A multi-cultural identity

Hetty Ye-Jae Lee, Hong-Kong (LPC 10-12)

Ask me anything about myself and I will try my best to give you a straightforward reply. I avoid circumlocution and being vague (unless I am trying to get out of something, in which case equivocation is an indispensible tool), because I know how frustrating it can be to have a teacher or a parent (or a boss, in my limited experience) tell you to “sort it out” without specifying what “it” really entails. However, I can never seem to fill in the little box on immigration slips that asks for my nationality without having to repress the unshakeable feeling I get each time I stand behind the yellow line, that maybe I was not specific enough in my answer.

I was born to fully Korean parents, but the little booklet that every properly registered human being possesses, which is navy blue in my case, tells me that I am legally a U.S. citizen. So what do I tell the immigration officer? I can hardly write “Not Applicable” or “Well, I was born in New York City but I’m actually South Korean” on my form, unless for some bizarre reason I want to get detained at the airport for a few hours, but if I refer to my passport for guidance it merely says: “Nationality/Nationalité/Nationalidad: United States of America.” I’ve tried to explain my dilemma to many an immigration officer, but most of the time they simply peer at me through their glass cubicles with unblinking scrutiny, stamp held above my immigration slip at the ready, until I renounce my Korean heritage. I have learned through this experience that it is wise to refrain from engaging in poly-syllabic conversation with an immigration officer.

My uncle tells me that there is scientifically no such thing as race. That, to me, is a beautiful way of looking at the world. Everyone is equal—my biology teacher says that we are all Homines sapientes, descendants of the ape; my physics teacher says that humans are 65% water, and my chemistry teacher says that if we added up all the chemicals in our bodies we would each cost HK$75. We were all born unique (yes, I know, please ignore the paradox), and this should be a cause for celebration. Besides the fact that if all humans were identical we would all have died in the swine flu pandemic, differences are good and make human interaction interesting. I am very impressed with the way Li Po Chun places emphasis on respecting various cultures and ideas, and it is refreshing to think that I will be part of the motley crew that is the UWC community this coming fall.

What do I tell someone if they ask me where I’m from? I’m one of those pity-incurring Koreans who have never lived in Korea, I was born in the United States (and spent a happy childhood there) and I currently reside in Hong Kong. Therefore I, to this day, cannot say one thing or another in reply to that question without the bitter taste of pure amiss lingering in my mouth. So my hope is that meeting different people from all over our blue globe, at least one of whom is bound to be in a similar situation, will help direct me towards an answer. In any case, I am relieved to have been endowed with the privilege of calling Li Po Chun UWC my home for the next two years.

-United World Colleges Student Magazine-


3 thoughts on “A multi-cultural identity

  1. “대한사람 대한으로~”

    I think I can relate to what you’re saying, but I’m not nearly as conflicted as you are about it. Having never been to Korea myself, but born and raised in a completely Korean family here in New Zealand, I have to admit that I’m more Korean than Kiwi. But there is no definitive boundary for what marks one nationality and culture from another, and so I can consider myself a Korean and a Kiwi, a Kowi so to speak, without too much thought.

    Nationality is only a legal requirement to indicate which country has the greatest amount of paperwork from you and in all honesty, it is just merely a label and nothing more. Plus, isn’t America a melting pot of people anyway? No one can really say that you have to renounce a heritage and adopt and American one, because you can’t define America into a neat, square package.

    In purely practical terms though, I prefer the forms which provide choices for both nationality and ethnicity. Nationality for nuture, ethinicity for culture.

  2. Oh no, I’m sorry if I came off as being too serious! The tone was meant to be more light-hearted (renouncing my Korean heritage), and it isn’t something that troubles me so greatly. It was just some food for thought. But yes, I agree with you–American society is very diverse, and the term “American” can be coupled with “Korean” quite openly. It will be even easier next January, with the introduction of dual-citizenships in Korea.
    “대한사람 대한으로” indeed.

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