Where I’m From
I have been asked the question “Where are you from?” multiple times a day everyday of my life. When I was younger, and softer, I racked my brain for an efficient way to summarize my bicultural conception, upbringing, tongue, identity, and reason for existing here– there– wherever I was during the conversation in question. No matter where I am in America, whether it be my hometown Dallas, Texas, my collegetown Providence, Rhode Island, or my current city… places where I like to believe I reek of local-stench… I am asked, “What brings you to insert city ?” Perhaps age has tempered with my once naively-optimistic approach to this question, or maybe my racial-awareness learned through education and qpoc-communities unclogged my ears to the voice that’s been saying, “you do not need to validate your existence everyday for the rest of your life” all along. At a young age, I thought this question was a standard conversation starter all people exchanged to get to know one another until, at a young-but-older age, I realized it was specially reserved for others who did not aesthetically belong. In my mid-twenties I finally asked myself, ‘Why must I labor in thought and by voice when I can just tell them what they want to hear?’ Now, when strangers ask where I am from, I simply say ‘Korea.’ They compliment my English, and I carry on with my day with their lingering assumptions stuck to me, clinging like white debris on an otherwise perfectly pristine wool coat. But you, friend, are really asking. So bring a lint roller! Pinch your nose! Hold your breath! Dive deep into the diaspora with me and 내 말 잘 들어 (listen closely).
I 오예린 was born in Seoul in palindromic 1991 with dual citizenship during
my parents’ Christmas vacation who resided in Texas, where I was raised.
Did you catch that? Me neither.
Scrub me down with an exfoliating hydro towel, mom, I missed a spot.
Scrub me, scrub my yellow skin, scrub it clean.
After twenty-two years of choosing to swim in a sea of white hegemony,
I realized Korean culture is beautiful.
Seeking roots, I retraced my steps back to my “homeland” only to find
“my home land” didn’t exist.
The Korea I know is through my mother’s native tongue and
the Korean food she cooks for us on Texas soil.
I can neither claim heritage to Korea as an American
nor can I pledge allegiance to America as a Korean, but they’re both mine.
I stand on uneven ground, grounded.
Hear me speak with a mouthful of dumplings, from here.
There was once a window of time during my adolescence when my widowed mother, brother, and I visited Korea every year. Most of my family resides there and if home is where the heart is, my soul stays tucked in my grandmother’s nail-polish drawer in Seoul. I spent those summers rollerblading the streets of a town called Jamsil. My grandmother’s home is right off of Jamsil’s busiest intersection thriving with street food, stationery shops, outdoor markets, music, and beauty supply stores… it was home. My younger cousin, Yuna, and I would skate around the neighborhood between mealtimes. On this particular day held in my rememory (Toni Morrison™), my grandma entrusted me with about 10,000₩ ($10.00) for us to spend, and at nine or ten years old, it felt like a golden ticket to adulthood. I played older-sister and bought us snacks and matching friendship bracelets at just 1,500₩ ($1.50) each. When Yuna was tired, she held onto my shoulders and stayed close behind me on auto-pilot as I pulled her along. After a couple hours of exploring, we had to use the restroom. To my horror, this public restroom was dated and traditional. I stood in the bathroom stall in my Abercrombie Kids jeans and my rollerblades, looking down at a tile hole in the ground. But don’t worry, metal bars were secured on either side to help me balance. It might be too much information but, yes, the metal bars did not help me aim, or balance for that matter. I peed all over myself. My light blue jeans were visibly wet. Yuna laughed at me as I cried, she couldn’t fathom how this could happen! Hadn’t I used a restroom like this before? It was Yuna’s turn to lead the way as I held onto her shoulders, squeezed my legs together, hid behind her, and let the skates do the rest. Korean hierarchy granted me privilege over my younger cousin, but my inability to use this standard Korean restroom washed it and all the pride that came with 10,000₩ away. My wet American jeans flashed OTHER! brighter than The Scarlet Letter.
I could share a million more stories with you, lesser in dramatic and traumatic value, that took place in Seoul and made very clear I was not one of them. Every sentence I utter in Seoul is followed by a compliment much like the one I hear in America. “Wow, you speak very good Korean!” Every time I stand at a full 175 centimeters (5 foot 9 inches) tall, I’m hit with multiple up-and-downs by my fellow Koreans. These glances confront me and say, “Fellow Koreans? Fellow yellows? No, sweetie, you’re Korean American, not Korean Korean. A twinkie! A banana! White on the inside! It isn’t enough to have been born in Korea if you weren’t raised here, didn’t you know? It isn’t enough to speak fluent Korean if you don’t know Seoul’s current slang to match.” Dreams of a homeland dissipated into thin air long ago.
