The Search for Identity

Although my last piece on identity was specifically addressing being Chinese-American, I received many messages from people of all ages, all around the world with many saying that I had articulated the pervasive pain of not fitting in; my piece seemed to resonate with their social wounds. I came to realize that this was a shared narrative with no fixed racial or cultural background: my own search for identity, though anchored in part by my own experiences, is part of something larger. It is a collective and contemporary identity crisis.

The piece prompted a deeper exploration of my self-hood. I published it with no aim in mind, without editing, as a mode of expression during a particularly difficult time. I never anticipated the feedback I received nor the heavy circulation. Besides the much appreciated outpour of support and empathy it elicited, I also received many responses from strangers telling me how I look, who I am, and how I should feel. They psychoanalyzed me and pathologized me. I suppose that's to be expected for putting anything personal on the internet: you become vulnerable. In ways, I was haunted by my own words because they were exposing. Although they marked the past for me, they represented me presently to my readers; I felt enough panic and embarrassment to remove my social media accounts.

I did this because of visibility; I wanted nothing more than to not exist; to be invisible. My own identity crisis triggered me to think about how this collective identity crisis is heightened as a direct result of technology.

With social networks, we are given the agency to create and represent our identities in a way that completely modifies the way we are perceived publicly more than our wardrobes and hair styles ever could. This identity permeates our off-line identities as we become more dependent on the online versions of ourselves for a cohesive presence; private and public lines are blurring, mediated by digital hyper-connectivity. In fact, some people who are shy in real life might fully displace themselves in a digital persona that they feel expresses what they can't express. Not only are our social media numbers dictating our social worth, sometimes even our careers are contingent on our social media following.

Where do we turn when we meet someone new and wish to know more about them? A quick search on Facebook gleans who we know in common and gives us a better understanding of their social circle. A search on Instagram reveals where they spend their time and a quick peak into their aesthetics. A search on Twitter reveals their voice: are they funny, serious, engaging? What issues matter to them, what hashtags do they weigh in on and how do they interact with others? No matter which outlet, we figure out how to better place them in a schema or even better ways to "connect" to them without them truly interacting with us. We are trading in an artificial sense of connection for a real one.

As we continue to digitalize our presence, our "self" moves further into a digital space. We are struggling to define ourselves in a space that doesn't exist, it is overwhelming. At least before the internet we had smaller social networks to manage, and now we each function in a global network. It's no longer who we are in relation to our communities, but who we are in relation to the world. The digital space is a collective space that has the profound effect of de-stabilizing our identities. We have a million new ways to represent ourselves through photos, likes, hashtags, truncated text, avatars and even which outlets we choose to participate on.

This is a unique moment in which it is part of the social contract to assemble our own personalities through two-dimensional screens. The pressure occurs at ages during which we aren't even cognizant of who we really are as even very young children have accounts; lucky for me Friendster, Myspace and Facebook only were around in high school so the early part of my life was shielded. Our growth takes place on a Facebook timeline and we can start from scratch when we delete and remake our accounts (although our histories never really escape us even with deletion). People are discovered and made famous through their social media accounts, others get in touch with lost relatives they didn't know existed before, and many even carry out long term relationships through social media without meeting the other person. We learn to live with the stress of managing our many representations while living our lives; in essence we have a fractured identity where we never can feel fully present.

The benefit to this dismantling is that we have many more opportunities to realize that we are not alone in our own uncertainties about ourselves. Not only that, but we have access; we are able to relate to strangers in their questioning, which begets our own questioning. My identity crisis isn't one confined by race, it's one that reflects all of our confusions in a society that demands that we identify along binaries and within checked boxes. It's a grey area that extends past race and into gender, sexuality, class and every other delineation we have created. It's truly impossible to be one thing and unfair to feel pressured to just be that one thing especially since our own understanding of ourselves is always fluctuating. By adhering to the pressures of identification, we are overlooking the nuances that are essential to human existence. We are teaching this generation and the next to not invest in depth, complexities and in developing their own value systems, but to place more weight on making superficial judgments about themselves and others.

At a cafe earlier this week, I overheard a conversation in which someone was discussing her take on identity. She seemed to be more curious about the parts of us we hide from others and while that evokes my curiosity as well, my question of identity currently is one that asks what it is we choose to reveal. As much as it felt liberating to remove my social media accounts, it narrowed my ability to participate not only in conversations, but in real time by missing event invitations and opportunities to connect with new people through friend requests. My erasure of a large portion of my life through deleting my instagram felt like I was deleting those moments from my life- so much of my social memory has become dependent on what is captured and circulated. Reactivating my Facebook made me realize through a glance at my timeline that it seemed that I didn't live my life for several months as I shared no new updates. Many acquaintances must've forgotten about me during this time, and many of my close friends questioned why I deleted my accounts: they were concerned this indicated something serious. It's funny how a simple and sometimes innocuous break from social media can even carry very real meanings to others perceiving it.

It is a difficult thing to straddle the line between over exposure and visibility but perhaps the real key is learning how to set a mental boundary where, no matter how people judge us, tell us how they see us, how to feel, and who we are, we aren't affected by their definitions. We dictate who we are for ourselves in a way that surpasses the small amount of room we're able to express it, digitally. To make issues even more complicated, what becomes of an identity when others can easily steal yours? I've heard from multiple people that accounts are being made with photos from my private Facebook account on dating apps, so it must be someone who is my "friend". Although we invest an enormous amount of energy maintaining our online identity, it is so easily taken from us reminding us how unstable an infrastructure we are building.

We all have something in common: we are trying to figure out who we are and to accept that version of ourselves. The sooner we realize that confines are tools to map out our own stance as opposed to strict boxes we must fit into, the sooner the psychological burdens we place on ourselves and others are lifted. We will then feel a lot more liberated to be ourselves, to be more accepting of ourselves and others, and learn to see that we all have a lot more connected than we know. This connection is not one that is facilitated through social networks; it is a lot more abstract, yet a lot more real. During a time where we can default to dealing with our identities through constructing them online, we forget to recognize the dissonance this creates within. We deal with creating them online because it's a lot more tangible and gives us a false sense of control over ourselves. We need to stop mitigating our realities and build our off-line presence too. Imagine a society where we have invested in developing our own quality experience, narratives and sense of self. With our own dynamic narratives, we find meaning and combat the intangible, consuming space of the internet.

Since my article, I've had to re-evaluate my relationship with myself not just because of my piece, but because my life plan did not work out the way I wanted it to. After applying an unprecedented amount of effort into fulfilling a goal that I would define my identity permanently, it ended up falling through, leaving me at square one. However, I've always believed that we need to destroy foundations to build a stronger structure. I thought I was going to break from fragility, but instead what I've come to find is that we are a lot stronger than we think we are. Part of a solid identity is the key ingredient of mutability; if you can always adapt to circumstances and change, you will always be you, on and off line.

Even still, I have a lot of trouble when I have to describe who I am in truncated text for my social media accounts. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter all ask for a headline and this comes to identify who you are and why people should add or follow you. How does one even begin to describe themselves in a tiny text box? Perhaps I should just put, "figuring it out" for now. Though I was against being on social media for a while, I do have to thank it for distributing my message far and wide. Without global online platforms (specifically, WeChat's distribution of my translated piece made quite a lot of impact amongst Chinese students), my own confusions would not have made others feel understood. So for me, it was figuring out what my message is, why social media is a useful tool before entering back into this immense space.