The danger of believing you belong anywhere but here

Patricia Park writes: As a non-white American, I’m often asked where I’m from and whether I’ve been “back home”. And people don’t mean New York City, where I was born and raised. They look at me, and my ethnic face, and they mean South Korea.

That was how I used to answer, too. Even though I had never lived in South Korea until I was almost 30. Even though my parents were born in what is now North Korea, fled to the South as wartime refugees, then took the slow boat to Argentina, before becoming naturalized Americans. Despite the fact that I recited the pledge of allegiance at school each morning, despite my blue US passport, I never self-identified as American while growing up; it had never occurred to me that I was.

What I describe is hardly a new phenomenon: scores of fellow ethnic “others” have long felt similarly un-American growing up in the US, facing subtle rhetorical reminders of our out-group status. It’s well-trodden territory, treated in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, The Joy Luck Club, and the works of Chang-Rae Lee. As “hyphenated Americans,” our identities are qualified – our Americanness is made subordinate, and secondary, to all the ethnic matter that precedes it. We are constantly told to look to that other home, our “real” home, as the place where we truly belong.

But what we have failed to address is the reverse phenomenon: what exactly awaits us when we “return” to the quote-unquote motherland. As a society we carry romantic notions of stepping off the plane – or boat – and being met with open arms, perpetuated by the likes of Olive Garden commercials (“When you’re here, you’re family!”) and even Jersey Shore, where Snooki et al set off for Italy to search for their roots under every pizza box and carafe of Chianti. Conan O’Brien famously parodied this romanticized attachment to the “old country” when he traveled to Ireland and pressed his giant orange head into the bosom of each and every startled passerby, claiming kinship. [Continue reading…]

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