January 23, 2006
kim, 'o6c, is a journalism/english major and former intern for emory
Last semester, one of my assigned readings for a history class was Eric Liu’s The Accidental Asian: Confessions of a Native Speaker. My initial response was to ignore the book. The last thing I needed was to read about yet another minority person’s identity issues. Finals were approaching and, frankly, I didn’t have the time, energy or desire to listen to someone whine about not knowing what their culture is.
Or maybe I just didn’t want to read another story of my life.
A few months before I turned 7, my family moved from Singapore to Nairobi, Kenya (we had lived three years in Singapore after moving from my birthplace, Seoul, South Korea). The move to Africa was life changing, to say the least. My childhood consisted not of visits to the zoo, but of safaris across the African savannah. I couldn’t watch Cartoon Network but instead grew up on fresh air, red dirt and jacaranda flowers. I didn’t ever have to worry about not having a prom date (our school had “banquets” instead), but I did run the gauntlet of malaria and other tropical diseases.
Coming to Atlanta for college made me realize that growing up in Africa shaped not only my childhood but also my experiences as an “international student” in America. It was more than just getting a visa; I had to attend international student orientation (where we were given tips on “how to adjust to life in America”), try grits (which I liked to describe as a black hole that swallowed whatever I threw in it to produce the same taste every time: nothing), and discover that I had nothing to contribute to peer discussions on football, favorite childhood cartoons, cereal—you name it.
It also meant having to explain myself and my unusual circumstances for being in this country—in fact, it felt like I had to justify my existence to nearly everyone I met. I grew to dread the inevitable small talk upon meeting new people, because my response to a mundane question like, “Where are you from?” would inevitably be followed by: “You’re from Kenya? You mean, like . . . Africa?”
A few acquaintances insisted I was from South Africa (?), no matter how many times I tried to convince them, no, I’m actually from the East African country of Kenya. Others told me, many months after we met, that all the while they’d thought I was kidding about the Africa part.
Whenever a friend introduced me to someone, my name was grafted to the appendage: She’sfromAfrica. If someone didn’t recall meeting me, I had only to refresh his or her memory: “Ohhh yeah, the girl from Africa!” I started to wonder if I was simply not worthy of acquaintance, if my only redeeming factor was that I was from somewhere “exotic.”
People reacted this way, I think, because they didn’t know what do with me. They weren’t sure where to place me. They reached into their bags of Asian stereotypes and could not find one to fit me. Whatever anomalies they saw in my so-called “Asianness” were attributed back to my country of residence. And who could blame them?
But this always put me in an awkward position, no matter where I went or who I was with. In Korea, I was known as having “drank some foreign water,” as they say about Korean-Americans or any Korean who has spent some time overseas and shows it.
Asian Americans labeled me “fobby” (a variant of the term F.O.B., which means “fresh off the boat”) for not knowing certain slang words. Korean students thought I was too Americanized because I preferred to speak English over Korean. Everyone else just thought I was weird or special (or the ever-so-versatile word “cool”).
Home to me, then, is not my birthplace or the country printed on the cover of my passport (Republic of Korea, by the way). I haven’t spent more than three months at a time there since I could barely walk. I found it very difficult, if not impossible, to plug myself into its culture. Then, as much as I want Kenya—where I’ve spent most of my life—to be home for me, it’s hard to call it so because there too I’m labeled a mzungu, or foreigner. The literal English translation for this Swahili word is “European” (the ironies just keep coming).
Alas, I don’t think I’ve made a home for myself in Atlanta, either. Getting 16 years of an American education and growing up with mostly American friends instilled no especial desire to claim this country as mine. It’s not just about where my citizenship lies; it’s not uncommon for me to sit through an entire conversation without contributing to it, because I have no idea what they are talking about and want to save myself the wide-eyed gawks I’d receive if I asked for an explanation. I realize these places are not “next door” for my peers like they are for me, but I couldn’t believe many of them didn’t know “what” Darfur or Mugabe was (the first one’s a where, the second a who) when all of the world these days is literally a click away.
What was not a click away, unfortunately, was home. I spent Thanksgivings with loving roommates and their families. When other students stuffed their belongings into car trunks and backseats to drive home for the summer, I packed mine into huge boxes and hitched a ride to Public Storage. The concept of going home for the weekend was so foreign to me; if I tried that, it would be time for me to leave as soon as I got there. (I had nightmares about standing in immigration at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport and being denied entry into the country because I’d left the necessary documents stacked neatly on my desk at home.) On paper, I was actually a “nonresident alien”; there could not be a more appropriate way to describe me.
But alien is not what I wanted to be. In his book, Liu confesses, “As a Chinese boy in an American world, I wanted generally to project a normal image, to cloak my handicap, real or imagined.” My handicap, as I perceived it, was my awkward background, and I did what I could to fight it.
Like Liu, I just wanted to be normal. I thought you were either a member of a particular race or not, your home was either here or there, or you were either part of a culture or outside of it. For many years, I was very troubled by the fact that I could only identify with certain aspects of a variety of cultures—never fully with one. I longed for a culture of my own, for a home that would not estrange me as a foreigner.
But in my search to find where home was and what my “culture” was, I learned the only way I could identify myself was through combining different elements from just about everywhere. After all, is there a rule that one must identify with only one culture—that one must have only one home?
In his struggle to find identity, Liu finally recognizes that his parents “did pass down ... the sense that their children were entitled to mix and match, as they saw fit, whatever aspects of whatever cultures they encountered.” Likewise, I have learned to steal bits and pieces from all over the place to identify who I am and where I belong.
I like the fact that I can dream and think in English even though it’s not my first language, crack jokes about Korean dramas, and have the “Hakuna Matata” (no worries or troubles, for those of you who haven’t seen The Lion King) attitude I picked up during my 13 years in Africa.
And in a world of globalization and melting-pot-vs-salad-bowl debates, people like me are becoming less uncommon. I still struggle with some things, but I’m growing to like grits, and the friend who first introduced me to them has grown to tolerate kimchee cheegae (Korean cabbage stew). For the record, my favorite cereal is the recently discovered Honey Bunches of Oats (with almonds, of course).
Still, when people ask what was my favorite childhood cartoon, I can’t help saying that I prefer real animals, not the comics.