18 and confused
I had my first identity crisis when I was 18.
(That is, if you don't count that dark period of middle school where I wore bottom eyeliner and black tights under ripped shorts, and listened to Avenged Sevenfold all the time—which I try not to, at least)
There I was, 18 years old and sitting in my therapist's office, hovering in that liminal space of adolescence.
Having always been a super sensitive child and then being diagnosed with severe depression, sometimes I felt like I was 30: worn down by the winds of life, broody and overly introspective, constantly grappling with thoughts of mortality and nihilism. (Now that I am older and apparently wiser, I realize that that is NOT what your 30s are about lol)
But then sometimes I felt like a small kid: timid, unsure of herself, overly dependent on her friends & family. The idea of entering college and the wild unknown loomed over me a lot during this year, and I shrunk in its presence.
Anyways, my therapist was making me do an exercise where I wrote out all the people in my life who had influenced/influence me in some way.
As I sat there diligently writing, I suddenly paused, pen still on paper.
I don't know how to describe the feeling, but it felt like I was abruptly split into many selves, each one translucent and permeable and drifting aimlessly in the room. It was like something shifted inside me and suddenly I was no longer one cohesive person.
Maybe I was astral-projecting, à la Doctor Strange... who knows. But you can bet I FREAKED OUT and instantly started rambling to my therapist: "Ok so I just realized that, like, I don't know who I am. I feel like we're all just products of our environment and the people we're surrounded with? And we're just being influenced by those people all the time? Like, I'm a daughter, a student, a sister, a friend, sure, but... WHO IS MAYA AT THE CORE?"
My therapist sat there, gazing pensively at my about-to-cry face. He was so calm and unfazed by my breakdown that I secretly started wondering if he astral-projected on a regular basis or something.
"Who do YOU think Maya is?" He responded in that irritating way that only therapists can.
I left his office that day feeling extra vulnerable and unsure of myself. I didn't want to think about his question, let alone dwell on that creepy feeling of not being in my body (which I now know could have been mild derealization/depersonalization).
Bye China, Hello America
My high school was homogenous. Sure, we had cliques and different groups, but for the most part there were certain truths and rules: you have to have good grades, you are privileged, you are at once sexualized but also chastised for your sexuality. Oh, and don't do anything stupid because literally EVERYONE (and their gossipy moms) will know about it in 24 hours.
By senior year, I felt like the air around me had gone stale. And not just because of the Shanghai pollution. I was sick of the rules and couldn't wait to break into something different in college. I mean, I was literally LEAVING THE COUNTRY and flying across the world to start anew.
Talk about big changes.
I was excited, yes, but I was also nervous. Because I was leaving the safety of my cocoon for the past 18 years. Because suddenly, I was entering the unknown where I could build a whole new identity, sure, but I could also continue being influenced by everyone and never find out who Maya TRULY is. Yikes.
Landing in America, I was... there's no better way to put this: culturally shook. When Uber drivers and waitstaff asked me "How are you?," I blanched and responded with a quick "I'm good, thanks" instead of reciprocating. (Why? Because in China no one really asks you how you are if they don't know you.)
Classmates constantly made references to American pop culture that I didn't know.
Even mingling with my Asian American sponsorship group felt a bit awkward, since I was Asian but not American and I couldn't relate to a lot of things we talked about: the "Lunch Box moment," or having to translate official and legal documents for my parents, for example.
And most of all: people were SO open about their sexual life & sexuality! I quickly learned that hookups are no biggie in college (even at a small liberal arts campus), and nobody would bat an eye if they saw you leave the party with someone.
I learned about gender pronouns for the first time, I learned about intersectional feminism, I learned about toxic masculinity. I learned that it was okay to disclose your mental health issues to a professor.
I learned that nobody really watches CW shows anymore, and that I was "Netflix and chilling" before Netflix was even a thing.
I learned that Target is a mecca and has EVERYTHING you could possibly ask for.
Yes, I thought to myself, this is what I left China for. I missed home, but I was also distracted.
I was so excited by the open atmosphere of my college that I woke up feeling like a different person everyday. Or wanting to be a different person. My style went from Brandy Melville to boho goddess to IG baddie to Plain Jane all in the course of several months. I got a nose piercing. I made angry art about menstrual stigma and wrote impassioned essays on animal rights. I became vegetarian (much to the despair of my meat-loving Chinese family). I took a DNA test and found out I was mostly Korean by blood. I dated a Communist. I cried and took several days off school when Trump was elected, even though I'm not American. I kissed a girl, and I liked it. A lot.
