Identity

Abby Johnson

This piece is a reflection on identity, adolescence, and how my perceptions of myself and the world around me have changed particularly since I came to Duke. It is self-indulgent and a bit messy, but if you make it all the way to the end I congratulate you. I felt obligated to write this as a way to process everything I have experienced this past year, but also to share it with others so that other people might be able to see parts of themselves in my story, and learn something about themselves, too. So, without further ado, here goes.

 

I was born in 2002. I am the product of my mother and father. My Taiwanese mother who immigrated to the US in 1987. My white father who grew up in a blue collar town in Northern New Jersey. 

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They met in New York City, got married, and moved to Long Island where they had me. Some of the factors that I imagine they considered were the spacious backyards, the white picket fences, and the sense of community and safety that must come with living in a small suburban town.

 

One factor that I don’t think they had considered was that I was going to be one of very few Asian students in a predominantly white school district. 

 

I don’t think this fact alone needs to be a negative. However, my hometown was full of a lot of small minded people. They did not take well to people who were different from them. The people who fit in the most in my hometown were rich, white families, who did not socialize with people outside of their demographic.

At a young age, these racial and economic factors were unbeknownst to me. But as I grew older, I saw how it separated me from my classmates. I experienced how people treated me differently because I did not have the same background as them. I was middle class, and Asian, and they were rich and white. All I wanted was to fit in, and to feel accepted, but instead I felt ostracized and excluded.

 

I was angry at myself for being different. I resented my background, and identity. I developed a host of insecurities both physical and mental which manifested itself in different ways.

 

Regarding my looks, I hated my Asian features. I hated the shape of my eyes, and that they were brown instead of blue. I hated that I wasn’t white or blond. I hated that I had big bushy eyebrows instead of the neat, angled ones I saw on white models and the pretty girls at my high school. 

 

So I tried to erase it. I couldn’t change the color of my eyes, but I could pluck my eyebrows into submission. I couldn’t be that perfectly tan white girl, but I could be perfectly tan. I couldn’t control my genetics, but I could control how much I weighed. So I starved myself. If those other things didn’t make me feel beautiful enough, being thin would. 

 

That was how I tried to contort myself physically. I also wanted to erase parts of myself socially.

I was brainwashed into hating my Asian culture. Kids would tell me my lunch smelled, so I asked my mother to pack me peanut butter and jellies instead of fried rice. In class, when people would make fun of Chinese accents or call Asians nerds and losers, I laughed along with them instead of telling them off. I acted as if jokes being made at my expense were something I enjoyed. I never stood up for myself or other Asian classmates. 

 

I internalized this racism, which had a number of consequences. Because I was used to being fit into a neat little box: a racial, social, or economic stereotype, I started doing it to everyone I met as well. When I was introduced to someone new, I judged them on these standards and fit them into a box. It was the only way I understood life, and was accustomed to judging people in these ways.

 

In my hometown, it was easy to do. In a small homogenous town, people stayed in their boxes. We all had our cliques, knew everything about everyone, and if I made an educated guess on what a person was like (smart, dumb, rich, poor, real, fake), I might have been right. 

 

When I came to Duke, I experienced a rude awakening.

 

Nine times out of ten, the assumptions I made about people were completely broken once I got to know them. 

 

There was always so much more to a person than what I could guess based on their appearance. This was always true in life, but I don’t think I realized it until I had a change in setting. In a way, it is a luxury because Duke students do not represent the average person. Regardless, though, as I got to know different people and make different friends, I found myself being exposed to a variety of life stories. My peers seemed to be happy to talk about their unique backgrounds. 

 

I met people who were genuine. I met people who did not treat others differently based on their wealth, race, background, etc. I met mixed race people, even specifically half Asian girls, who were proud of their mixed race heritage. They were not ashamed of their ethnicity. They did not feel the need to look or act more white in order to be happy.

These people, contrary to myself, were not embarrassed by the things that made them different. Seeing that other people could be happy and confident in embracing their roots made me feel guilty for being ashamed of mine my whole life. 

 

I took a step back and reevaluated my ludicrous understanding of the world. My judgements, the racial social and economic boxes. I slowly saw myself changing the way I saw the world. I stopped stereotyping, and using these superficial standards to judge myself and others.

 

Instead of being quick to judge, I became kinder, more empathetic, more open-minded. I gave people a chance to show me who they were, instead of assuming I knew everything about them already. I slowly saw myself experiencing the world in a much more authentic way. It was as if a fog had lifted.

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I started to judge people on different things. Not race, money, or status. Instead I focused on beliefs, character and personality. Things like what car someone drove, what clothes they wore, or how many summer homes they owned mattered less and less to me. What began standing out was what they stood up for. What they believed in. Most importantly, the impact that they made on the people around them. 

 

My shifting in values changed the way I treated myself, too. As I saw other people for who they actually were, I saw myself in the same way. I realized that being proud of being Taiwanese and white meant I had to stop hating myself. My obsession with the Eurocentric beauty standard ceased. I stopped the plucking, the self-tanning, the starving. I focused on embracing my real self, and the beauty within, because I am proud of having my mother’s and father’s features represented in my appearance.

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Mentally, I judge myself by the same standards I would judge someone else on. I think about the importance of my beliefs, character, and personality. I focus on how I can make the world a better place, and how I can be more compassionate, empathetic or genuine, instead of how I can derive pleasure from money, looks, or status. 

 

Changing my values has made my life infinitely better. I have slowly begun to see myself and the world around me in a way that I never thought was possible. I am more accepting, more loving, and more happy. I always knew that college would change me as a person, and I am very happy that I have experienced the things I have, and learned the things I did. 

I don’t know what comes next, and what other life lessons may be in store. All I hope is that I continue to grow, and that these positive changes are the first of many.

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