Confessions of a 1.5 generation immigrant

I never felt the desire to understand my native country. This changed last year.

Recently I concluded almost two months of travelling in Korea. It’s the longest I’ve spent in my birth country since emigrating to Canada at age 3. They call people like me a 1.5 generation immigrant – someone who’s born in one country but immigrated to and grew up in another.

I spent most of my life pushing away my heritage. Like most kids, all I wanted was to fit in and I saw how being a first-generation Korean immigrant made me stick out. So I chose to reject Korean culture in favour of assimilating to English-speaking Canada. Having moved to Canada before my first memories, it was all too easy to do.

These feelings manifested in my teens and early adult years, when I observed that being “too Korean” might prevent me from accessing certain worlds. I didn’t see people who looked like me in the careers I aspired to – be it politicians, technology executives, or community leaders – and I internalized that being “too Korean” would not allow me to live the kind of life I wanted.

I now understand how the Korean-Canadian immigrant experience has made me who I am. There is critical importance in understanding your origins. Below are the five lessons that stuck with me most. I feel certain these lessons will be echoed amongst fellow multi-generation immigrants.

1. You are your language

I show up differently in Korea than I do in English-speaking countries. My Korean language ability is limited and I can only converse colloquially. As a result, in Korea people experience me as soft-spoken, meek, and shy, which is generally the opposite of how my English-speaking friends describe me.

Different languages have different styles of expression. For example, Korean has many words for specific family relationships. In Korean I would call my dad’s oldest sister go-mo while her kids (aka my cousins) would call my mom sook-mo. In English, we just call everyone aunt. When you communicate in multiple languages, there are many things that get lost in translation.

Your personality also alters through different cultures. When I’m in Korea I mostly listen and don’t share my opinion often because I don’t have the language to do so. Because I look very Korean and happen to speak with a native accent, I feel more compelled to comply with cultural expectations. In Canada I engage with people often and have many opinions, feeling free to express all of them.

2. The immigrant life is lonely

Having moved to Canada at age three, I never fully appreciated the blood, sweat, and tears of an immigrant’s struggles. I cannot imagine what it was like for my parents to move in their 30s to a country, whose people they did not know and language they did not speak.

While I was in Korea, I felt I experienced the immigrant life in reverse — the life I might have had had I not emigrated. In Asian culture, families are closely-knit and many go above and beyond to accommodate their relatives, whether they’ve known you for thirty minutes or thirty years.

When people migrate abroad, they often do so without their larger family and must navigate a foreign country on their own without any of the all-encompassing support they had back home. Growing up I didn’t think it was weird to grow up with no relatives asides from my nuclear family around me, but being in Korea and experiencing the breadth of family made me realize this lonely experience was not the norm.

3. You become comfortable with being different

You get used to being different because you never 100% fit into one place or culture. The number of times people have questioned where I’m really from is truly immeasurable. You become comfortable in your own skin because it’s the only place you fully “fit in”, wherever you are in the world. I’ve only become comfortable in my own skin by learning to unconditionally love all aspects of myself and my identity.

4. Your empathy for the invisible increases

I have more empathy for the “invisible” conditions that affect people. Everyone has a story that is not always known. This can be from an inability to speak a language, to a mental illness, or a traumatic trigger. Not knowing these stories should never affect each human’s right to respect and dignity.

5. You understand yourself a bit more each time you visit

Every time I visit Korea I understand a little bit more about why I have the quirks, habits, and values I do. The discomfort of leaning into different cultures helps me get closer to my identities.

With the global rise in multiculturalism and more multiracial children being born than ever before, the curiosities and tribulations of negotiating one’s identity across cultures will only intensify in the coming years.

Will multicultural countries like Canada be prepared to support their citizens? Let’s start this conversation sooner rather than later. If you’ve experienced something similar or if you related to this in some way, I’d love to hear about it. Let me know in the comments below.

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