The Hyphen: An Intimate Identity Crisis

TL;DR: Transnationality (or transcultured-ness) is a distinct form of existence characterized by culture and environment simultaneously. In an existential context, this means that the transcultural individual is embodied by the Hegelian self-other model. However, although this type of individual is characterized by others and the outside, there is still freedom and selfhood in the chaos that defines the concept of the “hyphen”.

This essay was inspired by my previous blog posts on the hyphen, which you can read here and here. The title was also inspired by this post.

Note: This is an essay that works to understand, but not explain, the abstract nature of transnational existence and thus, the language used will be difficult to parse. Places that require explanation will be block-quoted; otherwise, the essay itself will be in standard format.

Final note: contrary to my CC BY-NC 4.0 licensing on the side of my blog, this piece is specifically copyright Melissa Teo, 2017. Please cite accordingly if using any ideas presented by this piece. Thanks!


Initially, I thought about talking about Waldo, of Where’s Waldo, as a figure that best exemplified the importance of individuality – imagine always being insignificant and interchangeable! I scrapped that idea because the more I thought about Waldo, the more I became disturbed by his yearning (or fetish?) of being found and how, for a while, that used to be the way I saw myself. The narrative was always, “Find me! Tell me exactly what I need to do!”. Instead of Waldo, I focused, instead, on the hyphen: an abstract concept used to describe the “in-between” state of culture and environment. Traditionally rooted in mixed-race and transcultural rhetoric, this concept of living “in-between” two races, two cultures, etc. became of absolute fascination to me, and the driving force of this paper.

Using the Basic Writings of Existentialism by Gordon Marino, Diamond Grill by Fred Wah, and Hegel’s dialectical model of the self-other, I will examine the concept of the hyphen and the hyphenated individual, how it works in relation to both Hegel and Kierkegaard, and will argue that the hyphen can only exist because of the notion of the self-other. I will also compare the hyphenated individual to other models we have talked about, such as Pascal’s split self and Dostoevsky’s spiteful swarm self. Furthermore, through a critical analysis of Sartre’s view of freedom, I will try to maintain that the “space” that the hyphen creates is the place where hyphenated individuals are most free.


The Hyphen, and the Hyphenated Individual

As mentioned previously, the hyphen is an abstract concept built upon the symbol joining two words with the assumption that in combination, they hold one meaning. In transcultural rhetoric and discourse, the hyphen is literally the symbol between, for example, Chinese and Canadian in the term Chinese-Canadian (which will be the example I will use in this essay given that I am only speaking from my own perspective). However, it is also a figurative space, or threshold, that separates one’s identity from one’s body.

For more on the hyphen and the hyphen project, visit: https://www.nfb.ca/film/between_living_in_the_hyphen/

Fred Wah’s bio-text Diamond Grill paints a good picture of this metaphorical space. In the narrative, a younger version of himself watches his father, the owner of a Chinese restaurant in Nelson, BC called The Diamond Grill, pass through a set of swinging wooden doors from the kitchen into the dining area. The kitchen is filled with several Chinese chefs, cooking away and communicating in Cantonese, while the dining area is filled with guests from the town, who are mostly always white. The people from the kitchen don’t venture out into the dining area, and the people in the dining area don’t venture into the kitchen – the only person that can (and the only person that does) is Fred Jr.’s father, who can navigate both sides of the swinging doors but prefers to stay in the kitchen “within the meaningless but familiar hum of the Cantonese and away from all the angst of the arrogant white world up front”, even though he can communicate with those on either side of the door (63). In this example are a few inputs: the kitchen and the dining room, representative of the two sides of Fred Jr.’s father’s identity: Chinese and Canadian; the swinging doors as the threshold, or the hyphen; and the relationship between those inputs and language.

You can think of the kitchen, the doors, and the dining area as a physical representation of Chinese, (hyphen), and Canadian (respectively).

One might argue that this is a Cartesian split of the self, but I feel it is far more complex and unlike than a mind/body split – I believe it is more of a dysphoria because of the relationship between the body, one’s identity, and one’s environment. When we talk about race, gender, or any intersection that may inform how someone lives their life, we talk about concepts that are constructed by other people. If I were the only person on Earth, it wouldn’t matter what race I was, nor my gender, nor my class, etc. because there would be no one else to recognize as similar or different (Pearson, “Hegel”). But I’m not the only person on Earth, and therefore these concepts become important. Only within the self-other recognition does the hyphen exist because it acknowledges the blend of two “others” into one “self”, and this recognition – this struggle (Pearson, “Hegel”) – is what characterizes the hyphenated individual. The hyphenated individual must balance their unbalanced, tri-partite selves in which all parts are just as important as, but not equal to, the whole.

