To write is to nurture a love within myself.
The question I have been asked is - to write about my identity, what it means for me to be in between cultures. And so, you may be wondering why I am starting with the pen.
When I first fell in love with poetry, most everything I wrote about involved the crushes I had at the time. In high school, I wrote a memoir about that examined my heart-wrenching breakup. My teacher noted how, although she enjoyed my writing, I was mostly focused “on the boys,” and not myself.
It wasn’t until my sophomore year in college, when I attended “Louder than a Bomb,” the largest national youth poetry slam competition in the US, where I was struck with lightning like never had before. Suddenly, I felt all this electricity in my veins to write poetry again.
This time: about myself.
For this part of my identity that I was always ignoring, always trying to justify that I didn’t want to define me, I never found value in writing about this part of myself. Previously reserving writing as a space to pine for unrequited (and unworthy) love interests, no one ever told me that you can, and should, write in a pursuit to understand and love yourself. I didn’t want to be that Asian girl who writes about her racial identity, how being categorized into a stereotype and not knowing Mandarin Chinese defined my existence. I wanted to be more than that narrative, whatever that internalized racism meant to me at the time.
And yet, nearly every single high school student on that “Louder than a Bomb” stage wrote about their racial identity. Their narratives were their own powerful, raw, and vulnerable stories of their journey thus far. With such a palpable passion, it was their courage that gave me the permission to write about this part of myself. In writing, I explored all the questions that my plagued my adolescence - from anger about stereotypes to confusion about my in betweenness to empowering myself and taking pride in my yellow golden skin, writing soon became home.
I performed at open mics in China and in the US. I wrote and acted in an autobiographical play that examined my Asian American identity through the adventures I had around the world.
I felt alive on stage, alive in these words and in this healing process that I was too afraid to open myself up to in the first place. And, just like the high school students that inspired me, I too began to inspire others. For all the lovely people I have been so fortunate to meet and receive lovely compliments from, writing freed me, and gave me the power to be brave, to be bold, and to finally be myself.
I was initially stumped with this prompt because I’ve written about this topic so many times. What more could I say? Why am I still interested? Why is it, that whenever I am helping high school students with their essays for college applications and they want to explore the topic of identity through their writing, I act like the proud parent my own parents are when seeing me learn Mandarin and “embracing my roots"?
What is it about this pursuit that still intrigues me?
One of my students wanted to explore this topic through translation, and examine how he now thinks in English instead of Mandarin Chinese. He thought about abandoning the idea because the concept felt trite - to be in between cultures, balancing two worlds - ok, so what? We’ve heard this story too many times. What could he possibly add to this narrative that hasn’t already been said?
That, too, was my struggle for writing this piece. How do bring life into this topic again? How do you keep writing and finding more to explore, without sounding like another cliche in between cultures (an ACBC, if you will)?
Recently, I read a quote from Elizabeth Gilbert: “Don’t worry about being original. Just be authentic.” In the end, my student wrote about identity. It reminded me why I so love fostering this interest and curiosity amongst others: in order to be authentic, you must be true to yourself. His piece, which was vulnerable and personal, was a raw glimpse into questions, so similar to my own, that have, too, tormented, if not challenged, his existence.
I think, as I change and grow as a person, so does my identity, and so comes more questions, and even more wormholes to endlessly explore. Because identity doesn’t need to be seen as a crisis, or an ending point - it is a space for growth that is meant to be challenged, questioned, and reaffirmed. Identity is what it means to be an ABC - the space in between cultures that creates all this chaos and madness, along with joy and love.
To be caught in this moment of crisis is scary, but also, so exciting. Because if you allow yourself to embrace and live these questions that have previously plagued your existence, maybe you will be graced to meet others who, too, have these same questions and will never be satisfied with a simple answer (see this website!). And, if you are so lucky to have the honor, perhaps you will help them along in this journey, in whatever stage they are currently exploring, or embracing.
Sometimes, all we can do is simply just nurture and encourage others to write about this, like they always have been, or… like they’ve never even dared to try in the first place. Because isn’t it at least worth giving yourself the courage to try? What are the stories we keep locked up, that we are not allowing ourselves to write and to remember and to feel, which hold us back from being who we need to become?
To write is to feel - write when you are frustrated, heartbroken, and ecstatic - all in a pursuit to better understand yourself. To embrace who you are, and validate this identity. In between these lines, whether those are borders, cultures, words… there will always be a home in the middle. You just have to nurture it - finding the hope and value within this space.