By Narih Lee '18
Content warning: racial slurs, racism, Trump
I am twenty years old and was born and raised in New Jersey. I am Korean-American, but as I grow older and more aware of the differences between my mother and myself, I identify more strongly with the American in me than the Korean. I am an American-Korean and while I welcome America as the home that has nurtured me, it pains me that I cannot speak my mother tongue. I cannot speak my father tongue. I cannot speak my grandmother, grandfather, aunt, uncle tongue. I am voiceless in Korea’s culture and so I claim America’s to be the culture that defines me. I am not Korean, but rather American-Korean, as that is all I have ever known.
And so, I stand as an outsider to the rest of my family, all proudly Korean and proudly monolingual in the language that they have fought to preserve. I became acutely aware of the familial relationships I was stripped of when my grandmother called from the hospice, unable to speak to me and I unable to speak to her. I decided to take Korean 101 the following semester so that I would never again feel the same helplessness I felt as I held a phone up to my ear and listened to the static silence between us. This class would give me the ability to express myself to my family in a way that they could fully understand, even if we were only learning questions like “어느 나라 사람입니까?” What is your nationality? I distinctly remember when Professor Jang asked me this question in class, and I answered without hesitation, “미국 사람입니다.” I am American.
As I sat in my Korean class, I never interpreted understanding my language and culture as becoming more attuned to one side of my identity over another. I viewed learning my mother’s language as a way to speak to my family so that another “I love you” or “Please take care of yourself” wouldn’t be lost in translation. I would be an American-Korean with the ability to cross multiple cultural barriers with the tool of language.
As I sat in the field house on November 8th watching, waiting, and crying with my Wellesley siblings as Donald Trump became president, a jumble of thoughts invaded my mind. I thought about all of the first generation immigrant students in my afterschool program who would grow up under a Trump presidency and in a hateful, xenophobic, post-Trump world—a world that makes them feel as though they are not enough. I thought about my parents, both immigrants who, as the narrative often tells us, came to this country in search of better opportunities. I worried that they would continue struggling to gain those opportunities as they approach sixty years of age. I thought of my significant other and the complications we would face if I were to become pregnant with no options other than adoption or raising a child I am not ready for. I thought of every person this presidency would affect more than I could ever imagine and feared for their safety. It finally dawned on me that it never mattered whether I identified as American; in this country, my thoughts, my words, my actions, my whole self would never be enough.
It has now been twenty-four hours since I sat with my friends at dinner on election night, excited to welcome Hillary Clinton as our next president. It has now been more than twelve hours since we started living in an America in which Trump is our leader. In the upcoming weeks when I return to my Trump-supportive town in New Jersey, I fear for all the things people will say to my face that they have been saying behind closed doors for years. I fear for the day when people will no longer reserve their judgments when they look at me because the leader of our country has given them license to be intolerant and bigoted.
January 20th approaches, and I fear for an America where someone asks me “어느 나라 사람입니까?” and the only thing they will hear is Asian, Yellow, Other. They will only see non-White, Foreign, and Chink. I fear for the day when I will no longer be able to identify myself as American—the only way I ever have—because I do not fit into the landscape of Trump’s “Great” America. I fear for the day when my ability to speak my mother tongue will be seen as a disadvantage, a self-inflicted “othering” of myself from the masses. I fear for the day when I am silenced and at a loss for words the next time someone asks me what my nationality is. I fear, I fear, I fear. As I sit in my room in the very sheltered town of Wellesley, Massachusetts, on this somber evening twenty-four hours after the election, I am frustrated, helpless, and confused—that is, I fear, all that I can be.
From November 2016 issue