Growing up, I had a strong sense of racial identity, but it was superficial. Going to a virtually all-White school for the first thirteen years of my life, I knew that I was different, but I didn't know what this difference meant. I was proud of my heritage as a half-Asian, half-European hybrid, but I didn't actually attribute much importance to this - it seemed an incidental thing, something that didn't have much in the way of implications for who I was, the beliefs I held, or how I moved throughout the world.
Things changed when I got older.
Few mixed people have this experience, but as my facial structure matured and I aged, I actually began to look more Asian in appearance, to the point where these days, the majority of people (Asians included) assume that I'm of purely Asian descent. One of the patterns that I noticed was that people treated me better when I looked "whiter," and more obviously "half-White."
The low point of my racial awareness, a moment I'm still ashamed of, was when I grew my hair out in the moppy-headed fashion that was the style of my day. I grew it out long enough that the ends of my hairs would just barely cover my eyes, and one day, staring at myself in the mirror, it occurred to me that the reason I had grown my hair this way was to look more White. There was a part of me that hated myself, and I was disturbed. I cut my hair short soon after.
Where had this hatred come from?
Since my mid teens, I'd noticed an escalating series of events that started to become more and more intense as I entered adulthood. People giving me shit for my race, making comments about Asians being inferior, laughing at the stereotypes - I began to correctly identify these moments as the distributed endpoints of white supremacy, attempts to tool me for my Asian heritage. When I read about the concept of micro-aggression as an adult, I finally had a term for a lot of the flak I'd gotten growing up.
The more shit people gave me for my race, the stronger I identified with my Asian heritage. This identification was reactive - a response to the cumulative effect of being treated differently. Part of this reaction was borne from anger, but part of it was borne from pride - a hardening of resolve, a desire to amplify the part of my identity that others seemed to reject. I started shaving my head (which I still do) in order to amplify the "Asianness" of my appearance. I started to read more Asian authors, to take in more of the culture from East Asia in the form of books, movies, and music.
I have some Chinese friends who never felt the sting of discrimination that I did, so their sense of racial identity seems correspondingly softer, and less formed. I suppose that makes sense - a man's environment plugs into his biology, and makes him who he is.
When I look in the mirror, I no longer see a mixed Half-Asian. I see an Asian man who identifies as such and is treated as such by other people in society, for better and for worse. If I hadn't had negative experiences, and if I hadn't felt antagonism due to my race, I doubt I would have identified as strongly with my heritage. I still don't speak the language of my father, and I still don't have a deep understanding of the history of his nation or the culture that prevails there. When I did return home, I felt like a stranger. Although I thought of myself as Asian, my patterns of thinking were almost entirely Westernized.
Ultimately, then, despite my best efforts, my "Asianness" still feels superficial, shallow, and limited in its scope. This is the paradox of identity in a multiracial society, the complex array of contradictions that build up a person into a unique whole: sometimes different parts stand against one another, yet the overall structure holds strong.
You beat iron hard enough, it becomes steel.
I started writing about four years ago in my early twenties. It's been incredibly rewarding to see my progression over that time, but I've still got a long way to go. After my first novel didn't immediately get an agent, despite a couple showing interest, I momentarily felt moderately deflated.
Can I really do this? Am I really good enough?
It's easy to compare yourself to superstars. I went a reading by Kim Fu in Vancouver a couple of years ago, and I was really impressed. Here was a woman in her mid-twenties who'd already made it in the literary world. And although it's not literary success per se that I'm after, I couldn't help but compare myself to her at the time.
A classmate of hers, who's a friend of mine, described her to me as enormously talented. But there was another point he made, too: very people are born with that level of talent. And although Kim surely worked very hard to develop and hone her craft, in the writing world, she was an outlier.
"You don't need incredible talent to become a good writer. Most people get good with an adequate level of talent and years of hard work."
That's one of the things I love about art. When you really understand the value of art, you realize that it's not some zero sum competition where there's one clear victor and many other losers. It's true that some works persist longer than others, and others garner more acclaim, but the world is better off with more good art.
I used to date a high level dancer. By the time I had met her, at age twenty-two, she'd already been dancing for eighteen years. Most of the artists I know have been drawing since they were children. That's what respecting the craft means: playing the long game, shaping the clay of your talent with your ten thousand hours of effort.
I started writing fiction five years ago. I'm still a baby.
The key to work that you love is finding work that gets you into a flow state - into the zone. I was reading Luke Muelhauser's blog a couple of months back, after he'd quit his job as the head of MIRI, a friendly AI research institute. It seemed like a bizarre career move until he went over his rationale - his job, although rewarding, didn't get him into a flow state, whereas other types of work did.
This is why I love writing so much. Its the kind of work that makes me lose track of time, the kind of work where the contents of my consciousness can seamlessly pour out of my fingertips and onto the screen. When I write scenes, I'm not just writing them. I'm living them, I'm feeling them in my head. The joy of creation is a real thing, and I realized recently, after a brief period of self doubt, that I've never going to stop doing this. It's not work for me, it's just pure, unadulterated joy. Sure, there are moments of writer's block, problems in the narrative that take time to be solved. But when I really get into the zone, there's nothing I've done that can really match that. And I'm grateful for finding this.
people I admire
Bret Easton Ellis