My 11 Minutes of Fame
It feels surreal to see your 18-year-old self plastered over the internet and discussed by strangers who seem to think you are still that same 18-year-old.
I noticed recently that my TEDx talk from 2016 has attracted some attention again. The official TED account picked it up and posted it across their social media. Last time I checked, the video has around three million views.
It feels surreal to see your 18-year-old self plastered over the internet and discussed by strangers who seem to think you are still that same 18-year-old. Imagine being known to three million people — but only as an 11 minute snapshot of the person you were five years ago. In my case, you’d need to factor in a few identity crises, a matriculation, two graduations, and of course, maturity, to close the gap between the person in the video and the person writing this post.
The experience I describe in the speech, of feeling stuck between “Chinese” and “American,” seems trivial to me today.1 Eighteen-year-old me could only conceptualize personal identity as something in relation to other groups. But I’ve learned that identity doesn’t necessitate pinpointing yourself on a pre-existing matrix; it can be a highly individualized conception of your own experiences and desires.
Today I try to embrace my own identity as independent from group identity.2 I don’t care as much anymore whether I identify as Chinese or American3; ultimately my relationship to these labels changes nothing about who I intrinsically am. I have no desire to categorize my personhood into things that group me into either culture. I intentionally detach myself from institutional labels — every time I’ve tethered myself to an external variable has turned out horribly. I inevitably grow anxious when my connection to a particular, valued identity lapses. It’s better to just conform to no strict identities at all.4
That doesn’t mean I don’t struggle with my Asian-ness. I still struggle, but on different terms. I struggle because I know other people will make assumptions about me based on my race. I worry that others won’t see me as a complete person, and only identify me based on what they think I would be like. I know who I am, but will they? Will I need to go to desperate lengths to prove who I am to them? Perhaps the next step on this journey is to no longer care what other people think.
I’m glad I gave the talk when I was 18, and not 23. It captured a moment in my life when I could speak about my experience only in raw, personal terms, mostly uninfluenced by academic theory or even data. I did not know enough about other people’s opinions and experiences to craft a talk that was meant to go viral. I knew only enough to talk about myself. That self was too naive to consider that I may be over-sharing — exposing a part of my psyche to the world that I was simultaneously exposing, for the first time, to myself. But that same naïveté allowed for an authenticity that resonated with people around the globe. And in a world as polarized as the one we live in now, it can’t hurt to have more recognitions of commonality.
My previous feelings are still valid. I’ve just grown out of them now.
I know this is ultimately futile, but I can try.
Unless I’m traveling, in which case I pick the lesser of two evils according to that region’s history and popular opinion.