What Makes Us Who We Are

by kangcuzzi

Clearly, exams have brought with them an inalienable desire to enjoy every last drop of the hours spent waiting around for stuff to happen. Admittedly, the feeling is not at all unwelcome. There’s a paradoxical consolation in knowing that, in what should arguably be one of the busiest times of the year, there are hours to be spent worrying about not much else, for the immediacy of this metaphorical bubble (claustrophobic, yet comfortable) demands nothing but attention to the small details. So let us think big things, while we can.

Today my head is filled with a spin-off of yesterday’s thought, which is very much the concept of identity. How do we become who we are? And are we the agents of our own selves? Questions we rarely ask ourselves, but when we do, we discover there exists a richer, deeper history behind all the minute things that make up our lives.

Today I’m asking questions on a similar current, but with a twist: what is identity? Before my world explodes in a series of meta-questions and meta-meta-questions, allow me to reduce this thought to one, simpler yet nonetheless interesting idea: what is more indicative of who we are — how we have lived until now, or how we would like to live?

The context for my question is simple. Earlier today I was riding the bus with a fellow vegetarian friend, and as we talked about food (after all, it was approaching lunchtime) inevitably the conversation turned towards my practice of not eating meat. To make a long story short, I was a pescatarian for a year, was a vegetarian for nine months, and over the summer started eating fish again. Recently I’ve been indiscriminately consuming a lot more fish than usual — in salmon bagels, fish paste soup, and of course, sushi — and thus I expressed the slight twinge of guilt that comes with the knowledge that I’m living a life that I myself used to condemn, at least when I was the perpetrator of it (I’m not trying to say everybody in the world should feel morally inclined to stop consuming meat-based products — that’s a story for another day).

When my friend asked me why I returned to eating fish, I found myself drawing some murky lines. I had formulated this answer a while back and assumed it was pretty straightforward… but I soon realized there were some underlying questions I had never addressed.

My reason for eating fish again primarily links back to identity. I think any self-respecting person who decides to adapt their lifestyle for something they care about — by not eating meat, starting a workout regimen, following a different religion, etc —should do so in the interest of making this difference a part of their identity. It makes sense that if you care so much about something to the extent that you would change your life for it, it better be a worthwhile change that makes you into a person closer to the ‘ideal’ you wish to be. So by choosing not to eat meat, I decided to make vegetarianism a part of my identity.

However, identity is multifaceted. In the same way I identify as a person who wishes to change my lifestyle by not eating meat, I strongly identify as a Korean, born and raised. I have grown up eating Korean dishes cooked by a Korean mother with typically Korean ingredients, many of which involve fish in many, often unexpected, forms. A beancurd and tofu soup may have a fish paste base. Kimchi contains fish oil. Fish is everywhere, really, and for most of my life eating this fish, whether I was aware of it or not, has formed a massive chunk of who I am as a person, when I was ill, happy, sad, hungry, but most importantly and always, loved.

Therefore, when I thought of giving up meat to form a deeper ‘identity’, what was the arbitrary distinction that placed my vegetarianism before my Korean roots? It is indisputable that they both have strong links to my personhood. The only difference between them is that whilst the former is a lot to do with what kind of person I wish to be, the latter is to do with what kind of person I already am.

And if this is the case, here’s where it gets interesting: which one is more indicative of identity, and which one prevails — if ever?

Some may argue that identity is the latter, as a desire to be something does not necessarily translate to actually being that something. Yet if one harbours a desire to change, isn’t this indicative of a process of internalizing one’s self-perception and thus attempting to act upon it? But for the argument that we are who we were born as, at what point do we draw the line? We know people who feel they are uncomfortable in the position they were in when they were born, thus they change the expression of their ‘identity’ and consequently begin to create their own person.

Clearly, the two both help us become who we are. Our entire lives are built on their reconciliation. We grow and develop with the capacity to act and think as the person we already are, in the hopes of becoming someone we want to be.

Perhaps, when trying to gauge which is of more ‘importance’ (I say this in inverted commas because it is entirely subjective), contentment and pride may be key metrics. As for me, I’m very proud of my heritage and am thankful that I have grown up in the way I have. My being Korean is an element of myself that I loathe to compromise to a greater extent than I have already (case in point: even as a pescatarian, there’s no more Korean BBQ for me). Thus, although I may be called a hypocrite for revering one kind of lifestyle while not entirely ‘sticking to my guns’, perhaps it’s justified. The issue is not so black and white. It’s all about who am, and identity is never one or the other — it is a mix of many serendipitous things.

(After that bus ride, I ended up passing over the salmon bagel for lunch and got the veggie patty instead.)