My hair went from short to long to short again, from black to caramel to silver to hot pink (!) to platinum. I got bangs, hated them, then got them again.
If you could make a time lapse video of my internal and external self throughout college, it would be dizzying. Everyone says college is a time for experimenting, and I really took that and ran with it.
Therapy part 2
Of course, there were some not so lighthearted changes as well. I was sexually assaulted for the second time in one year. My depression came back tenfold. I started taking medication. I was hospitalized for alcohol poisoning and still couldn't stop drinking. I cut myself for the first time since middle school.
And that's how I found myself in another therapist office, in a whole new country but somehow doing the EXACT same exercise I did at 18.
As I wrote my loooooong list of influences, I also realized just how much I had grown and changed from the timid, rule-abiding pushover that I once was. Thanks to my classmates, my professors and my badass friends, I had become more empowered, confident and vocal. I was a product of my environment but in the best way. I took bits and pieces of things I admired in other people and melded it to my own identity.
"Sometimes I really like who I am now, but sometimes I also still question who I am underneath all these different personas," I mused out loud to my therapist. She nodded, understanding. Then she said something that would completely alter my worldview: "What if your identity IS that you are a multiplicity? You say you live in the "in-between," but don't forget that the in-between is still a real space that you can claim."
(this is not me nor my therapist but this is basically what it looked like) MIND. BLOWN.
I had been so used to the binary mode of thought, thinking that things had to be either black or white, that I had completely overlooked the beauty of the "grey zones."
It was in that session that I overcame one of the biggest hurdles of my identity: I'm not American, but I also didn't fully identify as pure Chinese/Korean because I was so Westernized. But there are plenty of others like me (third culture kids, international students), and we are our own group and community. And that "not American enough but not Asian enough" identity is still an identity.
Multiplicity, contradictions, code-switching
Which brings me to today.
I started this podcast and blog and have been just spending more time on my personal Instagram.
And because of all that, I had a tiny freakout the other day. I grabbed my boyfriend, practically yeet-ing him off his seat, and bellowed in his face:
"Babe, WHAT IS MY BRAND?"
"Your brand?" "Yes, like my social media image! Who am I?!"
I felt like I was 18 again, freaking out in my therapist's office.
I released my poor boyfriend and sat on the couch like this for a bit:
Then after a few minutes, I was like this:
Because I realized: we are ALL contradictions within ourselves. We are all becoming, not being. We can be many things all at once.
Our identity is not a static thing. It is constantly flowing, clashing, re-organizing and re-framing.
Ever heard of code-switching? That's like when you're talking to your manager at work all polite and buttoned-up, but the next second you're on the phone with your bestie and you're dropping F-bombs everywhere and laughing maniacally.
Code-switching is just a linguistic example of the way we are constantly adjusting who we are to fit the world around us. As social creatures, humans can't help but be influenced by their social environment. And that is perfectly natural.
In this digital age of social media branding and online personalities, we've pressured to project a tidy, cohesive, predictable image. Boxes and categories comfort us. We like knowing what to expect. We like when things/people fit neatly into archetypes that we're used to seeing in media or IRL.
And to that, I say:
I'm kidding, but also not really.
I myself am seemingly full of contradictions: I "look like an ABG but don't act like one." I'm an angry feminist but I love men. I love partying, but I equally love staying at home, in my nerdy glasses, reading a book about Buddhist philosophy or neuroscience. I bawl my eyes out watching almost any film (Frozen 2 really hit me in the feels man), but barely flinch when someone's limbs get destroyed in the goriest way possible in Saw VI.
I believe in science but I also believe in spirits, magic and the occult. I like weightlifting and feeling like a badass who can crush someone's head between their thighs, but I also like floaty sundresses and wearing dangly butterfly earrings and taking care of people when they're sick.
Even on my podcast, I alternate between choking back sobs while sharing my inner battles and cracking jokes and laughing way too loud into the mic (sorry headphone users).
I'm not saying all this because I think I'm special or different, I'm saying this to show you just how normal it is to be made up of "contradictions."
In fact, by accepting the multiple facets of our selves, we have a greater chance of being more self-compassionate, more accepting of others, more creative. We become more open to experimenting and trying out new hobbies or interests, even if they don't seem to "align" with how others view us.
But if like me, you still struggle with the idea of a self that is ever-changing and flowing, here are some questions to ask yourself/activities to journal about to ground yourself: (and no, I won't ask you to list your influences)
Anyways, thank you for reading if you've made it this far! Happy journaling/reflecting/astral-projecting ✨