“I was intelligent enough to make up my own mind. I not only had freedom of choice, I had freedom of expression.”
– Amy Tan, author of The Joy Luck Club
When I was an adolescent, no one ever asked for my opinion on most matters. At mealtime, I ate the pickled side dishes that my Mom prepared. She didn’t ask if I preferred rice or noodles to accompany the spicy Banchan on the table. My Mom cooked our meals with the available ingredients from the sparse kitchen in our modest Korean home.
Coming to America
It should not come as a surprise that when my parents decided to immigrate to the United States, it seemed like the move happened overnight. There was no family planning session, no democratic vote, or a survey. One day, my Mom announced we would go to a place called “America,” a country where my beloved Aunts, Uncles, and Grandma lived. She told me that once we got to Migook (America), I would have an abundance of my two favorite foods: bananas and ice cream. While the prospect of seeing my relatives and eating ice cream seemed good, at the age of eight, I didn’t have the capacity to recognize the seriousness of the situation and how my identity would be impacted. The small world as I had known would expand as I stepped off the airplane.
My first year in the United States was a baffling and isolating experience. I was eight years old and only spoke and wrote in Korean. I had to acquire a foreign language, make new friends, and learn how to assimilate into a new culture. By the time I entered first grade, I’d been thoroughly ingrained in Korean values. Attributes such as respecting elders, exhibiting humility, and avoiding disgrace to our family influenced my thoughts and behaviors.
As an adolescent, the first lesson I learned was the act of deference. The Korean culture is very formal, with seniority playing a key role in daily interactions. One way of showing respect is to never (under any circumstances) address an older person by his or her first name. In fact, during most of my adolescence, I didn’t know my relatives’ names, and I knew them only as Auntie and Uncle. This formality applies to siblings as well. A girl calls her older sister, Unnie, which translates to big sister. A young boy calls his older brother, Hyong, which means big brother. Following the rules and norms established by my culture, society, and family influenced me throughout my life. During my adolescence, I was caught between being Asian and being American. My identity morphed throughout the years, often confounded by my ethnic culture, upbringing, and interactions with those around me. I experienced acculturative stress, and those feelings prevented me from integrating into society.
According to John W. Berry, leading theorist in the study of immigration, acculturation is the adaptive process immigrants experience as they enter a new cultural environment. Acculturation describes two methods of adaptation into the new culture. One strategy is described as “cultural maintenance.” This is when an individual decides which cultural attributes or characteristics are important to maintain. The second strategy is “contract and preparation.” This is when an individual decides how much to engage in the new culture or not. In Berry’s acculturation model, individuals who accept their new culture will either assimilate and reject their home culture, or they will integrate both home and host cultures. If individuals choose to reject the new culture, they will feel marginalized and reject their culture, or they will keep both cultures separate and distinct.
Successfully acculturating into a new environment is critical to one’s emotional state. As an immigrant child, I can attest to the turmoil I often experienced in this new country. Being called names like “flat face,” or “slanty eyes,” hurt my self-esteem. My goal at the time was to blend in as quickly as possible by losing my Korean identity. I deliberately chose to assimilate instead of integrating. As life progressed, I entered social situations with great trepidation. Now, as I think back to those early years, I wish I had the wisdom to know it was ok for me to be different.
You Are Not Alone
If you’ve ever experienced a sense of loneliness or have felt lost, you are not alone. When we’re in situations where we feel like we don’t belong, it prevents us from being our true selves. We suppress our identities and as a result, experience stress.
So what do we do when we experience anxiety in a strange environment? One way to combat sensation of being excluded is to take a moment and recognize that we have a choice in the matter. We can choose to continue feeling out-of-place or make a deliberate effort to acknowledge the insecurities and move on from those emotions.
Another option is, being honest with yourself and others and tell the person or people around you that you feel like you don’t belong. The act of expressing vulnerability will melt away the tension you may have been feeling while giving the people around you an opportunity to offer assistance.
The insecurities you feel as an adult are likely related to the challenging encounters you had in your early years. By thinking back to that difficult moment in time and giving the younger version of yourself a break, you might lift the burden a bit. So take a minute and think about a time when you felt excluded because you were different from those around you. On the left side of a piece of paper, write down what happened and on the right side, jot down how you would resolve the situation now as an adult.
The answer may be quite simple: it might involve hugging your younger self.