Sunday, May 25, 2014

Forge meaning, build identity

Instead of working on my paper, I do my usual procrastination and watch TED talks instead. And then I feel the urgent need to blog about my thoughts instead of working on my paper.

Today I came across Andrew Solomon's talks: How the worst moments in our lives make us who we are, and Love, no matter what. I highly recommend the talks.

Solomon built a career interviewing people who have been through very traumatic events, and learns how they make meaning of lives. He also interviewed those who has children who are not "typical", for example, parents of mass murderer, deaf children, autistic children, Down Syndrome, dwarfs, etc. He also talked about his personal experience of growing up being bullied for being gay.

The major theme identity - personal acceptance, parental acceptance, acceptance by close friends and family, and social acceptance. He learned that many people who have been through adverse situations should to accept the experience as part of their identity, building character and furthering their knowledge of the diversity of humanity. Some parents mentioned given the choice, they want to eliminate the "abnormal" conditions so the kids could have an easier life, but they wouldn't change the experience because they themselves have learnt so much and gained so much compassion. Solomon himself decided to have children after interviewing many of these parents, as he felt that the message he got from these people (and from his own mother) was that the experience of parenthood brings more reward in terms of personal growth, love, and joy that is worth all the worries and anxieties and possibility of loss and kids being pain in the butt.

In more liberal societies in the West, society have come to accept more and more the diversity of humanity, be it homosexual, transgendered,  mentally or physically disabled, as long as one is not causing harm to others. However, in the East, where the group coherence (in the unit of family, clan, ethnicity, country etc.) matters more than the individual, being different -- whether genetic or by choice, is looked down upon. So in that sense, I'm extremely "lucky" that I was not born gay or disabled, not because I think there' anything wrong with them, but that my mother would first blame herself for giving birth to an "abnormal" child and then make sure that I feel like I'm a horribly flawed being better off never been born to this Earth, because I would shame her deeply for not being typical.

So I turned out to be super-typical in the academic sense for an Asian kid (straight As with a postgraduate degree).  Then I run into this strange situation -- I became a scientist instead of a doctor or lawyer, professions that people are more familiar with, so instead of being proud of me, my family don't know what to make of me.. I can't tell if it's because I'm not married with kids yet, or because I'm not making a sh*tload of money, or that instead of living next door to parents, taking care of them for the remainder of my life, I moved to a country that nobody ever thought of ever visiting in their life times, I was met with ambivalence when I went home. I couldn't tell if they were jealous of me, or think lowly of me because I'm being selfish for abandoning my parents to go to a foreign country, or an idiot (for not making money and not getting a husband), or if they just don't give a rat's ass if I get hit by a train or eaten by a shark tomorrow.

Every human being has many identities. I'm (not in any particular order) a daughter, sister, aunt, cousin, niece, heterosexual, animal lover, spiritual, atheist, yogi, martial artist, rock climber, snowboarder, academic, scientist, Chinese-Canadian, citizen of the world, Liberal, postdoc, confused soul, dispensable employee, a failed-vegetarian, cheap foreign labour, etc, etc, but we all have our own prioritization in term of our self-identities. We tend to become friends with those who respect and accept our foremost treasured identities and distance from those who refuse to acknowledge what we see ourselves to be.

I don't think I am the most angry/sad about whether my extended family cares about me or not. I've come to realize I am most hurt by the fact that my extended family pointedly chose to not acknowledge my researcher identity at all - it's what I've been working on the longest and hardest my entire life -- I admit at the expense of not neglecting my other roles as a caring niece, cousin, daughter or aunt.

I guess they purposely chose not to acknowledge my primary identity because they're fearful they won't be able to understand anything that comes out of my mouth, but I feel the hurt nevertheless. I also feel that I can't change this distance between me and my family (and even some friends) if I choose to quit my profession today and pick up a more regular job, like teaching English or becoming a secretary. So it's better if I just carry on with forging my own meaning and building my own identity than to try to please them somehow.

This scientist career is not going so well though. As some big named young successful professors have pointed out, the 21st century is a great time to do science (because of all the emerging novel technologies which are enabling us to make incredible advances and findings), but a terrible time to become a scientist (the system allows very few people to succeed and the rest can bite the dust). It's what I chose for myself so I don't regret it. What I feel bad is the terrible relationship I have today with family, due to my tunnel vision and neglect. Also, the lack of experience in the romantic department also makes the current dating situation difficult.

I went to see a career coach and she told me that I seem to have a lot of difficulties making decisions,  so I avoid making them, which then keeps me stuck in unhappy situations. So I think I need to work on building more identities as contingency plans, and simultaneously take my identities less seriously, since others don't see me with the same ID as I do anyways.


  1. often i wonder if i should write
    does it really matter
    does it make a difference, the answer to that is it does indeed but not in deed.

    1. Hello Anonymous. I do think you should write, even if no one else reads it (but people do though). Every time I read my own old writing, I learn something new. We all change, and you will be surprised by how differently you think a few years from now. I wish you the best of luck.