I could feel my heart pounding in my small chest faster and faster. I was on the verge of breaking out into an anxious sweat when it came to my turn. The words came out of my mouth sounding alien and awkward: “I am from the United States”. There were no looks of confusion, doubt, or suspicion, but I felt like an imposter. I was an imposter. My teacher and fellow second grade classmates nodded in approval of my response and the boy next to me proceeded to answer the teacher’s question: Where are you from?
While it seems like such a simple inquiry, usually following a trail of other repetitive, mundane questions of what one’s name, age, birthday, and favorite food are, it has continuously been a source of anxiety, confusion, and haunting throughout my life. I went home that day to ask my parents where I was truly from to give rest to my doubts. They themselves seemed slightly confused at my question telling me ‘why the United State of course!’. I proceeded to ask them where in the United States I was born, and whether or not we were Korean. At my early age of six years, I perceived true U.S. citizens to be white and was confounded by the idea that my ethnically Korean family could be from the U.S. All the pale skinned, freckled boys and girls at my school would proudly state I’m from California, Wyoming, and ‘insert US state’ before I moved to Singapore! All the little girls in Disney shows and movies depicting the typical American girl did not look like me. My parents curtly replied that I was born in Englewood, New Jersey, I was indeed Korean, but I was not from Korea because I never lived there. They were astounded as to how I could ask such preposterous questions and carried on with their adult matters as my child self tried to make sense of what I was told.
It was true that I was Korean but had never lived in South Korea. Both my parents immigrated to the United States when they were entering their first year of high school. But what was also true was that I had never lived in the United States either. I had no recollection of this so called Englewood, New Jersey. My mother gave birth to me in New Jersey but almost immediately returned to Japan, where she was living at the time. Technically, I was from Japan. It was the last country I lived in. But regardless of this confusion, I took my parents word as a six-year-old child does, and proceeded to live my life with the belief that I was from the United States. During the following years of my life, a myriad of events occurred that caused me to feel more of an imposter, stranger, and foreigner no matter where I was.
I hailed down a cobalt blue taxi with its signature 6552-1111 Comfort imprinted on its side. The air was thick and humid, as it is every day in Singapore, and I was running late for a family dinner. I jumped in the cab. Hi Uncle, Tanglin Road in front of Tanglin Mall please. A few minutes had passed as I cooled down in the air conditioned vehicle, when the conversation began. You Korean ah? Yes, yes I am. Ahn-yeong-ha-sei-yo (hello in Korean)! Oh wow that was very good! So how many year you live in Korea before coming to Singapore mm? This is the typical conversation I have had with Singaporean taxi drivers during my 19 years of living there. Singapore is an incredibly diverse country, not just amongst its citizens, but also with its array of expatriates who move to live there for the long term like myself. Because of Singapore’s diversity and constant influx and flux of expatriates and travelers, there tends to be an interest in one’s origins and ethnicity. I lived in Korea for a few years but moved to Singapore when I was five. Wow! You like Singapore more? Yes, yes I do. While I lived in Singapore, I was comfortable and even at home. I loved the heat and humidity, the greenery everywhere, the food, the people, the transportation. I have such longing when I see photos of Singapore’s skyline, feel an intense humidity like Singapore’s, and eat dishes with similar flavors as those of Singapore. But it was these day to day conversations with taxi drivers, cooks at hawker centers, and locals that caused me to feel so out of place in a country where I felt so at home. It was a daily reminder that, no, I was not Singaporean and would never be. I did not have any local friends and neither did my parents. We stayed in our expatriate bubble, with our expatriate friends and expatriate schools. I was never asked if I was from Singapore. It was always assumed that I was from South Korea, because I was Korean.
