Performing myself, seeking love

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Recently, a friend told me that I’m one of those people who are the sum of their interests. Most known for that, at least. A now-dated meme goes something like, “liking X is not a personality trait“, “hating X is not a personality trait“. Liking field recordings, listening to Phoebe Bridgers, not liking the taste of alcohol, not being into crypto––whatever. I see this and spin into a mild (and irrational) existential crisis. What am I but the pieces of the things that have made me?

The first theory attributes this all to a modern need for hyperlegibility and the constant entering-exiting of spaces. Write bullet point things about yourself, turn traumas into fuel for scholarship, compress your identity into the palatable. People contain themselves in a bio and highlighted tweet, in bylines and extended “my friend Y said Z acts like…”. The enormity of human experience and desire compacted. Mel Nguyen presents an abundance of questions on this: When are you really saying the things you want to say? When do you engage with a subject vs. when do you show a subject? When are you over-reliant on proximity to names, institutions, power? …When are you being ‘you’ vs being the ‘image of you’?
I have so little time that I find myself most comfortable positioned relative to the already digestible. Unfortunately, this method is most successful when dictating yourself to things in power, often formed by people of power.

I remember one drastic personality change that happened in my life. Growing up, I was an immensely hyperactive child: I’d scream and cry for the things I wanted, run all over malls, say yes to so many things. I’d sing at birthday parties (even for the distant relatives) and identify with Ashley Tisdale’s Sharpay. And I felt so loved in the classic way. The one where you make acquaintance-friends easily, have worlds worth of gleeming praise for you because you are seen enough to be loved, your parents tell you how you are sunshine. Somewhere past the first few grades when I started going very online, I developed a more conscientious and reserved sense of self, the type mistaken for rudeness and indifference to the world. A lot of this might have been because of the new media that I was exposed to: narratives in mundane parts of Naruto that got me to think about power, conversations on internet forums that helped me say no a bit more in real life, shedding a submissive self that I had initially been born to perfect. Because these early influences weren’t around me, I craved more of it and attached myself to any other people who shared the same interests because it was the clearest sign that they understood what mindset shift I was going through. Suddenly I was described as callous and robotic. If you like this song, I know there’s at least an inkling of you questioning god, too. Specific shows, songs, and books formed subcultures where it was safe to explore bits of yourself in an overly-repressed world––and we know how popular opinion on that turned out.

Even if the things I enjoy are no longer as shunned as they were in cruel, chastising 13-something years of religious school, I haven’t let go from the mindset it harbored. It’s safer to be with people who already love what I love. It’s difficult for me to translate all the languages and lessons cultivated over the years; it is difficult to anchor someone long enough to get them to listen. I am essentially saying that I don’t know if I am worth taking the time to understand.

This is not to say that mainstream media can’t transform. Squid Game and Parasite are some of the most overt pieces of class critique, same with America’s high school required reading lists. I read Nineteen Eighty-Four and it kickstarted this childish period of activism within me back when I was thirteen, but was never pushed into first doing so. I wonder if they fly over people’s heads so frequently / lose their critical power because of the way they’ve been served to the masses. There is potency in self-discovery, in the community and ritual of self-seeking… of being difficult and complex to love––if there even was any simple form of it extant.

The second theory is just that fuck, I have this fear that I am so unlovable on the surface. Without my body of work and influences present, am I even worth knowing? I mean this in the physical sense now. In a world where attention and time are our most finite resources, there is absolutely no reason that one would pick me out and desire to know me. I have this unbearable, irrational fear even if I am surrounded with people who love me and hear me even when I refuse to look at myself for weeks. Maybe this is just a normal thing. I’m tenuous and hypercritical. Some believe we are in no obligation to know everyone, we pick, and pick, and I wonder if I ever will be. Everyone I deeply admire, especially to the point of ruthlessness, I’ve picked apart and felt endeared by because of what they produce and how they do it.

I wrote this piece earlier in the year that went around a bit about professionalism and authenticity inspired by a then-seemingly fun decision to place mangacaps on my personal site, reminiscent of what I used to do when building out Naruto fansites when I was eleven years old or so. What does that even mean? There’s nothing intrinsically authentic about that. You like something. How does it make you? I groan already at anyone who lines their walls with merchandise and no substance, but fall into the same issue. I want to know how it speaks to you and where you have come from––not that I articulate this myself. ‘Authenticity’ isn’t encapsulated in the boring ass designer bio line of “When I’m not on Figma, I enjoy…“––and it can’t be substituted for either in pretentiously trying to display every little fragment of yourself elsewhere––but I do it anyway.

