I’ve spent most of my life trying to denounce the labels given to me. People saw me as a quiet Chinese girl, a daughter of an immigrant, a nerd… and I was adamant to prove them wrong.
I was more than what my appearance showed. I wanted them to also see me as someone worth listening to and befriending, strong in my values but open-minded, fun and approachable but could get shit done when I needed.
I found that I was an amalgamation of all the things with which I identified – my nationality, my ethnicity, my values and my work. And yet I was so much more than each of these labels offered me.
The fact is that labels carry the weight of expectation.
In our efforts to categorise people into frames of reference that we understand, we try to fit them into our predesigned ideas. You hear someone is Australian and you immediately picture shrimps on the barbie or the stunning Sydney beaches. You hear someone is a blogger and you might think it’s the privilege of a few lucky millennials.
Breaking through someone’s judgement of you based on your labels can be debilitating. You can find yourself saying everything that you are not; rather than trying to form your identity from assertive statements of who you actually are. Labels have often been used in negative ways to assign power to a certain group, and away from others.
But you can also find yourself fearful of the label. You can struggle to see how you fit into a label that you never saw for yourself because you didn’t think you were ‘that type of person.’ Just because I was actualising ideas and building a business, where was the point that I could actually claim the label of ‘entrepreneur’?
It’s why so many of us struggle to answer the simple question of “who are you?”
If you strip away the labels of your nationality, of your work or your age, who are you really?
But labels are also a useful way of navigating this new world.
Particularly as the working world is shifting with remote workers and entrepreneurs, labels can be a useful tool to identify others with similar interests.
Take digital nomads for example. Many have started rejecting the term as it’s been co-opted by unproductive ideas of beach-dwelling bludgers and millennials traipsing around the world without a care in the world. But in the same way, it’s an easy way to hitch your wagon to this growing movement and to find groups and communities of like-minded people. It can make us feel like we’re part of something bigger when it feels like no one else understands what you’re doing.
Besides, it’s difficult to see that we could ever get rid of labels altogether. As a society, we have an innate need to classify and categorise things so that we all may agree on a collective way of thinking. Categories can help us understand new ideas in frameworks we have for ourselves.
But as with any label – food or clothing – or word, for that matter, these can mean different things to different people.
What one’s idea of a digital nomad lifestyle could be about living out of a suitcase and moving around every couple of weeks. For others, it’s more grounded in the idea of location independence and the flexibility of a non-corporate world. It doesn’t make any less true or less valid.
What we must remember is to keep an open mind, to not judge people based on the labels they claim nor falsely put labels on people we are yet to understand.
But more importantly, it’s understanding that you are more than your labels and they do little to encapsulate all that you are. My journey to self-discovery over the past year was exactly that – both defying the labels and the expectation I had from them; and also finding the ones that best described the person I was and wanted to be.
So if you’re ready to claim your own labels, here’s how you can get started:
1. Choose labels that you’re comfortable with
It may seem like a given but it is worth reiterating. The point of crafting your own identity and lifestyle is making choices that serve you. Find the words that you gravitate towards, the things you want to highlight about yourself. Choose three that you can’t move away from, write them down, remember them.
We could definitely get a lot more philosophical about this and there are plenty of resources to help in your self-actualisation and I encourage you to explore them. But at its simplest, think about the three things you’d like to define you and you’d like for people to know first about you. Is it your ethnicity, your sexuality, your political beliefs, your work?
There are no wrong answers; only the ones right for you.
It is out of control what others may end up seeing of you. So let it go. Do this for yourself.
2. Realise that labels mean different things
In choosing these words, don’t think about what other people may interpret them to mean. We must concede that these labels may not always translate – language barrier or not. This only has to be for you to realise the things about your identity that mean the most to you. It’s just another step to help you realise who you are to yourself so that you may project that to others.
And be mindful of the expectations we place on others that claim the same label. We must be open to the fact that though our labels may bind us together, they also allow us to be different.
3. You are not your label
Just because you have a few labels that can help you find your own identity, it does not mean that you’re stuck to them. They work together in different ways and in their contrast can form new ideas.
For me, I strongly claim my nationality as Australian and my ethnicity as Chinese. But the amalgamation of the two is this contradictory, dynamic idea of being an Australian-born Chinese that has informed a lot of my values and ideas about who I am.
Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to just be one thing. At the very least, these ideas change as you grow older and with changes in your life so don’t feel like you’re stuck as one thing and one thing only.
4. Let people know your story.
So, let people know your story. If you are not satisfied with the few letters you’re offered in an Instagram bio or the perception your first appearance may give, make it known to others what they’re missing out. Be fearless in telling your own story. You never know who might be able to reach across the barriers of labels and connect with you.
I’m Tiff, I am a social storyteller, I am originally from Australia, my parents from Hong Kong and I identify as a location-independent worker. But there is so much more to tell you. And I hope you’ll join me as I tell you my story.
Want to start telling your own story for our blog? We’re looking for new writers now so get in touch via [email protected] and we can’t wait to hear it.
I’m Tiff and I’m passionate about empowering people to tell their stories in meaningful and creative ways. A year ago, I quit my corporate job in Sydney, Australia to travel and pursue my own projects. Now, as a location-independent social storyteller, I can’t imagine going back. I love being able to share my stories and struggles with the emerging remote working community. I haven’t got it all figured out and constantly feel like I’m flying blind, but I’m excited to be giving myself the space to do so. You can find out more on my website, from Instagram or Twitter.
If you’re interested in sharing your story with us too, we’d love to hear from you. Email me at [email protected] to find out more.