I looked calm, but my heart was racing and a thin layer of cold sweat covered my body under my thick winter coat. I was in Seoul, South Korea, for my winter break in 2016. As I got into the taxi, I pulled myself together and confidently stated gang-nam-yuk (Gangnam station). I rejoiced on the inside as the cab driver silently started to drive. I took out my headphones and plugged them in. Please do not talk to me. Please do not talk to me. But of course he sparked a conversation with me. I know how to say hello, count to five, and a few food items in the Korean language. With this minimal vocabulary, Singaporean cab drivers thought I was fluent. But in Korea itself, I was hopeless. A few seconds had passed since the cab driver asked me something. I swore under my breath and finally replied. Oh, no Korean, Chinese. I am Chinese. Oh you China! Okay. And then silence.
I sat in my own shame and embarrassment for the rest of the ride. I had learned throughout my life that being Korean and not being able to speak the language is an incredible disgrace. My mom has been berated by her aunt-in-law for not teaching me the language. I have been called ‘not Korean enough,’ ‘fake Korean,’ ‘not really Korean,’ and ‘you’re just American’ by Korean peers in both high school and college. There are times when I wonder how different my life and identity would have been if I was fluent in Korean. The conversations I could have joined, the nuances of a culture I could have understood, the possible connection and relationship to my grandparents are all what-ifs. But then I realize the prejudice, shame, and disgrace I have felt by a country and very group of people I could have been a part of. Is language a requirement for belonging to a country? When I speak aloud in Korea, I speak English, my only language, my native tongue. When I’m with my Korean friends, I am called their mee-gook-sah-dam-ching-goo (American friend).
Hi! You Chinese? Ni hao! I finally snapped. I’m fucking Korean! Walking the streets of New York City as an Asian woman can be exhausting some days. I slammed the door on my way into the one room apartment in Brooklyn my two friends from Smith and I had rented for the summer. I was still in fury. The air conditioner was balancing the humid, sweltering summer day. Amidst the heat and my own sentiments, I missed Singapore. I later went to Korea Town for dinner with high school friends from Singapore. I felt safe and comfortable surrounded by other Asians; I could let my guard down. Between boarding school and college, I have lived in the United States for the past eight years of my life, and I am here to stay. Throughout my time in the United States, I have become hyper aware of my Asianess, my race, meaning the very fact that I am Asian isolates and alienates me. This hyper awareness is a hum singing throughout all times of the day. You are our token Asian friend! What are you eating? It smells weird. I heard in Singapore you can’t chew gum. Do Koreans eat dog meat? Are you good at math? Later that night when I returned to my Brooklyn apartment, I thought about the incident again and recollected that I had stated that I was Korean. But was I? Ethnically yes, but identity wise? No. What did it mean to be Korean, American, or Singaporean? A few days later, I was walking around Manhattan. Again, Ni hao! You are Chinese? Go back to China. I whipped around and yelled I am American, there’s nowhere to go back to.
Labels, terms, and categories can have detrimental connotations. But on the other end of the spectrum, they can give one an identity, community, culture, and dialogue to engage with and belong to. It is these positive attributes of defining words that propelled me to constantly search for a category I could compartmentalize myself into. Third culture kid, Asian, Korean, Korean-American, Asian-American, American, expatriate, 1.5 generation, 2nd generation, Asian, Singaporean, international student, and more are all terms that have been used by others or myself to grasp who I am, where I am from, and where I belong. I am a United States citizen, ethnically Korean, and grew up in Singapore. But it is not that simple. There were times when I so wanted to be a Korean, an American, or a Singaporean to each of its own. But I realize that in my own case and that of many others I am none and all of these. When I replied I am American, that statement in itself holds so much meaning and questions. Could I say it because I am a citizen? Did my family moving back to Connecticut recently have something to do with my response? Was it because I have felt more at home here day by day? What if I moved to another country? Depending on the time, place and context, how I define myself is constantly changing. I use to want to fit right into one compartment, having felt like an outsider no matter where I was, but my life has been shaped and influenced by all three countries and its people.
Geena Choo is currently a senior at Smith College majoring in Anthropology. She was born in Englewood, NJ to Korean parents, lived in Singapore for the majority of her life, and moved to Hartford, CT recently. She loves drinking lattes, reading books, and dreaming about her future pet golden doodle and wire fox terrier.by