“Dari mana, kak?” Where are you from, sister?
I’ve been exposed. I can pass for Indonesian until I’m asked one too many questions. From the back of the motorbike and over the hum of wind, engine, and smog, I say, “Saya dari Amerika.” I’m from America.
Don’t say it, don’t say it, don’t say it—
“Tapi wajahmu terlihat seperti orang Cina?” But your face looks Chinese?
Is this a teaching moment or a rage moment?
Most times I revert to teacher/cultural ambassador mode. My parents are from Korea, I explain. Then, channeling my inner Langston Hughes, I sing, but I was born in and live in America. So, I, too, am America. Other times, my wicked—ok, maybe weird more so than wicked—sense of humor kicks in, prompting: I’m actually Indonesian. I derive an almost perverse satisfaction in stunning my driver, as he silently mouths in disbelief, What kind of Indonesian speaks Indonesian like you?
If the dash in “Korean-American” were a seesaw, then my existence is a balancing act. Sometimes I’m foolish enough to upset the equilibrium and lean my weight towards one identity, as I think the context calls for. While studying abroad in Seoul, South Korea, I had to earn my stripes by proving I was Korean enough. On the playgrounds of Norris Elementary and Norris Middle schools and to the occasional gentleman who is still clarifying in the 21st century, “No, where are you really from?”, I had to prove my Americanness.
It wasn’t until I entered college and took courses in fields of study—such as ethnic studies and Asian American studies—that have been historically neglected in traditional disciplines did I begin to learn about the negative repercussions that arise from a lack of diverse representation and leadership. It wasn’t until I received fellowships from the Council of Korean Americans and the Charles B. Rangel International Affairs Program that I saw my identity as an-American-with-Korean-heritage not as a liability but as a bonus.
Because, diversity is a core value from which the United States draws its strength; we must embrace it. A wider range of stories, languages, and vantage points leads to greater competencies to manage relationships in a complex, changing, and challenging world. There exists a direct correlation between diversity and creativity (McKinsey & Company, 2018; Center for Strategic & International Studies, 2018; United States Office of Personnel Management, 2016). This is the America I am from, and the America I would like to share with this Go-Jek driver. This is the America I am.
But, off my Go-Jek ride and soapbox, I go.