The importance of the recognition of others in relation to the self is the reason why the hyphenated individual cannot be the absolute individual. Kierkegaard would probably argue that it is the self, not the other, that we must pay attention to (Marino 26), but we cannot ignore that our transcultural identity is comprised of multiple parts informed by things outside of us. For example, the absolute individual can suspend the ethical conventions of society for their own higher purpose (22), but the hyphenated individual has at least two codes of morality informing them: that of their culture, and that of their environment, which may or may not be the same. Kierkegaard’s Abraham is a paradoxical case, intransitive insofar as our own inability to comprehend it because we don’t live in a state of the suspension of the ethical for an individual determination to an end (27, 28). Such a case would probably lead to terrorism, in many cases, which the hyphenated individual could participate in, but it would still be impossible to ignore the role of “the other” in their existence, especially because their existence is based upon the social construction of race and thus the moral and ethical leanings that each culture demands.

Kierkegaard speaks of Abraham as someone who chose to ignore conventional ethics to fulfil his own purpose. This is, what Kierkegaard called, the absolute individual – there was no real importance in the recognition of the other. Kierkegaard himself was very against the fixation on others and the concept of “they” and “them” because the terms drew the focus away from the self.

The hyphenated individual must navigate the divide between self and other (or their culture and environment) and their moral systems. Positionality is important, and detrimental regardless if you call yourself Chinese-Canadian or Canadian-Chinese. You are always othered, you are always different – always bearing the mark of the hyphen that connects both of your identities. What are you if you are Chinese-Canadian? You are more Chinese than Canadian, and you are other. What are you if you are Canadian-Chinese? You are more Canadian than Chinese, you are other, and you are rejecting your roots. There is no winning with the game that is colonial language. But what does it mean to be categorized, either as something or other? Language produces the perceptions of the labels that structure this. We utilize language to place constraints on people, on identity, and on experience and existence. I have neither been wholly Chinese nor wholly Canadian. I’m too Canadian to be Chinese – too engulfed by the myth of the west, too concerned with individuality, sexuality, and so on – but I’m also too Chinese to be Canadian despite being born here. Moreover, my body and my actions are further categorized into either feminine or not feminine enough. The state of hyphenation, of being Chinese-Canadian, is a state of constantly being informed by either side of the hyphen. This limbo state – this in-between state – is something that is both foreign and familiar, and not knowing how to navigate it causes havoc and misery.

This misery is much like the misery that Pascal referred to in his Aphorisms. For Pascal, misery arises out of the conflict of wanting to be perfect and self-loving, but realistically being unable to achieve that (Pascal 31, 49). Growing up, I wanted to fulfill what it meant to be Chinese, as well as what it meant to be Canadian, and when I couldn’t fulfill either, I got upset and felt conflicted. It started as a difficulty in choosing what to wear and what to bring for lunch knowing that each side of myself had a certain expectation of what was appropriate. This grew into a difficulty in choosing which words to use to explain things, knowing that colonial English would never encapsulate what Mandarin could. This developed further into having to choose when and when not to adopt collectivistic (or individualistic) approaches, for example, which grew into a constant state of anxiety of knowing that if I didn’t choose wisely, or if I chose to think about myself in a context that my family didn’t understand, I would feel shame. There was a constant tension that manifested in the divide between the multiple, conflicting aspects of myself. This misery, Pascal says, pushes us to turn to diversion instead (49); for myself, it was simply ignoring my mixed-identity and, for a time, shunning the aspect of Chinese from my identity to fit in with the greater aspect of Canadian (“Who needs the qualifier of “Chinese” anyway? Aren’t we ALL Canadian?”).

How, then, can the hyphenated individual be an individual if it is so important to recognize the other in their attempt to recognize themselves? One must understand what it means, socially, to be Chinese, Canadian, and Chinese-Canadian, as our language has structured them. Chinese-Canadian does not merely mean the sum of what it means to be Chinese and Canadian, separately. In the term ‘Chinese-Canadian’, both the words ‘Chinese’ and ‘Canadian’ split away from their socially constructed meanings and converge to form an entirely new understanding – a new form of being. And because there is no “real” way to be Chinese or Canadian, there is thus no “real” way to be Chinese-Canadian, even if to be Chinese-Canadian is to be constantly informed by two sides. Canadian is Canadian, Chinese-Canadian is Chinese-Canadian: Chinese-Canadian is neither Chinese nor Canadian; it entails neither Chinese-ness nor Canadian-ness – it entails otherness, in-between-ness.

