Rivers

I’ve struggled to find ways to describe my journey with identity, filled to the brim with that ever-familiar sense of in-betweenness. Something that captures the tensions in the worlds I inhabit.

Race. Ethnicity. Sexuality. Within each of these, I’ve found different ways to convert the seemingly liminal into a permanent place of residence.

These thoughts used to evoke visions of travel and the feeling of being in transit. A wanderer crossing a bridge or fording a river. An explorer cutting through brush or climbing a mountain. I’ve since discarded the sense of drawing nearer to a destination, but I find myself returning to this river. Perhaps the image of one who makes their life on the water but has a view of both shores can begin to tell my story. Someone who comfortably drifts between banks, but is not lost; who sometimes finds trouble trying to communicate what river life is to those on land. Growing in confidence as it becomes clearer that this is home.

In a world that prefers to break things into this or that, “Pick one”, and either/or, finding a sense of belonging isn’t always easy. It can be tiring to feel like you need to prove your legitimacy. Scrutiny flows from within and beyond your own communities, and otherization takes many forms.

It’s being deemed whitewashed by APIs and a perpetual foreigner by Americans
It’s “You’re so exotic!” from white and Asian faces alike, or the even less savory: “So you’re like a mutt, then?”
It’s that strange, brief pause when a demographics survey says, “Check one.”
It’s “What are you?” as a conversation starter
It’s both gay and straight people telling you you’re mistaken about your sexuality because it’s “not a thing” or “just a phase.”

These statements tell me to hide, adapt, modify, choose, and erase. Some are declarations stating that you’re out of place on the shore while others are requests that you get out of the water. They rejected realities that I knew to be true but began to question.

And those doubts have their way of sinking into your skin. Impostor syndrome creeps into the picture, feeding on insecurities and plastering your mind with question marks. A competing voice wonders aloud if you’ve imagined everything and exaggerated your otherness. This uncertainty, too, has many forms:

It’s wondering if you belong in APIA spaces when your connection to the countries of your ancestors is tenuous at best.
It’s sensing that an inability to speak or understand their tongues might be something shameful.
It’s being unsure if you’re Pacific Islander enough to speak to PI issues.
It’s believing that liking a girl makes you straight and liking a boy makes you gay.
It’s thinking either of these cases voids the validity and reality of the other.
It’s asking if you’re allowed in queer spaces at all.

***

In different ways, I’ve tried to fit myself into the frameworks I know, tightly defined. These dualistic and pluralistic structures take pieces and reluctantly add them together. They measure something like my Asian American identity by attempting to quantify how much Asian or how much American. I lack the vocabulary to handle the resulting dissonance, in part due to the lies I’ve told myself. I’ve thought of myself in a compartmentalized way – a divided individual who’s had to weigh different parts of who I was to figure out where I had a right to belong. And yet, this method is inadequate. Sure, it allows for the coexistence of these various worlds, but often it defines them as contradictory, at odds with each other.

Lately, I’ve begun to question the limits to this model. I’m left wondering if dualistic, and even pluralistic thinking continues to encourage dichotomies and discourage a holistic view of the self.  But, fittingly, maybe it doesn’t have to be either/or. Rivers can take many forms – they branch off, intersect, and make their way past different shores. Some identities are best described as a synthesis, some their own entity, and some a combination of the two.

Over the last few years I’ve been able to connect with others who share similar experiences, and I’m still amazed at how life-giving it can be to be seen and understood.

My senior year of college, I decided on a whim to attend a conference hosted by a mixed-race club. Over the course of a single weekend, I met students from a vast variety of backgrounds and felt known like never before. Common threads ran through our stories, weaving us together through our questions of belonging. We shared anecdotes of acceptance and rejection, the ways appearance and names play into our racial and ethnic sense of self, what it means to interact with a largely monoracial world. I felt affirmed in my mixed identity and empowered to identify with both my individual backgrounds and their composite. I read the Bill of Rights for People of Mixed Heritage. That kind of freedom to identify was new, exciting, and unfamiliar, but I’ve since taken it to heart.

I’ve shared parallel conversations with those who identify at different places along the spectrum of sexuality, who wouldn’t identify themselves as straight or gay. We’ve talked about the doubt that rears its head when others doubt your orientation again and again, the surprise at the idea that there are people genuinely exclusively attracted to a single gender, and the questioning of if telling others even matters at all. As I read more and talked with friends, things began to clarify and click – there are words for this! Taking a cue from Robyn Ochs’ definition of bisexuality, over time I came to claim the bi label.

It’s interesting to see how these things have played a role in my faith journey. As I’ve gone through transitions out of some of my old beliefs and structures, I find familiarity in the midst of the uncertainty. I find myself renovating my categories again: throwing out boxes that are too small, tearing down walls that are too narrow, and learning to sit in the resulting tension.

I like to think I have a clearer picture of who I am now. I can take shattered, preconceived notions and arrange the pieces into a mosaic that tells my story. The multicolored glass is the lens through which I see the world. Though the individual shards might reflect different characteristics, you can’t see the full picture if you focus in on the shape and color of each piece.

My identity as American of Asian and Pacific Islander descent, as each of my ethnicities, as mixed, and as bisexual capture intersections–eschewing false binaries that oversimplify and erase. The self-doubt continues to fade, and it’s getting easier to dismiss the impostor syndrome now that I can better articulate who I am. And through all of this, I’m also reminded that I am more than the labels I claim. They’re invaluable in helping find and foster community, solidarity, and support, but each one only reflects a single facet of who I am. Somewhere in the in-between, I’m still finding that I can embrace and celebrate all the parts of my identity while allowing myself to just be. At the place where the streams combine into a roaring river, I relax, letting it carry me along. Maybe the water isn’t so scary after all.

Created by: Jon M

Featured Photo: Steven Lee

About the Author: Jon is a native Californian of Asian and Pacific Islander descent.  He has an affinity for foreign languages, outer space, and groan-inducing wordplay, and is always looking for recommendations to add to his ever-growing reading list.