on given vs. chosen identities.

A triptych story about origins.


Part 1: The appearance of identity

“So… where are you from?”

Such a simple question, yet like an old reflex I feel anxiety and resistance involuntarily spike in me. While quick answers feel entirely unsatisfactory, I’m often tempted to reply “it’s complicated” when there’s not much time for long explanations.

“You look Vietnamese.”

Sure, yes, let’s play that fun game. The one called “Guess where Fei is from”. The amount of actual fun will, unsurprisingly, be rather limited because it is a game where we both are bound to lose: my appearance offering exactly zero useful clues, and the player knowing next to nothing about me – except my looks.

“Japanese? Korean?… Chinese?? You speak Cantonese?”

Earlier in life and during my travels, my almond eyes, thick horse-like hair and flatter nose would usually elicit predictable guesses like these. Here in Canada, Asians are fairly common so they dig a bit deeper and listen to my English for bonus clues. However, after 10+ years in Toronto I sound similar to someone who could be born in Canada, so the way I speak is a decoy at best. 

Either way, I smile and shake my head in faux disappointment. 

Perhaps this is a tad unfair. You may think: Fei, you’re doing this to yourself. You’re setting people up for failure. And, maybe this is true. Even so, it depends on what I’m trying to achieve. Do I take not even the slightest bit of enjoyment from letting victims chase a fake target, like the bubbly delight one gets from watching a video of a cat chasing a laser pointer on a wall? Most of the time I indeed do it for fun… 

Until I hear about the latest high-profile act of hate against Asians. These always hit me in an odd way. I experience the sort of cognitive dissonance you feel when you learn your Asian body can be a target for hate and objectification, except your mind is not much Asian, and you wonder about the justice of it all.

That, my friend, is the underlying point to this otherwise pointless guessing game: You may think I’m ___ but I’m not. Be wary of making assumptions about people based on their looks. It’s not fair. It’s not right. 

“Ok, ok, tell me then… What country are you actually from?”

Great, I quip to myself, they’ve given up. I make a tiny expression of victory, but in the deeper, private quarters of my mind I chalk it up to yet another piece of evidence demonstrating the disconnect between my looks and my lived experience. And it’s this perfectly-orchestrated leadup to this bittersweet moment where I can finally play the secret hand I’ve been holding all along…

“Norway. Born and raised. Left with my family when I was 18.”

And the truth is… It’s really about one thing: survival. My survival. As an individual.

Part of privilege is being able to be seen as an individual instead of a representation of your entire culture.

@tagaq on Twitter

Part 2: The fit of identity

The tables are flipped now. The “Norway” card, while similar to a joker, is all you need to win the game of citizenship. By mere invocation, the protective Nordic identity wraps itself around me. I feel safe, warm and cozy. “Hyggelig”, as we’d say in Norwegian. 

The Norwegian identity may not be a perfect fit, but it has room for me. 

Let me explain the imperfect fit. For instance, those who look the part (basically, anyone that could be cast for the Vikings TV series) can simply say “I am Norwegian”, and because what people see and hear matches their expectations, it works. But when I say “I am Norwegian”, I know what I say doesn’t match what people think they should see. It’s like that exercise where you ask people to say the colour of the words while refraining from reading the actual words:

Red

Purple

Green

The mental challenge you’re experiencing in this exercise is why I can only wear my Norwegian identity loosely. Am I still not making sense? Cue the Spanish verbs “to be” to help explain things beyond the purview of the English language. “To be” in Spanish comes in two flavours: Ser is used for immutable, permanent characteristics of an object, while Estar is used for a temporary state of an object. 

  • I am (as in Ser = permanently, immutably) human.
  • I am (as in Estar = temporarily, currently) happy.

While most Norwegians can wear their Norwegian identity in Ser style, I wear my Norwegian in Estar style. Not because I want to, but until I signal to you that I’m Norwegian, I am usually not recognized as one.

I grew up in a satellite suburb of Oslo, painfully self-conscious from a young age that I looked different from the rest of the kids. How could I possibly bridge the gap? In first grade I was put in a special class where we learned Norwegian as a second language (NSL). Sometimes 1-on-1 and sometimes with a handful of other NSL students, we had to repeat the teacher’s words impeccably. I remember vividly practicing the different “shh” sounds for pronouncing “kino” (cinema), “skjorte” (shirt), or “kjempe” (giant/really). Blessed with a good ear for tone, I quickly picked up the melodious nature of the Norwegian language. Having learned a language that puts so much emphasis on intonation and flow has helped me greatly when learning how to pronounce words in other languages. When I make an effort to say foreign words, I like to imagine my whole body vibrating with the essence of that culture. 

As I grew up, I developed a particular sensitivity towards inclusion. In new crowds, there was a tendency for people to act strange around me like they didn’t know what to do with me – until I opened my mouth. To speak the language well was considered such a formidable task that it had become shorthand for “you understand Norwegian culture; you understand us”. And as soon as they heard the fluency of my Norwegian, attitudes changed. People relaxed. Doors opened.

Playing the “Norway” card does something else too. It gets people thinking about all the Norwegians they’ve met in their lives.  Since you don’t usually find many of us around, naturally, the next question is often this:

“Why are you here?”


Part 3: The space for identity

It’s important to note the nuance in this question. It’s not hostile. Rather, it’s… incredulous. Asked from a place of genuine curiosity, or so I’d like to think.

“Like… you’re Norwegian. It’s so good there. Top of the rankings. Incredible quality of life. Safety nets. Welfare state. Good government. Why? Why did you choose Toronto?”

For almost 20 years my parents lived, worked and raised children in Norway, far away from anyone they called family. When we moved to Toronto, Canada, we would be surrounded by dozens of close and distant relatives. Generally, it was a good reason to move, but I had different ideas. 

In fact, I badly wanted to go back to Europe the first chance I had.

Why? Well, let me tell you what younger-Fei was thinking: The bread selection sucks. The streets are too car-centric. The suburbs are unending and boring. Transit seems like an option for second-rate citizens and doesn’t run every 5 minutes. There’s too much advertising in public space; not enough actual public space. The default 2-week vacation is inhumane. Banking and cellular service charge for every little thing. Don’t even get younger-me started on the continued use of cheques. CHEQUES! All this to say: my first impressions of Toronto were certainly not the best. 

Years later I was still in Toronto, still grumpy about the bread selection, and still not having found better opportunities to take me to Europe. One day though, while walking down Queen Street (known for its edgy graffiti alley, incredible mix of shops and restaurants, and famously declared the second hippest district in the world according to Vogue magazine), I noticed something peculiar that had snuck itself into my life very unassumingly.

It was the strange experience of feeling invisible on the street.

Rather, what I noticed was the absence of unwanted attention. As I moved through the city, nobody smirked at me in creepy ways, or measured me from head to toe as I passed them. No one was rubbernecking as if they’d never seen an Asian person before. In other words, Toronto – the multi-cultural centre of Canada – had just given me something that I had never experienced before: a taste of what it’s like to appear integrated in one’s cultural environment. I didn’t stand out any more. I could belong here, in this street scene, just as much as anyone else. What a radical feeling!

Whether imagined or real, Toronto gave me the space to discover who I really wanted to be. I’ve left behind my longing for Ser-style identity and instead, started to accept and embrace my collection of Estar-style identities. Because of this, my mind and body are no longer in conflict, and I am happier for it. 

As a result, I usually turn around and reply: “Actually, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.”

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