My name is Beth, and this is my story about finding my identity.
I was adopted from China and brought to America when I was seven months old, so most people would say I am Chinese American. But I didn’t always see myself that way. My loving parents made their best effort to educate me on Chinese culture so that I knew where I came from. I vividly remember my mom coming into my second grade class to celebrate Chinese New Year with my classmates by getting little envelopes with money in them and making paper lanterns. So even my friends understood that I was born somewhere else. As much as I enjoyed all the festivities, I still never felt like it was truly a part of who I was.
As I continued to mature, I don’t remember even trying to make sense of this disconnect. Throughout grade school, I didn’t know many other kids who were “like me”, as my school district had an extremely low diversity rate. And, as is typical of most teenagers, I wanted to fit in with the latest trends in fashion, hair, and music, which were mainly flaunted by my White American peers. I thought nothing of it. I watched my sister go off to college and start studying Chinese, and she even studied in China for a year and came back with all kinds of insight on what it meant to be a Chinese American in China. We had visited China as a family when I was 12, but I never got a strong desire to return. My sister’s stories made me wonder if I should be more curious, since we had similar stories and the same upbringing. Nevertheless, after a while, I let it go again.
My slap-in-the-face moment didn’t present itself until I was a senior in high school. One of my best friends at the time was Korean, and she invited me to her Korean church. I was excited to go, since at the church I had been attending, I was one of maybe five Asians, including my sister. That Sunday morning, I walked into church with my friend, and I shouldn’t have been surprised at the number of Asians in a Korean church, but I had never seen such a strong minority presence. My attention shifted quickly to the one White, red-headed boy standing in one of the first few rows of seats. As soon as I saw him, I turned to my friend and said, “Hey! I’m not the only White one here!” Big oops. She burst out laughing. It was at that moment that I realized I had no idea what race meant to me.
Fast forward to present day, and I am nearing the end of my college career. I decided to take a course titled “The Psychology of Power, Oppression, and Privilege”. We discussed the idea of racial identity, and more specifically, centrality of the identity. This is the idea that for some, race is an important part of how they see themselves. Even within a particular racial category, membership of that racial group can mean different things to different people. Those who consider race to be more essential to their own self-concept are more likely to be triggered by subtle microaggressions. I was not one of those people. But that’s okay because everyone’s experiences are different.
As I reflect upon the things I have learned through this class and through life experience, I think about how I do identify myself, if not first and foremost with race. If someone were to ask me in this very moment, I would probably say something along the lines of “I am female, a Christian, and a student.” And all of these things are true. Now it is also true that I am Asian American, cisgender, heterosexual, and non-disabled. Just because the latter are not included in my major identifying factors does not mean that they are not true. My experiences as a member of all of these categories listed above have made me who I am. I have just finally come to terms with what is most important to me when I consider my identity and how this drives my behaviors.
Growing up, I thought identity was a checklist for everyone and that people expected me to identify strongly with everything on that list. I have learned that this is not the case. And for anyone wrestling with self-concept, I would encourage you to think more about who you are and less about who people expect you to be. What it means to be you is not what it means to be anybody else. So be proud of who you are because you matter!
Thank you for reading 🙂
Image Credits: COFFEEANDMILK / IAMBADA / GETTY / NAJEEBAH AL-GHADBAN