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Identity Matters

Our identity forms a huge part of who we are. Without an identity, our mere existence would be at stake. A person’s identity is comprised of the characteristics they have that distinguish them from others. Our identities are inevitably shaped by fixed factors such as gender, culture and religion. They are also shaped by the groups to which we belong, the people we associate with and the surroundings we grow up in. As we journey through childhood and reach our adolescent years, the need for us to question our sense of identity intensifies, thus leading us to further explore ourselves. However, in our modern society, survival without belonging to a group can be highly demanding. For example, in Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, teenage narrator Holden Caulfield admits that he’s always saying ‘glad to have met you’ to somebody that he’s not at all glad he met, stating that ‘if you want to stay alive, you have to say that stuff, though’. Holden realizes that our survival depends on the relationship we have with the outside world, and without it our sense of identity will be considerably diminished.

The acceptance or rejection of the conformities presented to us by the outside world is mostly developed and questioned during adolescence. As we experience the transformative stage of adolescence, the need to belong increases as teenagers must deal with the challenges of determining who they are and identify who they would like to become. The many ‘phases’ that people go through in their adolescent years such as the changes of appearance, ideas, music and peer groups are their attempts at exploring their identity. Subcultures such as Emos, Indies and Goths exist because teenagers’ have to ‘find themselves’, by looking for a group that they will fit into. However, finding a subculture to belong to in the ever -emerging teen world can prove to be quite a challenge. According to 2008 VCE student Carla Bellomarino, ‘teenagers everywhere have got themselves going for the “individual” look- they want to look different, unconventional and a bit unique’. Evidence of this is seen in Catcher in the Rye when Holden advertises his uniqueness by wearing his rather unusual red hunting hat with ‘one of those very, very long peaks’. Even though preserving our identity is important, this does not mean that fitting in with society should be neglected. In the anthology Growing up Asian in Australia by Alice Pung, Sunil Badami recounts, “at home, I was Sunil, trying not to eat dhal with my left hand. In the real world, I was Neil. I fitted in”. Fitting in with society proves to be an important aspect to young Sunil, whose cultural differences already distinguish him from those around him. His desire to fit in is also enhanced by his keenness to develop his individuality, which he can effectively achieve by being part of a group.

The challenges and opportunities presented at different stages in life enable individuals to explore their identity further and have a more refined idea of who they are. In Catcher in the Rye, Holden is beset by anxieties that come with growing up. Throughout the novel, Holden seems to be excluded from and mistreated by the world around him and it is evident that his isolation is a way of ensuring that he is unharmed by the absurdness of society. For example, his loneliness drives him to go on a date with Sally Hayes, but his need for isolation causes him to offend her and drive her away. Similarly, he longs for the intimate connection he once had with Jane Gallagher, but he procrastinates making any real effort to contact her. Holden’s desire to detach himself from the ‘phoniness’ of those around him results in him having no stable relationships with the outside world whatsoever. As a result he is sad, depressed and lonely – he ‘felt so lonesome, all of a sudden. I almost wished I was dead’. Although he constantly attempts to steer clear from any form of belonging, it is apparent that he does, however, long for human company. Despite the fact that he labels nearly everyone he knows as ‘phonies’ or ‘morons’, they are a significant part of his life such that he even finds himself missing ‘everybody...even old Stradlater and Ackley’. However, his attempts to be unique and detach himself from the norms of society prevent him from identifying with those around him, and as a result he has trouble articulating feelings about who he is and what he wants.

A number of different factors help in the formation of a person’s identity and this includes our relationships with family units and cultural groups. Growing up Asian in Australia by Alice Pung is an anthology that covers these aspects and portrays the lives of refugees and migrant families in Australia and their challenges in adapting to a new culture. The book depicts children reflecting on the ways in which their families and other groups helped to form their identities and their sense of belonging - “On the wall is the Kwong family seal- I am overwhelmed by the feeling that I really belong somewhere”. The novel also portrays those who don’t quite fit in anywhere- “We were half-half, and for a long time we didn’t belong anywhere”. “I am second generation Australian Vietnamese. My mum would stress that I am Vietnamese Australian. All my life I have had this mixed idea of who I am and what my role is”. In these stories, the challenges and triumphs that are experienced when caught between two cultures are shared with us by the narrators. Their stories depict the importance of belonging to a family and culture, which helped them to form a distinctive identity.

Many groups appearing throughout our life have an impact on our identity. Being a part of these groups give us a better understanding of ourselves, and without belonging it will be very frustrating to develop our identity and figure out who we are. A person’s identity is questioned and most developed during adolescence. Just like the migrants’ challenges in adapting to a new country and Holden’s challenges in growing up, teenagers everywhere develop their sense of self as they go through the challenging phase of adolescence. Most of these impacts will enable them to build up their personal identity and have a more refined idea of who they are. Therefore, it is evident that belonging plays a crucial part in the build up of a person’s individuality. Without it, understanding ourselves will prove to be an even more challenging task than it already is.

Our yearning to stay true to ourselves often has the ability to overshadow us from identifying with those around us. This paints a very bleak picture of racist Australia, with racial comments being as common as flag poles. Her underlying sadness and reluctance to attend school comes as no surprise. Holden advertises his uniqueness by wearing his rather unusual red hunting hat with ‘one of those very, very long peaks’. Aditi is aware of how different she is from Wei-Lei, ‘I saw everything Indian come to the foreground as if lit by a spotlight’, their differences lead them to accept each other and make them realize that ‘when [they] were together, [they] felt safe’.

In order to belong it is necessary to posses certain characteristics, and those who do not are apt to be excluded. So great is the general desire for acceptance and inclusion, however, that individuals may well absorb many costs in their efforts to meet the standards of their particular group of society at large.

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