A Bookshelf of Memories: (Re)Writing Identity

By Emma Woo

Sometimes, I picture the twenty years of my life as one might scan a bookcase: rows and rows of memories, depicted as novels, poems, ballads, symphonies and everything in between.

2001, Sherwood Park Elementary School

We are given an in-class assignment. Step 1. Choose a noun, an adjective, and a verb. Step 2. Draw a picture of that noun, being that adjective, doing that verb. Step 3. Go outside and play. My noun: pig – I saw one at a local farm and was intrigued by its stubborn indifference. My verb: flying—my preferred super power. My adjective: invisible. I don’t need to draw a thing and run to the playground instead.

My bookcase is intensely personal, and yet remarkably fluid, each individual piece changing, becoming something new with each read.

September 1, 2005, Vancouver Academy of Music

I listen to the simple rising melody in Robert Schumann’s Abegg Variations Opus 1. It is the first piece I find thrilling to perform, and the first work that excites me intellectually. I have a childlike fascination with how Schumann encoded the name of his lover into the composition using the notes A, B, E and G. It seemed so obvious and yet so novel.

I could give you a spiel on my identity through my birth place, my mixed ethnicity, the languages I speak, or what is written on my passport, but those are just facts. It is more telling, more liberating, to tell you through memory.

August 23rd, 2011, South Wales

I sit at the edge of the water, my self-identification systems completely tossed upside down. I have moved away to school on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean and my story is changing. In one moment, I am at home in Vancouver. I am small. I don’t represent my city, my street, or even my home—only my thoughts. In another moment, I become a girl, a member of the ‘Woo-family’, a North Vancouver-ite, a British Columbian, a Canadian, a half Canadian-half Chinese, and sometimes, reluctantly, an American.

With these memories, I can constantly re-invent myself, without the constraints of my nationality, gender, or religion.

2011, Theatre class

It is an exercise in impulse reactions, to pull out the parts of your identity that you associate with most. We sit in a circle, vulnerable, feeling and trusting each other’s presence. We write down three nouns to describe ourselves. I write ‘daughter’. I am surprised, surprised that the first thing I write, my primary characteristic, has to do with my gender and with my socially constructed role as a woman. I am surprised I wrote a word that makes me feel small, and even more surprised that, regardless, this is a noun I am very proud to be.

We are prone to self-categorizing, to inventing ourselves through social comparison. We look at our appearance, reactions, styles of speech or behavioral norms, and place ourselves where we think we might fit best.

Oct 7th, 2011, St. Donat’s Castle, Wales

I look across the dining hall and see two friends, one with her hair tucked beneath her sleek black Hijab and the other with thick red hair down to her hips. I think of my own hair, betraying my roots, character and personality. Sometimes, I see my wild, curly brown hair as a reflection of my exuberant and free-spirited self. The feeling of my hair blowing in the wind, flowing through the water, or covering up my face in moments of embarrassment are all part of who I am. It also embodies the ethnic mixture that I am – a combination of my mum’s long blond hair and my papa’s thick shiny black hair. That balance is a large part of who I am. As my mother’s ancestors arrived in North America on the Mayflower, my Father’s grandmother was having her feet bound in China. I carry those two strong ties not only in my mind, but also in my physical body.

Perhaps some of my best memories take place in my dorm room with friends at the end of a long day. In the moment, we don’t think of our invented identities, but of our common humanity instead. Though we each store different memories in our respective bookshelves, we share a desire to develop our identities and find our place in the world, drawing both on our own memories and those of the people around us.

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