|A Korean, a Chinese, a Japanese, and an American|
It could have been because of family tradition, or the memory of rustling paper. In London for several weeks of research, there came that Saturday when I followed my feet to Chinatown, crowded along two narrow streets and so small that a person standing at the south gate could easily view the gate marking the north end. Both gates, with rows of lights laced around their perimeters, flashed as gaudily as any Lite-Brite board. In their glare one could catch the outline of rain-shadowed storefronts whose names gestured toward the Chinese relationship to Britain, even if it was once a colonial one, perhaps claiming their right to their square block of city. Hong Kong Garden. Hong Kong Restaurant. Empire Takeaway.
But really, I was in Chinatown for another reason, too--I had grown tired of having British bus drivers approach me in front of their red double-deckers and ask very loudly, "Japanese? Tour guide of city?" I had become tired of answering, "No, I’m an American, and I don’t need a tour." On an excursion to the Tower of London, I bought a hot dog at a stand just outside the main entrance. "Arigato, " the man said politely with a little nod of his head. I looked at him confusedly.
"I’m sorry; I’m actually American," I said.
"Oh!" He smiled. "So sorry. I suppose you speak American, then? Could you do something for me? Say ‘water.’" He had the silent British "r." Wat-uh.
"Water," I said. His wife giggled and tossed her long brown hair behind her shoulders.
"Wa-ter," she repeated, exaggerating the "r" at the end of the word. "Wah-turrrr."
What do you do when you are displaced and long for a setting to walk around in without being so conscious of your face? I suppose I could have gone somewhere completely isolated, some nature sanctuary out in the country, but for the moment the interest of frugality confined me to the London city limits. So instead, I plunged into a promenade of restaurants and groceries with roast duck hanging in the windows and little curio shops displaying necklaces with the signs of the zodiac. There, I found that I was still conscious of being me--in fact, perhaps even more so. As I grew older my childhood relief at the way in which American Chinatowns instantly cloaked me in invisibility had given way to a sort of detached amusement; the childhood taunts had been silenced by adult PC-ness and, I hoped, genuine mutual respect. But here, the bands of teenagers in dark clothes who clustered in the middle of the street, conversing in Chinese and flipping shaggy bleached bangs away from their faces, followed me with curious eyes as I wandered down the block; the storeowners addressed me in English when I came in to glance at their wares. Even if to other tourists I had become Chinese and part of the local scenery, the residents of Chinatown seemed to know instantly that I had blown in from some foreign place. I was simultaneously invisible and visible in Chinatown: an ethnic Korean who looked Chinese, an ethnic Korean who was not Chinese, a Korean American who was not British.
That is why I left after only twenty minutes, only to encounter at the exit to Chinatown the fan club I hadn’t even known I had. There was an irony to the situation that made it almost funny, that I had come here to feel unconscious of myself and had done so so successfully that I felt more aware of myself than ever, to the point where I wanted to feel my difference, in fact, to make sure that the coat of arms printed on my passport was real and that my parents hadn’t just been kidding when they raised their children to practice traditional Korean rituals at New Year’s and listen to the Korean language at home. For years I had negotiated the question, "Who am I?" with an awareness of sliding across some scale between "Korean" and "American," of sitting on the hyphen that joins "Korean-American," and had thought I had come to some answers I could live with. I would love to think that we are the agents of creating our own identities. But somewhere in the world in someone’s photo collection, my face stares out from between a metal structure rimmed with lights, with a caption beneath it that I can only hope is wrong.
A Korean, a Chinese, a Japanese, and an American