Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Question: "So where are you from?"

It was early spring of 2011, and I had just started a semester at the Yonsei Foreign Language School in Seoul. Yonsei is located in the northwest quadrant of the city, situated near other major universities like Ewha, Sogang, and Hongik. Founded by Christian missionaries, Yonsei's American lineage is apparent in the various ivy-clad buildings and hedgerow gardens that are diced by narrow pathways. Later in the spring, its hills would be coloured by blooming cherry blossoms.

I was in my second week of school and just happy to have a chance to hang out with people my own age. I couldn't wait to experience the nightlife in the surrounding student hub areas of Sinchon and Hongdae with their proliferation of affordable bars and karaoke rooms. Before, "going out" meant going to see grandma. As much as I love her, it's not quite the same. Anyway, on that day, I was to have lunch with a classmate, a Japanese exchange student named Harumi (not her real name). I hadn't noticed her the first day of class, but it was either on the second or third day that she came in wearing a jumper dress and that was it for me.

As I waited for her in the lobby of her dorm, a stranger approached me. Maybe she was Thai or Filipina. Wherever she was from, she wasn't from around here and she asked me for directions to somewhere. Obviously, I didn't know the answer as I was only barely acquainted with this easternmost side of the university. She apologized and said she assumed that I knew because I seemed "so Korean."

I was then no longer fretting over whether Harumi would interpret our lunch as a date or not, and whether I wanted that or not. Instead, I wondered what made that girl think that I—a guy who had spent 98% of his life overseas—was "so Korean." And not just "Korean;" "SO Korean."


"Where are you from?"

That's the question that plagues or haunts many Asian Americans.

Even those who've never been asked it in that way (i.e. in a "You couldn't possibly be from this country!" way) are always anticipating the moment that it will come. Some may even have spent hours concocting the perfect comeback to put the imagined Smug Yankee in his or her place.

This conundrum is not unique to Asian Americans. For example, in Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise, the protagonist Willie becomes annoyed, even angry, when his grandmother talks to him in Hungarian instead of English. He's initially disdainful of his "FOB" cousin Eva who has come straight outta Budapest. And to him, paprika is the kimchi or Chinese herbal medicine that Asian American kids feel apologetic about when they have friends come over.

But of course, this isn't exactly the same because Asians cannot pass for anything other than Asian, no matter what we wear or how we change our speech and names.

This past weekend, I was having dinner and drinks with some friends of mine (if you guys are reading this: my WONDERFUL and BEAUTIFUL friends!) when we asked ourselves this question. All of us were Korean and American/Canadian to some extent, and our varied answers all reflected those nuances.

There are those who would rather simplify their answers. There are many Asian Americans who adamantly state that they are simply "American" (or "Canadian") and become offended at any perceived association with their ancestral home country. This shouldn't be, though I will admit that there was a time when I'd be satisfied if someone described me as simply "Canadian."

Let's imagine someone with extensive ties to Great Britain. Let's call this imaginary person "Ben." Do you think Ben would insist upon severing any links to his homeland? Naw. Chances are he'd work the British angle every chance he'd get:

Cute Girl: "Nice to meet you, Ben! Where are you from?"

Ben: "Well, I grew up in Boston, but I was born in England. ENG-land. In LON-don."

Cute Girl: "Oh wow! That's so cool!"

Ben: "Oh is it? Let me then regale you with my extensive knowledge of British culture. For example, did you know that we call fries 'chips' there?"

Cute Girl: "So fascinating!"

Ben is a very regal character

Anyway, you get the point. The truth is that not all nationalities are perceived as equal in our society. When people say that they just LOVE accents, what they really mean is that they like a very selective few accents from a very selective few countries in the world. Hint: They're all in Western Europe or its former colonies. 

By attempting to distance yourself from your own heritage—one that you're still closely tied to because chances are that your parents or grandparents are immigrants and you have a lot of family living back in the "motherland"—you're just readily admitting that you belong to a socially undesirable nationality. Look, society already does enough to devalue you. You yourself don't need to join in on hobbling your own knees.

As hard as you may try, you'll probably always get quizzical looks when you answer a call that asked for "all-American." Or maybe you will be the rare one to overcome that initial barrier because there's always room for The Exception. And those in charge will pay what they think is a compliment to you when they say you're so not like the others from your group. Congrats, you've levelled up! Add +2 to social status.


So we won't be "all-American." That can be a good thing. Take advantage of having multiple heritages to draw your identity from! Some people are so lacking in that regard that they're willing to pay lots of dumb money to go on expensive trips to India or Africa to imbue themselves with something other than plain old "American."


As for myself, I never answer this question glibly. I've spent most of my life in Canada, but almost nobody I know lives in the city I was born and raised in anymore (including my family), and I probably won't go back there except as a tourist. I've spent many of my most formative years in the U.S. as a student, but I'm not an American citizen or even a permanent resident. And I strongly identify as Korean because that's where my parents are from, but I've only lived in that country for a total of maybe only 3 years of my life.

Make of that as you will.


I spent nearly 2 years in Korea and I have lots of memories. Yet still not lost in that clutter is that little moment in the dorm lobby with that foreigner girl who thought I was "so Korean." It still sticks with me vividly. I think it's because for some reason, I was elated over what she had said. There was once a time in my life when I would've been irritated if someone said something like that because I was "from Canada," and any recognition of my Koreanness was a threat to that. But not anymore. Something changed and I wanted to fit more into Korean society. And it was apparently working! Moreover, it wasn't just because I was in Seoul. Even back in America, I find myself ignoring Avicii and True Detective because I'm too busy listening to Korean music and watching K-dramas.

And when Harumi came back down, I had to smile at the thought that I might be the "expert" who'd have to show her around the city.


  1. Labels are tricky; identity is always changing. I found a new one to use, but I use it somewhat hesitantly: Third Culture Kid. At least it allows me to include everything I think/feel I am. Still requires me to do a bit of explaining. Oh well! I enjoyed reading this blog entry!

    1. Thanks for the comment!

      Yes, I am familiar with "Third Culture Kid" as well, and I think it is a very apt description for people like us.

      The main point of my post, however, was about Asian kids raised in the U.S./Canada (and other Western countries) overcoming their hesitancy to take full ownership of their parents' culture. So that's why I avoided using the term "Third Culture Kid" because I think that's the NEXT step after that reclamation takes place.

      What is your personal background? I'd be interested to know!