The Treachery of Identity

by Eli Rolón Jeong 

I try to convince myself that I am not the same kid that I used to be, that I have grown up, and that I have developed my own philosophy, theology, and lens to view the world. Despite my self-assurance, however, I repeatedly turn back to a moment when I was nothing but a lost eight-year-old kid unsure of who I was. It remains a moment of self-consciousness implicated in a forming worldview. Yet, it is comforting.

In the third grade, I was called up to the front of the class so that I could describe myself in an exercise meant to teach us about identity. I uttered the obvious: I am eight years old, I am wearing a white shirt, I have black shoes, I am browned-skinned, I am about this tall. But I could not say it; I did not know how to say it. I was not the only student asked to say this in front of the class; I was not even the first. My teacher, expecting me to repeat after her, said, “Yo soy puertorriqueño.” I stuttered. I shook my head. I mustered the courage to only say, “No se.”

At the end of the day, my father picked me up from school. Unexpectedly, my father turned from the driver’s seat revealing a frightening stern look reserved only for those times any of us had done something wrong. “Of course,” he said, “you ARE Puerto Rican!” and nothing else. My mother – my Korean mother – sat quietly in the passenger’s seat as we drove home.[1]

Every identity conflict thereafter is nothing more than an iteration of that one fraught experience.

Growing up in Puerto Rico, I was called the “Chinese” kid, except for my Puerto Rican blonde-blue-eyed friend who called me “American” simply because I was born in California.

In high school, two students asked about my Korean background. Then, one said, “Hablamos español; somos Mexicanas” to which I responded, “Tambien hablo español.” They looked confused so I had to explain that while my mother is Korean, my dad is Puerto Rican and that I grew up speaking Spanish in Puerto Rico.

Often, I was not even asked “What are you?” but rather, “Are you Native American? Filipino? Mexican? Samoan?” Sometimes I explained who I was. Sometimes I made them guess. I pretended not to know Spanish when someone would talk to me in Spanish. And, I would surprise people by speaking Spanish when they did not expect it. Mostly, I wanted to define myself and not let others do that for me.

At times, the reality of a non-singular identity was as natural as eating kimchi and tostones in the same meal (at home, long before it was a thing in restaurants in the hipster neighborhoods of Chicago.)[2] Other times, the plural makeup of my identity didn’t even matter because I was not white in any sense, the one race that seemed to matter for many.

On my move from Chicago to Nashville, I stopped at a fast food place where I drew many surprised looks. In Chicago, my neighborhood’s fire department was staffed by white males despite the neighborhood itself being predominantly Black and Latinx[3]; although well-qualified, I was overlooked for a volunteer program with the department while a white friend from another town got in. And, my counselor tried to push me to sign up for a second English class on my last year of high school “just in case you fail the other English class” – never mind that I’m taking honors classes, I’m in the top 10 of my class, and have a GPA above 4.0.[4]

The affective anger and perplexity of such situations are just as distinct but inseparable as the multiple cultural identities that I call my own. I struggle with the formation of my identity. I understand it and I accept it – at least, I think I do – but I certainly wrestle with it. I can easily say that I am both Puerto Rican and Korean; however, if I claim only one of those two without the other, even for a moment, I deny the other one. Identities are deceptive – treacherous – if only because that momentary lapse in self-consciousness readily leads to partial denial of the self. I do not desire the denial, wholly or in part, of myself or of anyone. That means that I have to keep reminding myself and others of all the different elements at play for me.

The adage of “wholeness in a fragmented world” has become a salient marker of Disciples theology. The Disciples’ call for unity and inclusion in the Lord’s table, as I understand it, is a work of bricolage that brings many components together. But, overlooking one of those components is not much different than denying its integration, existence, and place. And, that’s why I go back to that experience in 3rd grade. I didn’t know back then what that experience meant, certainly did not know the profound effect that it would have on me later in life, particularly in my own academic endeavor in ethics, theology, and cultural studies. “Wholeness in a fragmented world” makes sense to me, if only because my own identity has come together – often because I’ve had to bring it together – from otherwise ostensibly disparate locations. I learned that back when I was eight years old.


[1] To fully dissect my parents’ respective reactions would be far too complex for this space as it would require nuanced exploration of various significant factors such as culture, religion, and more. Needless to say, the negotiation of identity – inclusive of racialized identities – is complex, often resting at the intersection of various significant factors. Here, my hope is to use the most evident clash of a non-singular ethnic identity – my father’s claim to my Puerto Rican heritage while not explicitly accounting for my Korean heritage – as a starting point from which I ground further struggles in the constant negotiation of my identity.

[2] http://chicago.metromix.com/venues/mmxchi-belly-shack-venue

[3] This term is becoming more prevalent as a way to move away from gendered distinctions within the Spanish language. Latinx (pronounced Latin-ex) uses the “x” instead of the male-denoting “o”, the female-denoting “a”, or even the “@” often used to include both (in this last case, the “x” moves beyond gendered denotation to include non-binary gender identities.) A Google search of the term “Latinx” should yield plenty of articles for further research and information.

[4] I ended up taking two science classes and two math classes, including AP Calculus; I was the only one in my class to pass the AP exam. And my English is fine.

Eli is a Ph.D. student in Ethics and Cultural Studies.

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