So apparently, now it could be a rude thing to ask an Asian person, “Where are you from?”. Given that that person could have been born in the country the questioner is from, trying to figure out where exactly the Asian person’s family originally came from could be seen as an act of ‘proving’ that he or she is ‘not of us’.
As a Korean, I have received this question countless times. I don’t know if it is because I wasn’t born in New Zealand, but I have never felt offended by the curious questions. Sure, I have received racist remarks and dealt with some inappropriate behaviours living as an immigrant, but the question itself never occurred to me as racist or rude.
It is obvious I look different with my Asian facial features, hair colour and skin tone. Sometimes I would be taken back by the “Oh my! But your English is so good!” remarks, sure. But most of the times, the question would lead up to nice conversations about Korea, North Korea (almost always! Haha), other Asian countries, travelling and… identity.
New identity in making
As stated before, racism was something I just had to deal with ever since I stepped into the new country. I like to think I was more of the lucky one, meeting the nice friends in school who understood my lack of knowledge in the language and culture.
Judgements made from stereotypes or ignorance, name-calling and silly faces made with fingers that raised their eyes up were only what some strangers did from time to time. I met wonderful people that gently held my hand and guided me around in my new life in New Zealand.
So, I quickly fit in. I didn’t even know the alphabets when I first came, but in less than a year, I understood everything the teachers said, went to birthday parties, received certificates and made friendship bracelets. I was eight and New Zealand felt more and more home.
The clash, conversations and confusion
All was well until I wasn’t eight anymore. I was 12, 16, 18 and 20. As each year went by, I was more and more confused. Even though I used Korean fluently, English was used a lot in my dreams, in my thoughts, diaries and conversations at home.
Going ‘back’ to Korea felt like I was travelling and I was always glad to leave, back to the country that I now called home. I was happy to answer questions that made me say “I’m from Korea” but found it difficult to talk about how much of the country I really knew. Talking about its politics and history was hard as I didn’t know much at all, let alone about its famous places or friends I had there. I knew and had none.
Every conversation such as these seemed to force me to think about my identity. I knew race and ethnicity differed, but I seemed to know nothing more than that. I began questioning about how I really felt towards my motherland and my new home.
Even though Kiwi culture was definitely more comfortable for me, sometimes this clashed with my Korean culture. I could never decide if English was more ‘mine’ or Korean. I felt like a foreigner whenever I popped back, but because of how I looked and with my fluent Korean, everyone treated and expected me to be absolutely Korean.
Although New Zealand was home, I couldn’t shake off the feeling I wasn’t ever going to be completely Kiwi – to others that perceived me or even to myself. I wanted to belong, but it felt like there was no category available for me. I was too Korean to be Kiwi and too Kiwi to be Korean.
Being a ‘Kowi’ and a ‘Kristian’
Later on, I realised a lot of people went through the stuff I did. I became honest about my shaken identity and my discomfort in its unstableness, and many of my friends shared their similar feelings. I was happy to realise I was in this category of being a ‘Kowi’ – a Korean Kiwi.
But one of the conversations that stands out to me the most and comforts me the best to this day is the one I had with an older, trusted friend at church.
She explained that she used to feel exactly the same, and she even went on a 6 months trip to Korea in order to learn more about her motherland. However, she now realised that finding out her ‘ultimate’ ethnicity isn’t as important for her, as God had reminded her that she belongs in His family, which is the ultimately-best category to be in.
As I flip through my diary today, I see the difficult times I had to deal with concerning this issue of identity. I felt broken, a little ‘off’, definitely not a ‘whole’. I couldn’t decide who I was ethnically, and it felt like I had to.
I realised this was because in every one of us, there resides a longing to belong – to belong in a stable category that will show them who they really are, to be able to stand firm in their identity they trust in. I am now joyful, knowing that I belong in the most trustworthy, stable family of all as God’s daughter…or as a ‘Kristian’ – a Kowi-Christian.
Sunny is a media student, a dreamer, a rider with a steady seatbelt in the roller coaster of her Christian life. You can easily find her lost in books, writing in her journal, crafting, sharing her awes in God and sneaking one too many chocolates in her mouth.