Constructing Identity

The other night I was in my “Literature of the Asian Diaspora” class (it’s amazing what qualifies for an English degree these days) when we started discussing the origin of the term “Asian American”. Apparently the first academic use of the term was in the 1970s at UCLA (although it may have been in use colloquially among the civil rights movement in the 1960s before that) as an alternative to the arguably pejorative “Oriental” (I take no stance on the issue, but I understand the argument).

The point I raised in class, and my professor seemed to agree with me, is that “Asian American” is a constructed identity. Setting aside any flippant comments about there being no such place as “Asian America”, there is no “Asian” culture. There is Japanese culture, Korean culture, Chinese culture, Indian culture, and a host of others too numerous for me to name or even be aware of. Each individual named under this broad, constructed identity of “Asian American” does not partake of the same cultural background, any more than every person of European descent comes from the same cultural heritage.

I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit over the last few days, mostly because I find it something challenging to relate to. On the one hand, as I have mentioned before, I come from perhaps the most common of backgrounds, and face few of the challenges that an Asian American or other racial minority would face in America today (although from what I have read it’s a far different story in Japan or elsewhere in Asia, so at least it’s not a global phenomenon). On the other hand, the concept of trying to construct an identity for oneself is something I believe everyone struggles with, and as the world is changing perhaps faster than ever, it is something that we each continue to struggle with.

For myself, I can look back over my life and see how my own sense of self has changed drastically in just a short (or so it seems to me) twenty years. When I was 15, there was no doubt in my mind that I would be a world famous actor, working the stage with both grace and abandon on Broadway and beyond. Fast forward a decade, and after one of the worst years of my life I was burning almost every bridge I had, leaving Richmond and unsure of anything except that I would never, ever be a professional actor. I kept my hand in on a few amateur shows in school after that, but my heart wasn’t really in it anymore. Jump ahead another decade, and I had been married for three years to the love of my life, who I hadn’t even met when last we checked in, and working at the job I currently hold.

Each step of the way my sense of self changed, but it was a gradual change, with the occasional jarring moment of realization. At no point did I wake up and say “today I’m going to decide I no longer want to be an actor”; it was something that accumulated, just like the choices, opportunities, and yes, even the mistakes I have made all along the way have led me to the place and person I am today. Perhaps that is what we call the process of “growing up”, or perhaps it is something more. I don’t know if being a straight white male means that process has been easier or harder for me, because I have no basis for comparison. I can say almost unequivocally that having bipolar disorder (undiagnosed before I was in my mid-twenties) certainly provided its own unique challenges, but again I can’t speak to how my life would have been different otherwise, only that I do not doubt it would have been.

As I have reflected on my life and how it has changed, and as I have considered how I have constructed and re-constructed my own identity, I have only come to one certain conclusion. I do not want to be viewed as a heterosexual, or a Caucasian, or male, or as someone with a mental disorder, or as part of any other group. I only want to be viewed as me; unique, individual, hopefully ever-changing and evolving and yet always recognizably Bob.


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