I can separate my life easily into 4 segments. My first 10 years was in Hong Kong. Then I was living in Ohio, U.S. until I was 25 with a year where I studied abroad in Hiroshima, Japan in 2001-2002. Then at 25, I moved to Thailand with my husband which is where I am currently residing.
It is from living in these 4 different parts of the world and being perceived based on my physical appearance and superficial status that taught me about identity. Where human behaviors, society norms and other’s perception of who they believe you to be can effect your identity.
There are many ways that I would describe myself when I was in Hong Kong. There, I fitted in and was absolutely normal. There was nothing that made me stand out as I looked and spoke like everyone else. Plus I was just a baby then so no one in society placed a social expectation on me at that young age.
On March 6, 1991, my whole life changed and I went from being a normal Chinese girl from Hong Kong to being a yellow-skinned person in a strange land called Toledo, Ohio. There, I was this girl with small black eyes and hair that looked NOTHING like anyone else around me. There, I was an alien. An outsider and treated as so.
Being treated with judgment, prejudice and discrimination by people on that strange land turned me from a happy carefree young girl to a quiet, reserved teenager who lost her identity because she no longer had friends, no longer able to speak the native language and was treated as if her existence was an obscenity to others. I was repeatedly told how ugly I was and worst…ignored.
This changed for the better after the 4th year in Ohio because I started to speak good English and I had become a ‘common’ scene within the world I lived in so people no longer cared about me. I was still reserved and quiet because I learned my place in that society – the outsider (the Chinese girl).
As soon as I reached freshmen year in college, I started meeting people who looked like me who were Japanese. Imagine my excitement to meet people who looked like me and for the first time I spoke better English than them – since they were exchange students.
I immediately became good friends with many within the Japanese community at my university and by junior year, I got such good grades that I was chosen to receive a full scholarship to study in Hiroshima, Japan for 1 year.
A few days after 9-11 strike, I flew off to Japan to begin my year as an exchange student.
In Japan, the perception of myself once again changed because I was in a new environment. I now, once again, looked like everyone else so I blended in perfectly while everyone assumed I was Japanese. I loved this feeling and felt at home even though my lack of Japanese exposed my pretense as a Japanese person. There, I was still the yellow skinned girl with an American accent but physically I still blend in way better than in Ohio. There, I felt I fitted in.
Because of my English ability (as English is prized in Japan), I was popular amongst my friends at Hiroshima Jogakuin University. I had many friends, being treated better than the U.S. because of my exchange student status and was even offered to tutor other students and adults on their English.
Japan felt like home. Because of how other’s were treating me, I became more relaxed and happy with myself. I was also at the age where I was growing to accept my self-perceived shortcomings and my glowing abilities. I loved Japan and my personality flourished because I was treated so well there.
In 2002, I returned to U.S. and was welcomed back to University to finish my last year there.
2005, I moved to Thailand with my husband and what I found out moving from the U.S. to Thailand was that the standard of living in Thailand is much lower. So when we bought a Honda Accord, many people called me Hi-So (meaning high society). All of a sudden, I went from being a middle class in U.S. now to being perceived as upper-middle class because of a car that we brought (I am no way a hi-so because I came from a blue collar household in Hong Kong!). But it was the way I was perceived and treated that made me feel a change was once again in the air.
In addition to the car I drove and for the 1st time because of my white-skin color (being Chinese), I was told by many how gorgeous I was and how people wanted to have my skin and my body. For the 1st time, I was told by friends and acquaintances (men and women), that I was above average in physical appearance and highly desirable by society standards.
Being perceived so differently and being totally myself while the only radical is moving from country to country changed how I perceived myself. The different ways I was treated from being in Hong Kong to U.S to Japan and Thailand taught me about human behavior and that my identity changes based on that locales’ perception and cultural standards.
What’s more important that I learned is that as long as you stay grounded and true to your values, being kind towards yourself and others while keeping an open mind to learn and accept, you will have an enjoyable journey in life no matter how you are treated.
That no matter how other’s perceive you, your identity or values doesn’t have to be effected by outside factors. Having the opportunity to live in 4 different countries and learning about how perception of others can change who you are, is a true life lesson in itself.
Now, instead of worrying about how other’s perceive me, I can beat at my own drum while still going with the flow like waves in the sea.