Growing Up As a Permanent Alien

Growing up as an ethnic minority in many different places meant that I never quite fit in, no matter where I was.

I was born in Harbin, China but moved to Beijing when I was just one year old because of my parents’ career goals. They started their own small business which took them all around the world. That meant that I either travelled with them to countries like South Korea and Japan, stayed with a nanny in Beijing, or spent time with my grandparents in Harbin. I was constantly moving from one place to another, never knowing what it meant to “be home.” When people asked me “what are you” in China or Korea, I never knew quite how to answer.

On the one hand, I am Korean by race and ancestry. My great-grandmother on my father’s side was born in North Korea and immigrated to northeast China seeking a new life. Her husband was a military officer for the South Korean army. My grandparents on my mother’s side were born in South Korea and moved onto a plot of rural farmland just outside the city of Harbin. My grandfather was originally a village leader back in Korea but became a farmer because land was available in northern China. Long story short, I was Korean by descent, but because my both my parents were born in Harbin, China, I was Chinese by nationality and spoke Chinese as my mother tongue.

My parents told me I was Korean, but that I should tell people that I was Chinese if they should ask so as to avoid being marked as different and potentially being discriminated against, or at least to avoid the stereotypes Chinese people have toward Koreans. My parents’ Korean friends insisted that I was Korean and Korean alone, and that I should speak Korean at home as my native language. My Chinese teachers bombastically proclaimed that all their students, myself included, were being raised to become patriotic, loyal citizens of China. My Chinese classmates and friends did not understand the dual nature of my ethnic identity so I simply told them I was Chinese like them.

Immigrating to the United States when I was seven years old did little to help my prepubescent identity crisis. In June 2000, I moved to a very Korean neighborhood in downtown Los Angeles near Koreatown and attended a diverse elementary school. There the American teachers told me I was American, even though I was still a Chinese citizen and only a permanent resident in the United States. Though Korean students represented the majority of the school, I never quite fit in to the Korean-American social group and the distinct culture they had developed. It probably did not help that I could only understand Korean but I couldn’t speak it. In fact, my inability to speak English or Korean and my Chinese nationality provoked a great deal of bullying from my Korean classmates. I actually identified much more strongly with the few Chinese students at school, and when I moved to a largely Chinese-American community in Arcadia the very next year, I felt much more at home.

While I was a sophomore at Arcadia High School, I was naturalized as an American citizen. Most of my friends back home are ABCs, or American-born Chinese. I suppose that makes me a CBKA – a Chinese-born Korean-American. I remember taking AP U.S. History in high school and reading President Theodore Roosevelt’s speech to the, largely Irish Catholic, Knights of Columbus, declaring that “There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism . . . a hyphenated American is not an American at all.” Being a double-hyphenated American, I felt like Mr. Roosevelt wouldn’t have thought of me as very American. He went on to proclaim that “There is no such thing as a hyphenated American who is a good American. The only man who is a good American is the man who is an American and nothing else.” I had enough trouble reconciling being Korean and Chinese at the same time; how could I suddenly become “American and nothing else?”

To this day, though I proudly call myself an American when people ask me what I am while I am abroad, they are never quite satisfied with this answer. When I go back to China and South Korea, people responded to my answer with a look of confusion. “Where are you really from? What are you really?” they would ask. I always dutifully explain that America is a place, not a race, but deep within, I knew I wasn’t just American and had to appreciate that I had ethnic roots elsewhere. I knew I wasn’t simply one-third Chinese, one-third Korean, and one-third American, but some strange cultural amalgamation of the three. Perhaps the beauty of America and being an American citizen is that no cultural identity is imposed on us, and the diverse ethnic mosaic that comprises American society permits, even encourages the free will to choose one’s cultural identity in a way not possible in places like China and South Korea.

Today I am still struggling to understand who I am and how it relates to heritage, race, culture, family, ancestry, nationality, and citizenship. Perhaps I will never find my one true “identity” in my Korean heritage or Chinese upbringing or American values, but maybe I will somewhere in between them. Though I never quite fit in perfectly in any place in which I have lived, perhaps my position as an outsider provides me with an outsider’s perspective on cultural values and norms that many take for granted. And even though I can’t call any one place “home,” if home is truly where the heart is, perhaps I have many homes. Right now it just happens to be Swarthmore, Pennsylvania.

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