BY SALLY CHO
“Where are you from?”
That should be a simple enough question to answer, but I still don’t have a proper response. Pittsburgh or South Korea? I don’t know which one feels more like home to me, and I can’t tell which one has shaped me more as I’ve grown up.
I’ve been very lucky to have the privilege of getting to experience living in two different countries by the age of seventeen. I can speak two languages, I have two cultures, and I’ve lived two completely different lifestyles. That’s not something everybody can say, and I recognize how fortunate I am to have had those experiences.
Lately, though, it seems to be both a blessing and a curse.
I moved to the United States from South Korea at the age of seven, not old enough to be considered “first generation,” meaning the first person in the family to move to a new country, nor young enough to be considered “second generation,” meaning the child of an immigrant born in the new country.
I belong to the 1.5 generation.
The term 1.5 generation was first introduced in the 1960s by Ruben Rumbaut, a Cuban-American sociologist. It refers to the generation of immigrants who immigrate to a new country as children or teenagers. He describes the generation as being “stuck in between” cultures.
It truly is an odd experience being caught in the middle of two different worlds. I feel as if I don’t completely belong to either America or South Korea. Although my entire life right now is based in the United States, there’s a small string in my heart that tugs me back to my roots every now and then.
We all love easy labels, whether they apply to other cultures, sexualities, or political affiliations, but it’s hard to put one on myself. There are two labels usually used to describe a person of Korean descent living in the United States: Korean or Korean-American. Usually, a first-generation immigrant will refer to themselves as Korean, and a second-generation immigrant will refer to themselves as Korean-American.
I can’t say whether I am Korean or Korean-American. Although I am completely assimilated to American life now, I feel that the seven years I spent in Korea were far too long to just be erased from my history.
I don’t feel “enough” of anything—not Korean “enough,” not American “enough.” If I went back to Korea right now, people there would see me as a foreigner for a variety of reasons ranging from the way I dress to my mannerisms, even though I look the same as they do. In America, it is obvious that I am different, as anyone can see from the color of my skin, and it is not until I start speaking fluent English that people see me as the same.
When I used to attend a church designed specifically for Korean immigrants, I couldn’t help but feel awkward and isolated. I stood out, as I was the most “Americanized” of all the kids there. I would even get comments from adults saying things such as, “Oh, she’s forgotten Korean already, she’s an American girl now,” just because I misspoke a word or two in Korean.
Later, I began attending an American church where I was one of the only people of color there. I stuck out like a sore thumb. I wished to go back to the Korean church, where the people at least looked like me, even though I still wasn’t the same on the inside.
Even when I Skype with my relatives every week, I feel a sense of awkwardness, as if a cultural barrier has formed between us. I’m speaking in Korean, but there’s still something off about our communication.
Before this year, I honestly didn’t really think about this at all. I thought it was black and white: I live in America now, so therefore, I’m culturally American.
I now realize that was a naive stance. After a decade of living here, I see that I can never be fully American, at least not in a cultural sense. I wasn’t born here, and I can’t pretend the first seven years of my life had no impact on me as a person.
Last year, I even wrote an article about learning to not be ashamed of the fact that I am an Asian immigrant. I thought that was the end of my journey in finding my identity. I didn’t realize it was much more complex than that.
I began to realize that there were so many experiences I’ve had specifically as a young Korean immigrant that I want to share and relate to with people, but there was no one in my life I could fully do that with. Who would I talk to about shared traumatic experiences in the ESL (English as a Second Language) program? Who would I laugh with about the time I bowed to an adult as a greeting because I didn’t know that wasn’t a custom in America? It was an alienating realization, especially at this age where everyone is trying to discover who they are as young adults.
I also began to recognize that it’s not just about accepting my race and immigrant background– it’s about educating myself on and embracing my specific heritage. I patted myself on the back for embracing being Asian in America when I wasn’t even doing anything to preserve my South Korean culture that was already starting to fade away in my mind. I wasn’t born in the United States, and I have an entirely different culture I need to keep connected to.
When I began to keep up with South Korean news and culture, I was shocked at how much I missed out on in the past ten years. I’m from this country, so shouldn’t I know more about it?
I don’t say these things to undermine the problems any other generation of immigrants goes through. Additionally, I know that many second-generation immigrants are educated on and active with their culture, even though they were born in the United States. These are just my personal experiences.
The 1.5 struggle is a unique one, and it’s not just about race and what’s on the outside, although those are problems we go through, too. These struggles are also internal, feeling like there is no culture we can 100% claim as our own. It’s feeling like we don’t have a place we can truly call home. We are truly “stuck in-between.”
Ultimately, I choose to see this as a blessing. I get to be a bridge between two different countries. I have the privilege of being able to experience two different cultures and lifestyles. I’ve been granted a broader worldview, and I’m grateful for that.
Instead of not being able to fit in completely to any group, I now view this experience as something that allows me to transition between two groups flexibly, getting the best of both worlds. There’s no reason why I shouldn’t embrace the fact that I have two sides. I love the life I have in America right now, but I also love the life I had in Korea. I wouldn’t trade either for anything.
I won’t label myself as Korean, American, or Korean-American, but I’ll own the title of the 1.5 Generation loud and proud.