The hyphenated individual is both themselves within the understanding of the other AND other to themselves, and the contradictory nature of this allows the individual to find a messy, chaotic sense of self within the clash between understanding and acceptance – it is a unique, lived experience. The hyphenated individual is informed by others, and because of this, they have the most room to recognize the space the hyphen creates through self-reflection, and therefore themselves as an agglomeration of that manifested space. This is constant and ever-changing, as the two sides of the individual are always informing and reacting to the hyphen, and the hyphen is always informing and reacting to the two sides, but are neither resolved nor resigned to any ‘part’ of the self – like Kierkegaard’s notion of relating to the relation. Each part is important, but not equal, to the conceptualization of the whole, and communicates within and between itself in an unbalanced yet continuous way. In this sense, while the hyphen is brought out only within Hegel’s dialectical self-other framework, because there is no mediation, the hyphenated individual is also somewhat like Kierkegaard’s “self” in the relationship between the self that one experiences and the limits that are imposed upon them through the inevitable recognition of the other (Marino 28).


The Clash

Previously, we discussed the hyphenated individual as conflicted: always informed by the other (or their two parts, or their environment and culture), while trying to sustain their notion of selfhood. They are themselves because of their relationship to the other. Now, we will discuss how the hyphenated individual might be an other to themselves.

Like the prior example of The Diamond Grill, the concept of language is one of the most salient ways in which people, in general, are other to themselves. Language, as a medium of communication, is socially constructed and agreed upon by others, so utilizing language is a direct perpetuation of “otherness” and the notion of self-other recognition. Yet could we ever live, today, without some form of shared language? If we cannot get away from the language that marks us as transcultural individuals, and if we cannot control how others perceive us because of the language that marks us, we must adhere to how language has structured us to exist. The term “Chinese-Canadian” ascribes a certain fixated-ness – that one must possess certain qualities to be. Similarly, Wah Sr.’s movements, especially because he can communicate with both sides of the swinging doors, symbolize the continuity of redefining Chinese-Canadian identity. In Wah Jr.’s case, he redefines his identity in such a way that targets the problem of fixatedness – he does not “want to be inducted into someone else’s story” (125).

This is the basis of the problem for hyphenated individuals: that many of the things we subscribe to are things we must subscribe to for us to exist comfortably, which are often conventions of “the other”. We would not be able to separate ourselves from language, just like how we would not be able to separate ourselves from our cultural and racial constructions without alienating ourselves. When we choose to separate from cultural or ethical conventions, we feel an overwhelming sense of isolation, shame, and, to an extent, inauthenticity. This is also true when it comes to personal experience. We cannot separate from these, no matter how bitter they are.

Sexual assault is a difficult concept to tackle, and far more difficult for me, personally, as I’m sure anybody who has experienced it would feel the same, to talk about. But sexual assault has changed my life and the way I see myself so much that I don’t feel like I could ever return to the “self” that existed prior to the occurrence.

Perhaps I could compare it to another incident: in my childhood, in the park, swinging on the swing, jumping off, and then scraping my knee on the concrete. This act is something that would hardly define somebody, if at all, and of course scabs eventually heal – sometimes seamlessly, so that you wouldn’t know there was ever a scab there at all. But the child still remembers some distant connection to the stinging of the scrape, and remembers, every time they visit that park that they scraped their knee there. Even further, when they visit other parks, they’re constantly reminded that the swing was the one that was present, not the slide, nor the monkey bars – anyway. Perhaps they’ll take extra precautionary measures and never go to the park again, or maybe they’ll go to the park but they’ll just avoid the swings. Maybe, eventually, they’ll return to the swings, but they’ll only swing so high, and they’ll never jump off again. Or perhaps they’ll convince themselves into thinking that all they’re good at is getting scabs, since they can’t jump off the swing correctly! Whatever it is that influences their decision to be around parks or swings again, the fact is that they will always remember that awful sting – they cannot separate from the experience.

It is difficult because I do not want to admit that sexual assault has changed me, because this would mean that I am, in part, impacted by an other that I especially do not want to be impacted by, let alone associated with in any way. But this also seems nonsensical because I had just mentioned that I could not return to the self that existed before I experienced sexual assault, nor can I pretend it never happened, for this would be inauthentic. I cannot separate from this, but I get angry when I feel I cannot, as if there is a way to maintain my knowledge from the experience without retaining the experience itself – absurd.

