My most recent project has me working on a collection of personal reflection essays. The progress has been kind of at a standstill since I started a new job in October, and who knows when I’ll finish at this point, but it’s been a very cathartic and enlightening experience. Here’s one of the essays for you to enjoy.
The Reborn Identity
THE WORLD IS OBSESSED with identity. You don’t even have to leave your room to know it. It seems like everything is marked. There are tags on our bracelets, computers, televisions, and shirts. They all stand for certain brands, visions, or beliefs. How those tags read tell a lot about who you are and how you invest your resources.
Some of us look to these tags for comfort. Reading an Italian designer on the back of our shirts convinces us that we’ve done right for ourselves. Perhaps we smoke certain brands of cigarettes to feel like cowboys or camels. Or drive a certain car to feel like James Bond. This is true of products, and it is true of the schools we attend, places we dine, and athletic clubs we follow. Identities are being formed every second, through both the seemingly trite and deep things, whether we know it or not. It is inherent in our nature to look for belonging in something. So we find people who are alike and buy things that are pretty and obsess about careers in order to feel alive. It helps give definition to the inkblot known as life.
This need for labels is perhaps one of the reasons why I’ve always felt insecure about my own identity. It’s like I need a medal or hand-written certificate for every good thing I have ever done to make sure it is valid, that it wasn’t just imagined. This practice works well when every flick of the dice seems to turn up sevens. The job is good, girlfriend’s a trophy, and you’re kissing babies at church like you’re the mayor. But of course, problems arise during the numerous times you don’t win in life. I didn’t make varsity, so I doubt my athleticism every time I step on court. I didn’t nail my speech, so that’s the last time I do public speaking. And I didn’t date the prom queen, so I suppose I’ll end up with a horse.
Growing up with this type of insecurity was crippling. In my mind I would build another person—a more successful, handsome, respectable me—and set my standards against him. What Would that Martin Do? He would be calm and collected, always knowing what to say and how to say it. “I’ll have my martini in a champagne goblet, shaken, not stirred,” he’d say, as the party glances over in cool curiosity. People would trust him as a friend, follow him as a leader. The ladies would love him like he was LL Cool J.
But the only problem was that Martin didn’t exist. What I was left with instead was a naive and angsty teenager, and he was not what I wanted. It was disappointing because Real Life Me could never measure up to Imaginary Me. Good was never good enough because Imaginary Me was always better.
* * *
On more than one occasion I have had to deal with “identity theft.” It can happen when you give away private information about yourself, such as your social security number or mother’s maiden name to random strangers. That might land you a bill for a Swedish massage chair that you never actually bought and a very bad credit report. I’m sure it’s not a pleasant experience.
But I’m not talking about that sort of identity theft. I’m talking about another way, something much more creative, which is to have parents who decide to name you after someone famous.
I don’t think my parents are fully to blame–they probably never had a clue about the guy–but when they slapped me with the name “Martin,” they were in effect pegging me to a fifty-something year old chef from Hong Kong who had a successful cooking show. I discovered the truth one day after school when I was watching a PBS special. The show was called Yan Can Cook, and it featured an animated middle-aged man gripping a knife over a chopping board full of green onions. The man looked stereotypically Chinese, which is to say that he had squinty eyes and a flat nose, and was donning an apron. What’s worse, he had a stereotypically funny Chinese accent.
It’s the same accent I hear when my mother is speaking to me. It’s the type where you turn all the R’s into L’s, and place the emphasis on all the wrong syllables. I always assumed it was a speaking issue since certain sounds didn’t exist in a native language. But I had never imagined this rhetorical disease infecting the writing forum. My mother proved me wrong. Once she had written a recipe for a friend who liked one of her egg and shrimp dishes, and it read like the bubonic plague.
“Son, could you look this over please?” she said in Cantonese. “It’s for Mrs. Hasegawa.”
My mother handed me the piece of paper with the instructions she had written up. It was typed in Times New Roman font, neatly lined with numbers and all. Unfortunately, that was the only thing she got right.
“Bit the egg?” I read aloud.
“Yes, bit the egg,” she repeated.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, bit. You know—” and my mother proceeded in a frenzied motion with her arms. She meant “beat.” This was only the first line.
I continued reading. “Hit the pan?”
“Yes, hit the pan,” she reaffirmed.
I took the pan and mimicked the action as her words had indicated. I assumed it was some mystic Chinese ritual that would infuse the cooking with supernatural powers. Maybe that’s why her cooking never failed to deliver—it was blessed.
“No, no! Silly! HIT the pan!” she cried. She turned to the stove, worked the knob, and set it alight.
