In my last month of high school, I thought I had finally figured it all out. Through years of grappling with my sexuality, coming to terms with my Asian origins in relation to my American culture, and conquering imposter syndrome towards my own disability and neurodivergence, I felt like I had scaled every hill I could possibly have to climb in terms of my identity. Entering university, however, made me feel more unsure than ever. It wasn’t because I faced discrimination; if anything I felt more welcomed than ever to express myself in terms of my true identity. It was because although I finally held the pieces of my identity firmly in my hands, I had no clue how to piece them together to create me.
During my first week of university, the school held separate affinity spaces for different groups to gather people of similar backgrounds, cultures, and identity and teach about resources on campus for those groups. The problem was they were all at the same time. I remember staring down at the schedule of affinity spaces, thinking about how many I wanted to go to but knowing that, realistically, I wouldn’t be able to attend the separate Asian, LGBTQ+, and disability spaces within the shared hour time frame they had all been allotted. I had to make a choice, and I felt a nauseous feeling brew in my gut. Was I about to choose one part of my identity over the other ones?
I ended up attending the LGBTQ+ affinity space, but in the midst of surrounding myself with people like me, I had inadvertently made myself feel more alone and confused than ever. It wasn’t like I was the only Asian person in the room or the only one with a disability. It was the fact that I had chosen this part of my identity over the other ones. I asked myself, “Do I value myself as a queer person more than I do as a Japanese and Chinese American? As a neurodivergent individual? As a person with a disability?” Was I forsaking the other critical parts of my identity by choosing to attend any affinity space in the first place?
I grappled with these questions for the next few weeks as I floated through my school life. I looked at the club fair with disdain, wondering if joining clubs for each part of my identity would help me answer my questions or if it would only serve to make me more confused. A part of me was afraid that if I joined the disability student commission, the Nikkei Student Union, and the Queer Alliance and Resource Center, I would end up attending a specific group’s meeting more than the others, once again spurning the other parts of myself.
It wasn’t until in my Gender and Women's Studies class when I learned about intersectionality that I finally understood what my issue was. Intersectionality is the way in which different social categories are interconnected and apply to an individual or a group. You can’t talk about race without acknowledging gender, class, sexuality, and so many other factors as well. For example, women have many shared experiences with each other, but a black woman and a white woman also have several differences due to their race. At the same time a black man and a black woman, although sharing a race, have different experiences based on their gender. In order to understand and recognize an individual’s experiences, you have to look at every piece of their identity together. In that same way, my experiences are different from even that of my mother’s because I experience life as a queer Asian woman while she experiences it as a heterosexual one.
Understanding this one concept allowed me not only to recognize the uniqueness of other people’s experiences but also the individuality of my own identity. The reason why I felt so torn between affinity spaces was because I felt like I was isolating pieces of myself from each other. I took those pieces that I had so carefully discovered and created a mechanical, separated body with them: My legs belonged to my Asian heritage, my arms my pansexual pride, my brain my neurodivergence and disability, and my chest my femininity. They were all a critical part of me, but they were all working separately. I wasn’t seeing how they all overlapped to define who I am.
In reality, the different parts of my identity are a cumulative soul in one body, bound together by free flowing veins of intersectionality that constantly overlap to create me: A full body mix of Japanese and Chinese culture, an American upbringing, a struggle of mental illness, a neurodivergent symphony, an attraction to any, and a chorus of female strength. This body of mine is so beautiful. Every part of myself works together everyday to help me be who I am and drive me to where I want to go. It’s messy and jumbled, but it’s me.
It’s amazing how our many identities connect with each other to create one incredible human being. We’re like paintings, layers and layers of color overlapping to create something beautiful. The issue with how we’re taught about forming our identity isn’t with the affinity spaces and support clubs for separate groups; it’s about the lack of intersectionality that we are taught growing up. It took eighteen years for me to consider that my identity was defined by the way the parts of myself interacted with each other rather than the way they interacted with themselves. All it took was one lesson from my Gender Studies professor for me to understand that about myself.
I’m about halfway into my first semester of university now, and I finally feel whole. I’m working as part of my Nikkei Student Union’s Community Service committee, keeping up to date with the Disabled Student Committee, and doing my best to attend events hosted by the Queer Alliance and Resource Center. More than anything, though, I’m constantly reminding myself that I’m still figuring myself out. My soul is a complex mix of unique parts of my identity, and I’m going to keep discovering new things about my beautiful identity that I never even considered. It’s okay if I let myself feel a little more Japanese one day or a little more queer one day because the rest of my identity always stays a part of me no matter what.
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