Who Am I?
"What's your name?"
It is such a common question that will be frequently asked when you set your first foot on a new land and try to get acquainted with people there. Nobody, of course, will hesitate a second to do the self-introduction with a name. Yes, the name is always the primary label to identify a per-son. And then we will go on to define ourselves by profession, roles in relation to others, hobbies, or even personality. These labels make up our identity and in this way we are known by others. However, we are likely to mistake these labels for our true identities.
Who am I?
Before this August, I was pretty confident about my identity-a teacher in a university, the husband of my be- loved wife, and the father of a two-year-old boy. No doubt and no hesitation.
"Are you an international student?" People asked me this question on campus. "En ... yeah, en ... kind of. But I am not sure." This is a typical response I gave.
Those labels started to blur when I came to Concordia under the sponsorship of the Fulbright Program. "A foreign language teaching assistant" and "a cultural ambassador" are two new "labels" assigned to me. Meanwhile, I also go to class and study with other students, participating in classroom discussions and writing papers.
"Where are you from? China or Japan?"
In my hometown, everyone knows you are Chinese. It seems like a stupid question to ask. But here is America: you will be judged by the color of your skin, the language you speak, the way you are dressed and the food you are eating. These obvious labels concerning one's nationality or culture start to categorize us into different groups - American, European, Asian, and Oceanian. When I realized my difference from others, loneliness and insecurity seized my heart. I needed to seek a companion. So I tried to talk with someone who seemed to have the same identity as I did. Then in a week I met three "Asian-looking" students. I no sooner feel lucky and relieved than I realized I had made a big mistake. I said "ni hao" (which means "hello" in Chinese) to them, but they either looked puzzled or replied with a "Hi!" Later I learned two of them are adopted by their American parents from China since a fairly early age. And the other one is an ABC (which is short for American-born Chinese), who can speak Chinese a little bit.
Does the skin color or language we speak really de-fine us? We have the same color, but they apparently don't share my identity; and even though we all speak English, the accent can still break us into American, British, Australian, or Indian. If the color and language do not, what makes up our identity?
The identity also appears in the form of an environment, a community, a society or even the air. Minority - that's how I am usually addressed. I need to involve myself in the community, the mainstream. I have to speak their language, eat their food, and dress myself like an American. No one would like to "stand out" in this way.
Integration becomes an urgent and critical thing. I try to make friends with Americans. But soon I am frustrated, which is usually called "culture shock." Because I find the different definition of friendship we hold. As Gary Althen depicted in his book American Ways, "there is a difference, however, between friendliness and friendship. While Americans may seem relatively warm and approach- able upon first encounter, they may later seem remote and unreachable to many foreign visitors . . . They are very private, keeping their personal thoughts and feelings to themselves. They are difficult to get to know on a deeper level" (142). A vivid metaphor can describe this difference better: Americans are just like peaches with soft peel and flesh. It seems easy to approach at first but if you want a closer relationship, a hard core is always out there. On the contrary, Chinese people are like coconuts with a hard shell. They seem quite reserved and cautious to everyone. But once cracked, you'll find all sweet water inside.
Sometimes I wonder: why do I need to change my-self in order to fit in a new environment? If I do so, am I still who I am? Weinreich says that "A person's identity is defined as the totality of one's self-construal, in which how one construes oneself in the present expresses the continuity between how one construes oneself as one was in the past and how one construes oneself as one aspires to be in the future"(80). In other words, the formation of identity is a dynamic process. We are constantly on the journey to invent and search our own identity. We are changing and being changed all the time.
No community, society, nation or world can really exist long in homogeneity. Diversity is as much demanded to a human society as an ecological system. All the labels, including profession, personality, skin color, language, ethnicity, nationality and so on, should not be created and used by some groups to discriminate others. Anyway, that's how we exist in this world and the way of existence deserves respect and justification.
Althen, Gary, Amanda R. Doran, and Susan J. Szmania. American Ways: A Guide for Foreigners in the United States (2nd Ed.). Yarmouth, Me.: lntercultural Press, 2003.
Weinreich, Peter. "The Operationalisation of Identity Theory in Racial and Ethnic Relations", in J.Rex and D.Mason (eds). Theories of Race and Ethnic Relations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.