W.E.B. Du Bois describes “double consciousness” as follows: “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity… this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost… He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of opportunity closed roughly in his face.” The difference between Du Bois’ sentiment and mine is stark American history. As much as I’d like to adopt the feeling of double consciousness as my own, I must first address my privilege. I will never know what it feels like to be cursed and spit upon to this degree. I will never understand this system and why I swerved this fate by being born an East Asian “model-minority.” The Asian American experience, in this way, is one of in-betweens. We are too privileged to complain but too exotic to belong. Earlier I asked you to dive deep into the diaspora with me, but there is no water. There is no sea or land reserved for a Korean American living in a yellow body. Rather, we’re pinballing through the misty blue fog only seen during twilight, the hours between daylight and darkness, the time uncharted. It’s an eerie but inviting, soft cerulean, fairly moist, transparent fog in a location unknown.
This fog floating above the in-betweens is where I am from.
“How did you come to be who you are?” is a vastly different question. I don’t know who I am, but I know something shifted when I decided to stop explaining myself. “I’m from Korea” are just three words that hold three-thousand pounds of meaning for American-me. Behind those three words dwells a quarter century of lived-experience as an exoticized Asian girl. Behind those three words lives a girl who grew up in white, conservative Texas who chose to denounce her ancestry daily. Scrub me, scrub my yellow skin, scrub it clean. I smashed my body against the invisible wall that separated the yellows from the whites with spray tans, athletic over-achievement, solid English vocabulary and grammar, and the right sorority-esque hair, nails, and fashion accessories. I thought that maybe if I pressed hard enough, osmosis would let me pass to the other side and deem me white. I socially distanced myself from the Korean friends I was baptized with and saw every Sunday, because I did not want to be one those Asians. You know, the Asians who only hang with other Asians. I was every white kid’s token Asian friend wearing all the crowd favorites: Abercrombie, BCBG, and Tory Burch.
Erica Joy speaks to this acquisition of whiteness. In her article, The Other Side of Diversity, she defines enculturation for us as the gradual acquisition of the characteristics and norms of a culture or group by a person, another culture, etc. I can’t tell you who I am just yet, but I can tell you I am laboring to unlearn the whiteness I gradually acquired throughout my twenty-six years of life in America. I say, “I’m from Korea” in perfect English with pride now and walk away, leaving the brains of covert-racists baffled without letting them tinker with my own. I am unloading whiteness while holding dear those who pleaded me to be myself before I knew what selfhood was. I feel deep gratitude and loyalty to these role models who existed amidst the fog. For so long, my mother was my hero. This widow, Korean immigrant with a heavy accent, woman who married straight out of college, this high-class lady scrubbed toilets after her husband passed and left her with thousands of dollars of debt and two kids to feed. This independent immigrant woman built a janitorial company in White-American patriarchal Texas. This woman, the ultimate survivor and thriver, is my mother. This woman is also a conservative Christian, homophobic, culturally anti-black, East Asian tiger mom. And me? I am her liberal only daughter.
Ethnicity, culture, gender, sexuality, religion, it’s all here– a million minnows clashing into bodies and glass in a fishbowl too small. To borrow Du Bois’ genius, I feel “(a) longing to attain self-conscious (selfhood), to merge my double self into a better and truer self. In this merging I wish neither of the older selves to be lost… I simply wish to make it possible for a (woman) to be both.” Out here in the twilight air I am more than both, more than one, I am unquantifiable. Look, it’s possible! I’m alive, aren’t I? So walk around me or walk alongside me, but question my existence no more.
I am a Korean American citizen of the world risen from the twilight fog that floats above the in-betweens. This is who I am, and that is where I am from.
Written in Merle McGee's graduate course: Race, Identity, and Inclusion in Organizations
Assignment: “Where I’m from”
In this assignment, you will write a kind of racial-cultural autobiography, addressing the question “How did I come to be who I am?” Think about the influence of race and ethnicity in particular but feel free to consider other influences, like gender, class, religion, and sexual orientation. You may also want to explore how race and ethnicity have interacted with other aspects of your identity. Consider these questions: How have these elements shaped your life experience? To what extent have you experienced privilege and marginalization (or both) based upon them? How have your various facets influenced your interest in public service and your thoughts about your career? Reference at least one reading. (This assignment adapted from a syllabus by Jody Cohen.)