It’s already been a month since I’ve touched down in Korea. I’ve been going to school here, reluctantly gulping down the soju glass my friends offer, singing off-key in karaoke, and trying to blend in with the crowd of native Korean students.
Being a Korean-American (or Korean anything, for that matter) is like being homeless. As a disclaimer, I am using the word “homeless” in the most literal way possible: one literally does not have a home once one enters a culture distinct from oneself’s.
Thus, I am homeless in Korea and I am homeless in America. Koreans look at me in half-bewilderment, half-awe when I say live in Seattle; Americans ask me which side of Korea I am from when I say I grew up in Seoul.
I am rather numb to this treatment in America. I have found out ways to gently – but firmly – defend myself in situations of racial micro-aggressions. Many years of schooling have given me the opportunity to learn the history of Asian-Americans, contextualize my experience in that particular historical narrative, and ultimately gain a holistic understanding of why things have become the way they are.
Therefore, I don’t feel anger when I am confronted with insensitive comments. Most likely, the insensitivity arises from two choices: either the commenter genuinely is unaware of the implications of her words, or the commenter is a racist asshole. Whatever it may be, I recognize the inherent differences in the culture and world view of those I may deem racially insensitive. As long as the racism is not blatant, I am willing to forgo the confrontation and lightly critique the statement. Life would be too hard if I made a big deal out of everything that came my way.
But in Korea, there is no misunderstanding that I am Korean. I speak Korean, look Korean, go to a Korean university (at least for the time being), and fucking love Korean food. However, it is precisely my home country that I feel most not at home.
When I introduce myself to Koreans here, I have to brace myself for the inevitable relay of questions about my life in America. To compensate for the permanent label of “immigrant” I wear in America, I desperately sought to erase my American identity while I’m here. But the curiosity of Korean students, as harmless as they may be, all the more reinforces the notion that I am different from them.
No years of schooling can combat this empty feeling. No number of scholarly articles can completely do away the unfamiliarity. The country that was once my all has become a country I visit periodically for temporal comfort. How foolish was I to think that everything will be the same once I return.
I am sitting in a cafe with my half-empty earl grey tea keeping me company. I look around and I see other Koreans focused on their tasks. Some are reading, some are chattering, some are sleeping, and some are eating. I, like them, am writing this blog post in between my school work.
It’s a cafe full of Koreans, except it’s not.