I’ve long held the belief that I was Korean. I was born in Korea, raised by Koreans, and have always had Korean influences in my life. In fact, this belief, that I was Korean, was so strong, I actually preparing myself so go to the army upon graduating high school.
But before I progress further with this piece, I should back track a bit and explain why this may be a bit peculiar. I moved to Canada when I was 6, 4 months before I turned 7. I’ve attended all but kindergarten in the New World, with my college years being spent in the Empire State. During all these years, I was constantly surrounded by people from all backgrounds, and was exposed to US pop culture. I went through a hip hop phase, a punk rock phase, and even a hipster phase.
But all the while, I never thought once that I was Canadian. I knew, that by law, I was of Canadian citizenship, but it was just a de jure issue. De facto, I was Korean. And, as a result, I tried immensely to familiarize myself with the culture I identified with. But something happened recently that made me realize I wasn’t who I thought I was.
I managed to land a job back in my birth country back in July of last year. It was a dream come true moment. For years, I’ve plotted on how I can return to Korea and be self sufficient, and here, the opportunity was presenting itself to me. I was overjoyed that my long sought after dream was finally coming to fruition.
Then I landed, and slowly, from that day, I realized something was amiss. Sure, I looked Korean (more or less), but I still felt people staring at me. I, for one reason or another, felt out of place, and lost. But that was okay. I overlooked it all as just a feeling. Just me recognizing that I was in a different environment.
Then I started having conversations with the locals. Through my job, through the social circle I managed to gather during my time there, I talked with the locals. And, rather unanimously, they all told me one thing. They all told me that the moment I started talking, or acting, I would break the image of being Korean, and suddenly seem rather foreign.
I didn’t understand. How could I seem foreign? I had adhered to the customs of the culture, and assimilated accordingly. I tried my best to not stand out. How was it that these people got the impression I was foreign?
This was worsened by the fact that throughout all these years, during all my phases, I was consistently told that I was too Korean. Back in Canada, back in the US, everyone I met told me I was the most Korean person they knew. In fact, most were taken aback by the number of years I had spent living in the Anglo-sphere. My 5th grade teacher, for Christ’s sake, tried to put me in ESL.
It got me thinking about my identity. Who was I? Was I lying to myself by telling myself I was Korean? Was I conceding to something I did not want to concede to by saying I was Canadian? Was I even Canadian to being with? Was I Korean to begin with? What am I?
My old boss had some interesting insights on this matter. Now, in all fairness, I didn’t get along with my old boss all that well. In fact, I didn’t run into him all that much, and I, in many instances, tried to avoid him. But he was a man with a similar history to mine. Just that, he decided opposite me when the time came. He went to the Korean army, and I hadn’t.
And even then, he told me he felt foreign in Korea most of the time. He, a man who had gone through the most Korean institution, felt he didn’t fit in. But he also told me that through all his years working as a lawyer on Wall Street, he didn’t feel American either. And that it was okay.
That last part was key. He told me, as I was leaving my post at his company, that it was okay for me to feel out of place wherever I was, because therein lies the opportunity, and my value as a human being. Therein lies the very reason for my existence. Therein rests my purpose in life.
He ended on that. To be honest, I don’t know what he means, even today. But I know that there’s nothing to be ashamed of for not fitting in. Rather, even if I fit in perfectly, people would have found a way to make me feel different. And by being different, maybe I could bring a different perspective to the table — one that would further the conversation.
I don’t know. Maybe. Or maybe I’m delusional. I’m still working it all out.