As our cashier checks out our groceries and converses with my father in Korean, I have a fleeting sense of what my own life might have been like if my parents had not immigrated to America over twenty years ago. Here, in a small grocery store teeming with all things Korean, I feel as though I could have been any ordinary girl helping her father shop back in Korea. It is a curious thought, the possibility of having another life if just a handful of decisions were made differently. But before I have more time to reflect on homelands, identities, and the ocean separating me from the birthplace of my parents, my father begins walking with our rattling cart out the door.
A glimpse of Korea is left behind in a cold, air-conditioned H-Mart and we cross the border out into the blinding Californian sunshine. Behind us is a preserved piece of Korea, a place where the other shoppers and I are no longer an Asian minority. It is a place where all the shoppers comfortably look alike, where we fully understand the quirks in each other’s behavior (as well as the cultural roots underlying these quirks), and where we would never make offensive jokes about one another’s “asianness.” But we depart from this place, sharing a bag of shrimp crackers as we roll the cart across the sweltering parking lot. I glance to my left, where I see an Original Tommy’s (a burger joint with “world famous hamburgers”), and then to my right, where I watch workers busily swarming around a car with buckets and towels at a Cali Car Wash. As I brush off the shrimp dust from my fingers, I take in the sight of the other storefronts that crowd around the parking lot. They range from a boba shop and a taekwondo clinic, to a Subway and a since-closed Blockbuster. Together, these juxtaposed fragments of culture exist unassumingly on a clustered street, providing a little taste of American diversity.
Sunday was not only set aside for these weekly trips to the market, but it was also the day where I would join masses of immigrant Asian families at church. There, I did my best to laugh and groan with other kids over our strict parents and stumble through Korean jokes. But Sundays would always come to an end and in preparation for joining a flock of American friends at school, I would carefully remove and set aside some of the “asianness” I had collected. During lunches at school, I would delightedly eat PB&J sandwiches and chicken nuggets alongside my friends while talking about what I did at my most recent Girl Scout camping trip; for dinners at home, I would eat banchan (small Korean side dishes), mounds of rice, a dish of kimchi, and a bowl of warm broth while my parents asked me about school.
After years of having these neatly divided cultural experiences, I began to perceive both race and culture as physical entities that I could travel between. Different identities came to the fore, whether I was at my all-Korean church or at my predominantly Hispanic high school, at my own Asian household or that of my Caucasian friend’s, or walking the streets of my home suburb (where Asians make up 0.8 percent of the population) or those of Koreatown (where Asians make up 30 percent of the population) a mere thirty-minute drive away. And too often, I felt that I was living life in a cultural limbo, either in one place or the other—and occasionally caught in between.
Now, I am a transplanted Asian-American on the East Coast, a place where I am certain my changing conception of race and culture will only continue to give rise to more questions. But questioning one’s identity is an integral part of transitioning into adulthood. So, as I grapple with the confusion surrounding my identity and engage in late-night common room discussions on race and what the new presidency might mean for the country, I can only try to reassure myself with one thing: that the young girl who followed her father around the market, holding sesame leaves in one hand and a tub of tofu in the other, is finally starting to grow up.