Learning to Unlearn

A reflection on relocation, self-discovery, and a process of questioning one's gender and racial identity.

Words by Suzi


art by Maxi Della-Porta

“Do you ever get a sense of not knowing how to live in this world?” one of my friends asked me this week.

Yes. Everyday.

“How do you navigate that?” she asked.

I don’t know. I’m still navigating.

This is where I’m currently at, 20 months since moving to this country for the second time within the past 5 years. I first moved to the UK from Hong Kong for my undergraduate studies. During the three years I was here, I learnt to live away from my family. I travelled, I met people, I tried new things. I realised how big the world is and how much I didn’t know. This was also when I made up my mind about how I wanted to spend my twenties. In Chinese, we have this saying 「花樣年華」. The combination of these four characters describe youth as a flower- beautiful but not everlasting. The idea is that nothing is for granted; it is all about the here and now. I told myself, I am going to live hard, work hard, love hard. If there was something I wanted to do, I’d do it. If there was something I wanted to say, I’d say it.

I still remember the day I discovered that gender could be understood as being much more than the binary concepts of male and female. I cried a lot that day.

I moved back home after I graduated. It was an interesting transition; I was reverting to the old and familiar. It felt almost too easy, too safe. I changed, but nothing else had changed. Thinking back now, I don’t think I made much effort to settle down at home. At the back of my mind, I knew I wouldn’t be staying. I couldn’t stay. There were so many things in the world I was curious about, and staying at home wasn’t going to give me any answers. When the opportunity to move away presented itself again, I took it without hesitation. It was an avenue to new possibilities. I didn’t start off thinking that I’d move to the UK. I came here because out of all of the options I had, it seemed to make most sense for my professional development. “You’ll be fine, you’ve lived there before. It’ll be familiar.” my dad had said. He was right; it did feel very familiar. Except this time round, I found the vocabulary to describe and understand my experiences. Shortly after I arrived in the UK, I found myself caught in the midst of an identity crisis.

Relief for finally having found a way to begin to process and articulate my gender experience. Anger for not having known about this sooner when it was there all along.

There was an immediate shift in context the moment I moved across borders. Along with the new context, came unfamiliar perspectives and a different status quo. I began to question. The more questions I asked, the more I realised that nothing was as it seemed. Everything went against what I’d previously known. I still remember the day I discovered that gender could be understood as being much more than the binary concepts of male and female. I cried a lot that day. It was an odd mixture of emotions. Relief for finally having found a way to begin to process and articulate my gender experience. Anger for not having known about this sooner when it was there all along. Fear for how I was going to explain this to everyone else. Confusion for what this meant in terms of how life was going to look like from then onwards.

The realization about my racial identity came soon afterwards. I didn’t fully comprehend the role whiteness had in influencing the meaning I ascribed to being Chinese, until I started living in a society that was predominantly white, and it became too prevalent to ignore. The fact that racism continues to be alive and well did not come as a surprise. It was the colonial mindset which caught me completely off guard. Such mentality was so deep rooted in my mind, I didn’t even realise I had it in the first place. For a very long time, I colluded with whiteness and at some point along the way, it developed into internalized racism. Suddenly a lot of things made sense. The way I’ve been suppressing my Cantonese accent whenever I spoke in English. The deliberate avoidance of Cantonese popular culture. I was ashamed of being Chinese. And I hated myself so much for feeling like this.

I felt trapped in a horrible ruminative cycle.

I quickly learnt that there are minority stressors associated with my intersecting social identities of gender and race. In a predominantly white society which operates on the assumption that there are only two genders, there is very limited space available for life beyond the binary, even less so for non-binary people of colour. I don’t really exist and that’s felt very disempowering. At the same time, it became apparent that while I am less privileged in some ways, I am in a position of power in other ways. I am university educated and able-bodied. The fact that I was able to even move to this country in the first place is another sign of privilege. I too, played a part in the system and perpetuated certain power dynamics. For a while, I felt trapped in a horrible ruminative cycle.

I gradually became more vocal about diversity issues. The theme of discussion varied but the conversations I initiated mostly followed the same line of thought: Why is it so difficult to be different? Are there ways of being together which might mean a greater awareness of difference, but at the same time do not leave the minority feeling like “the other”? As much as I would like to say that all these efforts had been for achieving change for the greater good, it wasn’t. I’ve managed on most days to put up a facade, but really I was screaming inside for how invisible I felt. Every time I was raising a point about diversity, it was me saying “See me. Please. See me.”

Where do I go from here?

The efforts I’ve made so far have been met with strong resistance, often in the form of deafening silence. On the rare occasions when people did speak, it turned into a discussion about themselves; a deflection from the issue at hand. These conversations left me feeling so exhausted, defeated and disillusioned. My knowledge of psychology theories came in handy then; I started to intellectualize everything that was happening. It wasn’t much, but at times when life felt colorless, it helped to numb the pain and allowed me to breathe, even if it was only just for a bit. Where do I go from here? I want desperately to stay, but at the same time I feel like running away. The bitter paradox this is.

My journey of self-rediscovery is currently still ongoing. In a span of less than two years, I’ve had to destroy everything I’ve previously been taught about myself and redefine myself on my own terms. It’s broken me completely, and at this point I’m still picking up the pieces. I wrote this piece for myself, to remind myself of how well I’ve done, to have come so far. I wrote this piece for family and friends who have been by my side during these very challenging times. Thank you for loving me as I am- it’s meant the world to me and the only reason why I’ve been able to keep going. To those who don’t know me, but have identified with some of the things I’ve written about- I want you to know that this piece is also for you. I know first handed how discouraging it can feel when you don’t find your voice in what you read. I hope this brings you some comfort that you’re not alone in feeling what you feel. I see you, and I’m rooting for you. Find strength.

This piece was illustrated by Maxi Della-Porta. Find more of Maxi's work on instagram at @uglyfriedrice.art.