That’s a fair question, although I do feel like I may have given you a pretty good glimpse in my 1 hour biography earlier. But I know that there are TONS (literally, tons) of new readers checking out the page every day, so probably worth covering this variant of the question here with a specific emphasis on identity shapers.
But before I jump in there, I just wanted to welcome everyone who may have connected to the page from Twitter. Welcome new readers! I just posted my first twitter storm, an eight part series explaining what I am trying to do here with this project. I hope you all enjoy it! But I did realize that I made one factual error – I used some chopped up text that I had written earlier, when the plan was to hit 30 days of writing consecutively. But I have already missed a day, and I want to be clear and upfront about that for the sake of posterity. I think today is entry number 20, and assuming I’m able to get through it, I will be 20 out of 21 days. The revised target is 30 out of 31 days. So that’s that, and I apologize for tweeting outdated info. But now the pressure is on! The world knows about the project and I’m sure there will be lots of new fans engaging with the content. I am excited, but a little nervous at the same time. We’re on this journey together, let’s try to enjoy it!
Ok, back to identity. I think about identity all the time, and that’s a fairly recent change for me. Maybe I think about it now more because I had been completely oblivious to it for the great majority of my life? I never really thought about how my unique situation, and experiences shaped who I was and how I viewed things. I am trying to explain how I thought in the past, so this is 99% BS and should be treated as story rather than fact, but let’s keep going. Maybe I thought that I was born with my particular outlook, like it was fixed in me. And I never really thought too much about why other people had different ways of thinking and doing things. I assumed that they had their own natural born tendencies that they were living out. I never really thought about how their experience shaped them, or how they could change over time based on what they did, where they lived, who they interacted with, etc. That was too much for younger me to contemplate.
But as I got older, and had more exposure to people living in different ways, it became clear to me that your identity would be shaped by your family first and foremost, and the values they imparted in you. I would start there, and say first layer of my identity is my ethnic heritage. My family is exclusively Punjabi, so there are no rivaling or contradictory factions. I am not sure if there is any specific personality or temperament for specific ethnicities, but I highly doubt it. I am guessing it’s more like a spectrum that’s more or less the same for everyone. I don’t want to wade into that argument at all. The aspect of my Punjabi heritage that shaped me is the contrast it provided to everyone around me. This is what I would consider to be the second layer. My parents immigrated from India to the US before I was born. And there’s enough written about being a visible minority in the US already so I will be brief here as well, but it almost becomes your defining feature by default. Which is extremely sad and annoying. What I mean by that is, you are never just “that guy over there” when you are clearly not the same as everyone else visually. You would be “that Indian guy over there” if they guessed the heritage right. The other 99 people are just people, you are Indian people. So when your family is new to the country and visibly different first, that becomes a defining characteristic externally. And it gave me a huge amount of pause as a kid, and even today. Obviously it’s more difficult being different, which in my case led to a lot of resentment towards the causes of the differences. And perhaps even some self-loathing, seeing myself as being inferior as a result of the differences, which sounds absolutely nuts now. My early experiences were influenced greatly by the culture my parents wanted to bring me up in, contrasted against the pre-dominant culture around me, and also the fact that we were in the minority and easily identified as such visually.
Base layer – Punjabi-American, immigrant, minority.
I am not sure I explained the American mix very clearly above. My family was different, so I over-compensated to prove that I was like everyone else. I laid it on pretty damn thick in hindsight. Kind of like that OJ quote – “I’m not black, I’m OJ”. That’s what I was going for, but of course thinking that anyone can see you without any type of racial predisposition is fantasy. But anyway, I tried. And went over the top to show that I was like everyone else. And I think, in my defense, I kind of was like everyone else? My interests, the way I dressed, general life was pretty similar outside of distinct Punjabi pieces which I tried to completely compartmentalize. I do wonder if my real interests were directly in line with what everyone else around me was into – local sports, food, music, fashion, etc- or if I willed my way towards it. I’m still not sure. So I can’t talk about the Punjabi aspects of my identity without giving the contra, which is the American side.
Next, I think there are some family dynamics which shaped me that are independent of any ethnic things. I was the second child of two. The youngest. One girl and one boy. I was certainly more rebellious growing up and gave my parents more headaches. My family was solid middle-class, so we never had to worry about safety or stability. And I’m really thankful for that of course. But we were absolutely not rich either, and this was compounded by my Dad’s natural frugality. So even though we weren’t poor, we may have seemed poor relatively speaking which always bothered me. I think this ties back to the point above about being desperate to fit in, but who knows. So I was the only son, the baby, grew up in a nice middle-class neighborhood, but always felt like we were a little worse off than what we were since I was always looking up. Maybe these are layer two items in my identity jigsaw?
