A few weeks ago, during one of my regular visits back to Seoul, I stopped by the local mogyoktang for a routine deep-body scrub. I entered the bathhouse and went through standard protocol — disrobe, shower and soak.
But as soon as I opened the glass doors and stepped onto the dark concrete floor of the bathing area, I could feel all the ahjummas’ and halmonis’ eyes on me. I tried my best to ignore their stares and washed in the middle of the room quickly so I could submerge myself in one of the hot tubs, hiding my body from view.
I love bath culture, but in South Korea, I always feel like I’m on display at the bathhouse because we’re completely naked and I’m the only one with tattoos.
I relaxed and let the hot water expel all the nasty stuff that’s been building up since my last scrub. When it was my turn, I walked over to the body scrub area, where the ahjumma in her black bra and underwear dumped a bucket of hot water on the table before I plopped my body on top of it.
She immediately started rubbing my body with a rough loofah, reaching crevices even my closest partners haven’t been privy to. I could see the dead layer of skin coming off.
“Why would you do this to your perfect body?” she chastised as she scrubbed. “Now it’s ruined. This is such a waste. Promise me you won’t get any more.”
South Korea is one of the few countries left in the world where tattoos are still illegal, and this ahjumma was just one of the older generation of Koreans who often look down on me for having them. I tried to laugh it off and not take it personally when this went on for the next 30 minutes. But it’s an example of one of the many cultural differences between me and my motherland. Even though I love her, she doesn’t always love me back.
In America, which I’ve officially called home since age 3, I’m often told that I don’t belong. Like all Asian Americans, I hate the question “Where are you from?” because it’s almost always followed up with “No, where are you really from?”
Most of us have also been told, at some point during our lives in America, to go back to “where you came from.” But I don’t fully belong there either.
Even though my family and I immigrated to the States when I was just a toddler, I never lost my mother tongue, so communication isn’t an issue when I’m in Seoul. But sometimes I’m jealous of other gyopos — those who grew up in the United States, England, Germany, Argentina, Canada, wherever — who lost the language because they don’t have to overhear the things that I do from locals who presume I don’t understand.
“Look at her — she looks homeless.”
“What do your parents think about you?”
“What is she wearing? She looks crazy.”
“I can’t believe she walks around like that.”
I didn’t return to Korea until I was 23 — a full two decades after I left. Upon arrival, I felt a wave of comfort similar to when I’m in Koreatown in Los Angeles. Finally, people who look like me.
I assumed I would automatically be accepted as a fellow Korean, but in Korea, they immediately see me as an outsider. They can tell by the way I dress and how I look, and they hear it in my accent. You’re not like us. This was a jarring realization.
In a hyper-collective, mono-ethnic, conservative culture where the status quo is celebrated, Koreans point out anything that looks different. In America, I am used to being othered because I am not white. But it’s a special kind of alienation to feel othered by your own people.
Additionally, according to the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, South Korea ranks first on a per capita basis, with 13.5 cosmetic procedures performed per 1,000 individuals. Many of those procedures attempt to conform to Korean beauty standards in which white facial features and skin are glorified. Even though I grew up in the United States and my style and identity are a blend of East meets West, my face will never be American enough for either country.
With the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes and the recent mass shooting in North Texas, in which half the fatalities were of Asian descent and included a Korean American family, it’s hard to say which home I prefer. At least in South Korea, where even the police almost never carry guns, I rarely fear for my physical safety.
But in South Korea, same-sex marriages are still illegal, mental health care is highly stigmatized despite one of the highest rates of suicide in the world and fatphobia is notoriously perpetuated — my family never hesitates to comment when I’ve gained a few pounds.
Despite how much I love visiting, I choose not to live in Seoul. Even though there are pockets of the city with young, queer, tattooed, diverse and liberal folks, like the Itaewon and Hongdae districts, I don’t want to have to live my life in confined spaces to feel accepted — just like I don’t want to be limited to the 2.7-mile radius that is Koreatown in Los Angeles.
When neither Asia nor America feel like home, Asian Americans of many different cultures have had to create our own distinct identity, as Asian Americans. We have different languages and traditions, but we are united in asking ourselves the same question I’ve asked myself for as long as I can remember: Where do I belong?
This is what so many fail to understand about the unique loneliness of being Asian in America: We’re trapped between two worlds, but we will never fully belong in either.
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