The real answer to: Where are you from?

Yesterday, I had the privilege of meeting a fellow traveler who I could have a real conversation with. It’s always awesome meeting other long-term travelers because we never run out of things to talk about. However, there’s one topic that I don’t like to bring up too often – the talk about my identity, nationality and home. It’s not because I hate talking about it – it’s because I don’t have a clear answer to those questions.

Many of you know the brief background. I am Korean (and yes, by law as well. I have a Korean passport). I moved to Cambodia at a young age and after graduating from high school, came to the U.S. by myself for school and have spent a year working in the American corporate world.

Am I Korean?

Growing up in Korea, which I have no memory of - just photos.

Growing up in Korea, which I have no memory of – just photos.

I am; at least by law. I’m not going to deny that I am (I used to when I was younger). I’ve grown to accept the fact that this culture that I don’t fit in is my home culture. However, it definitely does not define me (and I know I am stereotyping but I believe that stereotypes exist for a reason). I’m not going to say that I feel completely disconnected. I will cheer for Korea during the World Cup and I will always crave a nice Korean meal. I will defend Korea if you misrepresent it and I will take pride in how much Korea has grown over the last 50, 60 years. However, these are connections I have from memories and from what my parents have taught me. I don’t have a lot of the ‘normal’ childhood memories, I don’t have friends from my ‘hometown’ in Korea, I don’t even remember my school. I have a hard time fitting into the ‘norms’ and more often than not, I see Koreans as a ‘them’ and not an ‘us’ unless I can make the direct connection. Do I love Korea? Yea, I do. But I will also call out issues and look at things from an objective point of view. I have a hard time engaging in a conversation with many Koreans and even though I try really hard, some pop culture things will annoy me, embarrass me or just simply not interest me.

Am I Cambodian (Khmer)?

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Growing up in Cambodia – 5th grade Barge Trip in Thailand. Those of you that are in this picture, I apologize a thousand times but it’s cute – we were little so don’t worry – haha.

No. As much as Cambodia is the closest country to my heart and I feel all sorts of love for anything Cambodia around me, I cannot say that I am Cambodian without feeling any shame. Yes, I grew up in Cambodia for over 12 years. My parents are still there and that’s where I refer to as ‘home’ when I say ‘I’m going home for the break.’ It’s also the place that has had the biggest impact on me. My life in Cambodia is what has shaped me into who I am today. Seeing things anything Cambodia will make me nostalgic and think of my childhood. However, I went to an international school and I was very much in the international, expat community. I did not have enough connection with the local community to make me feel like I was part of them. I was and will always be an outsider to the Cambodians. It’s not a bad thing. I love the fact that I was brought up in an environment where everyone understood me. I had friends from all over the world that had more identity issues than I did. My best friends were German, Australian, American, Cambodian, Korean, you name it. But they were also not the traditional Germans, Australians, Americans, you get the idea. I will feel guilty if I told people that I was Cambodian and that I represent the Cambodian community because in 100% truth, I don’t. I represent the group of international students that lived in Cambodia. Going back to Cambodia doesn’t feel the same way as I began to realize that my definition of ‘going home’ meant going to the familiar settings back in Cambodia. However, with all of my friends graduating, leaving and moving on, Cambodia is not the same place I left and will never be. And I’ve learned to be ok with that.

Am I American?

Adjusting to the American culture, which I have learned to greatly appreciate

Adjusting to the American culture, which I have learned to greatly appreciate

Not at all. Just because I have an American accent and am more ‘liberal’ and have a somewhat different lifestyle than many Koreans, I am usually mistaken for an Asian American. The thing is, I have nothing in common with Asian Americans apart from the fact that we’ve had to adapt to the traditional Korean culture through our parents and the more liberal western cultures from others (which in my case is from the international community). However, the only connection I have to the American culture is the American college life I had (which was also not too traditional since I was barely at school, busy interning). I also am a lot more comfortable speaking to an American than a Korean and feel that I can relate more. I can also work and navigate through the American working culture far better than I could ever in Korea or any other country. I had to relearn everything and after 4.5 years here, I do feel that I have SOME type of connection with Boston and the U.S. but, it will never be strong enough for me to say ‘this is my home.’

So, what are you?PeopleConfused

In all honesty? I have no idea. I do have an idea… I’m not one or the other but all of the above. All of these cultures have had a big impact on me and in my near future, more places will have an impact on me – and I am going to be more confused than ever. Will I ever find the answer? I don’t think so. I don’t think I’ll ever have one short answer to the questions ‘where are you from?’ But what I’ve learned through the process and as time goes by is that, I don’t need an answer to that question and that I’m actually ok with not having an answer because instead, I have a story to the question.

