Like most people with a healthy sense of curiosity, fascination with social conventions, and/or micro bangs, I’ve tried on a myriad of identities over the course of my life. Some I liked a lot and still routinely wear; others were borne from insecurity and abandoned as I developed the ability to express myself more naturally. Either way, vestiges of all the selves I have worn before trail behind me, like a bridal train composed of memories that I recognize as mine, but feel strangely disconnected from. For example, was I actually that self-righteous as a teenager? Did I really use to get my nails done every single month? What frame of mind was I in when I considered taking an insurance salesperson job based out of Houston, Texas? When did I become someone who runs for fun?
I am sometimes jarred by the circumstances of my life. For example, I am currently sitting opposite a Cartier Christmas tree in Taipei 101 and typing this on my phone, which is strange because I am from California and don’t know a single person in Taiwan. Even though I have lived abroad for over a year, I occasionally catch a glimpse of indecipherable script on a street sign and have to remind myself, oh yeah, I’m not in America right now.
I’m reminded of “Eleven” by Sandra Cisneros, the ineluctable Common Core short story that begins, “What they don’t understand about birthdays and what they never tell you is that when you’re eleven, you’re also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one. And when you wake up on your eleventh birthday you expect to feel eleven, but you don’t. You open your eyes and everything’s just like yesterday, only it’s today. And you don’t feel eleven at all. You feel like you’re still ten. And you are—underneath the year that makes you eleven.”
My interpretation of what Ms. Cisneros is saying is that we never fully outgrow our previous conceptions of self, or the feelings, hopes, and expectations attached to them. Everything is inside of us, competing for attention and influence over our actions. It’s a big, thrumming mass -- an onion of layered personality traits, a rolling Katamari of experiences, the center of an everything bagel collapsing in on itself. Certain features are hidden, but they are still there, adding form to the vague ephemera that is each of us.
Here in Taiwan, when I fluoride stare after being spoken to in Mandarin, the next language shopkeepers try is Japanese. Weirdly, because it’s basic Japanese, I can usually understand and respond, which in turn, confirms their incorrect belief that I am Japanese. This never happened in the States, whilst nowadays it occurs regularly. It’s not like my physical appearance has changed much; it’s just that my environment has. I am being met in a specific context, and that context shapes who I am -- at least externally. Slowly, that external perception seeps inward too.
The vast majority of the people who meet me will only know me as I am in the moment, and that’s totally fine. The post office worker doesn’t need to guess my ethnicity accurately. But when I think about my separation from people who I once knew intimately (and thus, my separation from the version of myself that they remember), I can’t help but feel wistful.
Sometimes an old friend will send me a meme about something that I no longer enjoy or know much about, and I’ll realize that we’ve grown distant enough that our conceptions of one another are based entirely on outdated information. Or I'll come across a picture of a high school classmate and learn that they are now a parent or rapper or bodybuilding contestant, and have trouble tracking how that change came about. Or I’ll try to tell the story of something that happened recently, but discover that it also requires me to explain the politics of my workplace, the norms of Japanese society, the personality type so-and-so, the location of my house relative to the supermarket, etc, etc, etc, until I either give up entirely or stumble through a boring, largely expository narrative that contains only a whisper of its true drama.
Every person knows every person briefly and incompletely. This has been deeply uncomfortable for me to accept.
A popular band-aid for the dilemma is convincing someone to fall in love and spend the rest of their life with you, which begets a certain interest in the minutiae of your existence. A secondary option is to remain close to parents who were around for large swaths of it, or make long-term friends who can be. Neither is a total solution, but one or both tends to suffice. Unfortunately for me, I’m doing poorly in both respects.
For most other polite but non-committal encounters, the socially appropriate line of questioning reveals only the slightest glimmer of who you are. If we meet at, say, a bar in Taipei, you don’t necessarily want to hear about my hopes and dreams or stance on Greta Gerwig’s Little Women (exceptional, except for that one awkward sequence where Amy tries to make anti-slavery commentary), and I wouldn’t expect you to either. In most cases, there’s no reason to ask for anything beyond the minimally viable information that proves we are both normal, non-threatening, and worth spending a few minutes chatting to. We’re here to be amongst People, so let’s play the role of People. In other words, I acknowledge that there are many situations where I’m not required to be anything more than the most mundane and visible parts of twenty-three-year-old me, even though I am also twenty-two, twenty-one, and twenty… even so, despite recognizing that very few of the things I have done in the past have relevance now, I still wish I could tell you about them.
