“Hey Elliot, you’re Asian, right?” A coworker was asking the question. “Yeah,” I answered.
“Okay, so would you say this name is a Mr. or a Mrs.?” She handed me an email and pointed at the signature. I looked. “Hmmm, sorry, I have no idea,” I answered.
“Hmmmph, some Asian you are.” My coworker walked away before I could respond.
Identity is a funny thing. I’ve found that being adopted – especially from a foreign country by “white” parents – often leaves me feeling like I’m in a weird place: am I Asian? Korean? American? People I interact with — coworkers, strangers, friends — decide who I’m supposed to be based on my name or what I look like. Their perceptions, often false, leave me feeling there’s less room for me to be who I actually am.
“My identity is not defined by how others see me, nor is it defined by the place I was born, or the place I live now, or the places I have been in between.”
Almost a year ago last August, I was given the opportunity to visit my home country of South Korea for the first time. I had been awarded a travel grant through Passion Passport’s The Bucket List Initiative (TBLI), and it was my first time returning to the place of my birth since being adopted over twenty years prior.
It’s interesting reflecting back; while many memories have faded, certain moments still really stand out. One of those was my first time on the Seoul Metro (mentioned in my first TBLI Reflection, “Trains, Gas Masks, and Settling In”). I was sitting in an almost-empty car, minding my own business, when a senior citizen came aboard. He shot me a glaring look and hissed at me until I got up and offered him my seat.
At the time I was confused; weren’t there a ton of other empty seats for him? What I learned later, however, was that I unwittingly sat in a section of the train marked for commuters who were disabled, pregnant, or (you guessed it) senior citizens. Since then, I have been wondering if the man on the Metro would’ve been less hostile had I looked “foreign”, or more like a tourist. Any local would’ve known that section of the Metro was reserved and I looked “local”. The man had formed an impression of me based on my appearance and treated me accordingly.
It was, in fact, the exact opposite of most of my experiences in the US: rather than being local and assumed foreign, I was totally foreign but assumed local.
Eventually I learned to use this to my advantage.
While waiting at a train station with my friend Allison (she was a Chicagoan teaching English in Seoul and had reached out to me through Instagram upon hearing about my trip), I decided to buy a doughnut and did so unhindered.
Upon seeing my doughnut, Allison decided she wanted one too and proceeded toward the stand. While sitting back to eat my treat, I noticed that Allison kept getting cut in line. Locals would walk up to the vendor, step right in front of her, and order. I watched this once or twice, bemused. Once Allison began to look more flustered, however, I decided to walk over and help her out. I cut off a third person who was getting ready to budge in line and gave him a look of “She’s with me”. The man seemed to give a knowing nod, and then lined up behind us.
Once again, I was wrongly, though perhaps understandably, perceived to be local even though I was foreign. And, once again, I was treated and responded to in a certain way because of that perception.
I suppose that through experiences such as these, my trip to Korea helped me better understand who I am (although it took almost a year and a recent chat with a friend for me to really process all of my thoughts and feelings). At home, in the United States, I look distinctive because I’m Asian. In Korea I lost that distinction. And yet, I am the same person in both places.
My identity is not defined by how others see me, nor is it defined by the place I was born, or the place I live now, or the places I have been in between. Rather, my identity is defined by a beautiful, messy mix of all those things. And it’s still growing, developing as I’m informed by new experiences.
“[I’m] still growing, developing as I’m informed by new experiences.”
One recurring question I faced upon my return was: “So, did you find yourself in Korea?” Almost ONE year later, I think I have the response.
“No, I already had a pretty good idea of who I am before Korea. But I did find a lot of other great things,” I’d reply. Then I give them a knowing smile and walk away.