Searching For Identity in Ink
It turns out, tattoos can’t give you what you need
When I was 18, I got my first tattoo. Perched on my left hip, where the fleshiness of the tummy starts to flatten over the pelvic muscle, is the Chinese character that means the word ‘half’. As in, half-Chinese. Get it? I had thought about getting this, what I deemed to be very clever, sign of my identity for around a year, and was certain that it would be important for the rest of my life, something I could never regret. My logic came from the simple fact that, unlike a boyfriend or a seemingly poignant song lyric, it represented something that would never change — my being half-Chinese.
I was wrong. It didn’t represent my being half-Chinese, but rather how I perceived being half-Chinese at the time. I don’t regret the ink — it’s a thought-provoking reminder of how quickly and drastically we change — but it doesn’t resonate with the current me. I might be, by blood, 50 percent Chinese, but what I didn’t know back then, as I reclined statue-still on the black, leather chair, was that this was just an amount, and my half-Chinese-ness contributed enormously — far more than 50 percent — to my entire being. There was nothing half about it.
In hindsight, this had always been the case but I don’t think I wanted to see it. My identity wasn’t reflected in a perfect Venn diagram; there weren’t two separate contrasting sections coming together equally via their commonalities. There was no harmonious intersection or seamlessly blended concoction at my core. But that’s what I needed to believe. In actual fact, there seemed to be no amicable mingling at all, instead mismatched, incompatible ideas in a state of constant emotional anaphylaxis as they tried to share the same space.
Any kind of foresight to see that these inner allergic reactions probably meant the tattoo would come to be a poor choice would’ve been great. Alas, I was 18 and desperate not only for a tattoo, but for a sense of identity. The irony is that this ink led me in the opposite direction, far from where my identity actually resided.
For most of my life, it seemed that the main USP of being mixed race was its formidable ability to make its inhabitants feel unbalanced. This idea was echoed by other mixed-race women I spoke to while doing research for a magazine feature; the stark disparity between your knowledge of both cultures, the unexplainable bias that doesn’t just lean you towards one side, but purposefully away from the other, the black cloud hovering over one side of you.
Now, when I look down at my hip, the thick, green-black ink flicking and crossing in the way only Asian radicals do, I realise that my disconnect with the tattoo is not borne out of the idea that I’m no longer conflicted. Feeling comfortable in my identity is still very much a work in progress. But the tattoo says something that I no longer believe to be true. This notion of half. To a certain extent, it’s up to me. I can adapt my lifestyle to sway entirely one way or the other. My DNA does not have margins that dictate how Chinese or British I would like to my life to be.
Beyond this idea, I’m slowly accepting the truth; that if you were to cut me down the middle and open me up, you would not find two neat, symmetrical, accordant compartments, identical in size and weight, sat obediently beneath the skin — and perhaps that isn’t a problem at all.