This back and forth reminds me a lot of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, who was an influential character in shaping my understanding of sexual assault. He is spiteful because of the position he is in, and wants to do something about it but simultaneously cannot because he is conscious about all the little implications it could bring if he were to act or react to something (Marino 195). This hyper-consciousness, says the Underground Man, is a disease, and is what ails him into spite and resignation (197). The man of action, the person that exacts revenge, lacks consciousness, and is therefore stupid, but also is the one that gets things done because he acts without thinking (207).

All I wanted to do was figure everything out – why it had happened, if there was something I could do to gain justice. I wanted to fix myself and be better, but what was there to fix in that instance? I was stuck between forgetting and remembering, between reshaping and remaining the same, between letting sexual assault define me and defining it. Neither choice seemed exactly right in any case, and all were painful processes. I couldn’t figure anything out, I wanted to break out of every restraint I had placed upon myself but couldn’t do anything. I wanted to die for a long time, and got angry for a while because I hadn’t. People started to tell my story for me because I kept quiet and said nothing, fearing shame, fearing guilt, fearing what everyone around me would say – including myself. There was no directionality – I just wanted to be better in any way possible.

Maybe we are not necessarily defined by the other, but, rather, reacting to the other – perhaps, like the Underground Man, we are thrown into acute consciousness as a reaction to (and because of) our experiences (Marino 201). We know revenge is not justice because that would be stupid, but we feel spiteful because we know this (208). The anger and resentment I felt for many years solved nothing and brought no solace. There is nothing we can do to reverse what is done, there is purposeless pain, time does not stop – the Underground Man moans and groans about a toothache but there is nothing he can do about the toothache itself. It happened, and his inability to change that fuels his spite (205).

In this sense, no experiences should define us – we only react to our experiences and circumstances. We do not have an essence before we exist.

The problem the hyphenated individual faces alongside separation – like that of the sexual assault survivor – is the problem of the blanket narrative. Perhaps the reason why it is difficult for both people to survive (in a metaphorical sense: to survive shame, to survive guilt, to survive despite the narratives created) is because there is a narrative already constructed for them: this is what it means to be x, y or z. Concepts cannot encapsulate personal experience. The transcultural individual is not a venn diagram in which both inputs of their identity converge into a shared space with a list of similar traits in the middle that define them, and likewise the experiences of sexual assault victims. When we try to separate ourselves from this narrative, we end up feeling shame because it is not what the people around us prescribe to us, and thus we become other to ourselves because we want to remain authentic to our desires while also wanting to abide by social conventions to be included in our societal landscape. But the narratives are only ways in which people feel certain groups of people should exist – not how they do.

Similarly, the human being cannot be reduced to numbers, to a simple 2+2=4 equation (Marino 203). For if we become algorithmic, if we become predictable, we lose our humanity. We lose what it means to be a person. The Underground Man argues that 2+2=5 is a much better way to describe human nature: illogical, nonsensical, and chaotic. There is no one way to be a transcultural, hyphenated individual in the same way there is no one way to be a survivor of sexual assault. There is no one way to be a person – there is no one set story. An acknowledgement of this is necessary to gaining the freedom that the hyphen brings for the hyphenated individual, as well as the freedom that the forgiveness of oneself brings to the sexual assault survivor.

Both invalidation and re-identification penetrate the ground on which the individual stands as they must constantly invalidate one side of themselves for the sake of re-identifying with the other, and so on. This penetration calls for pain – but it also symbolizes the individual, for they would not be one entity without either part, nor would they be without the penetration – the crossing of the hyphen – itself. Navigating the hyphen sustains the transcultural individual.


The Freedom

The hyphenated self is messy. They are reacting to others, which in turn allows them to manifest and recognize themselves. They are other to themselves, and other to the others. They navigate conflict and chaos, and yet are characterized by conflict and chaos. They are unbalanced. They are irreducible to numbers. There is no one way to be transcultural, both a liberating and daunting statement. How does one gain freedom from social suppression?

Sometimes, especially given the clash between morals, choosing anything is difficult. Often, in my own experience, no matter what I chose for myself, I would always end up disappointing someone or other. A salient example in my past was my choice of schools for my post-secondary studies. Though I had only applied to three schools, all within the lower mainland (Kwantlen Polytechnic, Simon Fraser, and UBC), my parents made the choice very clear: UBC or shame until death – not choosing, or choosing otherwise, was not an option. Part of me was reluctant – UBC was costlier than the other schools, and they made it very clear they would not be helping me with any payments. But I knew that if I didn’t follow their wishes, I would end up feeling guilty about it. My friends, most of which has school paid for and parents that didn’t care where they went, were shocked when I decided to follow my parents’ orders.

