Nanaimo, Canada has its flaws. The transit system, for instance, and its few odd passengers; these people tend to get too carried away with their curiosity.
After a long day of classes, I want nothing more than to get home as soon as possible but the bus ride takes twice as long as a car would, which can get old pretty quickly. When I bump into my friend, Nadya, at the bus stop, on my way home, it usually takes away the agony of the long bus ride ahead. We would get a chance to catch up and laugh about the weekend, not paying any attention to the stares of random people. That is, until one of them finally works up the courage to interrupt us and ask,
I used to get impatient with the nosy questions.
“Excuse me, what language are you speaking?” He would look at my (white) Russian friend.
“Russian” Nadya would reply.
“Russian,” he’d repeat as if clarifying it for his own sake, “So … You speak Russian too?” he’d nod in my direction.
“I presume I do.”
“Wow, so where are you from?” he’d linger
“No, no, but where are you really from?”
“… Russia” my tone never changing…
“But … You’re Asian.”
“She’s Korean-Russian” Nadya would say, her patience dissolving quickly.
“And you speak English so fluently,” he’d gesture towards me again.
“… I grew up in the U.S.” I hesitate wondering whether that’s too much information to be giving away to a stranger.
This could go on for 20 minutes or so.
At the beginning, I used to get impatient with the nosy questions, but now, I like to have fun with it and make them guess my ethnicity. Obviously, no one guesses that I’m from Russia. Only a few guess that I’m of Korean ancestry, but “Russian” never makes it to the top 10 guesses. Instead, I’ve heard people guess that I’m Hawaiian, Cambodian, Filipino, Japanese, Greek, or even South American. Those were the answers from people who actually put an effort into guessing what my ethnicity, whereas those that were just too lazy to think, automatically categorized me as Chinese.
I am of Korean ethnicity, third-generation “born in Russia” (that’s fourth-generation Russian). When the southern part of Sakhalin Island was under Japanese control, Korean laborers were recruited to fill shortages by the Japanese government during World War II. When they were given the right to leave, only 1,500 of them returned to South Korea. When I was six years old, my parents relocated our family to Portland, Oregon because of my dad’s job, where we lived for eight years. In those eight years, we moved every two years because of the public school district boundaries; whether it was two hours or two blocks away, my parents never hesitated to pack up everything and move. Then at 14, they decided to move back to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, Russia, closer to family and where my brother and I gained the chance to recall our once well-known language and culture.
How do you condense that mouthful into a short phrase without confusing people? Oh, and at 17, I ventured to Canada on my own to go to school. At one point, even I didn’t know what I considered myself.
I’m proud to be Korean, but to be honest—I only know a quarter of what I should about the culture, and I don’t speak the language. I have been more exposed to the Russian (European) and Western cultures, hence those are the only two languages I speak. Still I consider my Korean heritage a part of me, no matter how small it seems—my grandparents and family are a big influence in my life, and they try to instill the few, yet significant, traditions that have been passed down by their parents.
I didn’t know what I considered myself.
I’ve always been taught that elders are to be treated with respect. My parents made sure that this was engraved in me. It didn’t matter if I disagreed with what an elder said to me, I would have to keep silence either way; talking back or considering myself an equal to an elder is considered to be very disrespectful. Also, as the oldest child in my family and a female, I hold the most responsibility and expectations. Now I understand why my dad expected so much more of me than my brother, who is only one year and four months younger than me.
I was never allowed to bring home anything less than A’s.
My grandma is the second oldest of six children, and because her older brother passed away, she cares for her siblings like a mother. All the big family get-togethers are always at her house, and since she’s the next best cook right after my great-grandmother, she has to make enough food to feed up to 50 people at a time. The rest of the women, including myself, set the table and serve the men and the children first, which is why often enough we are the last to sit down to eat. Korean parents are also hard to impress, or maybe that’s just my parents, but either way it takes a lot to make them proud because of their strong beliefs and strictness. In school, I was never allowed to bring home anything less than A’s.
This is another temporary home.
August 15th is considered parents’ day in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk for those of Korean ancestry. I’m not too sure whether that’s a Korean-Russian tradition, or if it’s fully Korean, but the purpose of this day is mainly Korean—to mourn family members that have passed on. We visit their graves, and show our respect for them by bringing snacks and drinks.
When we arrive at the grave, two people at a time kneel down by the tombstone. One holds a shot glass, and the other pours vodka (pure alcohol) in to the glass in three small doses. The one holding the shot glass then pours it out onto the grave in. The two then switch roles, and once they’ve both done it—they bow three times, or as I’ve known it to be called—do “jhol” to the owner of the grave. It’s all the matter of honoring the loved ones that have left us.
I only know a quarter of what I should about the culture.
So the one question that still gets to me is, “where is home?”
Well, let me see. Up until I turned six, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, Russia was my home. Then for eight or so years I considered Oregon to be my home, only then to realize that maybe it was only the home to my childhood.
Now having lived in Nanaimo, Canada for almost four years—I know that this is another temporary home—I don’t yet consider it home maybe because my family isn’t here, and other than school I don’t have any ties here, though it’s the longest I’ve lived in a city.
All this to say, my family is my world, and I’ve come to the conclusion that home is where my family resides. So, at the moment, home remains Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, Russia … I guess.