Am I on my way to look for a place to call home?where is home

Maybe I am. I might be looking for that ‘perfect’ place I can settle down and call home. But, a part of me thinks that it’s impossible. I will always feel ‘partial connections’ to places but will never be able to give my heart to a place entirely. Or maybe I will… who knows. We’ll find out.

For now, I think I’ll stick to being the Korean who grew up in Cambodia, living in Boston.

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15 thoughts on “The real answer to: Where are you from?

  1. What a beautifully honest post! I think this is probably a terribly difficult question to answer for a lot of people. Where we come from sometimes transcends not just arbitrary borders but places in our minds and our emotions. Never an easy question.

    Also, I love that you’ve got a PBR in your American photo ;)

    • :) Thanks, Adam. And thanks for sharing. I agree with you that especially today, the definition home goes beyond the physical location you have been placed in and that it’s very much about emotional connection. I also think that you can have more than one ‘home’ or even don’t have one.
      I’ll always have a PBR near me as long as supplies last. :P

  2. I think this is my favorite article you have written. Anyone who has grown up in the same environment and circumstances knows exactly how you feel. You present the issue extremely well, outling all three identities clearly. It is awesome to read your thoughts when I can’t clearly draw out and articulate them myself. Your blogs help me figure myself out :P
    Everyone is small in that photo except Jon Masters, he’ll always be a foot above everyone else.

    • Thanks :) Always nice to know that I will have a group of people who I can relate to and share stories with. Definitely miss the old Cambodian crew. It’s late but congrats on your new chapter in life! :) So exciting!

      And yes, Jon Masters will always be the tall white guy. I miss that kid!

  3. Hi there. I also grew up with a mixed back ground, which troubled me a lot when the family moved the year I turned 15. Everywhere I went, I would always be an outsider. But I have since learned to be comfortable with that. My experiences so far include Hong Kong, Mainland China, and America. I proudly claim all three as my home. I staunchly claim all three as my home. It does not matter if I have spent hardly more than two years in one place while I lived for 10 years in another. Each of them has shaped me in profound ways, and I have left a little piece of my heart in each place. I think I define home as a place I can be homesick for, a place I achingly long for, even if the community there might view me as an outsider. It doesn’t matter if I don’t like the same pop songs, or if I disagree with the politics. It’s a land that I love, whether or not it loves me. And thus, I call it my home.
    I apologize if my rant didn’t make much sense. I blame it on jetlag…

    • you are right! doesn’t matter how long you are at a place – everywhere shapes you into who you are today. I believe that I won’t be the person I am today with any of those cultures taken away from the picture! I am constantly homesick – not for a place but for the beautiful experiences I’ve had in each of the place.

      nice to see that you view the definition of ‘home’ as a place where YOU feel like you belong whether they accept you or not – that’s a great way of defining it :)

    • Thanks! When I was younger, I wished that I could define one culture I can be a part of but now, I truly appreciate the fact that I can embrace all the different cultures that have influenced who I am today. It’s a real privilege and I wouldn’t change my childhood and experiences for anything. :)

  4. I’m sure a lot of people can relate to this but you have put them beautifully into words. This globalization has not only “globalized” products, culture, etc. but, more importantly, identity as well. Because society tries to put convenient labels on everything, sometimes easy questions like “Where are you from?” becomes more complicated in this time. But as long as your are comfortable with yourself, all these labels become secondary to what you feel inside. Thanks for sharing this wonderful post. I’m sure it will inspire everyone to embrace their own (multicultural) identity.

    • Thank you so much for the comment :) I thought about globalization when I was writing this post and how I’m sure there are A LOT of people out there with similar dilemmas – definitely a lot more than even a decade ago. And yes, society does love to label and categorize – and we love to be a part of those groups and ‘fit in.’ When I was in younger, it was especially true – I wanted to belong somewhere but now, I embrace it and love the fact that I don’t. It always makes for an awesome conversation if not anything else. :)

  5. It’s interesting to me that I have a disproportionate amount of friends like you.
    I’ve always felt its kind of boring that I live in the same state I grew up in and so I’ve been surrounding myself with people like you.
    Best wishes on creating your new piece of home!

    • You still have time to try different things if you are willing to sacrifice a little bit of comfort ;) You never know what opportunities will come up down the road :) Plus, you can just come visit me where ever I am! haha

  6. I can totally relate, not on a nationality scale, but on a “hometown” scale. I have moved around since age 6 living in different places in the U.S. Some look at me curiously when they ask where I am “from”, so I took the longest place I lived and call that my “hometown”.

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