The Question of Identity*

3 01 2011


Friday, December 25, 2009

A couple of days ago, I had a chat with a friend of mine. Out of nowhere I asked her, “have you ever hated yourself, I mean really feel disgusted with yourself?” Shockingly, she said yes. “I don’t know, but I often feel that I’m not pretty. My skin is dark and my hair is like this, not really like other beautiful girls.” Just to picture her a bit, she is this exotic-tanned girl with beautiful wavy hair, uniquely beautiful facial features and a cool sense of style. I was kind of surprised to hear her say that because she’s also a smart girl with a personality, yet she doesn’t feel comfortable in her own skin.

That’s very common thing among youth nowadays. Why does appearance make such a big deal anyway? Arguably they do. It is a big part that contributes to one’s self esteem and identity. People are being judged merely from their appearances on a daily basis and that’s not completely wrong because if you don’t want to be considered as something or someone you don’t want to, then appear appropriately. Nevertheless, the society becomes fiercer. You are what you look. Period.

The conditions that we often call as ‘fashion victim’, ‘dumb blonde’, ‘beef stud’ or even to the extreme as bulimic/anorexic may be the results of this classic ongoing phenomenon of not having a clear identity of oneself. In this case, is it because of our own choice to have a bad opinion of ourselves? Perhaps it is, but what if we are left with no choice but to think that we are never good enough? What if we are shaped by the society to think that way? To think that there is always a standard upon everything and when someone doesn’t fit to the standard, then the person is simply wrong?

Having to ponder about this issue for quite some time, I was reminded of a movie I watched in my Asian Cinema class, Raise the Red Lantern. This is a very beautiful typical art house movie with a very strong Oriental touch. Set in China at the 1930’s, the story revolves around a woman named Song Lian (played by Gong Li) who got married to Master Chen as his fourth wife. Even though she was a university student, she finally succumbs to the reality that she has to be married. When she first arrived to the Chen’s family, she didn’t really care about the family’s tradition and also the competition among Mr. Chen’s wives. As time passes by, the scandals, the pressure and all the tragedy that happen inside that confined little world forces Song Lian to fit in and even made her do things that she regretted in the end.


At the last scene of the movie, Song Lian is shown as being a mentally disrupted person, walking around in the house surrounded by strong and sturdy walls. The interesting part of the movie is how it really portrays the social construction in an extreme and vivid way. Even though the story has a strong sense of feminism, but the value is applicable in the general society. The dull and thick walls of the house represent the mightiness of social construction. When I say social construction, I’m talking about all the standards, customs, set of rules, perceptions, and stereotypes that the society possesses and imposes upon its members. Just like the wall, the social construction is built and stands throughout the ages with minor changes in it. Its pervasiveness forces its member to adhere to the construction and whoever strays, has to bear the consequences. In Song Lian’s case, the consequence is to become what the society considers as crazy. That’s the reality in the jungle. Peer groups, media and even parents perpetuate the idea of having a common standard that one must fulfill in order to live in the society. In shaping one’s identity, role models, friends and general images play a major influence. In most cases, lots of young people are being driven by that influence and also the need to be accepted. Thus throughout the process they lose themselves and become someone that they’re not.

Society construction is also about stereotype and paradigm. Every society has its own set of stereotype labeled upon certain groups inside it. The construction forces the individuals to live according to their set stereotype and when a new person is entering the society then he/she will be assigned to a certain stereotype. Assigned and stuck in it for good. This concept became real for me during a national competition to become a young ambassador for a regional association. One part of the selection is an interview with a panel of judges from a well-known governmental institution. The interview aimed to see the personality and quality of each individual and how they can represent Indonesia. I’m a Chinese-Indonesian and surprisingly all the questions asked are about me being a Chinese-Indonesian. That’s it. This was weird, disturbing and ironic because I consider myself as an Indonesian who is a Chinese descendant, not a Chinese who lives in Indonesia. But from the questions, they didn’t see me as an Indonesian. The most annoying part was when I tried to show the other side of me aside from being Chinese, they shift the discussion again about my being Chinese. “You are different because you are Chinese,” was the sentence they said after I tried to show my quality as an individual. I embrace my ethnicity, I love it, but I don’t want to be seen as simply a Chinese.

It really annoys me because this is the reality in the society. If you have small eyes, fair skin and black straight hair, then you’re identified with being stingy, working a merchant, and only goes to a certain university with computer science or business as your major. The very existence of stereotype is certainly a bad thing because it limits a person room to develop him/herself. It also conveys the shallowness of how one thinks of another as if the real quality of a person subsided under the shadow of stereotyping. And just like a legacy, stereotype is being passed down from one generation to another and become a seems-to-be truism.

With this prevalent circumstance, in the surface people seem to be okay, but the water is bubbling. There are people who demand changes in social perception towards its member. I truly believe that everyone wants to be seen as individuals and not living pieces of meat that only act according to what it is tagged. But with the risk of being socially exiled and considered as deviants, lots of people, youth especially, chooses to live under the cloak and mask that they think will make them get accepted and live their live through the construction. Not to judge, but is that what construe as being a person/individual? Does individuality really that bad? Being comfortable in one’s own skin is indeed not easy. With the self-liberty and true enjoyment of life as the price, does it worth it to swim against the current? You be the judge.

* this article was also published in




One response

3 01 2011

the answer to the opening question: yes. definitely.

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