I am … not living the American teenage dream

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I’ve always been scared of introducing myself. 

Still, that hasn’t stopped the customary American tradition of giving introductions at the start of each year. I’ve faced dozens of activities at this point: the quirky “Introduce yourself with an adjective,” the classic “Name, age, favorite food,” and even a memorably awkward “If you were a dance move, which would you be?” that I don’t think anyone in that class wants to relive.

Among them all, the activity I dreaded the most was the “I am” poem. As teachers handed out blank sheets with tauntingly long lines, all starting with the same concrete and demanding words “I am,” a familiar anxiety bled through my chest. To me, this activity was a race against the clock to find a collection of my most typical American attributes before the moment I would stand up with my identity in my hands, waiting to be judged by my audience. 

Over the years, I noticed that my peers would fill those long lines with happy memories, moments and qualities; they characterized themselves as carefree and lively people living the ever-so-ideal American teenage dream. Though I knew that the moments that comprised my identity were not all perfect, I presented myself as a collection of the most attractive, joyful ones to blend in. In fact, I wanted to blend in so well that I would be forgotten by the end of the activity.

See, if I blended in that well, I was living the dream too, right?

Right?

No. This activity haunted me because it reminded me that I was stretching the truth and maybe even lying to cover up times in my life that weren’t pretty or easy to share. 

Truthfully, my identity lies in moments that I cannot imagine sharing to my peers. I have mastered the art of drawing a curtain between the reality of who I am and the surface-level, minute-long introductions I give every year. How would they react if I really told them?

If I open the curtain now, how will I look to you?

What if I told you that I am a result of the worst moments I’ve ever experienced? 

That “I am” a result of the times I watched my Asian peers be shamed for the food they ate? The time I laughed along with my non-Asian classmates when they pulled their eyes and asked me to identify different Asians based on the angle? The time someone made fun of my Chinese middle name and taunted me with “Cha Cha” for the rest of the day?

That “I am” someone who found some of my greatest comfort and friendship in books because I related to the characters more than the girls in real life? Who enjoyed dumplings in public only when they started showing up on Pinterest boards? 

That “I am” a result of screaming night markets and loud, bubbly families that get glares from the public? Of the time I stood in painfully awkward silence as my classmates sang “Sweet Caroline” at my freshman homecoming because I had never learned the words, having been raised on Taiwanese songs?

These moments, stained with embarrassment and shame, are so truthfully mine that I am reminded of them in hundreds of actions in my everyday life. They have also shaped some of my best attributes – my empathy, my confidence and my attention to detail.

Still, I hesitate to share these aspects of myself. Moments and attributes that define who “I am” can’t be romanticized to something comparable to the American teenage dream. Honestly, I’m still not truly proud of them — in the way I reacted to them, the fact that I have had to face them and certainly not as distinct parts of my identity.

Perhaps it was because I recognized that my identity lay outside of the ordinary answers that I felt such pressure to conform. Or perhaps it was my belief that my pride and my gratefulness about who I am were completely independent. Maybe it was the fact that the beauty of these terrible memories can’t be seen by the idle listener. No matter what the fact was, I also felt like my peers did not deserve to hear these parts of me. I simply didn’t trust them enough.

I’ve grown to see that it’s a part of American culture to become unwaveringly sure about who we are. The weakness of this mentality is that we are never fully honest with ourselves. We paint ourselves as the result of the best, shiniest and maybe even fake aspects of the life we have.

So instead, I will choose to introduce myself like this:

I am Isabella Chia Chien Chang. I am not living the American teenage dream, but I am proud of my identity. I am proud that I have begun to see my core moments as the strength in my identity rather than the shame. I am proud that I recognize my background as something worth sharing, regardless of how it is received. 

Now, I can admit: “I am” the result of eating mooncakes with my family during Lunar New Year when the rest of my neighborhood is fast asleep, soft Chinese lullabies, helping my grandmother talk to the grocery store clerk and every other personal memory that I’ve slowly learned to embody.

I’ve never been fully honest in introductions, but this is the truest one I could give.

Bella Chang writes the Friday column on being a person of color at UC Berkeley. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.