Yesterday, I had the privilege of meeting a fellow traveler who I could have a real conversation with. It’s always awesome meeting other long-term travelers because we never run out of things to talk about. However, there’s one topic that I don’t like to bring up too often – the talk about my identity, nationality and home. It’s not because I hate talking about it – it’s because I don’t have a clear answer to those questions.
Many of you know the brief background. I am Korean (and yes, by law as well. I have a Korean passport). I moved to Cambodia at a young age and after graduating from high school, came to the U.S. by myself for school and have spent a year working in the American corporate world.
Am I Korean?
I am; at least by law. I’m not going to deny that I am (I used to when I was younger). I’ve grown to accept the fact that this culture that I don’t fit in is my home culture. However, it definitely does not define me (and I know I am stereotyping but I believe that stereotypes exist for a reason). I’m not going to say that I feel completely disconnected. I will cheer for Korea during the World Cup and I will always crave a nice Korean meal. I will defend Korea if you misrepresent it and I will take pride in how much Korea has grown over the last 50, 60 years. However, these are connections I have from memories and from what my parents have taught me. I don’t have a lot of the ‘normal’ childhood memories, I don’t have friends from my ‘hometown’ in Korea, I don’t even remember my school. I have a hard time fitting into the ‘norms’ and more often than not, I see Koreans as a ‘them’ and not an ‘us’ unless I can make the direct connection. Do I love Korea? Yea, I do. But I will also call out issues and look at things from an objective point of view. I have a hard time engaging in a conversation with many Koreans and even though I try really hard, some pop culture things will annoy me, embarrass me or just simply not interest me.
Am I Cambodian (Khmer)?
No. As much as Cambodia is the closest country to my heart and I feel all sorts of love for anything Cambodia around me, I cannot say that I am Cambodian without feeling any shame. Yes, I grew up in Cambodia for over 12 years. My parents are still there and that’s where I refer to as ‘home’ when I say ‘I’m going home for the break.’ It’s also the place that has had the biggest impact on me. My life in Cambodia is what has shaped me into who I am today. Seeing things anything Cambodia will make me nostalgic and think of my childhood. However, I went to an international school and I was very much in the international, expat community. I did not have enough connection with the local community to make me feel like I was part of them. I was and will always be an outsider to the Cambodians. It’s not a bad thing. I love the fact that I was brought up in an environment where everyone understood me. I had friends from all over the world that had more identity issues than I did. My best friends were German, Australian, American, Cambodian, Korean, you name it. But they were also not the traditional Germans, Australians, Americans, you get the idea. I will feel guilty if I told people that I was Cambodian and that I represent the Cambodian community because in 100% truth, I don’t. I represent the group of international students that lived in Cambodia. Going back to Cambodia doesn’t feel the same way as I began to realize that my definition of ‘going home’ meant going to the familiar settings back in Cambodia. However, with all of my friends graduating, leaving and moving on, Cambodia is not the same place I left and will never be. And I’ve learned to be ok with that.
Am I American?
Not at all. Just because I have an American accent and am more ‘liberal’ and have a somewhat different lifestyle than many Koreans, I am usually mistaken for an Asian American. The thing is, I have nothing in common with Asian Americans apart from the fact that we’ve had to adapt to the traditional Korean culture through our parents and the more liberal western cultures from others (which in my case is from the international community). However, the only connection I have to the American culture is the American college life I had (which was also not too traditional since I was barely at school, busy interning). I also am a lot more comfortable speaking to an American than a Korean and feel that I can relate more. I can also work and navigate through the American working culture far better than I could ever in Korea or any other country. I had to relearn everything and after 4.5 years here, I do feel that I have SOME type of connection with Boston and the U.S. but, it will never be strong enough for me to say ‘this is my home.’
In all honesty? I have no idea. I do have an idea… I’m not one or the other but all of the above. All of these cultures have had a big impact on me and in my near future, more places will have an impact on me – and I am going to be more confused than ever. Will I ever find the answer? I don’t think so. I don’t think I’ll ever have one short answer to the questions ‘where are you from?’ But what I’ve learned through the process and as time goes by is that, I don’t need an answer to that question and that I’m actually ok with not having an answer because instead, I have a story to the question.
Maybe I am. I might be looking for that ‘perfect’ place I can settle down and call home. But, a part of me thinks that it’s impossible. I will always feel ‘partial connections’ to places but will never be able to give my heart to a place entirely. Or maybe I will… who knows. We’ll find out.
For now, I think I’ll stick to being the Korean who grew up in Cambodia, living in Boston.