By Christina Juyoung Byun, a college student in the US, and first published on her site.
I arrived in Chicago O’Hare airport last night at 10:03pm and was ready to pay for an overpriced lyft back to Hyde Park. Typically in lyfts/ubers I am not one to strike up a conversation with the driver–not that I’m necessarily opposed to it– I’m just nervous and don’t know what to say. I confirmed the $63 lyft, plugged in my headphones, and cued music for the 40 minute drive. The lyft driver arrived and was kind enough to get out of the car to help me load my giant luggage into the trunk. Once I was in the car he started to strike up a friendly conversation with me, which I didn’t mind after hours of sitting silently on a cramped airplane. Although I didn’t mind, I’m always nervous to talk to strangers. It’s a more recent development; one that’s come from paranoia/anxiety around bad experiences with strangers this past year, and a healthy dose of social awkwardness.
As the ride continued I learned that he lives in the suburbs of Chicago, immigrated from Jordan in 2014, and is currently a highschool Arabic teacher. He taught me how to say “I can’t speak arabic” (which I butchered). He asked me why I was in Chicago and I explained to him that I was going into my second year of college and was still unsure as to what I wanted to study, and am originally from California. He was excited to learn that I was from California, and asked me about the weather and the beaches (typical conversation) and then asked me to say “Why?” and “No.” The requests striked me as odd at first, but then when he demonstrated saying these words with a high pitched upturn, I realized he wanted me to imitate a valley girl accent.
Lucky for him, I can easily do one since a lot of people I went to high school with actually talk like that and I’ve worked over the last year trying to rub off the slight one I have. I wasn’t exactly sure why he wanted me to do it, but the valley accent has a novelty to it from tv/media depictions so I thought it was in good humor. I said “Why?” and “No” in my best valley accent and he laughed a jovial laugh, “Christina, I love it, I love it so much. I saw YouTube girls do it and now you do it perfect– Do it again!!” I felt a little uncomfortable, but what was I going to do? Refuse? I did it a second time, but this time with a twang of shame. “Christina, Christina! I love it! Let me just tell you, as a man. As a man, I love it sooo much to hear a girl do it. You should talk with it please.” I nervously laughed as he confirmed that in his eyes I was another coy, flirty, young, and pretty girl alone in his backseat.
He asked me where I was “from from”
“Ahhh I knew it, Christina! Christina, Korean girls are always sooo pretty and beautiful and so are you, Christina.”
Throughout the ride he would randomly chant my name in a crowd-rah whisper, “Christina! Christina! Christina!” and explained to me how he thought it was such a beautiful name and he loved the way it sounded when he said it.
Naturally I said thank you to all these things. But he made me uncomfortable on three accounts of my core identity.
- Name (didn’t realize “follower of Christ” could be rendered as a sexy name but people never fail to amaze me)
I think people easily forget the power dynamic with drivers in lyfts/ubers/cabs– this stranger is literally driving the 2 ton vehicle you are sitting in, make them upset and who knows how they might react. So on top of that power dynamic, the age gap, and the general fear of big man when I am small woman– I don’t blame myself for indulging in his requests to speak in a valley accent, to teach him how to say “I love you” in Korean, to say “I love you” in Arabic to him, for laughing at his jokes, and for rating him 5 stars and tipping him after he showed me in the car real-time that he was rating me 5 stars and adding the comment “so pretty girl. Butiful girl”.
No, I don’t blame myself at all. But it did feel embarrassing and objectifying. I can’t say this was the first time some incident like this has made me feel this way, or the worst. But each incident feels like a slight chip in my self perception of my identity, and each one culminates into a greater cavity of what was once whole.
Having to analyze parts of your identity, where it originates from, what it means, how you feel about it, and its authenticity to you can ultimately be rewarding; self-actualization and self-assurance make up what it means to be “content”, to me. But would I call these experiences a privilege? Not necessarily. Many people do not have to endure as much questioning and tumultuousness regarding factors of what makes up who they are, and instead are content with accepting it, not knowing there is something to question in the first place.
If I’m being completely honest, many people will probably view me as that, but this isn’t being said to gaslight or belittle mine/anyone’s identity struggles. Perhaps there are different kinds and even different degrees of identity struggles, but we can’t prescribe how much each affects someone else. And how and what we struggle in our identity changes over time as you meet more people and have more life experiences.
Recognizing my identity as a woman and the trials and difficulties with it is not a new phenomenon for me, but recently I’ve had new experiences and developing revelations regarding it. I suppose it comes with maturing physically, being more independent and going out alone more, and generally battling with a society that wants to commodify you while you are trying to develop as an individual thinker and person like anyone else.
The sentiments that come about as I am newly navigating parts of my identity that I accepted for granted are raw, and perhaps that explains my strong words and feelings towards them– but will it ever change? Will I just get used to it? Or will I have some amazing realization that will answer my qualms? Who am I? Am I what people first see of me? Am I what society makes people first assume of me? A woman: all the connotations that come with it and being a submissive object. Asian: expected to live up to a model minority, its own brand of submissiveness, robotic androgyny/dehumanization, “cute” (yes some of these are contradictory, but doesn’t that complicate the nature of the issue?). Korean girl: skinny, sex object fetishization. Many more, too.
I also struggle with answering Who am I to myself? I don’t know. I feel like I only know myself in the eyes of others and society. But, is that all I am? I refuse to fully believe that. However, I do believe how society forces me to question my identity has shaped the way I think, but I resent the idea of crediting or being grateful for struggling with core parts of who I am. Every precise experience I have is unique to me, but in no way are my struggles definitively unique, and that honestly brings me some comfort amidst the raw feelings of resentment towards the systems that have boxed me into expectations of Who I Am.
13 Sept, 2021
Christina Juyoung Byun