The first year of university is a major transition for all students. For me, the biggest change was not just moving across the country, but additionally learning to adapt to a completely different environment, both culturally and socially. Culturally, as I grew up as a Taiwanese immigrant in a small, predominantly white town; I was almost always an anomaly at school and work. Besides just looking different on the outside, I found that having “two” cultures gave me a different worldview than many of my classmates. Socially, I had to sacrifice some of my passions in order to keep up with the university course load. As I reflect back on my first year, I realize that I depended on tangible things to make up my identity, things that ultimately do not make me, “me.”
I remember one particular interaction that triggered me to question my identity based on my outward appearance. It occurred on a fall evening when a fire alarm went off in my residence. As we waited outside for the all-clear, I worked my way through the crowds of students, hoping to find my friends. Before I could make it to them, I was stopped by a student, and her first and only question to me was whether or not I spoke Chinese. Annoyed by her intrusion, I angrily said no, even though I did know how to speak Mandarin, and walked off toward my friends. It was not until later that night that I realized I was not bothered by her stopping me, but her question. Why was that her first and only question? Could she not have asked me what floor I lived on, my faculty, or even who I was looking for in the crowd? It was frustrating that how I appeared to others had so much to do with the identity others assigned to me, whether that has to do with the language I speak or my personality. This event, however, resulted in long term upset that I could not pinpoint the cause of at the time.
I was not new to the idea of having an identity crisis, I just never imagined that I would have one—how could I question my identity if I was so confident?
This crisis was only made worse when other factors I considered so important to my identity began crumbling down. Throughout grade school, my schedule was jam-packed with band performances, orchestra rehearsals, and skating practices. I could not imagine a life without all the time I spent pursuing these passions, and assumed that I would still be able to continue these activities in university. At the Fall Activities Night, I made sure to check in with the music societies and the skating club, and tried out for as many groups as I could. However, my course load piled up, and by the time November rolled around, the mid-semester stress coupled with seasonal affective disorder caused me to fall down a mental health spiral. I could not even find solace in my grades because I was struggling so much in my classes, nor could I make the time to join any clubs or groups, leading me to lose all social and creative outlets that I’d relied on so heavily back in high school. I’d completely lost my sense of identity. Looking back, I can see how trying to understand myself and my identity through my hobbies was a mistake.
First year is just the beginning of a journey of self discovery that will surely continue throughout university. Though I am still trying to figure out why certain interactions made me upset, I think that acknowledgement is the first step in allowing growth and self acceptance. I have learned, and am still learning, that I wanted so badly to define myself on my own terms that I ended up suppressing core parts of my identity while placing too much importance on futile interests. Identity is not something that comes easily for everyone, but it is certainly a rite of passage that everyone experiences, albeit in totally different ways.