I have been heavily influenced by ideals of who I wanted to be or what other people wanted me to be, whether those were things I perceived people wished for me or they told me outright.
This is a weird place to start, but as a child, I wanted to be a bride and become a homemaker with 2.5 kids. I was still playing with Barbie dolls and pretending to dress-up as a princess. I had a baby doll who was the size of a human baby and I oftentimes held and rocked her. At least once I was called down by my parents for mealtime and I would promptly drop the doll on the floor or toss her onto my bed. So much for my mothering skills. More than a handful of times my dad told me when I misbehaved, “When you have kids one day, you’ll understand a parent’s struggles.” I can’t imagine I ever will. I’m not sure I ever did as a kid either since I didn’t know the full extent of how much work goes into that sort of thing.
At around 9 or 10 years old, I had semi-knowledge that women push babies out from their bodies. I mimicked a pseudo-birth during playtime once in the presence of my brother and two female cousins. It’s embarrassing to think of it now, how I was huffing and puffing like the women on television dramas did when they were in labor. I jolted out of the fantasy when my brother said, “You know that actually really hurts, right?”
I think I was more in love with the theatrical ideal that all the attention was on the woman. It was the same with the childish scene I had of myself decked out in white and walking down the aisle to get married, having everyone fawn over how spectacular I looked. What strange ideas I had!
Now as an adult, I’m so far removed from desiring children of my own. They’re not inanimate dolls I can just set aside whenever I feel like it and that is what scares me — the responsibility of caring for another living being when I can hardly care for myself.
After I entered puberty, getting pregnant was an unwanted possibility. I even had nightmares about having a big bulging belly. My cousins (the same ones I mentioned in a previous paragraph) and I got an unexpected glimpse of a recorded human birth on Nova, a science television show. One of us was flipping through the channels until the screen flashed the visual of a woman’s diluted vagina as the top of the baby’s head was poking out from it. The three of us reacted with revulsion but looking back, the birth really showed that the miracle of life is not glamorous and is a lot of hard work. It’s also interesting to think everyone came into the world like that too.
My awkwardness as a teenager made me feel like I didn’t have a personality. I adopted a facade to cover up the perceived gap. But all that did was make people misunderstand me.
I was extremely self-conscious of myself as an Asian person and the perceived judgment I got from peers for being Asian. I also had my own prejudice about how I thought I was supposed to act based on my race. You know the stereotype that Asians are timid and obedient? Yeah. That’s basically how I was because I thought it was necessary to fit into a “role” to excuse the instability in myself. I didn’t want to acknowledge my awkwardness wasn’t just awkwardness but actual anxiety that was interfering and impacting my everyday life on a huge scale.
I would try to make up for the fact I was so quiet by doing stuff instead of talking to show my worth. Helping to hang and fold laundry. Doing the dishes. Trimming and washing the vegetables to prepare them for cooking. Assisting with cleaning up after dinner. I got flattery from older relatives, like, “She’s much more Chinese than her cousin who is too American”, meaning the way I acted was their ideal for a young girl my age. In one discussion, there was even talk of my looks which were more in line with how a traditional Chinese girl should look. I cringe remembering this.
I blame my own perception of their comments which I used as validation for fulfilling my “role” but at the same time, their perception was wrong too. For example, rather than saying I was “more Chinese” for helping with household chores, why didn’t they just say I was a good kid? A person’s character doesn’t need to be associated with their race.
For a while, I thought this is who I was supposed to be. It was a double-edged sword of my own making that I exhausted myself with. A pivotal moment where I believe I reached my breaking point was being early 20-something years old. I was still hiding behind the mask, too scared to admit I didn’t know who I was without it. While I trimmed vegetables, an aunt praised me for being “filial”. In my mind’s eye, I envisioned myself hurling the whole dish of veggies onto the floor, knife and all, out of anger. A single phrase rang in my thoughts. That’s not me. Nowadays, I cannot stand it when I am referred to in that way.
Then there was the teenage phase where I went nuts over improving my Mandarin Chinese skills. Part of me did have a genuine interest in learning. That same summer my brother went to a Mandarin immersion camp, which was more for people to have fun and not really for serious studying. Staying in my “role”, I had liked the shower of praises I received but I also saw my brother as competition for our parents’ affection.
I secretly gloated every time my parents spoke of me to their friends or associates about how I could speak Mandarin but also read and write it. But what I did not expect was the pressure. My parents began relying on me to translate for them and soon it became like they assumed I could translate anything. At one time I thought about pursuing a degree in Asian Studies but it didn’t stick. It was a mold that wasn’t me. I used to have “Fluent in English and Mandarin Chinese” on my resume but not anymore. For one thing, I will never be as fluent in Mandarin as English, especially since I only ever use Mandarin with my parents. My reading and writing skills in the language have also dwindled down. Oh well.
It is a struggle to not feel like I am straddling both worlds and I won’t ever truly belong in either one. Sometimes it doesn’t seem I have a conscious choice in the matter by virtue of being around my parents, who are still stuck in some traditions of their culture. It’s hard not to care what they think because I obviously want to please them but not at the cost of not being true to myself.
To be honest, I still don’t really know who I am and what I want out of life. So many times this past year I’ve imagined who I could be and the things I could have done. Every time, the ideals of what I wanted to happen came into play. I got caught up in thinking of what I wished for as opposed to actually experiencing the situations for what they were.
Featured Image by Marc Kleen.