My first time flying to a foreign land was when I was six months old … to the United States to meet my parents.

I was adopted from South Korea as an infant. When I arrived, my parents (father of Norwegian descent, mother of German) thought I was a girl because I had been dressed in pink … a mistake that set the tone for a lifetime of mistaken identity while traveling.

Thirteen years later, my first time traveling without parental supervision was to Cuernavaca, Mexico, for a month-long Spanish-immersion program with a large group of my high-school classmates. Add to the newfound independence from travel that didn’t include my parents the swag of someone who was no longer a freshman, I was untouchable.

“Jackie Chan! Michael Jordan!”

A crew of 10 to 15 local kids swarmed — while leaving a three-foot radius — my tall, African-American friend and me through the town square yelling, “Jackie Chan! Michael Jordan” with all the enthusiasm of paparazzi.

Between not knowing how to react to the stereotyping and enjoying the celebrity, we continued on our way home repeating, “Firma? Firma?” while signing motions and offering our autographs with uncertain smiles.

In a way, my experience in Mexico reminds me of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” It was a lesson in humility that many first-time travelers learn.

Travel, like any lens, is both self-reflective and two-way.

Both you and the locals are actors — while you’re observing their actions and forming opinions, they’re doing the same of you. Travel is not a spectator sport. Travel pushes you into an arena of strange situations and unfamiliarity where you don’t have the home-court advantage.

My third case of mistaken identity was returning to the U.S. after a family road trip to Canada. I must’ve been 12 or 13 because it was post-9/11, but before everyone knew to carry their passports.

And we didn’t have our passports. My parents were arguing with the U.S. Customs agents: “We have our driver’s licenses. We had no trouble exiting the U.S. or getting across the border without our passports. This is ridiculous. Why would you let us out of the country if our licenses aren’t enough to get back in? We assure you we’re American.”

“Well, how do I know what an American looks like?”

Her official government gaze turned to me. It was in that moment that I had a realization — the problem, “the other,” was not my parents. It was not my white brother. It was me.

“He could be anyone. How do I know what an American looks like?”

They only questioned me. I thought, “Well this is dumb. Shouldn’t we all be questioned in this scenario? If I’m the odd one out, wouldn’t the more likely situation be they’re kidnapping me?”

I don’t remember much of our visit to Niagara Falls. I don’t even remember realizing I was upset until we were through customs and the tears were falling.

“What does an American look like?”

I remember her question. She had asked it over and over and over.

“What does an American look like?”

I remember my tears only slowing when I realized my mom was teary, too. My dad was louder and more furious than I had ever seen him. And my younger, white, adoptive brother was crying even harder than I was. We were in this together.

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“What does an American look like?”

It’s odd because, despite this encounter, I never thought of myself as an immigrant until the 2016 presidential election. In my mind, Donald Trump is the Emperor from “The Emperor’s New Clothes” if no one had ever called that emperor out.

It takes feeling uncomfortable and being the “other” to learn empathy and self-awareness. Being the “other” is a traveler’s rite of passage, and those who don’t experience it are doomed to remain imprisoned by the walls (or fences) they themselves have built.

Travel has particular way of challenging an open mind.

Sometimes these challenges are met with curiosity and (misplaced) excitement, and other times they are met with mistrust. And, on other very rare occasions, these challenges are met with unconditional love from parents who don’t yet know a thing about you.

My takeaway is this: there are a million ways to tackle a new situation, and there are a million ways to react. In these moments, there is always plenty of room for misunderstanding, but there’s also plenty of room to learn. You just have to be willing.

5 COMMENTS

  1. You didn’t mention the red nail polish on you baby finger ( I think )
    It was so sweet

    Elliot this is a really great story and you should submit to NYT

    Happy to know you!
    Love.,

    Ginny

  2. What a powerful story, Elliot. Thank you for sharing it with us. And major bonus is the gorgeous images throughout!! ❤️

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