Lost between the labels of identity
I find social identity labels troublesome. I would lose myself trying to fit into them by either becoming an imposter who abandons my true self in order to belong somewhere in other people’s eyes or risk the chance of being seen at all. These labels don’t usually explain who I really am, and yet they give people, or worse, myself, the impression of who I should be. I’m then left with conflicting statements of identity, such as:
- I consider myself Chinese Canadian, but I was neither born in China nor in Canada.
- I like creating art, but I only draw or paint on average once a year.
- I have a PhD in environmental studies, but I am not an environmentalist.
- I write about nature, but my experiences in nature per conventional discourse has been limited. For example, I’ve only gone camping three times in my life, the first time when I was already 18 years old.
- My background and training is in landscape architecture, but I am more concerned about shifting human psychology than creating physical landscapes. Moreover, I’ve never even owned a garden. But maybe balcony container plants count?
- I once held an arborist license, but I was certainly not a tree-hugger. I’ve probably been involved in the removal of just as many trees as were those planted in my career as a landscape architect.
- I consider myself a scholar in environmental ethics, but I don’t subscribe to many popular “environmentally-friendly” life-style choices. For example, I’m not vegan and I shop with big-box retailers. To be honest, I’m not even concerned with climate change. Yes, I just admitted to an environmental blasphemy! The truth is, I see climate change, as like mass violence, social-political upheavals, and the global housing crisis, as symptoms of something much deeper about humanity’s relationship with the world—a collective spiritual issue rather than an ecological emergency or predicament.
- And therefore, I advocate for social change, but I don’t want to be considered an activist.
At the end of the day, I’m just ME—no more and no less.
But in our social world, we need some labels to get around. So, not surprisingly, I had trouble finding a (job) title for myself after I completed my PhD. I was no longer a student at a university; I was no longer a researcher, nor an educator affiliated with an institution; and I was no longer interested in carry around the landscape architect title if it only meant I was paying fees to a professional association.
Photo by Natalia Yakovleva on Unsplash
Reclaiming the philosopher in me
If anything, I would consider myself an environmental philosopher. But there’s something weird about calling yourself a philosopher; unless you look like Dumbledore in Harry Potter; or you are the reincarnation of Aristotle, Lao Tzu, Rene Descartes, Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Nietzsche, etc.; or at the very least, you teach philosophy at a university. But going by this stereotype, we’d be either leaving out an entire gender or even most of the population eligible to be philosophers. So even though no legal or ethical restrictions surround the philosopher title, and despite the fact that I do have a Doctor of Philosophy and a “love for wisdom,” I would still feel awkward using the philosopher title in professional settings.
I believe this awkwardness comes from the way our society engages with philosophy. Outside of academia, that is, in everyday situations and non-academic job settings, the impression I’ve gathered is that most people see philosophy as superfluous—a luxury that brings nothing of value other than intellectual entertainment. The quintessential incident in my life that represented this notion was when a friend (who was also a landscape architect) invited me to meet some of her new friends for lunch at a hot-pot restaurant. After the lunch, my friend and I chatted about the gathering. I mentioned to her that I was disappointed that the group didn’t have the chance to talk philosophy, which in my mind meant to really get to know each other. Amidst the busy-ness of eating hot-pot, people talked about the happenings of their lives, but did not talk about life itself. My friend remarked, “Van Thi! People have lives. They’re busy!” Ok…a valid reason, I guess. But of course, that is also the reason why many people have no time to “stop and smell the roses.”