Delphie Yap‘s “What Makes Me Who I Am” is a heartfelt reflection on personal identity. Throughout the essay, Yap interweaves ruminations on teenage desires and materiality into a deeply personal narrative on growing up and finding a place “in this big, complicated world”. The capriciousness of life is reflected in Yap’s lucid style, and her words are underpinned by the conceit that life is a story in which we give meaning to. As Yap writes, “We all want to tell a story of our own”. Indeed, this essay tells a powerful one, speaking to our own youthful affections.
This essay won the All In! Young Writers Festival 2017 YOUTHSpeak Essay Competition.
It is something all of us have. Twenty-six letters are all we are given to make that empty book ours. We all want to tell a story of our own, but we don’t start out knowing how, because finding the right words is like finding a place in this big, complicated world. Living in the age where technology has annihilated all the barriers existing between us, we have come together despite our differences, making instantaneous connections over the ways we are alike. There are so many fandoms, movements and communities out there to belong to, that ironically, it makes fitting in and finding individuality an especially arduous journey.
Finding an identity is an even bigger crisis for us teenagers, old enough to want to tell stories of our own, yet still too young to know what they are. Doing things we are not supposed to do makes us feel alive. The glamorous fairytales exhibited on our idols’ Instagram feeds are so attractive. What about the stereotypes society put us into, the personality tests we take, or even the testimonials our teachers write about us? Do they reflect who we are?
Who am I?
The question hounds our minds, like the panic that rises when we stare at those blank pages for too long. We start out in imitation of our favourite stories. Wincing at the bitter taste of alcohol, our hearts thump louder than the bass reverberating around us. We sign our first petition and rally for the Pink Dot movement. We pore through thesauri, using bombastic words we don’t know the meaning of. Flowery metaphors seem sophisticated enough, even if they don’t necessarily convey our message, even if writing a word feels like bleeding one out.
And then we stop writing long enough to read what we’ve written – we cringe at the convoluted paragraphs that go nowhere. They evoke nothing within us… except disappointment. Our writers’ block is as persistent as the glaring whiteness of the paper in front of us, another page we cannot fill. Surely, telling stories, carving lives of our own shouldn’t be this hard?
I like to think that my life is a book, and my story spills over the pages until the inevitable ending. When I was fourteen, my cousin drowned to death. She was only ten, and when I saw her body in the coffin, it struck me like the rip current that pulled her under – the dreams that were too big for her little body, the way her eyes had been full of life just a week before. It made me think about life, death, and everything else in between. When I die, what can I look back on? My life was reading the same paragraph over and over again; a never-ending cycle of tests, extra classes and trying to fit into the mould of success. I went through the motions, did what others told me to – but there is more to life than this. I want to die brave, bold and beautiful – a story that transcends centuries, one everyone talks about and wants to live.
So I filled the pages with thrilling adventures and gripping plot twists I’d like to live. I tried everything I wouldn’t have tried until I die. Dying my hair purple, I piled make-up on my face like I was trying to forget who I was. I went on late night trips to arcades, movie theatres and bowling alleys, because everything comes alive at night, just like how we only start living when death breathes down on us. It was amazing: I looked like an Instagram model, and my life felt like a movie. But it is exactly that, that made it feel like I was living vicariously, reciting someone else’s story. It was like coming home to a house full of strangers. If this is the place I belong, I don’t want to go home.
Looking back, these are the pages I wish can be ripped off my book, because these are not the moments I’m proudest of. Like ink on paper, these are parts of us that we can never erase, but these experiences also shape who we are. The “rebellious” phase of my life made me realize that life can end anytime, but instead of rushing through life, perhaps I should slow it down, savouring every little thing worth living for. Appreciation is very important. We are always in the pursuit of something – happiness, belonging – but sometimes it is a matter of realizing something we already have. I begin to consciously find beauty and passion in everything I do, seeing the extravagance in the simple joys of life. I find pieces of myself in places I’ve never been in, in strangers I talk to, in songs that reverberate deep into my heart. If my life is a story, then the things I appreciate are the words that truly bring it to life.
I used to go the extra mile establishing a firm identity for myself, until I realize that every page and every letter add up to who I am today. Twenty-six letters are all we are given to make that ending a happy one, but the words don’t have to be bombastic to tell a good story. As Jack Kerouac said, “One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.” When we string the letters together, and put the simplest words next to each other, they jump off the page and fill every inch of our bodies – like happiness. Like truth, the words seep straight into our bones, defined not just by dictionary and thesaurus, but the meaning we give them. My simple gratitude, the good or bad life experiences, and even my little quirks and habits all build up the character I am. Finding an identity is finding the right words. It’s realizing something we already have and finding a place in this big, complicated world.
It would feel like coming home.
This essay was the Judges Choice Winner the All In! Young Writers Festival 2017 YOUTHSpeak Essay Competition. As one of All In!’s selected media platforms, we are delighted to publish Delphie’s essay here. For more information about All In! visit http://all-in.bookcouncil.sg/.
DELPHIE YAP YU QI is a Secondary 4 student in Cedar Girls’ Secondary School. She is in the Integrated Programme and is also the president of ELDDS (Debate and Advocacy). Delphie won the bronze award in the Queen’s Commonwealth Essay Writing Competition in 2015, and is a past participant of the Creative Arts Programme. On very rare occasions when she is not catching up on school or sleep, Delphie likes to read, write and play the piano.
Photo credit: Leonard Yip