Yesterday, I listened to a lovely episode of Radiolab about Stu Rasmussen, who became the first openly transgender mayor in America in 2008. Stu is a woman but uses masculine pronouns. He was born and raised in Silverton, Oregon, a small agricultural town with 9,200 residents, where he fixed cable boxes, repaired computers, and ran a movie theater before eventually serving as mayor. A conservative town, Silverton is not the type of place you would assume to be on the cutting edge of progressive politics. But Stu was not an “other”. He was a community figure, a familiar face, one of them. As Kyle Palmer, the current mayor of Silverton puts it, “Nobody really cared. Everyone knew him, so that part of him didn’t get a reaction.
Jad, the former host of Radiolab, describes one of Silverton’s residents: “she [knew] Stu for so long and in so many different contexts that [she couldn’t] do that New York thing with him where…you see someone on the sidewalk and you size them up instantly and think ‘Ah, freak!’ No, to her, he's way too complicated for that.”
When you watch someone evolve over time, it becomes difficult to sort them into a single, neat box. They are not their job or their gender expression or that one thing they did that one time. They are more than their current circumstances. They are every age they have ever been, all at once. They are a mappable storyline. They are themselves, and you can see exactly why. I want that. I want to be understood all the way through.
Living abroad has felt like perpetual summer camp. Certainly, there’s real responsibility and consequence, but there’s also an air of unreality, like this is all a contained getaway that we get to leave eventually. I meet new people constantly, most of whom I interact with just a couple of times, and a few of whom I spend lots of time with only to never speak again when one of us moves away. I suppose it is the case that relationships ebb and flow in every environment, but my awareness of their temporality is exceptionally sharp when everyone around me has a departure date looming in the background.
Over the past year, I’ve spent a lot of time ruminating on the pitfalls of situational friendship. Friendship forged through convenience is not inherently bad. Most friendship occurs simply because we’re near each other and willing to get along. After all, if I benefit you and you benefit me, then huzzah, let’s hang out. But what does being a good friend look like when we’re both conscious of the hard stop on the horizon? Can I fault you if you don’t truly like me, just the fact that I’m one of ten English speakers in driving distance? Are we using each other? Do you also get the sense that we’re building to nothing, just tending the hearth until it inevitably sputters out?
For some time, I toyed with the idea of dedicating myself to the pursuit of new experiences. I dreamed of joining the Peace Corps or becoming an au pair or moving somewhere with cheap and tasty tropical fruits where I could exchange physical labor for free room and board. I'm still drawn to many aspects of that lifestyle: novelty, challenge, thrill. But I also long for continuity and permanence. I want to be invested in, and I’m not sure I’m a worthwhile investment if I’m always planning on leaving.
As my Instagram DMs suggest, I am living a version of my “best life” looking at pretty views and enjoying a higher-than-usual baseline level of contentment. But here is what I haven’t shared online: Entire days go by where I have no substantial conversation. Weeks pass where I do not touch another living being. The contents of my life are reliant on the judgment calls of the nearest kind person who can translate for me. I have few opportunities for full, uninhibited, enthusiastic self-expression, which leaves me feeling repressed and unheard. And I chose to have it this way, so I can’t be upset about it.
In the best light, randomness makes our relationships special; what a happy coincidence, that we are in the exact same place at the exact same time. But in the worst light, it reduces them to mere circumstance.
If we lived in a different time and place -- a more difficult one -- would you still want to be my friend? Or is it particular to this moment, and its specific permissions and trappings? Are you interested in embarking on the grand journey of unearthing ourselves, or are we bound by nothing more than spatial proximity and the mutual desire to stave off loneliness? Do we have enough time to try? Is this miraculous or meaningless? Is our loving one another fate or incidental? Does it matter either way?