Finding Myself Through My College Major
At some point during my freshman year in college, I went to a church in town with a friend. When the service was over, I stood up and an elderly man who sat in the pew in front of me shook my hand. I’m not sure I’d even gotten his name before he fired off, “So I suppose you’re from one of those Oriental nations, right?”
I was more shocked than offended. He’d meant it, I’m sure, without malice; I’d certainly heard worse before. I launched into a two-minute spiel about Where I’m Really From, trying to explain what it was like to be born in Montana, raised in Malaysia and going to college in Michigan. By the time I was done his eyes were glazed over and I was fumbling for the door.
Two winters later, my speech has changed. Ask me some variant of “So where are you from?” and I smile and shrug.
“Montana,” I say, swatting a hand vaguely westward. They ask about national parks and mountain oysters. They’ll tell me they always wanted to go there, but never did. Midwesterners, I’ve learned, are content that way. Then the conversation swivels to easier queries:
“What’s your major?”
“History and the classics? What are you going to do with that?”
Over the years, I’ve learned to navigate these questions of identity and purpose, but still dread them. I never answer them well, never know whether I’ve said too little or too much. And perhaps even more disturbingly, sometimes I can’t even answer the question myself. Where am I from?
I was born in Montana to Malaysian-Chinese parents, which is kind of like being both Polish and Jewish — one’s a nationality, one’s an ethnicity. Growing up both in America and Malaysia, I’ve spent most of life flip-flopping between the languages, cuisines and cultures I call home. I’m not one or the other. I’m somewhere in-between: a third-culture kid.
We spoke English at home, but when R-rated family gossip was involved my parents switched to Cantonese. My mother’s family spoke Hokkien and English, but when I went to a supermarket in Kuala Lumpur, we spoke Malay or Mandarin. When I’m in Michigan I find myself sliding into a nasal dialect of American English; in Malaysia (or in anger) my diction adopts a British-Commonwealth tone.
I can be archived under a plethora of labels: bookworm, American-born Chinese, suspected agent of the gay agenda. But labels can’t convey the experience of living them all at once. It’s a tension that no elevator speech or 20-page thesis could assuage. I’ve found that alongside my rebel’s gumption for individuality stands a palpable sense of gratitude. I am who I am because a century ago an 11-year-old leapt onto a schooner in South China and landed on British Malaya to work the fruit orchards. I’m me because I have two sets of founding fathers who carved forth from their great continents new nations.
Perhaps this explains why I’m studying history and the classics. My family members are the descendants of odysseys that have taken on near-mythical proportions. Our identities are layered by many intersecting stories. Studying myth and history helps me reframe those dreaded questions about identity. It lets me converse with the distinct voices of my past and quilt together a narrative about movement in place.
Where am I really from? That’s a long story. But that’s what history’s all about.