Identity

When I was twelve, I entered what I called a “quarter-life crisis.” My math wasn’t bad; I was simply convinced I wasn’t going to make it into my fifties. Like most humans on the cusp of teenager-hood, I struggled with questions of identity and purpose. My mother emphasized school above all else, implying that I was either a good student or a waste of life. Teachers, on the other hand, cautioned that we were not our grades, standardized test scores, or audition results. No doubt this was intended to be reassuring—but to me, it was terrifying.

I thought I might be able to define myself with a career, but I never had a firm idea of what I wanted that to be. I toyed with pursuing music, writing, pharmacy, mathematics, law, astrophysics, firefighting, and more. Nothing stuck. People close to me have probably gotten sick of hearing me talk about Sylvia Plath’s fig tree so much, but it always resonated so powerfully with me, and still does. It made twelve-year-old me profoundly nihilistic. What was the point in trudging forward in nebulous blackness, toward more of the same? Wouldn’t it be better just to end it all now? Who would care about this loser who would never amount to anything?

If academic skill didn’t grant me purpose, then I needed some deep introspection to find something that would. Fearfully, I concluded I had nothing else going for me. I wasn’t the cool kid who always came up with fun ideas and got invited to everyone’s parties. I was a condescending asshole to kids who didn’t coast through classes as effortlessly as I did. I wasn’t the nicest or funniest or trendiest, or even the smartest. I had trouble maintaining my own opinions and wants, collapsing instead like an ironing board in the proximity of others’. I also had palpably abysmal self-esteem from believing myself ugly. I didn’t think confidence or lack thereof could be so obvious to others, but when a friend walked up and told me out of the blue one day, “Hey, you’re beautiful; don’t forget that,” I realized with a stab of embarrassment that my eyes told their own pathetic story in large neon letters. I hated being inside this skin, I didn’t talk to my family, and I didn’t want anything to do with anyone. I was an existential nightmare and waste of life.

It lasted for nearly ten years. And still returns for a periodic haunt.

When I started working full-time, I felt better. I like the feeling of productivity and contributing to a collective. Even if I didn’t genuinely enjoy it, I think it would have at least kept my mind too preoccupied to tip into the darker stuff. But Fight Club and anti-capitalists tell us we are not our jobs, either. We are not our mortgages, furniture, or kitchen appliances. Plus, work has been distressing lately, to the point where I’m questioning everything and feeling broken. So now I have two problems:

  1. I still don’t have a sense of self outside of work.
  2. When work goes poorly, my sense of self begins to dissolve again.

Harry Potter suggests that identity is a choice. You are in Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, or Slytherin because that’s what matters to you and that’s what you strive to be. This feels one-dimensional to me, however. I’m a lot more than a character trait. I’m also a lot of things that I don’t care to make into a Big Deal or factor into Who I Am. I can’t even test consistently into one Hogwarts house; it’s always a toss-up between Ravenclaw and Slytherin.

Are we to be our experiences, then? I don’t want to be my depression, androgyny, or queerness. I don’t want to wrap my identity around being a former smoker, drug user, alcoholic, and rape victim. But in a weird way, I sort of do. Two of my friends went out for dinner today to talk about mental illness and writing. Hey, I know about those things and would love to talk about them, too, I wanted to say and invite myself. I held back because I didn’t want to issue a “claim.” Tons of people take these sorts of things and are wildly successful at deriving artistic inspiration from them and making names for themselves, but I don’t want the labels. Maybe what I really want is the sense of community around pain and conflict, without having those seep into my individual self. Maybe it’s a little bit of imposter syndrome, too.

I’m not supposed to be my job, but I loved it, and now I don’t know what I am without that love. I do have a stronger personality now: wiser, bolder, kinder, more equitable, more caring and generous, and concerned about what’s best for the big picture and the long term. I am a writer, musician, gamer, exercise enthusiast, and significant other. Most days, that feels like enough. When put to text, it certainly looks like enough! I’m still figuring myself out, though. It’s been a long, arduous journey of healing to get to this point, and I’ve still got a ways to go.

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Jobs

I had a hard time understanding work when I was a kid. Not the semantic meaning of the word, but what people actually did when they were “at work.” My father has been a pharmacologist for over twenty-five years, but he didn’t tell me his title until I needed to enter his occupation for college applications. Until then, all I knew was that he worked at a drug company. I jokingly wondered if that meant he was a drug dealer, but knew he was too nerdy and goofy for it to be true. Whatever he did, he seemed to have a lot of free time. He liked looking up NBA statistics and potential universities for me to attend. Since the office was less than twenty minutes away, he frequently came home for lunch and a nap. My one memory of Take Your Daughter to Work Day consisted of a hazy image of a dry-ice freezer and little else.

