Who am I and how do I express that in a foreign language?
I took my Korean language placement test on Monday afternoon and one of the speaking test prompts was to introduce myself.
자기소개 (jagisogae) or “self-introduction” in South Korea is a different experience than in the United States. While in the United States one can expect to only share your name, in South Korea, you should expect locals to ask you:
- your age
- your occupation
- what country you’re from
- how long you’ve been in Korea
- (sometimes) if you’re married or in a relationship
The questions are more direct but there’s a reason the questions are more direct. Korean language has rules on how to address people of different age and status and so in order to avoid offending anyone, it’s important to know someone’s age, their occupation, if they’re married, etc. Foreigners, like myself, aren’t expected to follow the strict language rules but it’s definitely a plus to speak to someone with respect in the right situations.
If you look anything like me or have a name like mine (Dulce), you can expect resistance to the answer “미국에서 왔어요” (I’m from the United States). Despite saying that I’m from the United States people don’t seem to be satisfied until I say that my parents are from Mexico. This type of reaction doesn’t bother me since it’s similar to the reaction I get whenever I introduce myself to people in the United States.
It makes me think about how some aspects of culture and identity are quite rigid not only in South Korea but in the United States as well. The representation of Black people and people of color in media has an effect outside of the United States. For a traveler that comes from America but doesn’t have white skin, blue eyes, or blonde hair, explaining that you’re from America can turn into an interrogation. I learned quickly how to explain in Korean that my name is Spanish and my parents are from Mexico. My first week of classes I even had to clarify to some of my classmates (other foreigners) that I am from the United States so I can say that this isn’t an experience exclusive to South Korea.
In the United States, I live in a predominantly Black and Latinx immigrant community so, growing up, I didn’t have to explain my name or my family background because most people had a similar family history. I didn’t have to confront my otherness until I came to Korea the very first time 4 years ago. The second time I had to confront this otherness was almost 3 years ago when I first moved away to attend university.
Is it a bad thing that I’ve had to explain who I am? Not necessarily. I don’t mind when people ask respectfully.
These experiences have made me reflect deeply over the years:
- Where am I from and why is that important?
- How am I different or unique?
- How is my experience different than others?
In some ways, I am grateful that when I say “미국에서 왔어요” (I’m from the United States) I get follow up questions. I have a story and it’s different.