No, this story isn’t about gas prices, road trips, or Big Gulps. This is a story about identity, or identity crisis if you will. The other day, I was at the gas station, minding my business, grabbing a quick snack, and filling up my car. It was a routine trip to get gas until it wasn’t. Standing in line and waiting for my turn to pay, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around to see another patron grinning ear to ear. “Dave!” “It’s been forever, man! How are you doing, buddy?” Puzzled and confused, I didn’t know what to say. I had absolutely no idea who this character was, yet I was about to be on the receiving end of a solid and energetic bro hug. I thought about going along with the story and being “Dave” for a few minutes. Still, I quickly realized that wasn’t going to work, especially after he started reminiscing about the time in high school “we” headed out to Wendover, Nevada, for a weekend of drinking, gambling, and testing out our fake IDs.
After hearing all about what “our” old crew was up to, I finally came clean and told him my real name. He, of course, thought I was kidding, and when he pressed me more about old memories “we” shared, I had to remind him that I personally wasn’t there. When I humbly told him that I wasn’t from Utah originally and that I grew up overseas, specifically in Hong Kong and Taiwan, he stared at me, stunned and angry. He then told me that I was being an ass, that I was much cooler in high school (no argument there), and then walked off while flipping me the bird.
While I should have been shocked, this wasn’t the first time I’ve been confused for a local somebody, only to be accused of being smug and making up an international story. I laugh off those moments now, but truth be told, for a long time, those same moments triggered a yearning for a simpler upbringing and identity. Growing up overseas was fantastic and something I don’t regret at all, but that type of rearing can shake your true sense of identity and belonging.
As a kid, I couldn’t wait to get stateside in the summers so that I could be “American,” only to realize fast that I didn’t quite know what that meant. That feeling continued into college, and as a collegiate athlete, the game was the same, but I had to learn how to acclimate to my teammates and the surroundings. Despite having great teammates and friends, I was an outsider looking in and constantly trying to find balance and acceptance, which I still struggle with today.
This may shock many who know me now, as I view myself as more outgoing and appreciate great friends and enjoyable chats. Still, when the subject turns to me, I do anything I can to change the topic or get out of the conversation altogether. Odd, I know, but the idea of even small talk about my background, whether to friends or even a gas station stranger, still makes me sweat. It’s genuinely not a matter of arrogance, but more so that lingering childhood fear of not being understood, believed, or validated. I think to a degree, we all simply want to be seen for our true selves, even when that self can be a bit complicated. Like many others that grew up like me (Third Culture Kids, or TCK’s for short), my story is just that. It’s not better or worse than anyone else, but an identity story, nonetheless.