“Mom, you mean beat the egg and heat the pan?” I asked.
My lungs nearly collapsed from laughter.
“Ai-yah! You know I’m not too good with English!” she cried.
I don’t quite remember how the last lines read, except that it involved the peeling of “shimp,” which was apparently a truncated Chinese version of shrimp. For her sake, I was glad she had asked me to look over her recipe. Then again, part of me would have secretly enjoyed to see Mrs. Hasegawa hitting pans in some sort of rain dance cooking ritual.
Mind you, not all accents are hideous. Brits and Aussies are ten times more charming when they speak (granted when they are not intoxicated). But it is hard to win a date over when your order for Chinese takeout results in “flied lice.” These accents only perpetuate stereotypes, and it can be the sort of thing that sets us back generations.
Martin the famous chef was sharpening his knife. He was on the video camera teaching us the proper techniques on how to chop vegetables. “And nao it is time fo yoo to chop dee un-yuns.” Fortunately, the show aired on PBS, which is a channel I don’t believe any hard-working blue-collar American or their children had ever watched. Perhaps the program aired only in convalescent homes. I’m not quite sure but somehow this boy escaped.
After all, it would’ve been cruel and unusual punishment to hear kids taunting you with “Martin, could you please chop dee un-yuns” for the rest of your elementary school life.
* * *
A high school friend once told me about a girl who actually thought I was the Martin Yan. She told the girl that she knew Martin Yan, but the girl thought she meant the guy who bones chickens and chops dee un-yuns. I was bewildered. I mistakenly believed I had buried him away in elementary school.
“She wants a picture with you and an autograph!”
“But the guy’s like fifty!” I said. “How am I anything close to the real thing?”
It didn’t occur to me at the time, but I wonder what it would have been like to swap identities with a man who made a living off of food and funny accents. To pull off a fake Chinese accent and masquerade as the chef–it wouldn’t have been right, at least not the right Martin Yan, but I could have played the part. I would have stood out, and my days would no longer be punctuated by unending question marks. I might have even scored a date or two. But then she’d probably want me to cook something, and I’d end up burning down her house.
* * *
Aside from the occasional “are-you-related-to” questions from college professors, I have mostly come out of this thing unscathed. I suppose it could be worse. I could have been named Benedict like the traitor, or be stuck with a Chinese monosyllabic repeating double name like Xing Xing.
But who am I? The high school me couldn’t tell you if he had tried. I wasn’t known for my cooking, or for anything really—I was just a skinny, run-of-the-mill, first-generation Chinese-American boy who wore his cousins’ hand-me-downs and occasionally made straight A’s. I wasn’t anything special; I didn’t have anything to offer. I challenged the world to a staring contest but it never blinked.
And that’s what bugged me, my lack of identity. I was a nobody lost in a deep ocean with six billion other people, struggling to stand out and find purpose in an increasingly whatever world.
* * *
The summer going into my senior year of high school, I felt as though God was reaching out to give my life a new definition. He was offering me the sort of thing that would not only break labels but chains. I had been spending my summer days camping out in the gospels, reading about Jesus and his disciples. That’s when I heard him.
He was telling me I needed to be reborn.
It wasn’t audible or anything, but it was clear what he was asking for. I had been on stage for altar calls and I did the whole Sunday morning church bit, but this went beyond buildings and services. Jesus was saying that unless I allowed him to redefine everything about me, he would have nothing to do with me. He wanted it all—my struggles, desires, talents, and insecurities. He wanted to give me a new identity. Most of all he wanted me to be a part of his family.
I was now faced with the cross. The scandal of the cross is that someone as perfect and blameless as Jesus would play identity-swap with thieves. When Jesus hung on the cross he was effectively saying, “Here’s my name, my social security number, and my credit card. Charge everything—all your debts and losses—onto my account. Now take my perfect credit report and claim it as yours.” You don’t do that sort of thing, giving unlimited credit to people who have spending issues. But this is what he meant, when he promised the thief hanging next to him that they’d be together in paradise. And this is what he promised me.
That’s when it hit me. The crucifixion is the greatest act of thievery to have ever occurred in history. Jesus traded places with scoundrels and gave crowns to crooks. How is that fair? It didn’t make perfect sense to me on that day. But it was enough for a guilty thief to say I’m in.
* * *
As the days unfold I see the kingdom coming nearer. One day I will walk through the gates of heaven and they will all take one look at me and say, “Welcome home, Martin Yan, who is not the famous chef but the insecure Jesus lover. We’ve heard a lot about you. Come on in, the Father’s waiting.”
They won’t be asking for ID. On that day it will be as clear as dee un-yuns.