My last class of the day was a computer science section, and I walked out of Barrows Hall into the darkness. I hadn’t had dinner yet, and decided to head towards Telegraph Avenue, breathing on my hands to warm them.
There, on Sproul Plaza, was a lone figure. He introduced himself as Huineng, the last Patriarch of Chan Buddhism. We talked about class, and apparently he knew Python, so I thought, OK, I’ll ask him for help on this particular problem.
He told me that he was illiterate, but that he would like me to read it to him. Confused, I asked him how he could possibly know how to code without knowing how to read.
He smiled, and pointed to the sky.
“The finger that points at the moon is not the moon.”
You might have figured out that this story is complete bullshit. After all, Huineng passed away in the early 700s, and everyone knows that computer science only became a legitimate field at least … like, 200 years after that.
But it doesn’t matter whether the story is true or not. The words are not the moon.
The essence is not found in the words of description, nor is the essence found in the explanation. The essence is what it is, and nothing more.
Fast forward to millennia later — a friend and I were talking, and he asked me how I identified. It should have been clear to me what he was asking, but for some reason I was taken aback.
“You know, like sexuality.”
Oh. That’s a fair question.
But in the back of my mind, I wondered. What is it about attraction that defines who I am? Does this mean I also identify as someone who likes pasta? I know, it’s a bit of an invalid comparison. The queer community has culture and ideas coursing throughout its history, and pasta-eaters have … shared restaurant experiences, I suppose. But to identify with my sexuality seems to me that I am stating that my sexuality is an integral part of who I am.
Even to speak about my ethnicity, to say that I identify as an Asian American, seems like I’m passing over every single person’s nuances and personal experiences and cultures and families and stories and beliefs and histories, and all of that is just … Asian American. And all of that is me.
When I throw my life into that vast ocean, everyone else’s lives are superimposed onto mine, and I begin to drown. I get caught in the current of the majority, and it’s not easy to push against it.
I feel uncomfortable labeling myself because it feels like a perceived entanglement of social norms when I assign part of my identity to that label. And if my labels and someone else’s labels are at odds, then I guess I am “us” and they are “them.” Maybe it isn’t outright conflict. But with every shared identity comes an otherness delegated to the outside, a nagging exclusion at the back of my mind.
But it seems natural for people to categorize themselves that way because these communities are undeniably influential in how we act and think, and how we impact other people. Why is that? It seems like the most natural thing in the world to meet someone who is Korean American and to feel a small spark of familiarity — to feel closer to someone because of shared experiences that feel unique.
To say my shared experiences are who I am is to say that my identity is based on mutual tradition or activism, rather than those experiences acting as a way for me to understand myself more intimately. Like I’m being outsourced to a group that shifts and changes and takes me along for the ride.
Being a member of queer or Asian communities is something that I value and love. But I view the relationship between my identity and my communities as one of coexistence, rather than one consuming the other. I don’t think of just a few words when I follow in the footsteps of Jackie Chan, Jean Valjean, and Mewtwo — when I ask myself, “Who am I?”
I think of a brilliant and infinitely colorful explosion of thought and emotion. Who I am is the people I love, the things that I cherish, the pasta that, to clarify, I’m not sexually attracted to.
The finger that points at the moon is not the moon.
Louis Lee writes the Wednesday column on what you just read. Contact them at [email protected].