Wait, Where Are Your From, From?

One question always caught Jessica off guard. People just couldn’t believe she was from Korea. Learn how she tackled the “where are you from” question.

Featured photograph is from Activities Day at Columbia University.

With the end of first semester already creeping up, I started thinking about what the beginning of all this was like – the week of orientation when we all had to sit in a circle and introduce ourselves to each other. I remember the prompt always being somewhere along the lines of: “name, where you’re from, and one interesting fact about yourself.”

At first, I didn’t give it much thought. I kept introducing myself as Jessica, from Korea, and the interesting fact would be that I broke my leg skiing when I was young. Nothing special, pretty standard. But as I kept saying that I was from Korea with no hint of a Korean accent, I would often get a follow-up question that went something like, “wait, like, where are you from from?” Such a question caught me off-guard since I have usually only heard this question asked to a non-white person when he says he is from the US, implying that he must be “ethnically” from somewhere else. Ironically though, for my situation, it was suggesting the exact opposite.

Being asked this was always a weird moment for me, because I had actually never lived in the States. I had merely attended multiple international schools while I was growing up. I must have given that answer to about twenty people during orientation week. I’m not sure why, but as the end of orientation week came and people started getting to know me more personally, I felt quite out of place saying that I was from Korea. Something inside me was afraid that I would incite the same question again, where people would respond with an element of surprise in their voice, asking me with big eyes if I’ve actually never lived here before. It was getting a bit repetitive for me in having to say the same thing over and over again. Why couldn’t people accept me for the fact that I’m not from here?

This question of acceptance continued to linger until Activities Day came around. Activities Day at my university is a day after orientation week when students can walk across campus, look at various club booths, and learn about all the different student organizations they can join. I was truly taken aback by the multitude of culture clubs, religious and spiritual clubs, and political and activist organizations. After taking a good two hours exploring all the different options, I remember thinking that at a college where diversity is so highly valued, those people who were asking me questions during orientation couldn’t possibly have the intention of not wanting to accept me for the unique background that I had.

As I tried to clear my head and think about exactly what part of the whole situation I was frustrated with, I think I was actually misguiding my anger and frustration towards the people who asked me those questions, when in fact, I was mostly just irritated with myself. For so long I’ve longed for a sense of belonging in one place, having moved from school to school every two or three years. I naturally assumed that Columbia would be my home for the next four years, but in my head, I thought that the people who were meeting me for the first time were pushing me away, not accepting me for me. But to them, the question was probably harmless, simply wondering how my English language abilities came about. The quick judgment I passed during orientation week was clearly misguided; but more importantly, I needed to come to terms with my international background.

Perhaps such a question really hit a nerve because I slowly developed mixed feelings in realizing that not only is my academic language English, but my everyday language was becoming English as well. The more I adjusted to my challenging English and writing classes, I felt like I somehow forwent my Korean culture in becoming fluent in English. In my mind, there was a trade-off between the two cultures within me. The more I immersed myself in the, the more I was running away from the other. Maybe this was where my resistance to my classmates’ assumption that I was American came in. I didn’t want my Korean culture to become inconspicuous and defined by my fluency in English.

But to be honest, I think that such confusion is nothing to be ashamed of. For me, it simply means that I want to find a home for the next four years. It means that I want to develop my identity as an international student in the US. It means that I want to learn what unique role I can play in my college community. All this confusion has opened up a path of new discovery for me. It’s only my first semester here, and maybe I have made myself at home, and maybe I haven’t – I have yet to decide. But the good side of all this is that I still have three and a half more years to make it happen. I have three and a half more years to rediscover myself with a newly found identity.

Jessica Paek photo international student voice magazine

Jessica Paek

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