worth considering…

      Ah, yes, well have fun without the lables and enjoying some metaphysical play time 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Really need to think about it as I am very interested in such things. I did already much family research in the past so I would love to know what genetically mix I’ve got 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Loved reading this, Lani! I never really knew how much your lens changed while you were in the US and then once you were abroad—there are so many ways environment shapes how you view yourself.

    I read somewhere that some countries’ cultures don’t emphasize the “nuclear family” as heavily as we do in the U.S. That as long as they had someone–a family–adopted children never go through the “searching for your biological family” thing. Well, this kind of got off-topic, but also about identity I guess? Hahah

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, adopted families and extended/non-traditional families do certainly count in the game of identitification. Great point. I think identity is definitely about fitting in and feeling a sense of belonging.

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  4. Such a great write on identity, Lani. Love it. I chuckled when you say you look Chinese. You do – and I think it’s the black hair (it looks black to me). Me on other hand, I am Chinese but people never really tend to think of it that way. Most of the time, I get asked if I’m Korean. But, just the other day at work I had someone come up to the front counter, saw me and asked if I speak Chinese right off bat.

    Agree with you that identity is fluid. It changes over time, depending on where we’ve been. For a long time I resisted calling myself Asian Australia, embarrassed of being associated with the term Australian because I felt like I didn’t fit in. I still don’t fit in these days, but then again, we’re all individuals and you can’t really do much about that 😀 Btw, love the new pink theme 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your an “outsider” as an AA and that’s what makes you a good creative/writer/photographer. On the one hand, folks think it’s edgy and interesting to be on the outside looking in, but for those of us who have spent our time on the sidelines, it’s actually not that glamorous. But, I wouldn’t trade places…nope.

      Korean, eh? I could see that 😛

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Recess on the beach, ha. That would be cool (not for the teacher that has to keep guard, though).

    In China, having a white face means people assume you are American or Russian. When I tell them I’m Spanish, sometimes they seem to think we dress like a matador and dance flamenco all the time! And they can’t believe I am not interested in soccer, haha.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I did a DNA test for my rescue dog. It was actually super helpful, because it explained some of his behavior (he’s got a lot of terrier in him), and rather surprising, too.

    But DNA tests for humans? It would be cool, yes, but I am not sure that would help unite us. Ultimately, you believe that humanity is our greatest bond, or you believe something else is stronger (nationality, race, religion, or premiere soccer club loyalty). It’s like the Americans who justify not helping refugees by saying, “We should help our veterans first!”

    Though they generally do neither. Or at least vote for representatives who will do neither.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was a strange feeling to discover my DNA makeup. I started thinking about which side of the family the Polynesian and the Middle Eastern could have come from, etc. And it just made me start to think a little differently about who I think I am and how I was raised to believe. There’s something magical, if I may use that word, in knowing that you share a common thread among other people you didn’t think you had.

      Even if I know that we are all homo sapien sapiens, learning about the specifics gave it more validity, if that makes sense. Well, that’s how I felt.

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      1. Well, that’s cool.I never thought of it that way. Thanks for explaining and sharing. I hope more people do a DNA test and get their eyes opened like yours! (I kind of want one now.)

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I cannot like this post enough. It is insightful and made me think. Amazing.
    It has been interesting living in Thailand and seeing the way that the tables have turned for me, being a “white” (Ewwww, I hate that term really) or caucasian person here. I am constantly asked where I am from. I stick out. Whereas back in northern California I did everything in my power to be different. Now I would like just to be accepted. Feels a bit like I am writing about teenage angst, although at this point I guess it would be considered peri-menopausal angst haha. Oh my goodness, I went off on a tangent again. Anyways, I love your writing and your honesty. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Jenny 🙂

      You bring up a good point, this idea of wanting to be accepted and “blend in” abroad versus wanting stand out (in a good way) when living at home! I understand. Ideally we probably want both when we feel like it, if we could push an on and off button that would be nice!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. A great article, Lani. You gave us lots to think about.

    Nationality has never been a big thing with me, but I understand what you mean about identifying with your role. I was a teacher before my children were born, and I expected to be a teacher for the rest of my life. But when we moved to a place that didn’t hire foreign teachers, I lost that part of my identity. It was a big blow.

    My husband liked to think he was from everywhere, which was good because his job involved working all over Asia. He was proud to say that Thais thought he was Thai; Koreans thought he was Korean; and Filipinos thought he was Filipino. Only once did he have trouble with being mislabeled. It was when we visited his home town, Xiamen, China, and he heard people speaking his dialect referring to him as Japanese. He was incensed. Man, did he give them an earful.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My friend Matt, is like your husband. He is half Filipino and half Caucasian, and had a tendency to look like where ever he was visiting or living and when they saw him with his African American wife, he was mistaken for black, too. I suppose there is something to be said in seeing what we want to see 🙂

      I imagine lots of people identify very much with their occupations and when they lose their jobs they experience their own identity crisis. It’s a rather big deal, I think. Retirement is probably a more “subtle” or common way this can happen.

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  9. Sometimes, look can be so deceiving.

    The Japanese can’t tell me apart. They think I’m one of them apart for my mannerisms.

    Recently, I went to Antalya on a day trip. It was a two hours journey on the bus. The return journey was three hours long. We don’t have trains and trams here.

    Antalya attracts a lot of foreigners due to it’s weather and lifestyle. On my way to the bus station, I came across a group of young Turkish adults. They called me Japanese but I didn’t respond. Then, they called me a mother F-Word repeatedly.

