The summer is winding down in beautiful clear skies and eighty degree weather, following the strange mid-summer rains like only southern California can. I am slowly beginning the countdown to my senior year of college.
The past three years have gone by much more quickly than I imagined they would. You know how they say that as you get older, you perceive time passing more quickly because it is shorter in proportion to the years you have lived… That’s a scary thought. I’ve spent a lot of the past six months in a hyper-existential state, constantly in a slight panic about how to spend the rest of my life. What kind of work do I devote myself to in order to build a better world?
I think a lot of people call this “finding yourself.” That phrase, unsurprisingly, has always made me feel very lost. Recently, I’ve begun trying to reclaim this process by thinking of it as a process of creation instead. The person I am is not waiting to be found as I fumble through the daily tedium of my classes and work to find meaning. It is the fumbling, and all the good and the bad that come with it, that creates the self.
This comforts me. In the past months I’ve often found it difficult to push forward, finding less and less inspiration in the field I’ve chosen to study. Right now, I don’t know what the next step is. But if everything I’ve done and everything I’m doing is creating me, then that gives me some momentum. I like to think of the self as a forever ongoing process. Maybe I’ll reach a dynamic equilibrium one day, or maybe not.
The self is not an ideal, tucked away in the woods or in other people or in drugs or whatever else in which people try to find themselves.
In the summer and fall of 2014, I traveled out of the U.S. for the first time (besides a previous brief venture into Canada). I studied abroad in Cape Town, South Africa for four and a half months, and it was there that I got smacked in the face with not only culture shock but a full-on identity crisis. There aren’t a lot of East Asians in South Africa and even in Cape Town, the cosmopolitan hub of the country bustling with international influence, seeing a person who looked like me was a rare event.
A favorite question to begin conversation with the exotic-looking girl: “Where are you from?”
“The States” was a satisfactory and acceptable answer for my white counterparts, but from me it was met with disbelief. An actual response I got: “But you look like you’re from Asia!”
In retrospect, it wouldn’t have been too difficult to explain to South Africans that media representation of American demographics is misleading, to say the least. After all, for a country that is overwhelmingly African, the face of South African presented in media is often a white one (this leads my thoughts to the perspective of colonized indigenous people without a country, but perhaps that’s a discussion for another day). But in the moment, my discomfort only took shape in nervous laughter and a change of subject.
In a country where talking about race–blatantly and loudly and without embarrassment–is the norm, I could not escape the truth that I was a yellow body raised in a foreign land. I look like people from Asia, but I have never been to Asia. My family traces their ancestry and culture to Vietnam and China, but their Asian American immigrant experience is displaced, many times removed from Vietnamese and Chinese culture today. My family history is in fact one of displacement, of immigration and refugee camps and the constant remaking of culture, family, and worlds.
This long thread of displacement leads me to where I am today: a child of diaspora, a displaced body without a country. For my white friends, there was no question of whether or not they belonged in America. Children of colonization do not have the identity crises of children of diaspora. And for me–my home in the U.S. is always subject to scrutiny, and I am too Westernized and displaced to belong in the homelands of my parents and grandparents.
I feel every part the perpetual foreigner. This is what I call diaspora feels.