Identity is fluid; context is everything.

Zoë McLaughlin,
USA.

Waiting in line for the Chinatown bus in New York City, a man approached me and began speaking Spanish. I squinted at him and briefly pondered my response. This was not the first time someone has expected me to speak Spanish. As soon as I began making forays out of my predominantly white suburb and into downtown Rochester, I started being read as Latina. “Are you Puerto Rican?” a man on the bus asked me once. I shook my head.

How I identify, I’ve found, depends greatly on where I am. In my high school graduating class I was one of a handful of Asians. In my college’s Chinese Students Association, I was the only half-Chinese member and the one who spoke the worst Chinese. In downtown Rochester, I can sometimes pass as Latina—an identity that is completely false. In Indonesia, I can almost always pass as Indonesian, as long as I say nothing, revealing my American accent.

Depending on where I am, different aspects of my identity come to the forefront, exposed by other people’s impressions when they look at me. It’s not me—it’s them, but nevertheless I shift and change depending on what people think they see when they look at me. On the good days, this malleability is a gift; on the bad days, I wonder if I’ve lost my true self entirely.

 

Tweets by Michele Norris