    My friend, Mr P who is married to a Turk told me that a group of Koreans tourists were harassed by the locals couple of years ago. The locals mistaken them for Chinese from China; they were not happy with the way the Uigers have been treated by the Chinese Government.

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    1. How horrible, as if everyday visitors or tourists have anything to do with politics. Doesnt make me want to go to Turkey.

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      1. Last week, my American colleague went to Ismir, a 6 hours journey on a bus. Then, he went to Ephesus, one of the best Roman ruins in Turkey. A Turk offered him a private guided tour to the Virgin Mary’s house, the house where Mary last lived at an inflated price. When my colleague queried at the price, he was told that being an American, he was rich and had deep pockets. My colleague was incensed and swore at the Turk.

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      2. Many SE Asians treat foreigners the same way, like walking dollar signs. It’s frustrating. On top of having to pay much more for entries into national parks or zoos – these days I feel like plenty of SE Asians are doing just fine financially – there needs to be a bit of rethinking of what dual prices really mean and who it benefits. Expats find these things especially frustrating.

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  10. The topic of identity is such an interesting one. It’s interesting to see how others interpret it and how strongly some like to have an identity as a mother, expat, baker, whatever! One of my friends always used to blow steam at me when I claimed I was a Brit/English rather than Indian, despite the colour of my skin, seeing as I was born and bred in the UK!

    Whenever I’m in Portugal, locals think I’m a local. When people ask about where I’m from and say England, they question me further. Ask about my parents, who are from East Africa. Then I get confused for being of African heritage! Which again is not quite the case, as my parents are of Indian heritage. Cue much confusion!

    Right now, I think I identify myself as a Brit, but that’s just because I’m living in Bahrain at the moment. In a country that’s so heavily populated by expats, it’s almost the default identifier for people – where they’re from.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I understand. If I say I’m American, many folks give me that unsatisfied look and ask about my parents. Ha, ha!

      So, I’ve gotten pretty good at explaining my story both in English and in Thai. I imagine you have gotten your parents story down, too, by now!

      Very good point though, about expats being identified pretty much by their nationality. I definitely see myself doing that. It’s convenient!

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  11. A thought-provoking essay, Lani. Indeed until I moved abroad, I didn’t have to answer a slight variant of the who are you question. I’m referring to the question: where are you from. We like to place people in categories, don’t we?

    I laughed at this: then people would have the audacity to mistake who I was, from “Konichiwa” to “What Native American tribe are you from?” 🙂 Oh dear. And I like your BFs sense of humour 🙂

    The older I get, the more relaxed I am about these things. You’re on to something here: Because at the end of the work day, we all want the same things …

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Right. I think if everyone had their basic rights/needs fulfilled and were content then there would be no wars and conflict. Happy people don’t do crazy things and go to war, you know?

      And I agree, I think there is something to be said in getting older and wiser 😉 You start to figure out what’s really important and what’s just in the way…cheers!

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Amusing about people’s reactions on Hawai’i and then you being the chameleon taking on other identities elsewhere.

    Being in Hawai’i felt a little like being in Vancouver BC..because of the high proportion of locals with Asian ancestry.

    I become aware of my own “position” in my identity, most often when I’m with family, with certain friends when sharing stories of growing up, comfort level, etc. At work, I don’t think too much about it when I do my work. But when it comes to outreach to general public, that’s when I notice some huge disconnects for non-English speakers and who is in power.

    I live in a city where it’s either long time Albertans (they are getting less) or migrants (from other parts of Canada or other countries) who come to live here…because of a job/make money. That skews the attitudes of addressing social problems.

    I do identify myself first as Canadian, then of Chinese ancestry. My blog reflects a very overtly Canadian thrust..and I didn’t realize it until I started to blog.

    It would be expensive to get a DNA test?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There are so many facets to identity and how we define ourselves, such as our roles within family and coworkers, as you astuely pointed out. I find myself endlessly thinking about the topic. Or being reminded of it.

      In any case, I can imagine the tension that Albertans must feel right now as I think it reflects a lot of communities. New faces, new ideas and old ideas and old familar friends – it’s a hard mix to get right and a lot of this comes from how we feel (threatened, relaxed, etc)

      And yes, blogging is one of the big ways we learn to identify ourselves – you read my mind!

      DNA tests are pricey. I was lucky that my sister-in-law got it for her and her son, and I benefited from the results.

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  13. Does it really matter if people get it wrong? It’s hilarious when Chinese tourists come up to me in the grocery store and ask me for help, and my white b/f replies back in Chinese, “She’s not Chinese.”

    “You really should learn Chinese. Think of all the tourists you could help.”

    That made me LOL.

    Also a hilariously amazing point about how people identify themselves with sports teams.

    I also say, if someone needs to tell me their identity, it’s not theirs. i.e. “Im a cycler, I’m a yogi, I’m a huge browns fan’ let your actions speak for your passions not a comment on your identity!

    This was brilliant!.

    xo
    Krista

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Krista! I’m glad you liked it. And thanks for stopping by and commenting, too.

      Now, I’m off to see your site. 😀

      Like

  14. I’m starting to realize that identity isn’t as important as we think it is. I too struggled with my identity and I think I will at least for a while. But I have come with the term that I am a multicultural Asian or American. And you know what? I’m happy with it! 😀 At least for the time being.

    Liked by 1 person

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