Introducing myself became a burden when I arrived at Georgetown University.

I opened my mouth to give a breezy response about where I’m from, just as others did, but I struggled to find the right words. I was born in South Korea, but that’s not quite where home is. I could say I’m from Singapore, where I went to high school, but I only lived there for three years. I could say I’m from England, where I spent most of my childhood, but people would be confused by my Asian appearance and American accent.

At Georgetown, where many students are aware of the distinction between race and ethnicity, I still sense a gap of understanding. International students are subject to the problematic assumption that they fall under the same cultural categories as Americans of different races or stereotypes of their own ethnicities.

My childhood was uncannily similar to that of Americans in America. Though I lived in multiple places, from Jakarta to London to Singapore, I have grown up in bubbles of American culture. Cobham, a quaint town in Surrey, is a hub for American expats, while Singapore is a cosmopolitan city where you can find individuals of almost any nationality. In my parallel “America” outside America, I lived through the fad of Tamagotchis and Silly Bandz and grew up watching “Hannah Montana” and “Zoey 101.” My middle and high schools across the sea even felt the havoc wreaked by toxic social media platforms like and YikYak.

But that steady flow of cultural similarity breaks when the theme song to “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” comes on, and I don’t know the lyrics. Or when I walk into Hoya Snaxa and am shocked that M&Ms now come with a novel pretzel center, to which I’m informed that it’s been that way for several years in America. Just the other day, my friend mentioned “grits” to me, and I couldn’t even grasp whether that word was a person or a place, a verb or a noun. I suppose some cultural artifacts, no matter how quintessentially “American” they may seem, simply do not bleed into American microcosms in the international sphere.

Given my American accent and exposure to American culture, people have asked me: “Wouldn’t you consider yourself Korean-American then?” No. Korean-Americans are Koreans who have grown up in America, whereas I’m a Korean who grew up internationally. The “America” that we’ve experienced is similar in generalities but skips the details that bond the people of a culture together. As a Korean-international, I don’t fit into the Korean-American trope or even the Korean-Korean trope. I’m either “not American enough” to Koreans born and raised in America or “too American” for Koreans who have spent their lives in Korea.

Many assume that race equals ethnicity and ethnicity equals culture — because I look racially Korean, I must be fully ethnically Korean, and Seoul must be my hometown. This is rarely the case, especially for international students. One of my best friends is a racially Indian woman who lives in Pittsburgh but calls Singapore her home. Another one of my close friends is Filipino-British, her physical features just as beautifully ambiguous as the softness of her American-British accent.

My own culture is an eclectic fusion of the West and the East. Musically, my taste spans from Japanese composer Joe Hisaishi to Otis Redding, American “King of Soul.” I use American slang, but my vocabulary is sprinkled with the occasional British phrase, such as “cling film” instead of “saran wrap.” I still get teased for the time I went to Trader Joe’s and asked my friend to push me the “trolley.”

I laugh along with my friends in these moments: I, too, see the humor. It is natural to feel surprised when someone has never heard of something that has been so central to your upbringing, but I see such cases not so much as an outright dismissal of other cultures as a mere absence of exposure. The unchanging truth of cultural differences is that there will always exist gaps in our understanding. Our responsibility, as members of a global community, is to bridge these gaps.

The issue festers when race, culture and ethnicity are lumped together as one; when expectations of one’s culture adhere directly to the texture of one’s hair, shade of one’s skin or the kind of clothes one likes to wear.

It would be foolish to pretend that there is a clear-cut formula to resolve the complexity of identity. Even as I understand and live this truth, the sensitivity and awareness of these nuances for others is something I’m still working on as well. Still, it is time to see people as individuals rather than as projections of a greater generalization.

Seo Young Lee is a sophomore in the College. She is also a member of the International Students Association. Long-Distance Education appears online every other Wednesday.

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