This essay was originally featured in The Daily Northwestern’s The Spectrum, a weekly forum in Northwestern University’s daily newspaper for marginalized voices to share their perspectives. Later it was picked up and republished by HuffPost.
Four years ago, I wrote about “identity” for my college applications. Naturally, I was advised against the overdone topic, but I thought I was onto something. My story was centered on a life-altering legal decision: to be among the first generation maintaining dual Korean and American citizenship through adulthood. At the time, the full implications of this were unclear, but I believed my choice spoke something important about who I am. I am not just Korean-American; I am Korean and American.
I was born in the United States but my Korean parents entitled me to a Korean citizenship. Many Korean-Americans are born this way with the understanding that someday they would renounce one of the two, as Korea did not accept dual-citizen adults at the time.
For most of my life the choice was obvious. My entire childhood I identified as Korean-American — Korea was my parent’s homeland, not mine. But after 7th grade, my parents moved us to a Seoul suburb and, despite the inevitable struggles, I adjusted fairly well. In a few years I could convincingly pass as a regular Korean kid. But it was just a guise. It was still clear to me and others that I was not from Korea. When high school came around, I was luckily surrounded by friends who spoke English, with whom I could make “Friends” references and share a love for classic rock. They were my gateway to Korean teenhood. I had a k-pop phase; I could eat increasingly spicier foods; and Korean variety shows became hilarious.
In 2011, the year I turned 18, it was time to decide, but it wasn’t so simple anymore. Amendments to citizenship law that year allowed certain exceptions for those who are born with multiple nationalities. However, it came with stipulations: One must sign a legal agreement not to exercise foreign citizenship on Korean soil. In addition to taxes and travel rules to abide by, the biggest consequence was that I would be conscripted.
I was shocked: The possibility that I could keep both had never occurred to me. Staying an American was no question, but did I feel compelled enough to stay Korean at the cost of military service? Korean men have gone to extraordinary lengths to dodge the draft. The notoriety of service is known to nearly anyone with a Korean father, and many would deeply envy my opportunity.
After months of deliberation, I decided to retain my citizenship. My family had settled in Korea, and I wanted to leave the option of living and working there open in the future. Most importantly, I now identified as Korean. It no longer felt right to relegate it behind a hyphen.
Nine months after the college application, I was finally at Northwestern, my first long-term return to the United States since moving away. I had imagined it would feel like coming back home. In Korea, I was the Korean from America, a “yang-kee.” But upon returning to the U.S., I was surprised to find how Korean I had actually become in those seven years. Sometimes, Korean felt more comforting; small talk in English was awkward. On occasion, other Korean Americans mistook me for an immigrant, “fresh off the boat,” a FOB. I had absorbed more from my time in Korea than I had realized. For nearly my entire secondary education, I worked hard so that I could come back to America because that’s where I believed I could feel at home again. Instead, I returned feeling different and distanced. Less than a year ago, I had been so sure when I wrote about my decision and then here I was, lost as ever.
Following freshman year, I enlisted in the Republic of Korea army, served the 21 months and was discharged from active duty in August 2016. Luckily, my service experience was far more rewarding and less back-breaking than most. Though I was naturally elated to finish, in the final weeks of my service I also felt somewhat worried. I had built a fantasy around the idea of finally finding release and freedom upon returning to NU, but as it neared there was a sobering truth to face. I had been warned that military service would be one of the most quintessentially Korean-izing experiences of my life. I was afraid I would return again to my first-year struggles, further entrenched in reinforced Koreanness.
People have asked me how it’s been being back. School has been a strange mix of familiarity and alienness. In some ways it’s like starting over, reintroducing myself to a new slug in a familiar shell. The question of “Where are you from?” continues to be a flustering challenge. I understand that this question isn’t meant to be complicated, but I don’t have a nice and simple answer like everyone else. I’ve moved several times across the U.S. and have little memory of Iowa, where I was born. Having lived and worked in the Seoul area for nearly 10 years now, I now identify with Seoul more than anywhere else. But people often make assumptions based on your “origin.” Especially for Asian Americans, the question has a looming load to it. Often, it is followed by, “But where are you really from?” Answering with “Seoul” naturally lends to the assumption that I’m Korean. And yes, I am Korean. I served for 21 months for the right to call myself that, but it kills me to reinforce the presumption that someone who looks like me must be foreign. I don’t want to have to overcomplicate a simple question with a life story. Sometimes I wish I could just reply with a place like West Chester or Cupertino.
Four years ago, I was so sure, and in a way, I still am. I am proud to be American and Korean. Today, with all the political turmoil and turbulence here and in Korea, the significance of the rights, liberties and responsibilities as a citizen have become more apparent to me than ever. And yet, I’m still a little lost. In all my confidence, I couldn’t tell you where I’m from.