The jobs I understood reasonably well were doctor, dentist, teacher, firefighter, musician, actor, athlete, chef, and taxi driver. My mother said I was too squeamish around blood to be a doctor, though I didn’t consider myself so. Musical employment was too capricious and therefore out of the question. Instead, her dream was for me to be a lawyer. I didn’t feel particularly enthused about this because I didn’t know what it entailed on a day-to-day basis, and she couldn’t say, either. So I went through high school and even college trying to get through classes just for the sake of getting through them, with no end goal or career trajectory. The concept of life after school confused and terrified me. 

Unsurprisingly, then, my first job out of college was at Starbucks. For a year, I wrote orders on cups; “hand-crafted” lattes and Frappuccinos; and plastered on a smile in the face of complaints, insults, and demands for free stuff. I heard one could make a good salary after a few years of climbing the store ranks or transferring to corporate, and wondered dully if this was going to be it for the rest of my life. One supervisor who was a couple years my senior had already been with the ‘Bux for six years, supporting her disabled mother and sister on this income. A middle-aged woman joined the team when she lost her office job and the recession made it too difficult to find a similar replacement. Another barista had worked there for three years, quit to pursue a dream, and returned a few years later when it didn’t work out. 

These people were hardworking, bright, hilarious, passionate, and team-oriented. Their struggles, and those of other colleagues, inspired yet frightened me. After an insular, middle-class upbringing and expensive liberal arts college education, this was my first time really getting to know folks like this. We were all in this together, dealing with this job that was far from ideal. We just didn’t know how else to pay the bills, get affordable health insurance, and make it to the next month. Survival had never felt so overwhelming. It was eye-opening, to say the least. And though it was embarrassing to have my own naiveté smack me upside the head, I was extremely grateful for the experience. 

I got a massive break when one of my closest friends gave me a life-changing opportunity that set me on a career path I could actually feel excited about. For the first time, I felt a drive to succeed for my own sake, not for the amusement of besting others. I had tangible goals and felt capable of contributing something real to a business. I finally felt worthy of ambition. With this job, I was busy, productive, no longer on my feet all day, and making an annual salary that would have taken multiple barista years combined to match. For this, I will always be grateful to my friend.

The thing about ambition, though, is a tendency to feed on itself. The more I learned and achieved, the more I knew I still had much to learn and achieve. Once adrift at sea with no concept of what land looked like, I soon not only found it, but wanted to leave my personal flag on it and even reshape it. I started experiencing brief spells of discontent, doubt, and obligation regarding my career path every few months. I wondered if this was truly the best application of my talents, if I was truly helping anyone. The scope of responsibilities and accomplishments felt trivial. My employee presence was merely a cog in a colossal machine, a voice shouted into an abyss. The money was never enough. I should have been an engineer. I should have been a doctor. 

Two weeks ago, I attended a Meetup about colonization of digital spaces and structures, hosted by the group Ethical Tech. The panelists led a fascinating discussion about a broad span of topics, and it was one of the best Meetups I’ve attended to date. The gist was that modern technology has been trending white, male, and English-speaking. How many of the rest of us feel empowered and helpful in the industry? How does this affect potential development, innovation, and contributions from others? How does this distort other cultures and worldviews? What can we do about it? Does it really matter? As I walked to Penn Station after the session, my head swam with insights, reflections—and renewed guilt over the nature of my full-time job. 

When did you become such a capitalist drone? admonished my inner social justice warrior. All you’re doing is helping big corporations save some money so they can get even bigger. 

It doesn’t have to be such a bad thing to enjoy this kind of position, another side retorted. People should contribute to the betterment of society however they can. We’re not all cut out to be protesters and rioters. Right now, your job gives you free time to push social messaging through your writing. You’re gaining experience, influence, and wealth to use someday to effect more powerful change.

Not like those social justice groups have been offering to hire you, anyway, a drier voice remarked. 

The existential unease has been harder to shake this time. I guess what it comes down to is: do you work to live, or live to work? I’ve grown to prefer the latter, so it pains me to feel my work isn’t meaningful. One of my patriarchy-smashing, anti-capitalist friends from college would say, “You are not your work. Productivity does not equate to happiness.” Oh, but it does—at least for me. It’s wild, how much of a role jobs can play in people’s self-esteem, happiness, relationships, life goals, and more. When I think back to my aimless days, I’m surprised and pleased by how much I’ve changed. Yet there are still days when I feel aimless in a different way. All I want to do is change the world, you know? 

