Something that I think that I’ve always known about myself and learned to accept was that I liked being seen, adored being heard, and craved being acknowledged. For better or for worse.
It’s not the same as being looked at. It’s more that I love drawing parts of me out, that I feel that “rush of hot lava”, as Amy Poehler calls it, when I hear people laugh at something I make up, gasp at something I say under bright stage lights, tell me what I’ve made has prompted their own self-reflection.
Hear me, hear me, hear me, is what I’m really telling people, See me. React to me. Tell me I’m here.
I don’t think this is a surprise to anyone who knows me, or even knows of me. I’ve been accused and complimented of having a large, outgoing, “too much” personality by everyone from friends, significant others, professors, to people who barely know me.
I can track a lot of my supposed personality and passions from specific moments that have allowed it to flourish– in third grade, when the vice principal asked me (supposedly for being the only other Chinese person on the bus) to watch over a newly immigrated Chinese boy on my route home. She later gave me some sort of good citizenship award that let off a little spark in my small head and heart and has kept me on a leadership and good citizenship binge for 15 years and counting and has become a prominent part of my life and who I appear to be.
I am full of my self. I mean this literally (though there’s absolutely some truth to its idiomatic definition) and that’s that I’ve made knowing my self, staying true to my own personal values and wants and dreams, a priority. It’s become a deep personal value to nosce te ipsum— to know thyself.
I don’t think it’s like this in Chinese society, where we value, above so much else, being a member of collective, cohesive society working together, rather than individual self-validation. Not that it’s not okay to be that, but that being your own person, having that North American concept of a “personality” is not a priority. It’s not a thing.
My parents and I clashed a lot when I was in school and I learned to hide many of the things I valued most about myself starting in high school– literally. Comics and library books would hide under the bed, I’d make excuses about staying late for extra-curriculars or being “busy”, lie about the number of obligations that I had and significantly downplay their importance.
More or less things that made me who I was.
I couldn’t understand why they didn’t value or care about the things I’d learned to care about through the media, my teachers, and my friends– things like being a student leader, being well-rounded, knowing what I wanted, having my own hopes and dreams.
For a long time, I was resentful.
Here I am, I’d fume to myself, doing so many things right and they don’t care about any of it.
More, I’d find many of our personal interactions baffling. When I was applying to university, all my Dad ever talked to me about was applying to university. When I came home from school, he asked me if I’d heard anything about the schools I’d applied to. When I went to bed at night, he would be re-calculating my average (which was well over the cut-off for program I applied to and, obviously, hadn’t changed from the day before). When I was in university, all he ever talked to me about was co-op.
I wanted desperately to have the same relationship that so many of my (non-Asian) friends had with their parents, where they were actively friends. Many of my high school friends talked about books and shared television shows with their parents. They drank wine with them. They shared stories with each other.
I mentioned this to my parents a few times. I don’t think you have any idea who I am as a person, I’d tell them, What I like and what you like, you know? And you never talk to me about anything other than school.
They were baffled by this idea. My Mom told me, hesitantly, that only family talks to each other about important things like school and employment.
I told them that I understood (and inwardly vehemently disagree—I’ve lived through enough Jobmine crying sessions) but that I wished they talked to me about things that they were interested in once in a while, instead of my grades or jobs all the time.
I’ve had this conversation with them multiple times and they all end somewhat differently, but always with confusion or uncertainty with how to respond on their behalf.
It’s a pretty common dynamic between immigrant Chinese parents and their immigrant children. My deep fear was that I wasn’t communicating well enough with them, that the collective height of generational, cultural, and language barriers were too high and too wide for me to scale. I’m sure that it exacerbates the problem, as I listen to the light-hearted conversations that my uncle and my Dad have with my cousin. It’s not their fault that I’m left out of the subtler points of their jokes and cultural references—it’s just something I’d never pick up with my Mandarin as poor as it is.
In Chinese culture, our roles and our relationships to other people are valued much more highly—it’s so much more important to be a daughter and a mother and a granddaughter rather than your own individual person.
As an aside, that’s something I’m having a dreadful time trying to steel myself for in my career. I want to learn how to focus on a few specific things but I was obsessed for so long with being well-rounded and being a jack of all trades that I’m really scared about my own career and learning to focus and drill down on a few specific skills and goals.
Tying myself down to 2-3 specific roles or priorities has scared me for my entire life because it means that I can’t rationalize failure because of being too busy. I just didn’t have time to succeed in this one specific thing because I was busy succeeding being myself, you know? Any of my failures would have to be a result of… me. Things that I didn’t do properly, things that I couldn’t do well.
I’m terrified of failure, and I’ll fully admit that most of my actions have been tied to a desire to avoid it.
But part of growing up is realizing that our own dreams, our own desires in our hearts (the core parts that make up who we are) need to be put aside for our duties (like work), our social obligations, and the people who we consider to be our families.
I’m continuously learning the value of keeping your head down and working, and I’m getting better at stifling my overwhelming desire to be heard and be seen.
I’m terrified because I’ve excelled at aligning duty (civic and personal) with my personal objectives… but I’m starting to enter stages in my life where duty will begin to split with my own dreams, and I will have to choose one over another. The culture in which I’ve grown will advocate for one, while the culture that has been my shadow (dogging my footsteps and perpetually behind me, but never solid and tangible) will likely advocate for another.
I still want to climb, and I want to run as far as possible. I’m still hungry for bright lights and big cities, and I’m still desperately chasing the ideal that my life can and must have meaning. But I fully recognize that I’m able fortunate enough to think this way because of the environment that I’m in, and I’m extremely cognisant that I’m only in this environment due to the enormous, continual sacrifices and love that my parents have continually shown me.
At this moment in my life, with little responsibilities, with the whole world open in front of me, these forks in the road are easy to deliberate over. But there’ll be a time when I’ll have to choose… and we’ll see what happens when we get there.