A Question of Identity: Studying Abroad in Scotland

Performers from South Korea put on a show at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Edinburgh, Scotland in August.
Performers from South Korea put on a show at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Edinburgh, Scotland in August. (Xinhua News Agency/eyevine/Eyevine/DRR.net)
By Celeste Kang
Sunday, November 2, 2008

When my English host family asked me to speak to their son's second-grade class as a visiting foreign student, I began outlining some things to say about the United States. Founding fathers, slavery, emancipation and civil rights -- U.S. history 101 stuff.

"Why don't you also include a few words in Korean to dazzle the young-sters?"my host mother, Martha, suggested.

"Korean? Huh?" I responded, unable to eke out a full reply.

"Just 'hello' and 'thank you' is enough. Remember these are young-sters, luv, so nothing too complicated," Martha said.

It was one of those rock-your-world moments, when you realize some basicideas you've come to acquire about yourself are way out of sync with those around you.

This was in 1992, when I was about to spend a year studying British literature at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. It wasn't my first time abroad. I had twice visited Korea, where my parents were born, once as an infant and once as a young teen. The previous summer, I'd spent a couple of months studying British literature at Oxford's Trinity College.

But in Oxford, where foreign tourists abound, I traveled in a bubble of American students largely separated from locals. In Edinburgh, where ethnic Asians primarily emigrate from former British Commonwealth nations, I lived with Scots and shopped and socialized with them and other Europeans. There, I was uniformly regarded, at least upon first meeting, as Not American.

I was staying with Martha's family in Blackpool, England, the week before my study program started in Edinburgh. Martha explained to me that day that her son's class was hoping for a presentation about Korea, "your home country."

Not wanting to insult my sweet and generous hosts, I crammed that night with a stack of encyclopedias in their living room. Korean culture: Buddhism and Christianity are the main religions. Food: kimchi, or pickled cabbage. History: War divided the peninsula between communist north and capitalist south.

But I was no expert in Korean culture. I hardly spoke the language. My parents left South Korea in 1966 to pursue graduate degrees at the University of Washington. I was born and raised in a largely homogenous small town north of Seattle, where my three sisters and I were usually among the two or three Asian families at school. Our household was culturally blended -- American and Korean -- like millions of other hyphenated families around the nation. When we came home from school, my sisters and I listened to Duran Duran on our Walkmans and gobbled down steaming bowls of instant kimchi ramen noodles. We went to Korean church retreats and a-ha concerts and breezed through Judy Blume novels. This balancing act wasn't labored or remarkable to us in any way. And those we encountered outside of our family gave no indication they thought it unusual, either.

In Edinburgh, however, I repeatedly found myself having to explain what it meant to be a hyphenated American. My Asian features were all people seemed to register. In a literature class, a friendly Scottish student was incredulous when she asked me where I was from and I replied the United States.

"But where are you from?" as if stressing the word "from" would prompt me to spill the real 411. I tried to explain that I was born in the United States but my parents were from Korea. She didn't seem to get it. At a pub in Prague, an artist asked to draw my picture. He thought I was Eskimo, an ethnic group he'd seen only on nature TV shows.

Although I didn't realize it at the time, that year in Edinburgh launched me on a journey to understand my Korean heritage more deeply. After college, I took my first journalism job in Seoul, where I tried to learn more about the country my parents left as adults. For several years, I wrote about Asian affairs and race and demographics at the San Jose Mercury News. When I arrived at The Post, I naturally gravitated toward stories about the immigrant Korean community.

I can't say I've found all of the answers. As with probing any aspect of identity, my ideas about who I am will probably keep evolving until the day I die. But I think if Martha were to ask me to do a presentation for her son's class today, I'd probably respond differently than I did in 1992. I know a lot more about Korea now, but I'd make it clear to her that being Korean and being Korean American are not the same thing. I'd go to her son's class and talk about the history of my real home country, the United States, including its founding fathers and the civil rights movement. Then I'd try very hard to help them understand what it was like growing up in the Pacific Northwest loving pickled cabbage while listening to Duran Duran.

Cecilia Kang studied abroad during the 1992-1993 academic year while a student at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash. She is a business reporter for The Post and can be reached at kangc@washpost.com.

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