Cultural Butterfly: Metamorphosis of self-identity in conflict with social norms


self-identity; gender fluidity; code-switching; authenticity; microaggression; intersectionality; impression management; social norms


This case involves a non-binary international student who leaves home at an early age and undergoes a major identity shift while abroad. Having moved from a socially conservative culture to a more gender-inclusive one, the subject began to develop new values, ideas, and identities. This would later create a prominent gap between themselves and their native culture when they attempt to reconnect years later. In this scenario, the student encounters feelings of being an outsider within their own culture on multiple levels.


Wei was born in mainland China and lived in the city of their birth for most of their early life. They always felt while growing up that they were suffocating within a burdensome framework of cultural expectations heaped upon them by their upper-class, traditionalist parents. Wei and their older sister were both sent to the same schools and did the same activities through elementary school, but then their paths diverged. Being considered the son of the family, Wei was sent to a boarding school in the United States while their sister remained a domestic student. Wei’s parents are college professors with orthodox beliefs about propriety, responsibility, and family pride. They wanted their only son to be an academic and professional success. Sending Wei to the States was, according to their parents, a way to improve their future job prospects and give their English language skills a leg up over their peers. As young as 12 years of age, it became Wei’s duty to carry the torch of the family and their ancestors.

What Wei learned in the United States, however, wasn’t only academic in nature. Immersion within the multicultural setting of an international boarding school opened their mind to new ways of thinking. Throughout middle school and high school, Wei came to know themself. Even though their parents considered them a son and accorded them extra privileges not given to their daughter, such as studying abroad, Wei didn’t feel that the corresponding male gender identity entirely fit. Wei found a supportive community within their extraordinarily diverse high school. It was there that they found other classmates who also embraced a fluid gender identity.

Spending so much time away from home beginning at a young age, Wei did not want their Chinese sense of self to be bleached away. They maintained their appreciation for their home culture while at school through playing traditional Chinese instruments, celebrating cultural holidays, and dressing up in traditional women’s costumes, as was done in Qing Dynasty theater when the actors were only men. Being Chinese was just as important an aspect of Wei’s identity as being non-binary.

Coming home was difficult for Wei. While they were first discovering new aspects about their identity, they felt insecure about their body. For instance, they wanted to grow their hair out and did so for the months away from home. But when the forms of self-expression that they were used to in the US were deemed inappropriate in their Chinese household, Wei was faced with a dilemma: bend or confront their parents. Wei was raised in a culture where parental authority and respect for one’s elders’ sensibilities is paramount. So as not to break the norms, Wei found themself cutting their hair short and changing their behavior whenever they went home. Furthermore, Wei’s parents had no prior conception of gender fluidity from which to understand these different cultural values. Thus, whenever Wei returned home, they had to confront the issue of how to reconcile their Chinese and American personas, which translated into Wei code switching and hiding those aspects of their identity that they discovered abroad.

It wasn’t until Wei went off to a large, prestigious college in the United States that they once again had a sizable population of other Chinese students around. In hopes of befriending students of their own age and culture, Wei decided to join the Chinese Student’s Association. One evening, Wei got dressed up in traditional Chinese opera garb, including decorative robes and full makeup, and went to a club meeting. They arrived and, while being the only one in costume, had no trouble conversing genially with the other students in Mandarin. One conversation turned to the topic of everyone’s Chinese background and the students began sharing their cities back in China. But Wei didn’t feel that doing the same would fit their identity, so they gave the town where their boarding school is and how long they lived there, adding the city where their family lives as an afterthought. When Wei said this, another student chimed in saying, “Your Chinese is so good for an American!” But Wei didn’t feel like an American. Wei was crestfallen at not feeling that they authentically belonged to mainland Chinese culture around either their parents or this new group of people, for whom they had high hopes. Having come to the event to rejoin a community and make friends, this makes Wei feel more alienated than ever before. It is like being misunderstood by their parents all over again. But in this case no cultural norms are preventing Wei from speaking up about their identity. Yet having to performatively prove that they are part of a group that has already invalidated their experience is a barrier in and of itself.

Discussion Questions

As you consider this case, discuss:

  • What aspects of Wei’s identities are salient in this situation?
  • What actions might Wei take to help their parents understand gender fluidity?
  • How do the cultural values from Wei’s upbringing and those learned while abroad intersect in this situation?
  • What might be the impression management consequences of Wei’s actions, or inaction, in response to this microaggression?
  • How does Wei navigate this situation to end up feeling secure in the authenticity of their self-identity?
  • For what reasons might Wei continue code-switching?

Additional Resources

Additional recommended resources to explore the central themes in this case are available.

  • Lee, M.-H. (2012). The One-Child Policy and Gender Equality in Education in China: Evidence from Household Data. Journal of Family and Economic Issues, 33(1), 41–52.

Corresponding Author
Hill, Ethan. American University School of International Service, Washington, D.C., United States of America. Email: