Tell me about Your identity crisis
TEDxSanDiego 2017

Born and raised in West Los Angeles, in a neighborhood 75 percent African-American, was told that I am a mixture of Chinese and Spanish that made Filipino from an island in Asia, but was told that I am not Asian. I was babysat by Hispanics who spoke Spanish to all the kids including me. Now, tell me about your identity crisis. Tell me about your identity crisis.

This made me question my own challenges of who I am now, and who I want to become. For a speech team competition I performed an interpretation piece that weaved of the poetic voices of others around one theme – the identity struggle of being multi-ethnic

In the process of practicing this montage of poems I realize how much I keep struggling with the same questions. At a performance an audience member asked me to perform my piece in front of a new audience, and at that event more people came up to tell me about their identity crisis.

One artist sharing his honest struggle inspired me to search for more poems that harmonized into a bigger conversation about identity. Now most of us would hide from it or ignore it. Most of us wouldn’t even give a name to the messy parts. Embracing the identity struggle leads to more authenticity.

We can unplug from the voices of everyone else, the social construct, and start to hear the hum of the truth. It’s the voice inside that says, “Now when I do this, I feel alive, I feel free.”And then that voice asks, “Well why don’t I do this more often? Or why don’t I do this for a living?”

I’ve been described as “exotic”, which is a polite way of saying you’re unknown origin is interesting or a romanticized way of saying that I’m foreign. I’ve also been described as very brave to walk out in public without a wig over my bald head. As I started to learn to stand in my own truth, I realized that I was an identity crisis waiting to happen.

The hardest part with practicing this whole speech and talk was not the content or rehearsing the delivery. The hardest part was my first assignment, the bio. Who are you. Who are you? Do you know how hard it is to explain who you are when you’re still trying to figure it out yourself. I had to call 10 of my friends hey hey hey hey. How would you describe me?

I felt the pressure of having to have all the right answers. Instead I started focusing on asking the right questions. The poetic voices that I will be referencing come from two poems. Identity crisis by Brian Oliva, and Buffet Etiquette by Hieu Nguyen. Hearing the description of someone else’s identity struggle helped me gain clarity on my own.

If you’ve ever been asked, “What are you?” It’s a very funny question. What are you. Brian Oliva talks about the impact of when people don’t know how to understand the ethnic other. For example, in college we’re asked to pick and choose a major so that they can categorize us according to our academic goal. Meanwhile we fill out these generic surveys asking us to pick and choose one box that best describes you.

The boxes read Black, White, Latino, Hispanic, Asian, Pacific Islander. Then we packed to move to the suburbs. New hood. No good. Now it’s 40 percent essays, 40 percent brothers, 15 percent Honky, and 5 percent other.

And it got to the point where everyone just started to ask me, “What are you?? What are you? I used to come up with a smart remark like, “Oh I’m human. But if you’re asking me about my ethnic background, I’m African-American, Irish, German, and Filipino.”

To which they would respond. “Oh, so you’re like a mutt.”

As I grew older I decided to revamp that question. Instead I would ask. “What are you in this world.” My multi-ethnic ambiguity prompted my identity struggle and then it led me to find my voice in music.

So when I transferred to a four year university I wanted to explore my ethnic backgrounds through my interest in music, so I joined a gospel choir, a Pacific Islander music club, and theater, but I couldn’t quite figure out where I belonged. I was confronted with more obstacles. I wasn’t enough.

I didn’t speak Tagalog, so I wasn’t Filipino enough. I wasn’t dark enough to be considered black. I certainly didn’t look white. So for not enough of one thing then where do we belong?

My voice is bleach, my voice has no history. It’s the ringing of an empty picture frame, the frequency of a TV turned off. I’m forgetting how to say the simple things to my mother, the words in my periphery dangling from its wires and I am only fluent in apologies.

I’ve accepted the fact that I am no longer Vietnamese, I am just Asian. If I didn’t speak the native languages of my people, then what was my voice.

I was sitting on campus one day humming a pop tune when a student sat next to me and he says, “Hey do you sing, are you a singer?” Well I sing, but I wouldn’t consider myself a singer. I didn’t speak music. I didn’t read music well enough. I didn’t have enough experience performing, so I wasn’t enough of a singer to be in a band. So no.

So then he asked me to sing something familiar. Sing an Alicia Keys song. So I took a deep breath and I sang.

Some people want it all
But I don’t want nothing at all
If it ain’t you baby
If I ain’t got you baby

So then he asked me to join his band. And now his band was a mixture of R&B, jazz, hip hop, and soul. If that band was told to pick and choose a box that best fits you in a generic survey, they would pick “Other”.

My multi-ethnic struggle of being the other, made me realize that where I belong is to music. But there was more to explore. So I had to ask myself, what kind of singer do I choose to be? I am finding my voice as a songwriter. Now I have the ability to sing other people’s songs and lyrics in Spanish, Portuguese, Swedish, and Tagalog.

These songs helped me connect to different parts of the world, and of course I sing the songs in my own style, but finding my voice as a songwriter is another identity struggle on its own. This struggle is going to continue to pull at me until I perform my own original music. The words that I choose define who I am as a vocalist. Music is universal. I want my lyrics to be too. I want to sing my own words.

I would rather be lost in this world with a dream than have to keep my head down
And I would rather say, I surrender my heart and I gained and I lost for true

Poets helped me find clarity around a theme of ethnic confusion. The pursuit of knowing who I truly am, made me realize that where I belong is to music. Music led me to create a future of who I want to become as a songwriter.

Embracing the identity struggle leads to more authenticity. My multi-ethnic struggle with being the “other” made me feel alone. One voice, stripped down to share an honest struggle, can inspire others to share their own story.

So tell me about your identity struggle. By embracing the identity struggle we can find more of our own selves. We can create a future without having all the right answers. We can unplug from the noise, the social construct, and start to hear the hum of our own truth.

We can keep growing, keep embracing your identity struggle, and keep showing up in the messy parts of authenticity. Many voices can come together around one theme, and harmonize into a larger identity conversation. There is power in finding out who we truly are.