I’ve long identified myself as an adoptee from Korea, but only recently have I come to acknowledge my identity as an immigrant. ‘Only recently’ being about four months. I think from my education and exposure to current events growing up, I learned to associate immigrants within certain contexts that did not include me. In eighth grade, we took a trip to Ellis Island and had learned its history in class. As I grew older, I became more aware of immigrants in modern day. Even now, I notice my hometown area continue to diversify as more immigrant families move in. In spite of my growing awareness, however, I just never connected to the notion of being an immigrant myself. Even if I was born outside of the United States, I assimilated so much that some days I don’t even legitimately feel Korean. My nationality is American and it is all I’ve known. Immigrant? Me? Are you sure?
The turning point came one day during my diversity & oppression class. Somehow we landed on the topic of whether or not people should have to learn English if they are to live in the US. A heated discussion began. The girl that sparked it all identified herself as an immigrant and a refugee from West Africa. Her family came to the US when she was 11 to escape warfare. She expressed a deep frustration and sadness at being forced to assimilate into an entirely new culture. Her family had little choice: leave everything you know behind or stay and risk death. They picked life at the loss of their first, only and most loved culture. I listened to the story, completely transfixed by my classmate’s pain. She was more than sad; she was downright bitter. She resented America for imposing its new language and lifestyle on her in the wake of such a traumatic move. Many classmates had a hard time accepting her words and some felt clearly burned by them. I felt burned, too, but in a way I never expected. Emotions had been building up inside me the entire class and when we let out, my friend Liz sat beside me on a bench and let me cry.
It took me days after the fact to realize that I was grieving. I am not a refugee. I did not have 11 years of another culture to recall like my classmate did. Our lives have been drastically different, and yet her emotions felt familiar to me. The more I thought about it, the more I realized how much our lives were shaped by cultural displacement. My departure from Korea was not a direct result of warfare, but I also had no say in the matter. What say does a six-month old baby have in who will care for her or where she will live? We both lost our first homes, our first cultures. And although we were both young at the time, age does not invalidate the impact of the loss. Even as adults, it is a loss we continue to live with. Because no matter how much we are forced to or even choose to assimilate, there is no denying that we were once a part of another country, born into another life. It perhaps is not the most tangible of losses to bear, but it is so very real. It is a loss that should be talked about without shame and without being minimized in gravity. I think one of the greatest cruelties a person can do another is to belittle their pain.
After that unforgettable class, I sought out my classmate and thanked her for everything she was brave enough to say. We hadn’t really spoken much before that, but I just had to break the ice. A number of classmates had been upset with her. I wanted her to know that I wasn’t. And that she had another immigrant in the class who had her back.