image from a t-shirt on sale at theonion.com (one that I really want my husband to buy me...)
I lived in Hong Kong for 18 months back when I was in college. I worked there as a missionary for my church and taught English. I learned to speak passing Cantonese and loved almost every single minute of my life there. Hong Kong remains one of my favorite places in the world.
One reason I have such fond memories of my time there is because it was in Hong Kong that I learned a lot of surprising details about myself. I learned I can stomach almost anything, even living in an apartment infested with millions of cockroaches, some as big as a business card. (I know this because one day, in a misguided attempt to be funny, I taped one to a business card and mailed it home. Just wanted my parents to share in a slice of my life in HK.)
I learned much bigger lessons there, though, too. Lessons about who I am and what I am capable of. As a child and teen, my siblings and I definitely had our roles in our family. My sister was the funny and rebellious one. My twin brother was the laid-back and popular one. My little brother was the cute, sweet family member. And me? I was the boring, smart, shy, nerdy bookworm.
It wasn't until I went to Hong Kong that I realized that this label I had given myself was limiting and not completely accurate. Yes, I was a bookworm and I am reasonably good at school. But after many months of meeting new friends, having exciting adventures in a new country and laughing a lot, I realized there is so much more to me.
I may not be the life of the party like my sister, but I can be funny. And I have interesting thoughts and hobbies. I can make friends relatively easily and I am definitely not shy, though I do prefer small groups to big parties. Being away from my family and friends helped me to realize that my view of myself had held me back. When I was in Hong Kong, no one knew my sister and how hilariously funny and sometimes outrageous she could be. No one knew that I was painfully shy in grade school or that I was teased a lot by the popular girls in junior high. All they knew was that I had decided to serve like them. They had no preconceived ideas about me, and I found it was easier to be myself.
One day a friend of mine was upset because she felt like she didn't fit in with the other missionaries in Hong Kong. I tried empathizing with her and she said, "You wouldn't understand. It's easy for you to be outgoing and friendly. People like you and you are confident." I was shocked. That was not at all how I saw myself and I couldn't believe that others did.
I told her about grade school and how my mom sat me down one day and encouraged me to reach out to a girl in my class. She was concerned because Sister Winifred (a name that still evokes ire in my mom) had implied that if I didn't get over my shyness, I would turn out to be some sad, lonely old woman who owned 20 cats or something like that. So, my mom took matters into her own hands and counseled me to talk to someone and try to make a friend. It worked and I used my mom's advice each and every time I was in a situation where I knew no one. It turns out, there were many such instances, including high school, all three colleges I attended, and Hong Kong.
After that conversation with my friend, I finally realized I was no longer that little scared 2nd grade kid in Sister Winifred's class. And I was not living in my sister's shadow anymore either. I was a complex person full of contradictions who didn't want to be limited by labels anymore.
I still am, yet lately I have lost sight of the fact that I am so much more than a label. So much more than the stereotypical housewife or mom--if in fact, there really is such a thing. So, here's to me remembering that labels are limiting and can hold me back if I let them. And here's to me being true to myself and not to labels or roles that I think fit me.
For more self-revelatory posts visit the Spin Cycle.