When people ask me where I’m from it’s hard to respond with one definitive answer. Where I am from is Massachusetts. It is the place where I spent my childhood in a green backyard filled with trees towering towards the sky. But I know that is not the answer people are looking for. The question, “Where are you from?” in translation really means, “What specific race, ethnicity, and nationality are you?”
The answer to that question can get quite complicated. Yes, I was born and raised in America from the east coast all the way down to Austin, Texas which would qualify me as an American. But, I am also Korean. My parents are from Korea. My family is Korean. The language I speak with my family is different from what I speak with my friends. The food I eat tastes different than the restaurants I frequent. The scent of my home is different than the scents of my neighborhood. So to answer your question, I am Korean. But I am also American.
This unique and at times unsettling dual identity I hold as a Korean American became readily apparent to me during my recent trip to South Korea. The start of my trip was filled with its share of awkward moments that only comes from being an Americanized individual travelling in an Asian country. First off, let me preface with saying that my ability to speak Korean is elementary at best. I understand conversational Korean but I can only respond with typical sayings veiled in a thick American accent that immediately reveals I was not born or raised in Korea. Anyways, back to the story.
What quickly became my favorite city in Korea, Busan, has an enormous marketplace that my mother and I visited nearly every day. I witnessed my mom bargain for everything from clothes, to towels, to kitchen utensils, as is custom in Korea when shopping. I willfully let my mom take the reins when it came to haggling. So when a shop owner started to speak to me in Korean I suddenly felt frightened and stuck.
I knew I wouldn’t be able to meet their expectations of responding in perfect fluent Korean which lead me to two options. Option 1: Don’t respond at all and just smile, which would lead the shopkeepers to start greeting me in Japanese (Arigato!) or Chinese (Ne Hau!) thinking I was from a nearby Asian country. Or Option 2: I could respond in my jagged Korean speak and have them nod and recognize that I am clearly American having many shopkeepers proceed to jack up their prices.
It was an odd feeling at first. Having many Korean people either disapprovingly snicker or become exaggeratedly amazed when I spoke English. Although I looked like them, I didn’t sound like them which made me stick out in a sea of shoppers. On top of this language barrier, the fashion trends in Korea at times were so alarmingly different than American style clothes. I wondered if I could bring any Korean clothes back and wear it without the fear of people staring at me. Also, nearly everything in Korea is a free size which basically means size zero. My average American body could not fit into the average Korean outfit 80 percent of the time.
Although shopping in Korea had its share of obvious cultural complications, one thing that was never complicated for me was food. Now I may be biased in saying this but I believe Korean food to be the best cuisine in the entire world. Ok, so maybe I am enormously biased to say that. But the food in Korea is truly amazing.
Each day I had my share of delicious noodles, the freshest seafood imaginable (like still alive on the table), delectable street food including sweet Korean stuffed pancakes, do-it-yourself grilled meat which melts in your mouth, the thickest kimbap rolls which were also ridiculously cheap, and scrumptious bakeries and cute cafés to satisfy any sweet tooth. It was a foodie’s dream come true-eating only delicious things for an entire month in Korea. With each meal my love for this nation started to grow and grow at about the same rate as my stomach.
Along with my new found love for Korean food, witnessing Korea’s natural beauty filled me with pure adoration and absolute wonder for this country. One walk outdoors could lead you to streets of cherry blossom trees like baby pink clouds, mountains painting a canvas in the distant sky, and fresh blue oceans which are as common as highways in this water surrounded peninsula.
But what really sealed the deal and had my heart fall head over heels in love with Korea, was a casual night in with my mom and aunt. She took out many heavy photo albums as tall and thick as the Gutenberg Bible, and we began to look through our family, our history.
I saw faded photos of men and women from three generations ago wearing traditional hanboks. I saw each of my aunts and uncles’ wedding photos. I saw my mom grow from a child into a beautiful young woman. I saw my dad before he was my dad and my relatives before they lived the lives they do now. It was a humbling and mind-opening experience. This was my family. Mine.
As we turned each page of each photo album I felt my heart grow warm and heavy. It was a new feeling. A sudden kinship with people who had passed on a long time ago, and yet I felt like I knew them. I felt connected to them. In simple terms, what I did was learn about my family tree. But it felt so much deeper than a family history lesson. What I was discovering was pieces of myself I never knew existed. In that moment, all the awkwardness of being a foreigner in an unfamiliar land dissipated. I was now a Korean visiting my parents’ homeland and a place I could also call home.
Now, after travelling thousands of miles back to the US, I wonder. I wonder how I will respond when people ask the question “Where are you from?” To say the name of a state or city seems too little. Yet, to say South Korea would also be incomplete. I am more than one nation and I am learning that belonging to more than one place is not a bad thing.
I am Korean. I love my country and all the beauty, culture, and family it provides. Still, I also love America and the way it has helped raise me into who I am today. I am Korean. I am American. I love where I am from. I love the melting of two nations, two identities, and two cultures, because they help write my own unique story.
Going to Korea helped me realize that I can be more than one thing and to embrace the fact that two countries helped shape me. So I am grateful. I am grateful I got the chance for this self-discovery, the chance to immerse myself in another place I can call home. I hope to visit Korea again one day and discover more of my past for a brighter future.
If you have similar experiences being a first or second generation minority living in America I’d love to hear about it in the comments below! Thanks for stopping by and be sure to follow my blog for updates on new posts!