When Americans ask me about my origin story, they’re usually not looking for me to say I’m from Newport Beach. They’re trying to get at where I’m really from—in other words, they’re curious about my ethnicity.
And as a 20-year-old in the summer of 1997, I was pretty used to it—which is why on my first international trip alone, to Kuala Lumpur for an internship at a magazine, I inadvertently wrote down “Korean and Irish” for my nationality as I filled out the Malaysian immigration form on my connecting flight from Beijing. After all, anytime someone at my Santa Barbara, California college (for that matter, on the street, in a retail store or at a bar) would ask me the dreaded “What are you?” question, I could safely assume that was the answer they were after. My mother was from Dublin and my father was of Korean descent, but grew up in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Tokyo. In those transformative college years, when race, ethnicity and gender were at the forefront of my class discussions, I felt as if I was always under scrutiny. To a lot of people, I wasn’t Asian enough to be Asian or white enough to be white. Back then, since I didn’t fit neatly into one box, I preferred to think of myself as a global citizen.
But that summer in Malaysia changed how I saw things.
Arriving at the airport in “KL,” as locals affectionately refer to the city, the immigration officer was quick to tell me to fill out a new landing card. My blue passport, of course, didn’t say “Korean” or “Irish”—it said “United States of America.” I was mortified at my error and couldn’t blame it on the jet lag. After a lifetime of mini-interrogations about my ethnic background, it was almost as though I’d forgotten that I was, indeed, American.
Once there, people were friendly and everyone I interacted with spoke English, making the initial transition far easier than I had anticipated. My editor arranged for me and another intern to stay with Charles, an editor for the New Straits Times and a generous host who refused to charge us rent.
I loved working at the magazine, and aside from Malaysia’s stifling humidity (it only took a few weeks before I chopped my long hair off) and insane traffic, KL was better than I could have imagined. I ate stuffed pancakes and skewers from the hawker stalls, South Indian dishes off of banana leaves, even durian, the famed stinky fruit, at Charley’s encouragement. Like most travelers, I felt far more adventurous and independent when thousands of miles away from home.
Since Malaysia is an Islamic country with stricter laws (capital punishment for drug trafficking, for example), there were moments of culture shock, for sure. I became quite self-conscious about the amount I pointed when I talked (it’s considered rude) and didn’t feel the freedom to dress exactly as I would have back in Santa Barbara (where surf culture rules sartorial choices). And once, an older man approached me, saying that I looked like his fourth wife—I pictured four consecutive marriages before he made it clear that he had four current wives (plural marriage wasn’t in my guidebook).
That summer also provided a comparative lesson in diversity. Malaysia’s population is about half Malay, between 20 and 25 percent Chinese and around seven percent Indian. Speaking of my own diverse background, I told Charley one evening that I was half-Korean, which prompted him to correct me with: “You are not half and half,” he said. “You are one plus one. Your whole mom and your whole dad.” I liked his definition better, and after that conversation, I stopped referring to myself as half-anything, as that word didn’t describe the multitudes in my family.
I could probably pass for a local in KL if I didn’t speak, but after a summer there, the differing cultural traditions made me more aware of my American-ness, a trait I had never fully felt before. At five-foot-four, I felt tall and sometimes loud, even though no one at home would describe me that way. But what I noticed most was that Malaysians didn’t seem especially interested in my ethnic background. Instead, my conversations were about regular 19-year-old things like college life, boyfriends and travel. On any given night, I could be out with my Chinese-Malaysian editor who was educated in Australia; my Indian-Malaysian friends who lived in London, but came back to KL for the summers; or a Muslim Malay colleague and her Dutch boyfriend. Everyone and everything—from colorful street markets to the local cuisine—was so multicultural that I no longer felt exotic, different or all that interesting. I realized that in the U.S., the so-called melting pot was more of an illusion. Though it’s changed since, at the time, I was still only able to “check one box” on most government forms. Even in California, for all its diversity, ethnic groups tended to live and socialize in a segregated manner, whereas in KL, multiculturalism was visible, whether on television or at a local dinner party.
As I met more Malaysians, I learned about their country’s colonial history, intolerant politics and pervasive gender and sexual-orientation discrimination, particularly outside of the capital. I started seeing a more complex country, realizing that it was far from perfect—just like my own homeland. Most notably, I was disturbed by the way LGBT citizens were discriminated against in Malaysia. Even though I had gay friends back home who weren’t fully embraced by all family members after coming out, their human rights still mattered and, at least now, their identity isn’t considered a crime by our government.
At the end of that summer, I wrote in my diary that “I feel very safe and happy, but as much as I love it, I can’t wait to go home. I realized that being born in America makes me one of the luckiest people on Earth.” While understanding that America doesn’t always offer “liberty and justice for all,” I certainly enjoy more freedoms as an American woman than I ever would have if I were born in Malaysia. I can dress however I like, say anything I want and was raised by two feminist parents.
And my appreciation for America from afar made me embrace some of our shared culture in ways that I rarely did back home, like listening to Rick Dees’s weekly Top 40 countdown, watching blockbuster Hollywood action movies and smiling at the familiarity of a Mobil gas station.
On the flight back to LAX, hankering for Mexican food from my favorite taquería and dying to sleep in my own bed, I correctly identified my nationality on all forms. But this time, I didn’t need a do-over.