What does it take to get to know someone? I hate the feeling that I know so many people in MIT only on the surface-level. Sure, I can tell you their interests, or their hobbies, or where they’re from, or what classes their taking, or where they live, or who their friends are. I have these kinds of conversations all the time, every day. But these don’t make an identity, right? Yet I find it so, so hard to view other people as having an identity other than this.
During the long weekend two weekends ago, I went on a retreat with other people from my floor. I remember walking on the beach and talking to one of the upperclassmen. I listened to him tell his life story to me and talk about what he wants to do after college.
After the conversation, I realized that I didn’t really know him. Sure, I can tell you his favorite video game, or what student groups he’s in, but before that conversation, I viewed him as just that—someone who did so-and-so things. Not as someone who made decisions and had questions about what they wanted to do in life and had as many doubts and problems as I have. It seems, by default, that I think other people’s problems aren’t really real in the same way that my problems are real, and that’s what bothers me.
It bothers me because it makes my problems feel less real in comparison. It bothers me because it makes my identity feel impoverished. It bothers me because, for the longest time, I defined myself using my interests, and hobbies, and where I’m from, and what classes I’m taking, and where I live.
When I introduce myself to people, it’s only natural to talk about these things. I’m CJ. I’m from the Philippines. I live in East Campus. I like math, and writing, and coding. The trouble is that I started thinking about myself as only these things—that I’m who I’m from, or what I’m interested in. I’ve done it so much I find it hard to view myself as anything else. And it makes my identity feel weak and small, compared to the identities of the people around me, once I try to get to know them.
Once upon a time, my defining feature was being good at math. My personality consisted of being good at math and enjoying it, which was in contrast to every one of my classmates back in elementary school. I was the only person I knew who would read recreational math books for fun. I remember owning this one book about mathematical magic tricks that I read and reread. It had dog ears on every other page and a cover with tiny wrinkles and rips.
When I entered middle school, I was still pretty good at math. Not the best in my year, but definitely in the top ten or so. Good enough that I represented our school in math competitions. Our team would place fifth or seventh in the whole region, and that would make me happy. I was good at math, and I got noticed for being good at math, and it felt good to be good at math.
High school came. There’s this thing that many high school math competitors look up to called the IMO, which you can think of as the Olympics for high school math contests. Each country sends a team of six people, who all come together and do a bunch of math for a week. Thousands and thousands of Filipino high school students every year take this test called the PMO, in the hopes of making the top twenty, out of which the Philippine team to the IMO is selected.
And yes, I made the top twenty. I was in the running for the IMO team. For tenth grade, and eleventh grade, and twelfth grade—but I never made it. I was never good enough to make the IMO team, but I was still pretty good for making it to the top twenty.
Good enough that I could still think of myself as being good at math, and I would feel comfortable in that knowledge. Here is my trophy, my achievement, my claim to being good at math. That I could talk to people, and when they find out I was a national finalist, I can feel their respect for me shooting up. It felt good. I’ll admit it. It felt good.
I now know dozens of people here at MIT who went to the IMO. I now know dozens of people who didn’t, but were good enough to have won gold medals anyway. I can confidently say they are better than me. I have listened to people talk about math and not understanding it. I have agonized over problems for hours, then told them to someone, then watched them solve it in seconds. I have listened people call problems I don’t know how to solve as easy.
These aren’t new experiences. But this is the first time I’ve experienced these for so long, and so often, that I can’t ignore it any more. I still think of myself as good at math. But being at MIT means being surrounded by people who excel in every corner of the universe, and no longer could I define myself by claiming to be one of them.
I’m gay. I realized this sometime during junior year or so. I didn’t really attach myself to being gay, though, until my senior year. I was in a relationship, I made tweets about all the cute boys in our year, I started writing poetry about being gay, and then I came out.
My parents weren’t the most supportive, but to me, that felt like even more reason to identify as gay. My gayness became defiance. Calling myself gay is acknowledging their rejection of my queerness. I could afford to be loud, a privilege that so many other people don’t have, so I wanted to be.
And sometimes it feels that I don’t live up to that label. Sometimes it feels that I’m not gay enough. I reached out for pink shirts and rainbow flags, but these aren’t what it means to be gay. I changed my Twitter handle to have a rainbow on it, but that’s not what it means to be gay. I share gay memes and make jokes about the gay agenda, but that’s not it. That’s not it.
