Sorry for Being International

Written by Seo Young Lee (COL ‘21) for International New Student Orientation 2018

Today I want to talk about something that isn’t a singular defining moment but one that has repeatedly occurred to me. Hi, my name is Seo Young - I’ll normally start off in introductions. I’m a sophomore in the College.  When people ask where I’m from, it’s usually the part that follows that gets complicated.

I’m from Korea, I’ll say.

Oh, which school in Korea did you go to?

Actually, I graduated from an American school in Singapore.

So that’s where you live? They’ll usually ask after.

No.. I live in London at the moment.

Most people give a friendly chuckle at my response, others look confused, but more often than I’ve expected, people tell me where they’re from and then add a comment along the lines of, “Oh, my life is so boring compared to yours!” or “Well, I’m definitely not as interesting.”

I think everyone has meant it as a compliment, but I began feeling more and more hyper-aware of my international identity after receiving such reactions. It occurred to me that the fact that I had lived in multiple countries growing up -- a definite privilege -- is a part of my identity that I wasn't explicitly aware of. It’s commonly thought that travelling the world gives you a wider perspective, so I always assumed that living the international life sculpted me a panoramic lens of the world. But being surrounded completely by international students like myself, I was living in a bubble. A strange world where it’s the norm to speak a different language at home and be suffering from some kind of jet lag in class. Have any of you heard of Derek Siver’s fish in water analogy? It’s kind of like that. Fish don’t know they’re in water, and if you tried to explain it, they’d say, “Water? What’s water?”

I was born in Seoul but spent my life growing up in Indonesia, England, and Singapore. For some reason unknown to me, I’ve won the ‘ovarian lottery', as my tenth grade English teacher once put it. I realised that a factual introduction of myself could come off as being boastful to some people, and it was unsettling to think that I'd been oblivious to this before coming to Georgetown. I had never meant to imply that my background was more exciting or interesting than anyone else simply by stating where I was from, and the possibility of offending others in that way was pretty upsetting for me to register. Perhaps this is the common misconception that people have with international students.

I’ve had the incredible privilege of calling several places my home, but I will never get the experience of growing up in one place, sharing the richness of adolescence with the same crowd of people. Moving around so much, you also lose the kind of blood-bonded loyalty to a sports team that I’ve personally always wanted. And not to mention losing friends who move away every single year. The discomfort that I've felt during introductions was an important reminder of the gaps in everyone’s cultural understanding. I may have lived in Singapore, but I’ve never been to the West Coast, and I am fascinated by it. Others may not know where Singapore is exactly, but I'm not even sure I can name all fifty states. There is no one cultural background that exceeds another. I think it’s important to remember that when we’re out of the water, unease is a given. In fact, I hope we can use this discomfort as a signal for more conversation.

My parents always tell me there’s plenty of fish in the sea. But I think there’s plenty of fish out of the water, too.