A drunk man in his early thirties was hovering around M. St. as I waited for my bus. When our eyes finally met, he looked at me squarely and asked, “Which part of China are you from?”
It was just one of those days. I have had countless similar encounters throughout my six year stay in America. From an Uber driver asking me “Are you from China or Japan?” to a passerby saying “Nihao” to me, there have been many times when people were too quick to assume my nationality without having given me a chance to talk about it. This time, however, it was worse—now I had to come up with a city in China.
Yet instead of correcting him that I was from Korea, and telling him the way he phrased his question extremely offensively as I would’ve in the past, I simply responded with an improvised lie: “What are you talking about? I’m from here.”
The man looked at me in disbelief, trying to refocus his bleary red eyes.
The reason I lied came from my desire to instantly shut out and disprove his ignorant assumption that I must be a foreigner just because of my Asian appearance. Yet, embarrassingly enough, part of the reason I lied came from me not wanting to admit a fact that was so crucial to my identity: the fact that I was from Korea.
Beginning a few years ago, I have gradually detached myself from my native country. Although I would have much fun in Korea during breaks, I kept telling myself that I should be no different than a foreign traveler visiting Korea. This detachment from my own country didn’t stem from merely an “out of sight, out of mind” logic; it came from my desire to avoid the pernicious trends and social ill that pervaded the Korean society at large.
In the shadow of the lively K-Pop music and glittering skyscrapers, there lie innumerable social problems in contemporary Korea; there’s an excessive emphasis on education and over-parenting, a craze for plastic surgery, and a superficial classification of people based on education and income, to name a few. Instead of facing and studying these social problems, I started to feel ashamed of my own country and decided to “not care about it.” I rationalized my indifference by convincing myself that it should be none of my concern since I was planning to spend the rest of my life in America anyway.
But as soon as I got on the bus after shutting the man out, I realized that in eschewing and neglecting the social issues of Korea, I had been unconsciously belittling and disregarding the culture of my people; the loss of respect toward the social culture of Korea had been internalized in the form of a hesitance to identify myself as Korean. The thought suddenly scared me. Why wasn’t I clarifying him that I was from Korea like I would have only a few years ago? Why did I not bother to claim my own nationality, while I was quick to break his assumption that every Asian should be un-American?
When I landed back in Korea four days ago, I suddenly felt an extreme sense of delight hearing the majority of people speaking my mother tongue; clearly, I hadn’t lost affection towards my country just yet. In fact, I was only trying to repress this affection because I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to bring about any changes to the problematic society. I soon realized that my duty wasn’t necessarily to come up with a perfect solution to transform the society at once, rather it was to ponder why these social problems existed, to dismantle their causes and to face them squarely. After all, these social problems in Korea aren’t something I can simply eschew, no matter in which country I choose to reside.
I may have turned a blind eye to the issues of my own country for a while. In my response to the stranger’s culturally ignorant and deeply racist question, I even denied my nationality. As much as I regret the times I spent neglecting my origin, it was never too late to bring myself back.