Pressure

I have a difficult time knowing when I cross the line between self-discipline and being overly tough on myself. I was raised to believe that anything is possible when you try hard enough, and I derive genuine happiness from feeling “productive”—a dangerous recipe for stress, impatience, sleep deprivation, and a frustrating inability to relax. Sylvia Plath’s proverbial fig tree speaks volumes to my perpetually anxious self. So much to do and learn; not nearly enough hours in a day, or days in a lifetime.

Years ago, I wanted a senior position at a start-up company whose imminent IPO would make me a millionaire. On the side, I wanted to be a writer, data scientist, programmer, electronic music producer/DJ, singer-songwriter, celebrity gamer, poker player, photographer, weight lifter, and marathon runner. Preferably all at the same time, with a bustling social life to boot. I also liked cooking and cleaning my apartment frequently. Every day after work, I stood at a crossroads with an overwhelming number of to-do items and only a handful of hours for tackling a single one. I knew it was crazy, but I needed to do everything and embody this overachieving ideal built up in my mind. If other people could juggle multiple major endeavors, so could I.

Last year, I decided to focus on writing. I have still been pursuing other hobbies and interests, but to a lesser degree. I enrolled in a twelve-week writing workshop at the local county college, rebooting the creativity engine. At the beginning of 2017, I vowed to post an essay or short story here each week. Much more reasonable, right? But now I have missed three or four weeks, and I am beating myself up pretty hard for it. Things have been ramping up at work. I have been spending more quality time with my boyfriend and his family. I have been traveling, attending talks, visiting museums, reading, and watching films—all experiences from which I seek storytelling inspiration. Are these positive signs of a more balanced life, or pathetic excuses for slacking off from a simple goal? My answer fluctuates with the time of day and my mood.

I think I am finally ready to start working on a novel, but is that merely another excuse for not writing any more weekly essays? The weekly essays have been a challenging yet satisfying exercise. I would love to keep them up for the rest of the year, and a big part of me feels like a failure for stopping them a third of the way through. However, I am excited about this novel idea and I want to give it an earnest shot. Maybe once I finish it, I can finally ease some pressure off myself.

Regardless of what happens, hopefully you’ll hear from me again soon enough.

Mortality

Last year was an especially bad time for my dust and pollen allergies. Every morning, I would wake up exhausted from a night of grabbing tissues for my alternately stuffy and runny nose. I would feel as if I hadn’t had a sip of water in days, even when I’d had a full glass right before going to bed. My throat was constantly sore, and my skin itched and peeled all over. I tried running extra laundry cycles, scrubbing and rescrubbing my floors and surfaces, installing an air filter, and adjusting my diet—all of which only marginally helped. When I finally went to the doctor, she told me it was “just allergies” and to take allergy medicine every morning. Almost immediately, my symptoms stopped.

The most bewildering part of all this, and the reason I didn’t try taking allergy medicine sooner, was that this was happening in March. Allergies were nothing new to me, but typically they weren’t triggered when greenery was still struggling to reemerge from the last grey clutches of frost. This is my life now, I thought dully as I continued to pop my daily Zyrtec well into October. As with the onset of puberty, something in my body had changed forever and I simply had to deal with it.

Two days ago, I went to the doctor again for an annual checkup. “There are some abnormalities in your blood work,” she said in greeting as she entered the room and took a seat before me. I was taken aback. I had in fact noticed some minor issues or changes, but dismissed them as inevitable side effects of aging. In the two seconds before her next sentence, my mind fluttered frantically from one conjecture to another. It’s cancer. I’m a mutant. It’s Zika. The lab couldn’t even identify my sample as human blood. Then she said, “You have hypothyroidism,” and the pieces clicked into place. That explained the variation in bowel movements, feeling of dryness, and struggle to lose weight despite cutting my caloric intake and going to the gym five days a week. Now I have to take medication for this every morning for the next three months, and then follow up more blood work and another doctor’s visit to see if my thyroid gland has gotten any better. If not, this will be yet another uncooperative corporeal component to deal with for the rest of my days.

This is the beginning of the end, I thought during the drive home. As human beings, we are naturally concerned about mortality and tend to say this about a lot of things that make us feel old. When we stop running around, jumping, and skinning our knees with reckless abandon, and instead start calculating odds and assessing risk before acting. When we can no longer drink all night and wake up energetic and hangover-free the following morning. When a childhood friend has a baby, gets a divorce, or passes away from a heart attack. When friends and family move away, lose touch, and move on. When kids born in the year 2000 can drive. Hypothyroidism is hardly cause for doom and despair—especially when it’s as mild as mine appears to be—but it means more pills, restrictions, and yet another speed bump on the great slowdown.

