VCE English Outcome 2: Identity and Belonging folio

Our Relationships with Others Help Us to Define Who we Are

    A. Main contention: Identity, “who we are”, cannot be defined!
    Ev. Nagasena, Sunil Badami
    B. Appearance cannot define identity, it merely allow one to associate with others.
    Ev. Hungry Beast
    C. Belonging is greatly affected by internal perceptions of identity
    Ev.Blossom Beeby, Leanne Hall
    D. Conceptions of identity, both within and without, are influential and impermanent
    E. Conclusion: Repeat contention!

“Who we are” cannot possibly be defined. A Buddhist monk, the venerable Nagasena, demonstrated this truth through a clever Socratic proof. He told a questioning king that “Nagasena” was just a denomination, a conceptual term, a mere name. Nagasena understood that he was real, but that identity is negotiated. Sunil Badami in Growing up Asian in Australia narrates the same revelation. He describes how his mother gave his name great value with a truly “first-class” meaning. For years afterwards he felt pride and confidence that by definition he was great. It is with extreme irony that Sunil – “the breeze that blows at sunset on Shiva’s birthday once every thousand years” – reveals his mother’s deception. Which name or definition is more accurate: the one that inspires the child, or the “Dark One”? The enlightened individual has the ability to choose 🙂

    The nature of how identity is negotiated is easier to define, yet constantly subject to change. Many ascribe great value to physical characteristics. To say that Joy Ng has beautiful eyes “like her mother” is true: both have submitted to the extraordinary and extremely popular practice of cosmetic surgery. In a recent episode of Hungry Beast a second such patient described how the name-calling of “chinky eyes” and “slit-eyes” made her feel “like there was something wrong with me”, and a third patient explained their reason for undergoing the surgical procedure to widen his eyes as “I want to try to be included.” Each patient believed that they would change how others perceived them through cosmetic surgery, yet the most apparent change proved to be how they perceived themselves. How then does an operation to remove a few millimetres of skin from one’s eyelids truly affect one’s identity? Appearance is merely one possible impermanent factor.

As the examples of both Sunil and the patient demonstrate, one’s self-perceptions of identity are often more integral than external characteristics to our sense of being and belonging. Blossom Beeby, also from Growing up Asian in Australia, tells how “I internalised my Asian face,” whilst Leanne Hall relates angrily how she is able to wear the mask of another race in “How to be Japanese.” What is obvious through all these examples is that when race is confused with identity there is potential for anger, sadness, confusion and helplessness. Our relations with others should not be determined by race, or prejudice is inevitable. This is because such definitions for “who we are” are totally inadequate.

    Our relationships are an important factor in how we are perceived, and how we perceive ourselves. Just as in Aesop’s fable the farmer judges the crane as a thief by the company it keeps, Blossom discovers “It was easy to forget I was Asian when everyone around me was white”. In such a community, race was irrelevant (note: though it detracts from the argument presented here, one personally worries when an issue is resolved through hegemony!). The significance of society is stated in Simon Tong’s story (also from Growing up Asian in Australia) who remembers how “robbed of speech [as a new arrival to a foreign country]… I was stripped of my dignity and personality. Culture shock had a huge effect on Simon’s sense of self, and his feelings of well-being and security. It might initially appear from these statements that relationships are definitive of identity – they are not. In these cases, both Blossom and Simon developed new understandings over time, such that “who they were” changed greatly, and yet they remained their own person. Though our society and the society we keep can have great influence, it cannot define who we are or who we may become.

I have sadly observed many battles for identity in Australia, and have come to understand that such definitions are dangerous and futile. Identity is not constant, and is always changing. The same can be said for our relationships with others. This is not to suggest that there are endless possibilities, but as the stories and examples demonstrate , individuals and communities are extremely able to adapt to each other. The names we give, the groups we assign, the values we attribute – these are bubbles of thought that cannot capture the freedoms we have. We are free to change.

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