Who Am I? Think Again!


This TED Talk was specially selected to support lessons from Chapter 4 "Know Thyself" of the Diplomatic Planner, as part of supplementary learning and development in your understanding yourself in the world around us. 

Hetain Patel and Yuyu Rau

Hetain Patel and Yuyu Rau


How do we decide who we are? Hetain Patel's surprising performance plays with identity, language and accent -- and challenges you to think deeper than surface appearances. A delightful meditation on self, with performer Yuyu Rau, and inspired by Bruce Lee.


"What determines our identities anyway?" asks Hetain Patel. As a child, Patel wanted to be like Spider-Man or Bruce Lee; later, he aimed to be more like his father, who displays a much different kind of bravery. From these ambitions, Patel's new show Be Like Water examines shifting identities of all kinds, using dance and bold imagery to power a story of self-examination and self-creation.

As a conceptual artist, Patel has used photography, sculpture, installation and performance to challenge cultural identity. For his work, he has grown a mustache exactly like the one his father wore when he emigrated from India to the United Kingdom in the 1960s, and remixed the practice henna tattooing to incorporate English words and comics books. Patel's conclusion about identity: that it is an ever-shifting game of imitation.

Yuyu Rau is a dancer trained in ballet, contemporary and Chinese classical dance. Born in Taiwan and now a resident of the United Kingdom, Rau has performed with a wide range of dance companies and worked with choreographers like Wayne McGregor, Javier De Frutos, Luca Silvestrini and Douglas Thorpe.

Yau has toured with conceptual artist Hetain Patel, performing in his stage work Be Like Water. In the piece, Rau acts as Patel's translator, and often stands in to help him tell his story.


Hetain Patel: (In Chinese)

Yuyu Rau: Hi, I'm Hetain. I'm an artist. And this is Yuyu, who is a dancer I have been working with. I have asked her to translate for me.

HP: (In Chinese)

YR: If I may, I would like to tell you a little bit about myself and my artwork.

HP: (In Chinese)

YR: I was born and raised near Manchester, in England, but I'm not going to say it in English to you,because I'm trying to avoid any assumptions that might be made from my northern accent.

HP: (In Chinese)

YR: The only problem with masking it with Chinese Mandarin is I can only speak this paragraph, which I have learned by heart when I was visiting in China. (Laughter) So all I can do is keep repeating it in different tones and hope you won't notice.

HP: (In Chinese)

YR: Needless to say, I would like to apologize to any Mandarin speakers in the audience.

As a child, I would hate being made to wear the Indian kurta pajama, because I didn't think it was very cool. It felt a bit girly to me, like a dress, and it had this baggy trouser part you had to tie really tight to avoid the embarrassment of them falling down. My dad never wore it, so I didn't see why I had to. Also, it makes me feel a bit uncomfortable, that people assume I represent something genuinely Indian when I wear it, because that's not how I feel.

HP: (In Chinese)

YR: Actually, the only way I feel comfortable wearing it is by pretending they are the robes of a kung fu warrior like Li Mu Bai from that film, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

Okay. So my artwork is about identity and language, challenging common assumptions based on how we look like or where we come from, gender, race, class. What makes us who we are anyway?

HP: (In Chinese)

YR: I used to read Spider-Man comics, watch kung fu movies, take philosophy lessons from Bruce Lee. He would say things like --

HP: Empty your mind. (Laughter) Be formless, shapeless, like water. Now you put water into a cup. It becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. Put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend. (Applause)

YR: This year, I am 32 years old, the same age Bruce Lee was when he died. I have been wondering recently, if he were alive today, what advice he would give me about making this TED Talk.

HP: Don't imitate my voice. It offends me.

YR: Good advice, but I still think that we learn who we are by copying others. Who here hasn't imitated their childhood hero in the playground, or mum or father? I have.

HP: A few years ago, in order to make this video for my artwork, I shaved off all my hair so that I could grow it back as my father had it when he first emigrated from India to the U.K. in the 1960s. He had a side parting and a neat mustache.

At first, it was going very well. I even started to get discounts in Indian shops.

But then very quickly, I started to underestimate my mustache growing ability, and it got way too big. It didn't look Indian anymore. Instead, people from across the road, they would shout things like --

HP and YR: Arriba! Arriba! Ándale! Ándale!

HP: Actually, I don't know why I am even talking like this. My dad doesn't even have an Indian accent anymore. He talks like this now.

So it's not just my father that I've imitated. A few years ago I went to China for a few months, and I couldn't speak Chinese, and this frustrated me, so I wrote about this and had it translated into Chinese, and then I learned this by heart, like music, I guess.

YR: This phrase is now etched into my mind clearer than the pin number to my bank card, so I can pretend I speak Chinese fluently. When I had learned this phrase, I had an artist over there hear me out to see how accurate it sounded.

I spoke the phrase, and then he laughed and told me, "Oh yeah, that's great, only it kind of sounds like a woman."

I said, "What?"

He said, "Yeah, you learned from a woman?"

I said, "Yes. So?"

He then explained the tonal differences between male and female voices are very different and distinct, and that I had learned it very well, but in a woman's voice.

HP: Okay. So this imitation business does come with risk. It doesn't always go as you plan it, even with a talented translator. But I am going to stick with it, because contrary to what we might usually assume,imitating somebody can reveal something unique. So every time I fail to become more like my father, I become more like myself. Every time I fail to become Bruce Lee, I become more authentically me.

This is my art. I strive for authenticity, even if it comes in a shape that we might not usually expect. It's only recently that I've started to understand that I didn't learn to sit like this through being Indian. I learned this from Spider-Man.

Thank you.