“Can’t repeat the past?” [Gatsby] cried incredulously. “Why of course you can.”
“You can’t hide who you are,” the freshmen I met the first week of school told me the very next week. “Your name is Kenneth.”
I had always wondered why every person I ever meet seems to feel this insane urge to call me by my legal name. I was born Kenneth Matthew Xu, on the same day as my dad, Kenneth Cheng Xu, in Shady Grove Hospital in Rockville, Maryland. But my preferred name has always been Kenny. Kenneth was the name of a 45-year old white-collar professional living in Connecticut. Kenny was youth – how I viewed myself.
Furthermore, whenever I tell anyone that I come from Virginia and that I am a ‘Southern’ boy, my friends would always loudly interject that I’m actually a Northerner from Princeton, NJ, and that Virginia is not even in the South anyway. (I would vehemently disagree and an argument would ensue for like the sixty-thousandth time.)
One time, I was talking to a girl and my friends suddenly felt the need to break the ice by telling the entire table about my exploits with a card game that I play. Nerd alert!
You don’t get to choose your own nicknames; they’re chosen for you. This week’s nickname for me was “Old Man Kenneth.” It was because of last week’s blog post, where I talked about how I felt so old in comparison to the youthful buzz of the freshmen around me. There’s a certain truth to that nickname. In many cases, I act like an old man. I’m constantly uber-reflective of my situation. I ponder things way too hard. I certainly don’t behave my age but perhaps the age of someone in their late-30s, set to undergo midlife crisis. But I deny it.
Jay Gatz told everybody he was raised in Oxford, but he was really born in the Upper Midwest to poor parents. He changed his name to the more refined-sounding “Gatsby” and put up an image of an upper-class elite that nevertheless rejected him. Tom Buchanan, the symbol of Old Money in The Great Gatsby, said that “no man that ever went to Oxford owns a pink suit.” In a way you feel sorry for Jay Gatsby, determined to make himself in the image of who he thought his beloved Daisy would want him to be.
“You put up this image of who you are,” my friend told me for the seventh time one night, “depending on who you’re talking to.”
Honestly, what is the significance of me hailing from New Jersey compared to Richmond, VA? Why do I nevertheless insist on being a ‘Southern’ boy? Is it because I see myself archetypally confined to the Southern mentality? But I’m not.
Maybe I’m just listening to too much Country music. You know – the endless glorification of small towns and Georgia girls and bars that I don’t even go to (“WE ARE SUB-FREE!” was the closing line to the first RLO email I ever got). It probably contributes to my desire to see myself as this real man’s man – you know, chopping wood all day. But maybe that just simply is not who I am. Just maybe. (But dang, those guitar licks!)
Not that I am somehow less masculine than the average man – I am certainly not! – but that possibly I may be veering too far into building my own self-image, rather than letting my image build me. No matter what, The Great Gatsby teaches us, the past catches up with us somehow. Jay Gatz’s roots come back to bite him when he forcefully asks Daisy to fully deny that she ever loved anyone else besides him. He wants her not only to renounce her present but also her past – in his eyes, his past. She can’t do it. And then, after Gatsby is assassinated by a jealous man, the narrator gets a call. It is Mr. Gatz – Jay’s father. Jay never talked about his father, ever. And yet he must come to reckon with who he is, as the child of this man.
For the longest time, I denied my Asian-ness, diminished it. Then, a year ago, I decided that I couldn’t hide it anymore (I know guys, I’m Asian). I published an article explaining my struggles with wanting to be White. Months later, an Asian girl who I met at a YAF conference in Atlanta texted me. She had read my article. She told me she, too, struggled with a feeling of racial inferiority. She told me my article helped her get out of that funk. This is the reason why I write, folks.
I always tell people to be authentic to themselves. That means standing up for what they believe in. And I guarantee you, it was very difficult to come out as a conservative at Davidson. As I’ve explained in many articles. People often want to only reveal the parts of their identity that seem popular and cool, that impress girls and stamp LinkedIn resumes. It’s much harder to stay true to the whole of yourself. It’s something I still struggle with.
But Jay Gatsby believed in that idea that he could reinvent himself to become anyone, anything, that his past wouldn’t matter. Isn’t that, fundamentally, the American Dream? That you can forget the past and strain towards something greater? Is that not even what St. Paul said in Philippians, running the race forward and not back?
Reinvention is not something inherently bad. But it’s important that, when we try our “new me” out, that we don’t forget about where we come from.
And as the boy who made up my own Pokemon and wrote books at recess while all the cool kids were out playing soccer, as the boy who dreamed of becoming a full-time author in an age when other guys were thinking about their first kiss, as the boy who near-constantly fell in love at an age where the other guys were only thinking about their next drunken hookup, I have a lot of past to reckon with.
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