“Why don’t you go back to where you came from?”
What an interesting request. Where I’m from? Where I’m really from? Are we talking about Madison, the capital city of Wisconsin? Or perhaps you just mean Wisconsin, in the more general sense? Or, even broader, the United States?
No? No, I didn’t think so.
The rise of Covid-19 all the way back in March, saw a corresponding rise in hate crimes towards Asians in the United States and around the world. Stories of people, quietly minding their own business, being verbally and/or physically harassed became more and more common, whether shared through the headlines or by word of mouth from what our friends and families experienced. Beyond even that, many who didn’t experience direct harassment firsthand could still feel the hostility and unease pointed in our directions.
As a previous student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I remember a specific incident that had made that unfortunate reality all too clear. One morning chalk writings were found all around campus saying things like, “It’s from China #Chinesevirus,” or “F*ck the Chinese Government” and worse. Political and social misunderstandings aside, it was an awful thing to see. The feeling of blame and social alienation was building on, not just Asian international students, but on Asian Americans as well. There was this pressure, this feeling of separateness being placed upon students, not because of any logically determined connection to Covid-19 or where we happened to be born and raised, but because our skin color alone. Because of where, they supposed, we were “from.”
I thought a lot about that, as students side-eyed us in libraries and scooted away from us in lecture halls. It led me to really reflect on that notion: how much of us is made up of “where we’re from?”
On one level, I personally thought of South Korea and Tibet. The homeland of my mother and father respectively, and the birthplace of many of my own cultural practices. Surely that made them both “where I’m from?”
Well, not exactly. Let’s take, for example, South Korea: I’ve only actually gone back to Korea once, when I “met” my family for the very first time. They spoke little to no english and I spoke little to no Korean. It was a lot of smiling and nodding. Maybe some gesturing here and there. And I was beside myself with worry, unable to recall all the little rules of respect and rank that my mother had drilled into me on the plane. Bow at this time, don’t use this and that person’s name, use the full form of hello, not just an-nyoung to this person. From my apparent language deficiencies, my brightly colored and “revealing” clothing (note to self, don’t bring only shorts and tank tops to Korea), and all the selfies I took at “iconic” vacation spots, I didn’t feel Korean. I felt like a tourist; An American.
Okay, so maybe let’s consider “home” in the more abstract sense: the communities and neighborhoods we build here in America to preserve our heritage and culture. Surely that seems like an easier task than building a link with a culture and people thousands of miles away?
Having grown up in a town known for its relatively thriving Tibetan community, one would think I’d have finally found that link, that connection to “home.” Except that didn’t really happen. There could have been any number of reasons for why I didn’t connect much with my fellow Tibetan Americans, but I’d bet a heavy sum of money it’s because I’m (admittedly) not very faithful to my Tibetan cultural roots. Being half Korean and half Tibetan had its cons: My father had never taught us Tibetan because my mother didn’t know it. We weren’t Buddhist, despite my dad having been a monk, because my mother was Christian. The only holidays and traditions we observed were the American ones, because my mother didn’t know any of the Tibetan ones and my father didn’t know any of the Korean ones.
As you can see, “going back” to “where I’m from” can be a bit of a tricky instruction to follow (pardon the sarcasm), not just for me, but for many Asian Americans. Because we’re not defined by a singular place; we’re a diverse blend of places and cultures. It’s different for every person and their particular experiences, but our roots and the appearances we retain as a result of those roots, doesn’t mean “Asia” is the place where “we’re from” and should therefore go back to. Especially in the case when it’s told to us from people who don’t care to understand our stories, our backgrounds, and our culture.