When people ask where I’m from, I usually freeze in an awkward moment of indecision. You would think that by now I would have settled on an acceptable answer, but every answer feels like a stretch, so my answer has become: “I…um…uh…I grew up in the military.”
This catch-all answer absolves me of any obligation to specificity.
And then of course, a wave of relief washes over me once I realize that my companion is not actually asking where I’m from; they’re asking where I’m “from, from.” By which they mean, “Why does your face look the way it does?” or “What language did your parents yell at you during childhood?” And most importantly: “Why don’t you fit into a tidy racial category?”
That answer is easy. I’m half Korean and half white. My mom grew up in Seoul, South Korea, and my dad grew up in Winfield, Kansas. They met when my dad was stationed in Korea.
But the question of home, of where I belong? That answer has always been one I couldn’t quite grasp.
I don’t have a strong sense of home at all. I feel no allegiance to place; I barely feel it to institutions. The closest I’ve come to a long-term relationship with something larger than myself is with the feminism I discovered as a freshman in college.
I am totally fine with uprooting my life every couple of years. In fact, I crave it.
But there was a time when I yearned for a hometown, for roots. I looked on with envy when classmates in my south Georgia high school learned algebra and biology and Spanish in the same rooms where their parents learned algebra and biology and Spanish.
To have history was to belong.
I yearned for that inherited history, because to have that history was to belong. To somewhere, something, and someone.
I graduated high school and, still grasping for that history, I joined a sorority at my Southern university. After years of not fitting in, I thought that maybe, finally, this was my chance to join a family. To be part of a group that got me, and loved me. That’s what all my older friends said sororities were like, anyway.
It felt good to be able to define myself by three Greek letters. It was delicious to finally belong to a context; I thrilled when I overheard strangers in a dining hall refer to “That Pi Phi over there.”
I lived in the sorority house. I paid the dues. I followed the rules. I wore the sun dresses on gamedays and the Lilly Pulitzer on Sundays. I sang the door songs during rush as loud as I could. I sang until I lost my voice.
It was while I was living in the sorority house that my rose-colored vision started shifting.
Maybe it was the time a “sister” came up to me as I was sitting in the dining room with my women’s studies readings and said, “But don’t you think that we’re reaching the point of reverse racism?”
Or the time when a roommate muttered that she hated going to the water park outside Atlanta because it was filled with “niglets.”
Or the time I sat on my bed, giddy over a fresh roll of kimbap a friend brought me from H-Mart, and a roommate was disgusted and said “that smells so bad.”
I realized that not only did I not really like being in the sorority — it didn’t seem to particularly like me either.
For a long time I thought there was something wrong with me. Since my life was a combination of rootless states — interracial, divorced parents, military family — was I doomed to forever feel out of place? Or maybe I’m a cold droid with a computer for a heart who doesn’t have the capacity to love (jury is still out on this one)?
And at some point along the line, I found peace.
I’ve spent the last year reporting and producing a podcast for The Washington Post called Other: Mixed Race in America. The podcast is ostensibly about the contemporary mixed race experience, but the process of creating it has been a journey of its own. I came face-to-face with the loneliness I’d put off addressing for years, and it hurt. But I also came face-to-face with other rootless people. And at some point along the line, I found peace.
So now for me, home is not a location. And it’s not an ethnicity, or racial category.
It’s a bunch of small, disparate experiences that are specific to no single, identifiable group of people.
It’s being able to say “ramyeon” without having to explain why.
It’s Anthony’s Pizza and soldiers saluting you as you drive through the gate onto Post.
It’s spam musubi, sandy and hot and at the bottom of your beach bag.
It’s sorority door songs, sung drunk and ironically.
It’s doing an expensive face mask with my younger sister while I’m home for a weekend, giggling to Spongebob Squarepants jokes like we’re children.
It’s all of it, and it’s mine.Where do you fit in? With us. Tell us your story. You might also dig: Where Do You Feel Most At Home? Hapa In Hollywood An Outsider On The Inside, Sometimes