Another part of the theory is that this is all an act of self-preservation. In performance, I choose how to save myself. I look over my obsession with listing out what I consume: it’s primarily for archival and commentary, yes, but there’s also a big aspect of performance. I’m talking about Spotify playlists (what goes on the profile or not),, Letterboxd, MyAnimeList. Deciding what to mark as my favorite, as if I don’t know my favorites, maintaining sacred lists and leaving out the most embarrassing things (less often done in today’s time, very few things can’t be defended as some ironic intake, anyway). One fixation after the other, earmarked for one to see. If I don’t write about how I lived, who else will write it for me?

Sometimes I do this inane thing where I go through the first few scrolls of my social profile and judge the highlight reel of me. What would people think of? Does this look good? Does it represent my interests, or am I tweeting too much about one specific thing? Why do I use my blog to decompress all my teenage feelings instead of internalizing and ironing this out elsewhere? How do I curate my presence so I seem irresistible?

I love things, and if I do love them, then perhaps people will love me through them. I might have to become them in the process, but that’s an issue for later.

But do things make me at all? I fall in love with a movie still am the same person; I replay something eight minutes long over a hundred times in the span of four days and there’s nothing new. (Though I definitely overconsume music.) There’s little observable difference, if anything. Encounters with beautiful pieces of writing and sound become as tender and intentional as the way meeting new people leave marks on my life. It changes where I position my hand when I laugh, the way I elaborate on the news (or don’t), how often I pause on my walks to the next destination and sacrifice a bit on the clock to view the textured stippling of cloud in the sky.

Theoretically, the idea of remaking ourselves everyday is infinitely interesting yet impossible to me. There is no reason for me to be as silent as I am the next day; I thrash and thrive on the precarity of being alive to thousands of strangers in the internet and not knowing what to say after hello on the streets. I wonder how much of this is because of my own disgust at how I physically present and am seen, or because there’s no space to retreat in real life, or because I know that the digital sphere has given me sufficient space to curate and explain myself that I instantly feel more at ease with stranger-acquaintances who know me more than people I’ve known for years.
The impossibility comes from wondering if I even know all the selves I could remake myself as. I see the people around me, yes, but nothing among them I want to become. What makes a voice louder, a thought softer? (Maybe these processes and thoughts are part of why I feel a bit obsessive when I finally can find a framework to latch myself onto?)

Something I realized lately was that I minimize a lot of what I do and love, particularly with people not directly around me in that space. That is, my answers to “how has your week been” or “how did the event go” become terribly curt and almost defensive––”it went okay, I’m not that good” before someone has even had the opportunity to be surprised or otherwise. It’s not even the issue of everyone at this university being immensely complex and successful such that enormous exchanges are casual––I just don’t explain how I feel or what I do at all.
This likely comes as a response to years and years of trying to explain what I love to people and them just laughing it off or not taking time to do so when growing up (hence the need to find people with my own interests). I forget that there are people now who do want to listen. I forget that to be heard, I must let myself speak.

Like many other fumbling, theory-driven designers, I’ve been thinking a lot about speculative design. I have been slowly trying to articulate the gratitude I feel for fandom and fantasy, along with what can be gleamed from unreality. To 450 students at 1:30AM, I talked about ‘Worlding a New Philippines‘ through Genshin Impact, fantasy, and joy––what it means when institutions can learn from new worlds, worldmaking, and the dangers of subjecting our realities to be designed by the few elite who do not best understand us.

This approach to ‘authenticity’ involves a lot of reconciliation with seemingly dangerous, unproductive interests like videogames, music twitter, and the like that I feel a lot of younger people need to hear. The approach also of course, focuses entirely on how we process and externalize these fantasy domains unto our worldview and reality. Clearly I’ve been running around in circles. You can read about it here.

I wish I didn’t make it so difficult for people to like me. There’s obviously a potential whataboutism there that goes something like––if I could be my genuine self without performance, then it means that I’m truly at ease with someone. Perhaps what happens between these events can even be considered as love. Performance might be integrated with how we live; maybe I like to scream what I love out, maybe I am the process of consuming and settling. Struggling with explaining how I live and have fallen into the things I have is something I’ll continue working on.

Closing confession: I feel endlessly indebted to anyone who gives me the smallest bit of attention for what I make. I turn my process into letters for the world. I become infatuated in anyone who cares to love what I love, especially if it was discovered through me. I think sharing in the things that make us is love, or the process of loving, or the in between that might be one of the those things so human, yet so close to magic. If realities are constructed rather than given, I wonder how much of our world is reliant on us saying things to one another, or believing easier. A human word becomes truth. A human word becomes reality. A human word swallows itself.

One day, I want to love someone as hardly as I love the things that make me.

What I thought about while writing this

  • My friends, the people who listen despite it all – thank you

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