Even though America is a “melting pot”, I still felt like I got different treatment than white people, especially when living in the south. They are usually subtle, but occasionally blatant. After hearing “I bet your mom makes better Chinese food than what we have here” and “You’re Asian, can you figure out how to split this bill?” and “Neehao. I know some Chinese, I can finally practice” (after I said I’m not Chinese. True story) you’d want to escape from it, too. Occasionally, I poke fun of myself for being Asian; I don’t get offended if people make Asian jokes, but it can be distasteful.
“In Korea, I’ll blend in. I’ll finally fit in”, I thought. It couldn’t be further from the truth.
Yes, I do blend in physically. I have straight, black hair and brown almond eyes. I stand 160 centimeters tall and every piece of clothing seems to come in my size. Other than having similar physical features with Koreans, I still feel like an alien in this culture. I feel more out of place than I ever did in the states.
People in America expect me to be more “Asian” (what is that even supposed to mean?) while people in Korea definitely expect me to be more Korean. It’s too bad that some people can’t immediately accept who I am and that I don’t fully belong to one nation or ethnic group, but I don’t really care, either. That’s their problem – using heuristics is a shortcut for the brain to make quick judgments.
Korea is a homogenous nation. Not only do people have similar physical features naturally, they seem to strive to look similar to each other with fashion, make-up, hairstyles, and plastic surgery. Conformity is desirable.
Miss Korea Candidates
I don’t get angry when people speak to me in Korean or turn to me when my friends are having trouble communicating. I don’t get upset when I’m given the menu to order for a group of us when my friends can actually speak Korean better than myself. It’s pointless to raise my blood pressure and put my body under unnecessary stress. There are times, however, when it can be frustrating, especially when I’m having an off day. I deal with this by looking through others’ eyes. I can’t blame anybody for this easy mistake. If I saw me walking around, I’d assume she can speak Korean, too. But on certain days, I can’t help but feel bothered by the monotonous conversation that goes as follows (all in Korean):
Korean Person: 어리널댜ㅓ내ㅑ덜;댜ㅓ리덞 (AKA Korean words I don’t’ know. I smile and nod, but then they prompt me even further).
Me: Sorry, I don’t speak Korean well.
Korean person continues speaking to me, clearly not understanding I’m a foreigner.
Me: Sorry, I don’t speak Korean well.
Korean Person looking confused: Oh really? Where are you from? China?
Me: No, I’m from America.
Korean Person: You’re not a Korean person? Your face is Korean.
Me: Yes and no. Kind of. I’m a foreign Korean (there is a special word for this 교포- which assumes that your parents are Korean so you grew up with Korean culture and around the language).
Usually, it ends at that and I can go on my merry way. But sometimes, interrogations continue.
Korean Person: For a Korean, your Korean is very bad. Didn’t your parents teach you Korean?
Me (this is when I start to get annoyed). Well, I’m adopted. My parents are American.
Korean Person: OOOOOOOohhhhhhh.
Then they get quiet and leave me alone, most likely because they feel bad. I try to avoid getting to that point unless I tried other ways.
So, I came here thinking I’d finally fit in somewhere, but I didn’t find that. However, I changed over the almost-two years that I’ve been here. I discovered that it does not matter to me to fit in. I am at peace with myself and being in harmony with the ones I love around me. Just yesterday, I was running on the usual track going the usual direction with everyone else. Since my left knee was suffering from the extra pounding, I changed directions and ran clockwise, against from the crowds of students and ajummas walking the track. Nobody looked at me strangely, nobody said anything. I stood out in a society that values conformity. But hey, the world didn’t end. I hoped someone would follow my steps and turn the other direction.
We have all heard it ceaselessly, but STOP CARING WHAT PEOPLE THINK! Of course, we all do care about others’ opinions and want to make a good impression, but don’t hold back on something you want to do because you are embarrassed. Nobody is going to waste their time to make fun of you because they are too busy worrying about making good impressions of themselves. And if they do make fun of you, you probably don’t want to associate with them, anyway.
I don’t belong to one nation and I don’t have a place I call home. I just belong to this earth like every other human being. Let’s stop categorizing and worrying about differences. Humans are more similar than they are different, so let’s harmonize and take care of each other and our home, Earth!