Part of me feels the need to prove to myself that I was gay. I grew up somewhere so conservative that I was one of a handful of people I knew who were out. Now that I’m at MIT, that’s changed. So many people here are queer, and are proud of it. And that’s great. But it means that I can’t define myself as being gay in contrast any more. I can’t define myself as being gay in contrast to the people around me. It makes me feel like if I’m not gay enough, then all of my loudness will be for nothing.
It’s the same thing with how I identify myself as Filipino. Sure, this is truly a label that comes in contrast. I’m one of the handful of international students from the Philippines. Even if you count the Filipino-American community here, there’s still relatively few of us. But part of me feels like I’m not being Filipino enough.
Because people here carry their culture with them. My Chinese-American friends make jokes in Chinese and cook dumplings. Two of my friends talk to each other in Estonian; another two talk to each other in Arabic. And what do I have?
All of a sudden, I feel like I’m scrambling for anything that will call me Filipino. I picked up this label because I felt the need to identify as my culture, or my background, somehow. Back in the Philippines, I didn’t really think of myself as Filipino—it wasn’t something I had to consciously do. Now, every day that passes where I don’t speak Tagalog or eat Filipino food or listen to OPM is another day I feel that part of my identity rotting away.
I’m trying not to confine myself by my identity, but it’s hard.
Sadness was my aesthetic for a long time, and I attached my identity to my suffering. I used to have a tumblr blog back in 2015 or 2016, and I would always write about how I angry I was at school, or my family, or how sad I felt. I moved to blogging on AoPS, and it was the same thing. I would blog about how lonely I felt, or how I had no motivation to do things, or why my life sucked. I was so attached to the idea of blogging about sad things that I found it hard to write about anything that wasn’t sad.
I’ve tried to avoid this on my blogging here. So I wrote about apples and flu shots and nice walks downtown. When I read it, it reads like my writing, it sounds like my voice, it feels like it’s me, but it doesn’t feel like my blog post. It feels so different from my usual blogging. It’s like I’m wearing a mask, like I’m putting on this persona, like I’m trying to be someone who I am not.
But I am this person, right? I made those blog posts, and I like those blog posts. I am allowed to change. I change all the time, but I just don’t catch myself when I’m doing so. And now that I am changing, and now I notice that I’m changing, it feels like I’m watching a glitch in the matrix. The fact that my identity is constantly in flux feels weird, and the fact that I’m totally fine with it is even weirder.
Let me explain it differently. Talking to upperclassmen gives me screenshots of how my MIT experience could go. I can see myself loving writing so much that I pursue a major in it. Or pursuing something entirely different, like earth science or management. In one future, I study math, go into academia, become a professor. And in another future, I go into finance, live a comfortable life in some city, and retire early.
When I look behind me, I see history as a single strand, carefully threaded through the narrow keyholes of exactly how I wanted it to end up. If I hadn’t gotten into math in elementary, I wouldn’t be here. If I didn’t click the right links while browsing the internet in middle school, I wouldn’t be me. If I didn’t choose to go to MIT, it wouldn’t feel right.
So there’s the contradiction. In front of me, I see myself blooming into many beautiful futures, but beside me, I see strands of alternate presents I’m glad I didn’t end up in. If I’m really fine with so many different futures, why am I not fine with a different present? Or, if I’m really fine with how I’ve changed, why am I not fine with how I’m changing?
But you know what?
To hell with it.
It’s not as if I wanted to identify myself as being good at math anyway. It’s not as if speaking Tagalog, eating Filipino food, and listening to OPM are what make me Filipino, because rainbow shirts and gay jokes aren’t what make me gay. It’s not as if I can even pin down an identity that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
I know that it feels like everyone around me has it all figured out, and I know that this isn’t true. I know that it feels like everyone around me has a more robust identity than I am, and I know this isn’t true. I know that it feels like everyone around me is better than me at everything, but come on. I should know impostor syndrome when I see it, and I should know better than to fall into it.
It’s one thing to know, but it’s another thing to believe. And writing this won’t make it any easier to believe any of the things I just said. Writing this won’t make me accept myself. Writing this won’t make me feel better. But I’m writing this anyway, because I’m a writer.
I’m a math person. I’m gay. I’m Filipino.
I’ll take all of these labels, even if they aren’t fully right. Even if they’ll change. Even if they’re only surface-level descriptions of who I really am.
I’ll put myself into boxes, but to hell with squeezing into them.