November 8, 2019 | Narrative
i am (not) a fake
redefining imposter syndrome
I say I’m not a fake, but I’ve often felt like one. I’m sure you’ve heard it all before: “imposter syndrome,” especially common among women (according to research) and especially prevalent at a place like Brown (according to my freshman orientation lectures).
But I felt it even before Brown—stiff smiles, midnight tears, my mom’s you do deserve it, you do deserve it, you need to believe in yourself you deserve it. During high school, it manifested itself as self-doubt over my achievements. Typical, perhaps relatable, because it’s the microscope through which many of us see our insecurities.
But things have been changing for me.
Prodded by the “college journey” of defining myself, I’m pinpointing “imposter syndrome” in areas of my life which should be concrete and nonnegotiable—factual, even. My feelings of displacement, shame, and confusion are appearing in spheres of cultural and generational identity.
Are my grandma and I Vietnamese American in different ways because she’s a naturalized citizen and I was born here? Am I really Vietnamese American, or am I an Americanized Vietnamese American? If I’m Americanized, can I ever truly understand my family’s immigrant story? Can I call myself Chinese if I’m merely one-fourth Chinese and the only member of my family who speaks Mandarin is my grandpa? Am I a millennial or a Gen Z-er? Am I a first-gen or second-gen immigrant? First-gen or second-gen college student? Which checkboxes do I mark on my financial aid questionnaire?
I feel like I should know myself, but the reality is that I don’t. And that’s where the shame, different from the shame of achievement-related insecurity, comes in. This shade of internal pandemonium seems so much more real because it involves so much more of the world around me: In attempting to define my own identity, I feel the impulse to fully understand the identities of others. It’s an impossible task.
The former version of my imposter syndrome was nice, in a way, because as uncomfortable as feeling like a fraud is, the experience was my own: my awards, my titles, my self-skepticism. This other version is intrusive; I try to un-imposter myself, hesitantly peeking into strangers’ windows and tiptoeing on their lawns, but become an imposter instead. This feels so wrong, but how else can I figure out where I belong, what I can call myself?
Who are you? Am I like you? If you are X, Y, and Z, and if I am X, Y, and Z, then we are the same. Aren’t we?
“I” becomes “we.” “We” becomes a label, an easy tag—defined not so much by who we are individually, but who we are socially and categorically. We are Vietnamese American. Chinese. First-generation. And when X goes missing or Y is replaced by B, to what extent do these permutations alter our identities? When I stare at that financial aid questionnaire, the checkboxes mutate into checklists—X, Y, Z—none of which I feel entitled to mark.
Am I a fake Vietnamese kid? Though my first language was the language of my grandparents, I can’t read or write it. (Condition X: Vietnamese kids should at least be able to hold a conversation with their grandparents. Another checkbox I can’t mark.) When I was in China this past summer, was saying “I’m Chinese” a lie? I don’t even know how to say “part-Chinese” in Chinese, and I’m technically more Vietnamese anyway. Am I a fake first-gen student? My mom graduated from college, but I’m the first one to attend a school with as much privilege as Brown, and I’m also the first one born in America, and I feel like “the first” in many ways—but I’m still so confused. And I don’t want to “take advantage of” what’s not mine, not even accidentally.
Like any good millennial/Gen Z-er (circle one), I turn to Google. Just tell me what I am.
what does vietnamese american mean
“A Vietnamese American is an American of Vietnamese descent.”
what is an american
“An American is anyone who loves life enough to want the best that it has to offer.”
all the generations in order
“Dates are approximate… There are no standard definitions for when a generation begins and ends.”
“The term first-generation, as it pertains to a person’s nationality or residency in a country, has two incompatible meanings.”
One part of me just wants an easy answer, something straightforward I can accept. The other part of me is happy with these half-answers; my Google yield recognizes the ambiguities—that a “complete” definition of identity can’t be reached. But it only scratches the surface of what any of these terms could encompass. I don’t know what to do with such half-answers, and the knowledge I need to shape my identity feels inaccessible.
What’s more: Google doesn’t discriminate between “reliable” and “unreliable” sources, and those of us who use it typically trust the first five links. We’re fine with Wikipedia answers and feel especially scholarly when a New York Times article pops up. But regardless, these “answers” shape our knowledge—and in this case, our understanding of who we are. The question of reliability is yet another cloud fogging our vision, hindering us from determining who we might be.
Maybe what I’ve been saying this whole time is wrong. Maybe I do know myself after all—I just don’t know my labels. How might I reconcile my story with Google’s presentation of the XYZ’s? How might my personal experiences figure themselves into the social narrative surrounding identity?
I have a hard time figuring out which is what and what is where and where do I belong. No lived experience can be as monolithic as a label stipulates, but rather than flesh out what my experiences mean for my identity, I’m tempted to slip back into the easy.
But when I look at all those half-answers from Google, though, I just can’t feel comfortable with blindly accepting what it says about who I am. I just can’t scratch the surface and stop there. I might feel like an imposter, but that’s only because I’m quick to dissect myself in XYZ ways. And I might be tempted to slip back into easy (even if incomplete) labels, but that’s only because I underestimate my ability to push the envelope of my selfhood. There are still so many questions and so few answers, but the permutations of my identity don’t nullify my right to define it.
And with realizations like that, how could I ever slip back?