Growing up in a predominately white suburb in Northern California, I was constantly made aware that I was “Other.” It was due to this sense of alienation from my immediate surroundings that led me to envision the internet as a space through which I could process the discomfort that indelibly marked my childhood, while simultaneously allowing me to excavate the parts of myself I had tried to erase. For the first time, I engaged with the implications of internalized racism and I was finally able to relish in my Chinese-ness: the joys of eating dim sum for brunch on Sunday mornings and lighting incense with my superstitious Buddhist grandmother. The online communities I discovered (through niche memes, of all things) during middle school not only captured the experience of Asian American girlhood with such clarity, they also had a transformative effect on my self image.
The determinedly individualistic Asian American women I came across on social media, such as Rachel Nguyen and Fernanda Ly, were an antidote to the (often painful) stereotypes I encountered in mainstream media. The thirteen-year-old me often imagined that there was a reciprocal vulnerability between me and these women, signaling that there are alternatives to the standardized molds – the fetishized expectations that we are docile and compliant – that society imposes upon us. I guess, in that sense, the internet became my mentor; it exposed me to new possibilities for a more expansive identity beyond the stock images of Asian women as sex objects or efficient robots. The way these women experimented with style revealed that there were alternatives to Brandy Melville crop tops and Lululemon leggings, effectively, an attempt to blend in with all of the white girls at school. They still remind me whenever I feel insecure that I shouldn’t feel guilty for drawing attention to myself; instead, it can be a powerful political act for a young Asian American woman to demand to be seen when society wants her to recede into the background.
While I do believe that social media enables us to be more inventive and creative in how we present ourselves, I have recently come to question whether it is conducive to originality. Are we ever our true selves on the internet? I finished reading Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion – a collection of essays that provide a critique of contemporary life, and more specifically, internet culture – earlier this year. Tolentino’s observations formed by dissecting the ways in which platforms like Instagram enables corporations and self-serving individuals to co-opt social movements, such as feminism, for cultural cachet. I grew further disillusioned reflecting on how I had indeed been “influenced” into subscribing to the relentless pursuit of physical perfection, no longer making aesthetic decisions for myself.
It is only natural that during times of unease to rely on repetitive, comforting activities to create a semblance of normalcy. For some, that might be baking sourdough; for others, myself included, there’s nothing that feels more familiar than scrolling through one’s Instagram feed.
But as I allow my mind to become saturated with images, I try to explicate questions of how much of my online identity (and my identity IRL) is constructed by outside forces; I try to understand why I let social media consume so much of my time and energy when I find it so exhausting.
In spite of my disillusionment, I remain hopeful for the internet’s potential. It heartens me to see young people using their platforms to give a voice to those who have been silenced; to educate and, in turn, allow themselves about systemic racism, white fragility, and the abuses of capitalism among many other pertinent social, political, and environmental issues. I feel optimistic again whenever I see my friends, regardless of whether they live two blocks or two flights away from me, post on their Instagram stories as we practice social distancing.
All things considered, I have accepted that the internet can be incoherent and contradictory – it can be simultaneously empowering and humiliating, sincere and disingenuous, authentic and derivative etc... Going forward, I will try to embrace its duality.