Every. single. time...
PARIS — After a long day in the Worldcrunch newsroom, Elisa and Olivia were walking together toward the métro station. Both in their early 20s, they'd arrived from very different places at their internship two months before and found they had plenty to talk about: food, sports, politics. But the topic they'd started talking about that evening created a particular connection — and they decided to continue the conversation here...
Elisa — Whenever I bring up the fact that I'm half-French and half-Swedish, I inevitably get the same question every time: "So, do you feel more French or more Swedish?" And I never know how to answer. This very innocent question can make me question my whole existence. Who am I? What am I? What defines me? My passport...my parents...my culture?
Olivia — I know exactly what it's like to spiral into that kind of mini existential crisis. For me the question that sparks it usually comes right away: "So where are you from?" It sounds silly because for most, this is a simple question. But for me, even at the age of 21, it still fills me with anxiety every single time. I start to panic, wondering whether my answer should be my ethnicity, nationality, where I was born, or the places that I've lived.
Elisa — I don't know why people need to know "what" we are. It's like they want to put a label on us. And obviously, when people ask you where you're from, it's not with the same intent as when I get asked that question. In France, if you don't feel completely French even though you live there, for them it means that you're rejecting French culture.
Olivia — This is why it's so complicated for me. I am ethnically Korean. 100% Korean. I have a Korean name and can trace my Korean heritage way back. But I'm not just that. I was born in Hong Kong and carry a U.S. passport. I was also educated in a Canadian International School, and got fully immersed in Canadian culture and heritage, singing the Canadian national anthem in English and French before each assembly.
I grew up simultaneously immersed in four cultures and languages.
My principal was an Inuit who taught us about indigenous Canadian civilizations. I was taught how to spell with British English, being told that the American way was downright wrong. I started learning Mandarin Chinese before the first grade and found myself close to fluent by the time I was in 5th grade. During this time, the school also required us to begin studying French.
On the side, my parents made me attend a Korean school on Saturdays. The same textbooks from Korea were used, I was just getting one week's worth of schooling one day a week. So in summary, I grew up simultaneously immersed in four cultures and languages. See why I hate this question?
Elisa — That's a lot! In my case, I grew up immersed in exactly two cultures. I was born and grew up in France, but my mom immigrated here from Sweden when she was 19 and has stayed ever since. My dad is your typical Frenchman. I grew up completely bilingual, as French and Swedish were the two languages of our home. When I was in kindergarten, my teacher talked to my parents because she thought I was autistic. My mom had to explain to her that I was simply speaking Swedish. In primary school, a supervisor asked me what I ate for lunch, and I just answered "Kötbullar!" (meatballs).
My mom always insisted on my Swedish roots, she even forced me to take weekly Swedish classes. At first, it was very annoying, but now I'm grateful — it's a major advantage as I go out into the working world. But it's more than that. My childhood was shaped by Swedish traditions and holidays, which I still cherish today. So being half-Swedish is a very important part of my life and identity. But so is French culture of course: it's my country of birth and my main language. Don't make me choose a side!
Olivia — At least you only have two sides to choose from. There's actually a term for people like me, we're called third culture kids, or TCK for short. We are defined as a "group of people raised in a culture other than their parents' or the culture of the country named on their passport (where they are legally considered native) for a significant part of their early development years. They are often exposed to a greater variety of cultural influences."
Most of my friends growing up were TCKs. The concept of staying in one place was absolutely bizarre for us. Most of us "went home" during breaks. I would visit my mom's side of the family in Seoul and my dad's side of the family in Delaware. And yet, I didn't feel like either Korean or American. I didn't feel Chinese or Canadian either. Having an identity crisis was a real part of my youth. I hated that I simply couldn't answer the question, "Where are you from?"
Elisa — It was the same thing for me for a while. When I talked to my mom about this dilemma, she said: "Well it's easy, you're French, you were born and raised here." Does my dual citizenship not matter? Of course it does.
My citizenships are part of my identity.
Olivia — The only citizenship I've ever had is from the US. I don't have Korean citizenship. Currently, according to the Korean government, my family no longer exists. The lineage ends with my maternal grandmother.
My paternal grandparents immigrated to Delaware after the Korean War, making them and their four children (including my dad) American. My mom was initially a Korean citizen, but become a naturalized citizen when I was in the first grade. There are more than 1 million Korean-Americans in the US. To further complicate my circumstances, I was born in Hong Kong and lived there until I was 11 years old, was the only place I called home. Legally, I am not Korean in the slightest. The only thing that makes me Korean is my blood.
Elisa — For me, it's the opposite. I very much feel like my citizenships are part of my identity. At first, my dual citizenship was a trivial thing to have since Sweden is part of the EU. It always made French people react in a funny way. "How do you pronounce this?... This looks like an IKEA catalogue." But when I turned 18, things changed as I learned that I could actually vote in Swedish elections. Last year, for the first time, I voted in the Swedish legislative elections. This made me feel like a true Swede, as much as I feel like a true Frenchwoman when I vote in elections here.
Olivia — In Korean, there is a term called 교포 (gyopo), which refers to an ethnic Korean who is no longer technically fully Korean. This can be due to living outside of Korea or holding a foreign nationality. Gyopo's like myself get treated differently than Korean-Koreans.
I have to pay more to get into a club just because I'm American even if I look just like them! I've been asked numerous times at bars, gyms, work and so on whether I was Korean and if not, where am I from? I started to realize the divide among Koreans even more during university in Boston as there were huge cultural differences between Korean-Koreans, US-born Korean-Americans, and foreign-born Korean-Americans. Sometimes it's rather lonely thinking that you don't belong anywhere.
Elisa — I totally understand that feeling of not really belonging anywhere. When I go to Sweden, people see the French side. Suddenly, I'm a typical Frenchie with a funny accent. I get confronted with all the stereotypes and jokes, just as I am in France with Swedish clichés. It's weird because I'm treated like a foreigner in both of my countries.
I'm simply both.
Olivia — I think that's why I've decided to settle on the answer "I'm Korean-American but moved around a lot." It addresses the origins of my race, which is often what they're trying to figure out, it reveals my nationality, but also suggests I'm not their typical idea of a Korean, an American, or even Korean-American. Sometimes I change my answer to just one specific country to represent it or to contrast whatever stereotypes they might initially have of people that might look like me.
Elisa — I get that. I've come to discover that I don't like being considered just one thing or the other because it simply doesn't reflect who I am. I can't really say I'm completely French or completely Swedish. I'm simply both, and for now, that's how I choose to answer that dreadful question. And if it confuses people, they should know that it's confused me for a long time too...
Olivia — Well if it means anything, you should know that your confusion has helped me clear up mine!