Yet these days I find myself able to reflect on beginnings of ends with a lot less bitterness and franticness, and more serene acceptance. It helps to recognize and remember all the positive changes that have transpired among the negative ones. I’m no longer perpetually depressive, anxious, angry, self-hating, or meek in the face of bullshit. I’m much more confident and focused on achieving personal goals, which I never used to have at all. Most importantly, I don’t dwell on regrets for hours a day. If this is what approaching mortality means, it’s not necessarily so bad.

Classical Music

When I was a child, my mother purchased pop-music CDs almost compulsively. Many a car ride was accompanied by the likes of Celine Dion or the Backstreet Boys, even though the lyrics often escaped her. It was difficult to say whether she did it more out of genuine enjoyment of the tunes or as a way for us all to assimilate into American culture. Perhaps as testimony to the latter, she took the Now, That’s What I Call Music! compilations as gospel and bought volumes one through fourteen.

However, my parents have always been music enthusiasts, with an impressive collection of CDs and vinyl records acquired prior to immigrating to the United States. Some were by contemporary Chinese or Japanese artists. Others were more familiar to me as a fledgling music student: Bach, Beethoven, Handel, and more. But compared to the catchy hooks and refrains of the pop albums, these were stodgy and uninteresting.

I started learning the piano at age five, but it was a perfunctory chore. Even when I started playing the flute in the school concert band three years later, which I liked a great deal more than the piano, it was simply something to do. Sonatinas were indistinguishable from études. Pieces didn’t have melodies or harmonies; they were merely a mess of notes on a page, until I could brute-force through them and get that validating checkmark from my instructor. With no one telling me otherwise, I assumed the twofold purpose of practice was to get faster at calculating rhythms and triangulating chords, and then train the fingers to reproduce them from muscle memory. I remained staunchly unmoved by the power of music for years, despite being surrounded by and participating in it from such a young age. I didn’t even know emotions were supposed to be part of the picture.

It wasn’t until my eighth-grade concert with the Central New Jersey Regional Orchestra that I felt music. As I listened to the swelling, spirited strings in Brahms’ majestic Academic Festival Overture, something stirred, awakening, within the stone-cold machinery of my performance engine. I had a sudden sense of being part of a great movement with all these other players, something ineffably noble and timeless and beautiful that was carrying us like a tidal wave up and away from these rigid chairs under the hot stage lights. For the first time, I played my brief solo with an intent to shine, not merely to get the notes out. And as the piece slowed to its final booming notes, I didn’t resent having to take those extra-deep breaths and sustain the sound; instead, I reveled in our collective triumph and glory.

That transformative moment affected not only my playing, but also the way I heard pop music. Though I still appreciated its catchiness (and loved to perform it at karaoke sessions), it was no longer something I cared to listen to all the time. Finally I understood why all these works of classical music had survived for hundreds of years and attracted listeners from China to the US. I fell in love.

Congee

My mother does not consult cookbooks or recipes. Her cooking flows from an inner font of raw knowledge and talent sown in China, cultivated by the immigrant experience, and harvested in motherhood. She has a gift for spinning threadbare ingredients into nourishing meals, throwing them onto the stove with a mysterious bit of this and that. The dishes always emerge expertly prepared, the flavors perfectly balanced. No recipe could have directed or captured those nuances.

As a child, I never took much interest in observing the process. I didn’t think food was particularly interesting, or her cooking anything special. We were far from rich, but privileged enough never to go hungry. It was my inherent understanding that mothers simply made meals appear in the household. Whenever family friends asked, “Don’t you think your mom is a great chef? Don’t you feel lucky?” I figured they were being polite. Mothers were supposed to make food like this for their children. If I ever became one someday, I would find myself naturally able to do the same.

I realized how silly and misguided these assumptions were when I went to college. I knew how to scramble eggs and boil spaghetti, but I had a long way to go to reach my mother’s skill level. There was no way this gap could be magically bridged upon having a child. Furthermore, I had no idea how to prepare proper Chinese food. This was a daunting mantle for a daughter sprouted in a different country and language, and I was so concerned with authenticity that I didn’t dare approach it.

