Saturday, January 16, 2010

Is identity a social construct? Who am I? Where do I belong?

“If a war broke out between Korea and United States, which side would you be on?” Somebody asked me this question a while ago. I was totally caught off-guard—I had no idea what to say. The question digs for an answer that is deeper than political. Who am I? And where do I belong? These were not new questions. Even when I was too young to articulate these questions to myself, I felt like a misfit just hanging out in no-man’s land until somebody came to claim me. Nobody did. So, when I grew older and the issue of race became more relevant to my increasing consciousness, I tried to find an answer.

Trying to excavate a unilateral, absolute identity out of my hyphenated Korean-American-ness has been a frustrating, confusing, and lonely experience. I was raised in a Korean home where certain values were taught and reinforced while I went to school where constrasting values were extolled. At home I was taught to listen and obey my elders, and develop a sense of community and loyalty. At school, I was conditioned to believe that independence, critical thinking, and nonconformity were the ways of educated, intelligent people. So, intoxicated in my American heroics, I sought to emancipate myself from the old-fashioned Korean ways of thinking and living without weighing their relevance to my life. In other words, I tried to be a white American.

My intelletual departure from my Korean nest necessitated finding a new niche where I could feel a sense of home. I went to school with mostly white kids. I was one of two or three Asian kids in my class in middle and high school. I was aware of that but I didn’t want to be Othered. I wanted to be accepted and be one of them. There is something tragic about being considered different—it makes you feel forsaken. Forsaken by the division of cultures and race. So, as a kid, I coped with the best self-defense mechanism I had: denial of my own race.

My white friends were all around me. It wasn’t hard to internalize what I saw. I subconsciously believed it was a reflection of my “white” identity—that is, until I learned that that wasn’t how I was perceived. After I graduated from high school, I met and mingled with new people in college, at work and in grad school. With this new territory came the question, “Where are you from?” When white people ask me this question, they don’t mean what city in the States I am from. They want to know which foreign country I hail from. But for all they know, I could be a 3rd, 4th generation of immigrants. Regardless, I have an Asian face, therefore, I must be a foreigner.

If I am considered a foreigner in America, one would think I would be accepted as a 100% authentic, full-blown Korean in Korea. Well, if I don’t speak, I probably would. But as soon as I stumble over a Korean phrase, or have to think really hard to remember that word and they find out that I grew up in America, I am at best an American in Korean sheep’s clothing. My cultural faux pas are easily excused and rendered “cute.” In Korea, I am still a foreigner.

So, where is home? Where do we belong? It’s a question I have been asking for a very long time.


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