This is only one of many examples of the ways in which someone could feel like all their efforts in grounding their own individual freedom still lead to a coerced choice, especially when a choice is made to satisfy a party aside from yourself even if you do not want to make that choice. However, I have found, especially in contexts where I am punished/shamed for a choice I have made by both sides of myself, I feel the most satisfied with my decision. Why?

Perhaps, given the clashing moral contexts, the feeling of knowing I was going to be shamed regardless of what I chose gave me a certain level of freedom to choose. This is reminiscent of Sartre’s idea of freedom in that every person always free to choose (Pearson, “Sartre”), and Dostoevsky’s concept of suffering at one’s own will (210).

However, I must remain critical of Sartre’s claim that every person is equally free to choose. It is often the case that not only the hyphenated individual, but also those who are marginalized and oppressed, are not presented with the same opportunities to choose, and if they are, there are often social, political, and economic conditions that need to be addressed before judging the equality of everyone to have the same, fair choice between options. Some people live in environments where it is not possible for them to choose; others cannot choose due to a genetically endowed symptom. Even in my own trivial example, I must acknowledge that the ability to choose between expensive post-secondary schools is not a privilege that many people have.  

With that being said, while choices may be difficult, I do maintain that especially when faced with dilemmas, people are the freest. The transcultural individual must constantly choose in order to navigate their bodies, knowing they will always be faced with some sort of chaos and conflict in the outcome of their choice. They will suffer regardless of the choice, but they chose it out of their own will. They must choose to recognize the other so that they can be conscious of themselves. They must choose when to separate from the narratives constructed for them and when to adhere, sometimes for the sake of others, and sometimes for the sake of themselves. They must choose knowing that many decisions will lead to at least two waves of shame and guilt: one from their culture, and one from their environment. But when the choices are made with intention, even in suppression the transcultural individual exercises their freedom to choose – they choose because they can.

You can think of this as an exercise in free will (I personally don’t believe in rational determinism).

Rebellion and resistance is part of this: resistance of the limitations that culture and environment place on the individual and rebelling against blanket narratives and fixedness within transcultural identity. The space of the hyphen, in all its chaos, is the place in which the individual is free to make these choices. They have nothing to lose – nothing makes sense, but nothing must make sense either. What matters is that the decision made – whatever it may be – is meaningful and intentional despite everything that informs it. It is only then that the transcultural, hyphenated individual is free.


The Self, the Other, the Hyphen, and Myself

Extrapolating the hyphen’s lived experience within an existentialist framework is mostly the product of coming to terms with myself as a person. How do we start to understand who the self is without the other? Or the other without the self? The goal of this essay was to conceptualize who or what the self was, and who or what the other was. As a hyphenated individual, self and other are both in the same sphere: self in relation to others, other in relation to the self. This is always relating to itself and ongoing – both embodying Hegel’s model of self-other and Kierkegaard’s relating to the relation. Pascal and Dostoevsky highlight the natural imbalance of the transcultural individual as a human condition built into the characteristics of being transcultural and constantly recognizing the other. A critique of Sartre gives way for freedom even in times of the harsh suppression of selfhood. But regardless of my attempt to define the complexity of transcultural-ness, I am also doing it a disservice by pinpointing qualities of a hyphenated person: there is no one way to be. And so what is to be done?

In the struggle of recognition, we must allow ourselves to understand the chaos and conflict and utilize it to better recognize ourselves, as individuals. We must recognize the limitations and make choices that challenge the limitations despite the social consequences. Navigating such dysphoria is not easy, but nobody said it was. Meaning, as a transcultural person, is derived from one thing: knowing that apart from everything else, I am always able to choose myself and my existence first.

Works Cited

Marino, Gordon. Basic Writings of Existentialism. New York: Modern Library, 2004. Print.

Pascal, Blaise. Pascal’s Pensées. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co, 1958. Web. Accessed on 12 Apr 2017. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/18269/18269-h/18269-h.htm

Pearson, Phyllis. “Sartre”. Philosophy 385, 10 Mar 2017. UBC, Vancouver. Lecture.

Pearson, Phyllis. “Hegel”. Philosophy 385, 16 Jan 2017. UBC, Vancouver. Lecture.

Wah, Fred. Diamond Grill. Edmonton: NeWest, 1996. Print.


Featured Image: taken by me, CC BY-NC 4.0.

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Self-proclaimed jack-of-all-trades. Intersectional feminist. Educator/linguist in training. Fashionista, food-lover, and fairly poor hand-eye coordination.

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