Since college graduation, I have been going grocery shopping on a regular basis and primarily subsisting on my own home-cooked meals. I have taken a cooking class in France and followed dozens of recipes of various cuisines. I consider myself reasonably adept in the kitchen. Yet, absurd as it may seem, still there remained a mental block discouraging me from tackling even the simplest dishes of my heritage, such as congee or stir-fried shredded potatoes. The handful of attempts I did make throughout the years left me feeling fraudulent and unsatisfied. Cooking was just one more thing proving I wasn’t a “real” Chinese person.

My Indian boyfriend’s mother told me a few months ago, without a trace of shame or embarrassment, that she sometimes used recipes found online. “You can Google lots of good ones these days,” she said to my great surprise. Her cooking seemed to be executed with the same kind of effortless perfection as my mother’s, which I assumed could have only been derived from their similar lifestyles, milestones, and cultural values. Hearing that this magic could be reproduced from recipes—and more importantly, that it could still be “authentic”—finally unlocked something in me.

That weekend, I went to the local Chinese supermarket and picked up jars of pickled vegetables. I went home, looked up a recipe for congee, and made it for the first time in my life. As I ate it with the pickled vegetables, I couldn’t help laughing like a joyful salad lady. It was merely rice and water, which I had always known, but it was from my childhood. And at last, I was no longer weirdly intimidated by it.

Dating Archetypes

The Abuser

The Abuser does not value or respect you as an equal. His own thirst for control takes priority over your health, happiness, and well-being. You find yourself doing things you would have previously believed to be out of character, and never in a good way. Apologizing for having the nerve to go out with your own friends for once instead of his. Crawling for his forgiveness after spilling the beer and making him hurt you. Needing to prove your love in various ways from which he himself remains curiously exempt.

(There are plenty of existing studies and literatures that describe abusive behavior far better than I am qualified to do, so this description is by no means comprehensive.)

You stay with him because he is uncannily manipulative and knows how to charm you into believing he is not a monster even after you’ve felt his claws and fangs.

The Loser

This type of partner offers little to no value to you in a relationship. Although he does not actually hurt or manipulate you, he is still a burden who drags down your sense of self-worth lower than it would be if you were simply single. He is a leech and perpetual work-in-progress wholly uninterested in making an effort.

Be careful not to assume someone is a Loser simply because earns a lower salary or does not know how to cook. A partner can and should improve your quality of life in many other important ways: emotional support, quality time, exposure to new interests and experiences, humor, assistance with chores, and so on. A Loser may achieve some of these from time to time, but the overall picture is bleak.

You date him when you think you don’t deserve any better.

The Oscillator

When the circuits are on, this individual can be a great Friend—maybe even a Saint (see below). He spends tons of time with you, makes you laugh, and remembers key details. When they’re off, he is cool and distant, leaving you wondering what he’s up to or what you might have done to push him away. This fluctuating, unpredictable behavior can make him seem addictively mysterious and intriguing to the unseasoned dater. Furthermore, because there seems to be so much potential for a real relationship, you can’t help thinking you might be able to change him and/or get him to fall in love with you someday.

You see him when you crave those intense intervals of passion. When you become surer of yourself and what you want, the lack of communication and commitment becomes unacceptable.

The Friend

This is not about the “friendzone,” a fallacious concept typically popular with immature, disgruntled victims of unrequited infatuation. Rather, the Friend is someone you date because you have a lot of things in common and get along well. You both love outdoorsy activities, evenings of wine and board games, and the HBO show Westworld. You have generally similar worldviews and life goals, though some of the nuances may differ or even conflict.

Occasionally, you may undergo periods of restlessness and wonder if there should be “more.” Maybe you should be looking for someone with a value system that aligns more closely with yours, or who inspires more passion and drive. You then dismiss these questions as side effects of having heard too many fairy tales as a kid.

Ultimately, you stick with the Friend since he is loyal and has never done anything wrong, and you do not know if you would be able to find anyone better.

The Saint

The Saint is infinitely, mind-bogglingly patient. He is always kind, understanding, and respectful. He is never angry with you when you forget “one last thing” on your way out the door, lead him several blocks in the wrong direction in search of a restaurant, or accidentally punch him in the stomach in your sleep. He makes you feel motivated, energetic, and stronger.

Dating the Saint is undoubtedly easier and better than the Abuser or Loser, but it comes with its own surprising set of difficulties. You feel ashamed for being annoyed at him for trifling matters because you know he would never do the same to you. When you hurt him, the awareness inflicts deeper pain within yourself than any rage-filled screaming match. You are forced to reflect upon your own faults and how to become a better person.

You hold onto him because he is the embodiment of grace and unconditional love.