The Unspoken Connections
There is something quaint and yet so familiar in sitting at a local bar in a small provincial Italian town where I do not speak nor understand more than a few basic phrases, and yet I can imagine the conversations and sentiments of those sitting around us.
A table of four old, weathered men playing cards in a game similar to Hearts brings about a heated conversation between partners that one does not need to speak the language to understand the losing pair is upset by each other’s method of play.
All of this brings a smile and a deep sense of joy within. The world may be divided by language, culture, and country, but the fact is that people are people and so much the same—no matter where they grow up or call their ‘country’.
It makes me consider my own sense of connection to the world. I was born in Korea and raised in America. Yet, neither make me feel as if I belong. However, when I sit in strange lands where I can barely communicate with words, I find a sense of peace in the gestures, eye contact and facial expressions that can say everything that needs to be said without aural expression. I love to wander back streets and see what the “locals” do and how they live.
The truth is that it is simpler for me being a stranger in a truly strange land (to me). There’s no confusion about where I belong or to which culture I identify with. Instead, the human-to-human connection is what gives me a sense of belonging. To make eye contact with a smile lets me know that I am part of this world. I am seen. I am understood. I belong right here, right now—in this or that moment. What else is there, really?
Many have questioned my lack of interest in returning to my adoptive country. Some assume that I would want to return to my land of birth. I love being American and all the ideals that are attached to calling myself so. However, I was born in a country that holds my heritage and blood history. Yet, I don’t speak my mother tongue (and probably first language) nor could I easily slip into a world where I could confidently call myself Korean. So, it’s a strange juxtaposition that must constantly be negotiated for definition each time I speak to someone new or settle in a different place. Therefore, being an expat has made the requisite explanations easier to justify or push aside in some ways.
This is not to say that I don’t have my frustrations of being asked “Where are you from?” Followed by, “No, where are you really from?”
The difference is that I can blame the persistent questions on lack of world exposure or use my "white privilege" to chalk it up to a lack of education. If I were being asked the same questions by my fellow Americans, I would add to my eye-rolling judgment disdain and rage for their ignorance that I am not deceiving them about claiming to be a fellow American. If I were being asked in Korea, I would feel embarrassment or discomfort in the fact that I was born there but not really from there pushing back any underlying disappointment in being a result of a society’s inability to accept unwed mothers so that they can keep their children close.
Still, people are people.
It’s only me who does not stay put as I wander the world trying to find where I can finally rest and enter the flow of society as one of the crowd.
My mother once said to me that there is a selfishness to expats. They leave loved ones behind for their own desires. I am not sure if she meant it as a criticism or a neutral observation, but she wasn’t the only person to tell me this. A childhood best friend also lamented in an email argument some years ago about how I had left her behind without seemingly caring that she had to struggle early adulthood minus a kindred spirit.
I do not deny their sentiments as truths nor dismiss their feelings of being ignored or left behind. However, I do argue that there is a selfishness in their perspective as well in that they believe(d) I felt comfortable and content in their kind of world. A world of convention, tradition, and consistency was removed from my future when I was given up for adoption, sent overseas, and thrown unwittingly into a system that would introduce me to abuse, further abandonment, and a struggle for acceptance that I would “belong” to any one family before I had lived eight short years of life.
So, while I might have appeared on the outside to fit in. I never did on the inside.
Thus, I continue to wander the world. I do not do it alone nor with discontent. In fact, I often feel closer to those with whom I cannot communicate than with those who have known me as an adopted person. In foreign lands, I can be whomever I want to be. My identity does not need to be neatly wrapped up in a box for other’s comfort.
Instead, I can be me. I can focus on what is important to me, which is having a human connection to others and finding the commonality of our spirits. When an understood smile is passed in a shared experience that did not require any other form of communication, I renew my faith in individuals, societies, and the world.
Indeed, I feel free. I feel I belong as a person, as a global citizen, as a universal Asian.