A lifetime of dealing with difference
We all feel different some times. Too different to belong, too different to understand, too different to be accepted. And this can hurt. It can mean we’re excluded from activities, or that we exclude ourselves from activities. And even when we’re not being excluded intentionally, our differences can make it harder to connect to the people around us, just out of fear of rejection. In the worst cases, our differences can result in mistreatment, like sexism, racism, homophobia, or transphobia. Sometimes this mistreatment gets encoded into law, process, and software, creating structural forms of racism, sexism, nativism.
My experiences with difference have been complex and lifelong. Some of my earliest memories about difference were about gender. Everyone around me made it very clear that there were girls and there were boys and nothing else. But I knew I wasn’t really either of those. I didn’t know how or why, but it was clear that me being different in this way determined a lot: who I played with, what I wore, how I was treated. Noticing this difference led me to dissociate from my body and myself. Others noticing this difference led to bullying.
Soon after, I noticed that my skin, nose, and eyes weren’t the same as most of the children in my suburban hometown of West Linn, Oregon. At a weekend soccer game when I was 8, boys in the neighboring town of Lake Oswego kept calling me “brownie” and told me that brown kids weren’t allowed in their town. I knew they were being mean, but I didn’t know why. I came crying to my mom and she explained that I was half Chinese and half Danish, that this was my race, and that sometimes people unfairly discriminate based on race. Noticing this difference led to a shift from thinking of myself as white, like all the other kids in my town, to not white, not Asian, but again, something else. Others noticing this difference led to exclusion, bullying, and racism.
As I reached adolescence, I noticed that having Chinese and Danish family also meant engaging in jarringly different traditions. During Winter break from school each year, my brother and I visited my large Danish family, and celebrated God, Jesus, and redemption. We ate Danish cookies, went to Scandinavian festivals, and celebrated a rural life centered on family, farm, and fear of God. Soon after, we visited my Chinese family, celebrating filial piety, and an abundance of food, prosperity, and luck. And on Christmas Day with my parents, we celebrated capitalism, sharing gifts and overindulgence. Noticing this difference taught me an informal concept of ethnicity and how it shapes our ideas of normalcy. Others noticing this difference led to stereotyping, usually biased heavily toward the Chinese side.
When I went to college in rural Corvallis, Oregon, I learned that while I might not have clear ethnicity, I did have clear culture: it was comparatively urban, progressive, and Pacific Northwestern, which meant I valued equality, the environment, secularism, and 90’s angst. Most of my peers, however, were more like my Danish extended family: pious, agrarian, judgmental. But in college, noticing this difference just made me curious about others. And others, knowing I was different, were curious too.
At the end of college, I became a young parent. Most of my peers were beginning their wild twenties, while I was beginning a family. They were going to bars, my ex and I were going to Babies ‘R’ Us. My peers were going to concerts while my ex and I were budgeting. This difference made it hard to connect with my generation, because while my peers were searching for themselves, I was searching for playgroups with other young parents, most of whom were not applying to graduate school, or even in college. Noticing this difference led me to isolate myself, partly out of shame of my young parenthood, and partly out of lack of common ground with older parents. Others noticing this difference led to silent judgement about what must have led to me being a parent at 21.
Earlier this year, I came out as transgender. Being trans and being out as trans are of course two different things. For me, being trans has meant seeing self that doesn’t align with my body or mind. Being out as trans, in contrast, means making myself vulnerable, and sometimes visibly different, but also having a platform to make change. But in private, noticing this difference in myself makes me self-conscious, insecure, and fearful. Others noticing this difference sometimes make me a curiosity in my home of Puget Sound; in less tolerant places, it makes me a target.
Of course, being out as a trans woman, and being married to a woman, also makes me gay. I’ve always been attracted to women, and so nothing seems different to me, but being seen as a woman attracted to women is different. Me noticing this difference means wondering if it’s safe to kiss my wife in public, or even share that I have a wife. Others noticing this difference has sometimes led kind kinship with other LGBTQ people, and sometimes aggressive intolerance from strangers.
When I reflect on the cumulative differences I’ve experienced in life, they are overwhelming. I am a transgender, biracial, lesbian, Pacific Northwesterner who became a parent a decade before her peers, and has a racial background stemming from the poor farmlands of the Vikings and the coastal trade towns of Guangzhou. There is no Facebook group for that. These differences have often meant feeling isolated, either because I isolate myself out of insecurity, or others exclude me because of lack of common ground. It’s meant constantly trying to build my own culture, tradition, and beliefs with the people in my life, rather than leaning on the traditions I’ve inherited from my family. In some ways, this is very freeing, and in other ways it is very destabilizing.
All of my differences, and the experiences that come with them, are hard to reduce to my race, ethnicity, sex, gender, religion, or generation alone. These identities, in combination, result in an experience unique to me. My differences are mine alone.
Interestingly, this lack of common ground makes it hard to be tribal in the ways so prominent in American politics today. I relate so little to so few groups that if I had to choose a tribe, I don’t know if I could. To many, I’m not Asian enough to be Asian, white enough to be white, cis enough to woman, or old enough to be a parent. Even if I saw myself as normal, other people don’t. And so politically, I align with progressive politics, largely because it’s the only “big tent” group that occasionally aspires to include everyone. But there are sometimes good conservative ideas too—I’m no fan of inefficient, ineffective bureaucracies, or of public solutions for their own sake, when private ones are more effective. And so the tribe I align with most fully is probably academia, as it speaks to my commitment to knowledge, discovery, and progress, is full of progressives, and tends to be further along in including everyone than the rest of society.
One consequence of this lack of tribal identity is that the only groups where I really feel welcome are radically diverse groups. In these groups, difference is the norm. In these groups, the common ground that brings people together isn’t a shared identity, but the desire to learn from diversity. In these groups, belonging isn’t earned through interest, creed, power, or prowess. It’s simply a given.
I view America as one of these radically diverse groups. It’s the one country in where such unqualified belonging is still possible. Despite all the racism, sexism, transphobia, and other oppression in my country, its core constitutional principles, especially the 14th amendment establishing equal protection under the law, demand it. America can be a place full of people of every kind from every place and every belief, with a diversity so radical that our only shared beliefs are in the U.S. constitution—and our enduring commitment to constantly work towards its vision of a more perfect union. America is the only country in which I could have been born. It is the only country to which I can imagine belonging. And that is the country that we all deserve.