I Can Relate to America's Identity Crisis
When I was growing up in Korea, being told that you were going to America was like being told that you were going to heaven. In 1978, my family applied to immigrate to the United States from South Korea. After only a six-month wait, the application was approved, and as if by magic, the five of us were transported to Houston to live with my aunt's family. I was 9 years old.
My parents were not skilled. But within a matter of weeks, they were selling tacos and burgers to mostly Mexican workers living and working in downtown Houston.
Neither my parents nor their customers could speak English. Somehow they found a way of communicating their basic needs: exchanging money, feeding and being fed. The Mexicans loved our tacos, and my parents succeeded in their first U.S. business venture.
I was in awe of America and wanted desperately to fit in, but I was constantly reminded that I was a foreigner, told to go home, ordered to learn English and called racial slurs. I didn't understand the significance at the time, but I remember large billboards along the highways that seemed to read, "You're in KKK Land." When you got closer, you could see a little "i" that looked like a cowboy boot between the first and second K's; the billboard was actually advertising a country-music radio station, KIKK.
My insecurity about being foreign, not fitting in, not really being perceived as American, has been a constant in my search for my identity. But alongside these insecurities sits my childhood romance with America, which my friends who had the privilege of being born here don't quite understand.
Since Eric and I began documenting the fight over immigration in Prince William County, I've been forced to reflect on my own immigration experience and about what America is.
Once, a white man approached us while we were filming a group of Latino people in front of a pro-immigration sign. A chain-link fence separated him from us, but I reached across to shake his hand and introduce myself. His grip was so tight that it frightened me. He squeezed my hand while denouncing "these people" for "raping the land," as opposed to the Vietnamese and Koreans, who had learned to speak English and assimilated.
Eric captured this scene and put it up for the world to see on YouTube. Many people watching the video see a white racist; I see a man suffering from an identity crisis, feeling displaced in his neighborhood. He is nervous, anxious, the flip side of my own insecurity as an immigrant, and I feel a lot of compassion for him.
I want to say to the man at the fence, and to the immigrants gathered at Liberty Wall: We're in this together. Much as my parents found a way to communicate with their customers at their Houston carryout, so too can we overcome any differences in language and values -- and find a way to live and work together.
But people did not come together in Prince William County. The county supervisors passed the illegal-immigration resolution. I believe the process was not democratic. One organized interest group dominated it by bullying, spreading misinformation and inciting intolerance.
America is not just a country, not just a particular place in space and time, but a promise to live according to our highest ideals. If we succumb to intolerance and fear now, at this critical time in America's story, we will all have failed.