In terms of the family environment, the thing that always stood out to me was the push for achievement, especially with academics. And this doesn’t seem to be very unusual at all with educated South Asian immigrants. It’s almost cliche, but that was definitely the case for me too. My parents always pushed me into private schools, and demanded results. I always just did just enough, but something was wrong with my motivation and rationale in thinking back on it now. Learning was explained to me as a means to an end, nothing more. You don’t learn so you can have a better understanding of how the world works, or to satisfy your curiosities, you learn for more practical reasons. To grow your financial interests and to hold or enhance your status. Actually, I think my family was more concerned with status over money even, so the position isn’t driven by greed. It’s all about your spot in the social hierarchy, making sure there’s no shame at the family level? That caused some weird behaviors in me, namely it was just about the results, not about how the results were achieved. I developed many bad habits that I am still trying to break to this day from that faulty logic. Connected to the demands for education was competition. I think this came partially from my family, and internally as well. Looking for a way to prove myself constantly. I played sports which added to my competitive tendencies, but again created a weird, unintentional side-effect. If I thought I couldn’t win, I would prefer not to play. This reduced failures, but also greatly reduced the options in terms of what I could try. Layer three – social standing, competition, risk aversion, a desire to please my parents and pay back their investment in me.
In terms of emotional aspects of my family life, I don’t want to go into much detail. I had a fairly difficult childhood coming from the issues I had with assimilation, and putting the blame on my ethnic origins. Similar to cliches about Indian-Americans being all about education, my family was also fairly socially conservative which created tension. And I blamed the tension on the Punjabi component of my identity. So there were frequent arguments. And I would say I had a frosty relationship at times with my family, but never to the point of losing contact. If anything, I think there were big parts of my emotional make-up that are under-developed. Inability to express my emotions, fear of rejection, fear of failure, an overly-keen desire to keep my parents happy, a hyper-active sense of duty. I still struggle with these items probably more than anything else to this day. And they pop up frequently. Let’s call the emotional layer part 4.
After I got on my own I started to create an identity based on my professional success. I wanted to get a job to earn enough money to not have to worry about the petty grievances I had with my parents’ money management style while growing up. But quickly that shifted into me wanting status, which involved translating money into symbols – clothes, cars, where I lived, etc. The material world!
Having status symbols wasn’t enough. I wanted to define myself as someone who was forging their own path. I took a job that moved me to Asia which I considered to be useful career wise, but also to give me a unique experience I could lord over people with. I was willing to go to far off places, I was an adventurer! And although it was never my primary purpose, going to far off places and seeing completely different ways of life did have a profound effect on me. It broadened my horizons on a larger scale previously imaginable. In the past my experiences showed me how the wealthy in the US lived, and that was good enough for me at the time, but now I had seen the world! So I got a lot more out of this than I expected, albeit completely different things.
And then beyond being an adventurer, and possessing status symbols, I wanted a carer that other people would consider cool. Actually I would go further and say that I wanted a career that the high school version of myself would consider to be really cool. So I pushed my way into an area of our business that got me closer to sports and entertainment. I got to go to events, and meet people that legitimately on the surface are pretty cool, and would impress a 10-25 American kid for sure. I would classify my 20s-early 30s this way. Chasing wealth, experience, and the persona of an international business man. At this point I was also very determined to be able to live on my own, I didn’t need anyone else. Lone wolf fantasies too, probably because I was and still am so awkward socially.
Over the last few years many of the walls of my identity have crumbled! This is the effect of circumstance and self-reflection I would have to say. Circumstance – I’m not working or traveling anymore, and have to be tighter with my money. That wiped out what I had established over the last ten years. And I’m spending more time with my parents, and soaking up so much of their knowledge and experiences, harder to be bitter about them raising me with the culture they grew up with. And learning about great people in history and philosophy – where it’s all about the principles, and the reasons you do things, and how you do things that matter. The results are completely secondary. So I feel like a lot of the last few years for me have been spent unwinding some prior strongly held beliefs. And there is a lot left to do. I am guessing this is like one of those life-long projects that’s never going to be complete, but still gratifying to look back and see how far you’ve come at some point. I know my priority area is going to be emotional stuff next, and I am optimistic that it can create some big returns.
Ok, I’ve gone a little over on time so I need to wrap up. Clearly this is an amateur’s take and there is maybe some revisionist history happening here too. But it was fun for me to think about at least, and I hope it gives you a little bit of added perspective on where I’m coming from as well!
Thanks for reading and I’ll talk to you tomorrow. 1 Hour. 2300 Words