Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about identity. From my public speaking class requiring an introductory speech to my communication professor assigning an autobiographical essay, this semester thus far has brought a bevy of forces all pushing me to confront the conundrum of self. I completed both tasks by presenting cookie-cutter synopses of my 19 years — my background, passions and ambitions all conveniently rolled up in a neat little package. I willingly allowed myself to be reduced to a list of circumstantial details that barely scratched the metaphorical surface of my identity as I recited mundane facts about myself: “I am a sophomore majoring in communication. I grew up in a suburb of Washington, D.C. I hope to go to law school.”
But that’s not me. What I didn’t reveal to my classmates — due to deadlines, rubrics and the general rules of human interaction — is that I am so much more.
I am a notorious memory hoarder, with old concert tickets, business cards and Polaroids overflowing my desk drawer. I am double jointed in a way that tends to gross people out. I am an indomitable overachiever and, consequently, a perpetual ball of stress. I am a vegetarian with flexible morals. I am a living, breathing hot mess of neuroses and insecurities. I am an editor, an intern, a friend, a girlfriend, a sister, a daughter.
The most recent identity I have had to accept, however, is that I am a child of divorce. This is a trait many of my peers tout but it isn’t a label I thought I would ever have to bear.
A mere week before I jetted off to the West Coast to start my sophomore year, my parents blindsided my brother and I with their plans to separate and divorce. I never quite understood how the atmosphere of a room could be so thick you can feel it, but in that moment, breathing was truly an endeavor on par with suffocation. I remember the heat in my cheeks and the pounding of blood in my brain more vividly than I can recall my father’s carefully crafted rhetoric. He did his best to say all the right words and to let me and my brother know that we were deeply loved and completely blameless. In later, private conversations with both parents, I was enlightened of a secret past of infidelities, mental health issues and financial troubles that will forever change the way I see them and myself.
Growing up in a Chinese-American household, I naively fancied myself immune to the trials and tribulations that afflicted divorced families. True to cultural roots, my parents were not the most affectionate people, especially toward each other, but I learned from an early age to accept the distance in their relationship as a version of normalcy — a sort of tacit, mutual love and understanding. As long as we lived under the same roof and ate our home-cooked dinners together every night, everything would be OK. As long as I played the role of model-minority firstborn and fulfilled my parents’ American Dream by proxy, life would be perfect, right? Wrong.
For days, I was overcome with guilt at the news of my parents’ separation. However unwarranted and illogical, I felt that I was to blame for not being a better person. Why did I cause them so much stress when I rebelled in high school? Why didn’t I choose a less financially burdensome, public university closer to home? Why didn’t I notice sooner? Why didn’t I do something to stop this? Why did this happen to us?
In addition to the responsibilities and stresses of school, the weight of this profound and unexpected change weighs heavily on my heart, even though I am thousands of miles from home. I think of my little brother entering the hardships of his junior year of high school, my mother now as a single parent and my father alone in an unfurnished apartment, and I am overcome with hopeless longing for the life I once knew, now a bygone era.
But eventually, as all things must, these feelings came to pass. Since the initial shock, I have spent a few sleepless nights and a few weeks cramming my schedule full of distractions to come to terms with the situation. I came out the other side with a strong sense of self and purpose — a new take on my identity.
I know that I am by no means the first person to lose a family to divorce, but I am the first to lose my family, and that makes all the difference.
But in spite of all this, I have close friends to confide in, a boyfriend who makes me his number one priority, a new job and classes I love. And, only a plane ride away, I still have my family. This family is far from over, and I will continue to do everything in my capacity to give them all endless reasons to be proud of me. I know that my parents made a rational, civil decision and that we will be grateful for it in the long run. The tough months ahead are simply a period of transition, toward a new equilibrium where everything will be different but everything will ultimately be OK.
I am equal parts dog person and cat person, despite being mildly allergic to both. I am a lover of contemporary art. I am vaguely trilingual. And, in a new twist on my identity and everything I thought I was, I am a child of divorce.
Catherine Yang is a sophomore majoring in communication. She is also the lifestyle editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Catharsis,” runs every other Wednesday.