When I hear the word “home,” my mind conjures up the following memories: buying an illicit bowl of Shin Ramyun full of MSG from a snack cart on a busy street in Seoul, riding my bike down a hill overlooking half-finished condos in a developing suburb of Ilsan, getting Slurpees and going to my first “job” at the community library in a sleepy suburb of North Vancouver. A recent addition to my memory of home includes eating a hot dog toaste on St. Laurent Street on my way home from a night out.
As you can see, this picture is neither coherent nor unified. As a result, my answer to the deceptively simple-sounding question, So where are you really from? is as equally disorganized. I was born in Seoul, Korea. My family moved to Ilsan, Gyeonggi-Do when I was nine but moved back to Seoul after two years. I immigrated to Vancouver with my family when I was 12. Then I went to a university in Kingston, Ontario, but I’ve been living in Montreal for over two years now. It’s quite a mouthful to say, especially if you’re in a loud room full of people meeting each other for the first time. It is, however, a good gauge to see if someone can actually grasp and accept your hyphenated existence; if they stick around until the end of the answer, and resist asking questions like, “How do you say [something often mundane] in Korean?” Then, we have a very good chance of getting to know each other.
In Paris, two men decided I did not deserve to sit peacefully and enjoy my ride.
I’ve also realized that sometimes it doesn’t matter where I’m from at all, because people will ascribe me a home that has nothing to do with my life. When I was buying coffee at a neighborhood cafe earlier this week, the barista asked why a Chinese person like me could speak French so well. Two years ago, in a Paris metro, two men decided that I did not deserve to sit peacefully and enjoy the ride because they figured I was a fille chinoise without asking me to verify their assumptions. My sweet Parisian host mother would always tell me that the Korean team was doing so well in the Summer Olympics, although I explained to her many times that I was interested in knowing how Canada was doing as well as Korea.
Then of course, there was the time when I visited Seoul last year, when nobody believed that I was Korean. “Are you from China?” The man at the grocery store asked, pointing out my dark skin. “She must have been born in America. Look at how big her thighs are,” whispered two girls on the subway, oblivious that I could understand Korean. I wanted to let them know that I understood every single word that they had said, but I couldn’t look them in the eye because I somehow felt ashamed. How is it possible to have one’s body image shift so much? In France, I felt too small to defend myself, while in Korea, I was the (literal) elephant in the room that people couldn’t ignore. However, the real issue at hand was that my body was never just the right size for me to be comfortable in.
Nobody believed that I was Korean.
We live in a time where frequent migration is possible, and I am fortunate and privileged enough to have encountered many cultures and to have built such a diverse image of home. But such hyphenated existence also comes with discomfort and pain, where people do not believe that you have local knowledge because of the clothes you wear, your mannerisms, and the colour of your skin.
You ask me where I’m from, hoping for a one-word answer or a concrete place. I am from everywhere and nowhere at the same time, and home remains a constructed place where I mentally banish the suspicions of being a foreigner in every home that I’ve been in. This is real life, where nothing has a clear-cut answer.
I am from everywhere and nowhere at the same time.