Nestor’s last post got me thinking about nationality. When I first backpacked Southeast Asian countries, one of the most surprising experiences was that people ask “where are you from?” first, than “what’s your name?”. Of course, in such a situation where you need to figure out this stranger as quickly as possible, nationality could tell way more than a name. I’d feel like I have more information if this fellow backpacker told me that he’s from Belgium than if he told me that his name is Peter. It is also a better conversation starter, saying ‘oh, I’ve been there…’ ‘I always wanted to go there…’, ‘what’s living in Europe like?’, etc.
So it made me think more about my nationality and it was then when I realized that I cannot exist just as I am without being Korean. This nationality, whether I like it or not, is something that I have to carry wherever I go and it might have bigger impact than I thought or would like to have on how I’m perceived and treated in the world.
Whenever I get asked where I am from, I first answered “Korea’” I used to think this would be a good enough answer because I – naively?- thought that people would (should?) already know that most North Koreans cannot travel as freely as I did. But when I get a following question immediately, “Which Korea?”, I realized that people might not be so interested in what’s going on in this small corner of the world. Then I came to appreciate that following question as they didn’t automatically assume that I worship our ‘dear leader’ Kim. So I started to give a bit clearer answer by answering “South Korea”.
Forunately or unfortunately, most people I met during my travel did not really know or care about the fact that there are two Koreas. Those who naturally understood that I am from South Korea without a follow-up question were perhaps smart ones. Those who did ask a follow-up question of ‘which’ were also okay, now I think, because there were a few who brilliantly declared, “Oh, I know there are 2 Koreas. Which one are you from?” but then totally shocked me with “East or West?”.
Well, having to answer more than once about where I am from isn’t that annoying. They probably get to see more media coverage on North Korea. Not everybody knows where Korea is, anyway. (Once I asked my friend from Nigeria to point where Korea is on a huge world map, his finger lingered around Bhutan.) What could be annoying is when I go through immigration with a not-so-smart officer. Some of them do not know ‘Republic of Korea’ sign on my passport is the same thing as South Korea!! So out of sudden they get so serious thinking hard whether they should reject me because I don’t have a visa. Even worse, he may find ‘Korea’ on a list of countries that require a ‘special attention’. Hard to believe, I know. But I did have an experience where I was detained for about an hour in the small office while they tried to put me on the next flight back, just because this one officer at the immigration window thought I was from North Korea and nobody else bothered to check it over. (I was saved by another officer walking by then noticed me, and thank god, he knew ‘Seoul – South Korea – democracy’ vs. ‘North Korea – communist’!!! – this is exactly what came out of his mouth to explain his colleagues)
This experience kind of traumatized me. So whenever I need to show my nationality, I often overemphasize it by answering (nervously) almost 3 times, like “Korea…(if no reaction)… South Korea… or Republic of Korea, you know (with a big smile)”.
But no matter how hard I try to help them distinguish South Korea from North Korea, I know that at the end of the day, they will write in their journal, ‘Today I met this girl from China’…. 😦