Cultural straddlers: navigating the fine line between “who I am” and “who I’m not”

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Recently, I decided to revisit Netflix’s BoJack Horseman  for the tenth time in my latest bout of summative procrastination. However, unlike previous viewings, one episode stood out to me: Season 5’s The Dog Days Are Over. This episodefollows Diane’s sabbatical in Vietnam to escape the weight of her recent divorce. Yet, as a Vietnamese American, she felt at odds with her culture in a way she didn’t expect. By the Vietnamese locals, she was seen as an American because she didn’t speak their language, but to American tourists, she was considered Vietnamese because of her appearance. While this mainly served comedic purposes in the show, it struck a chord with me. Having attended a predominantly white international school in Hong Kong, I too have struggled with my identity.  

When I first attended international school as a timid twelve-year-old, I was surrounded by people who looked different to me. Naturally, I did everything I could to fit in. I hated the fact I spoke broken English with a Chinese accent and I hated the food my Mum packed me for lunch, because these things made me different to my classmates. I developed an unhealthy resentment towards my own culture and internalised the idea that what made me different made me weird.

The years I had spent so desperately trying to distance myself from my roots came at a cost

I imagined what my life would be like if my family celebrated Christmas instead of Chinese New Year. I thought at least that way I would have something in common with my classmates. I wished my friends would be as excited about my red packets as I was about their Christmas presents. I refused to continue learning Chinese and stopped watching Cantonese TV shows I grew up loving. As a twelve-year-old standing at the doors of my teenage years, all I wanted to do was fit in.

By my senior year, I had naturally become less self-conscious of who I was. This was mostly because my English had improved, and I became more acclimatised to western culture. Hence, when I arrived at university in 2020, it felt easy. I understood student references, and there was barely a hint of accent left in my English. I finally fitted in.

The students here were curious about my culture, my Chinese name became something I could celebrate, not something I had to hide away from. Yet, this newfound euphoria soon faded as the second wave of Covid-19 made the prospect of going home for the holidays ever slimmer. As homesickness loomed over me, I began to look for others like me in Durham to feel a sense of home away from home. This was when I realised the years I had spent so desperately trying to distance myself from my roots came at a cost. It had alienated me from my own culture. When I tried connecting with my fellow international students, I realised we had nothing in common. I didn’t understand their banter, nor could I speak Mandarin very well because of my lack of practice. The realisation dawned on me — although we looked the same, we were nothing alike.

If I am neither English enough nor Chinese enough to fully inhabit either identity, then who am I?

I started to experience an identity crisis because I did not know where I belonged in this world. I wanted to reconnect with my roots, but I didn’t know where to begin. If I am neither English enough nor Chinese enough to fully inhabit either identity, then who am I? I became my twelve-year-old self again, and the same insecurities that consumed me eight years ago came back to haunt me. Unlike other mental health struggles, I found it hard to reach out to my friends. After all, how could they even remotely relate with my struggle? As a result, I felt alone and trapped under an unbearable weight, with seemingly no light at the end of the tunnel.

Fast-forward to the present, I was able to find solidarity in Diane’s experience. It felt bittersweet to see my struggle represented in the media. While my identity is still something I continue to struggle with today, the reassurance of knowing there are others like me who can relate to this problem makes me feel less alone. I hope by writing this essay, at least one person will resonate with my story the way I did with Diane.

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