Partial Stream of Consciousness on Identity and All the Junk in between
A couple of days ago my friend asked me if we were “Caucasian” when we were reading a Wikipedia article about Michael Jackson and his myriad health problems. I just responded with “yes”, because I was hung over and not in the mood for a discussion about my identity and race and all of the things I have consciously and subconsciously had to deal with over the course of my life.
I’ve always been a little different. When I was in kindergarten, being the only one of “my kind”, other kids teased me because I had big lips. My mother told me not to worry, that so many people did all sorts of things to their lips to make them bigger and plumper and that I was beautiful, but that still didn’t change the weird feeling I felt in my stomach when the curious but cruel children around me asked why my lips were so big and why my skin was darker. Naturally I didn’t have an answer, I simply was what I was, and at a young age I was confused.
Growing up in America, but being half German and Jamaican and going to a German school further skewed my perception of what I thought I was and who I was. I simply told myself that I just was and that that was good enough. That’s a wonderful thought for a young girl to have, but sometimes the nagging feeling that I wasn’t quite like everyone else made me uneasy.
I did a good job of “blending in”; I always had lots of friends and I was well liked. Even though every year some my friends (most of whom been dragged along by their families, who were sent abroad by their jobs) moved back to where they came from or moved on to another place, I quickly learned to adapt to my every changing social environment. I’ve been told that I’m extremely socially adept and able to get along with almost anyone, but recently I’ve reflected on the fact that this skill most likely developed out of necessity. I am, just like everyone around me, a social being, yearning for social interaction.
Then, after years of watching everyone around me pack up and move on it was suddenly my turn. We moved to Los Angeles and I was overwhelmed with a complete culture shock. Here I was, someone who had lived in America her whole life, but had never come face to face with what American culture for my age group was really like. I guess that I ended up on a whole other playing field, because anyone who lives in Los Angeles and especially Calabasas can tell you that “The Bubble” really does exist and that our sprawling suburbia and extra privilege distorts what the rest of the world is like.
America is a special place that has its own complexities, paradoxes, triumphs and shortcomings. America is the “Land of the Free”, and it encompasses the notion of the “American Dream” that you can do anything and be anything in America, regardless of who you are and where you come from. Why then, is there this never-ending craving for categorizing humans based their racial backgrounds in this “Land of the Free”?
One of the most confusing things was checking off my race on the standardized tests we were forced to partake in. I wasn’t Caucasian that much was clear, although I guess I was “half white”. I wasn’t African American; my father is from Jamaica and he himself is half Islander (darker, African rooted) and half Chinese. So the only thing that seemed to amount to some sense is to check “Other” and move on.
The funniest thing though, was that precisely because of my heritage, one of my guy friends started coining me as “panda” (‘cause I was White, Black and Asian, hahahaha get it???) which I, trying to be cool and not uptight and sixteen, went along with without much of a fuss.
What was more of a concern to me, in my fragile state of teenage ego, was if I was enough. Tall enough, thin enough, dark enough, light enough, pretty enough, smart enough, popular enough. I find that on a more general level of female identity, teenage girls have a hard time justifying what is good enough, what to be like, how to behave in a way that doesn’t compromise who we think we are and who we want to be seen as.
American culture is full of paradoxes, and one of the largest ones is how to deal with the topic of sexuality. Sex seems to be in everything - the T.V. shows we watch, the strictness of dress codes in high school (making sure that girls aren’t “distracting” their poor male peers with their spaghetti straps, shorts and midriffs), the general need to be “attractive” (ass and titties are everything, but don’t you dare be a butterface) and the question of whether or not you’ve done “IT” already. On the other hand, its frowned upon to be in the room with a boy and have the door closed, it is frowned upon to express sexuality healthily, to be curious, to show too much, to hook up with too many guys. When I think about these things now I think they are silly and petty and an unnecessary headache, but that used to be the underlying reality of where I was at that moment. Its enough to be growing and learning who you are, what you like and what you want to be, and it becomes an overly saturated, sticky mess when you are bombarded with outside factors and opinions of others.
End of 10th grade I found myself having to move once again, this time to Germany; a place where I spoke the language but was not at all immersed into the culture. A new start that I wasn’t happy with at all - regardless of the negatives described above, I felt like I had finally found a place where I had lots of friends, was involved in the community and felt like I was finally figuring things out. My new school ended up being pretty cool though, I made new friends, and felt at home with a mix of Internationals, where explaining where I came from and where I had lived was met with even more far out stories of heritage, places lived and languages spoken. I guess I had also entered the age where cliques and catfights subsided, where we begin thinking, doing and living more and more in the way we want to, less in the way we think others will approve of us.
High school ended. I was now less of a hormonal cocktail and more of an actual human being. I had begun to care about things like feminism, social and racial equality and begun questioning the society around me more. I made changes in my ways of thinking, in my ways of viewing the world around me. I decided I wanted to get to know the German side of my heritage and instead of going to uni in London or Holland, where most of my international friends decided to go, I stayed in Germany and went to a public university, because I figured, since I was German, why not actually live in Germany with Germans and not in the second “International Bubble” I had lived in until that point.
So I moved, and figured out that I really was not German at all, my years of living in America and especially my years at international school had turned me into a hybrid of “Western Culture” (I really don’t like that term, but it’s the only fitting way to describe what I mean). Now I realized, that speaking a language doesn’t mean you understand the culture; you need to live in the culture and partake in the culture to understand it.
My German friends are different. There is a sense of sophistication in them; to me they are more direct and interestingly enough more reserved, there is an interesting sense of etiquette that doesn’t seem to exist in America that I’ve grown quite fond of.
But it was hard, even harder for me than my moves before, to really feel at home in my environment and feel like I belonged. It was the first time that I had moved by myself, it was the first time I had to really take care of myself, laundry, cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping, managing my money. And additionally, I had to talk and hear a language every day that still felt foreign to me even though I possessed the capabilities to understand and speak it.
If I think about it now, I relied on my boyfriend at the time for a sense of identity. We had known each other from our international school days, we were both duking it out in German uni even though we both knew the language well but weren’t comfortable with it. With him there was no explanation necessary, he knew my past and my friends and spoke English with me. I continued to get used to a new school environment, he eventually dropped out of German uni and found his way at an international uni. It’s only now, after 2 ½ years of really living in Germany, the end of a relationship that shaped the latter of my teenage years and the fact that I am leaving the teenage haze that surrounded me for the past years, that I’m beginning to feel comfortable here.
I’ve been rambling on and on. I think my point is that it’s complicated. I think my point is that it’s all an ongoing experience - that our identity and self-perception is constantly changing. I think my point is that we need to define for ourselves who we are, because otherwise others will do it for us. Categorizing is a part of what we as humans naturally do and without it we would be overwhelmed with no way to organize the information that our brain is bombarded with every second. I am the product of my experiences and I try to make sense of the world around me. Someone else may have (and to 99% has had and does have) a completely different experience from me. I think my point is that all of our experiences are valid and valuable and beautiful because they are ours. I think my point is that before considering skin color, gender or sexual orientation we need to learn to consider the actual person. Stay woke.