What It Means To Be An “American” – Undergraduate Admission Essay
Being an “American” has been a learning process for me. Unlike most students, majority of my life was spent living in Korea. Every aspect of myself, I believed to
be Korean. However, compared to foreign students here at New York University, I was shocked to see that I was more American than I realized. Yet what did being “American” mean to me. Did it mean having a citizenship, having a blond hair, blue eyed look, speaking only English, being oblivious to worldly affairs…? During this class, I began to explore what it means to be American while searching for my own place within this context of “American-ness.”
My new life began seven years ago when I arrived in New York. I was informed that we were moving only three days before our departure. It angered me that my parents made the decision without consulting me. I became apprehensive since I did not know any English. All I had learned up until this point were simple expressions and nouns, such as hello, good-bye, apple, father, mother, and the like. For the next three days before my departure, I started to focus solely on English in school, hoping it would help me to have a better grasp of English. At the same time, I thought of every possible horrifying situation that could happen to me in the United States. I anticipated my classmates mocking me for not knowing English, not having any friends and being lonely all the time, feeling disabled due to the lack of my English skills. I tried to come up with solutions to difficulties that might occur.
When my parents saw me in my room depressed, they kept on emphasizing the “American dream,” and how I could be successful in 20 years, but, at the time, I thought that the dream could not come true. As a matter of fact, I began to lose my confidence in matters relating to immigrating to America. Seeing this, my relatives, cousins, friends, and teachers encouraged me to strive for success and to perceive this misfortune as an excellent opportunity. Their comments did not make me feel any better about moving to another country that did not have any similarities to my culture. I was not an adventurer who was interested in going to another country to learn foreign customs and language. In fact, I was the exact opposite of an adventurer; I loved to stay in my comfort zone, where I can easily communicate with others.
After three days of near death from anxiety, I finally landed in Queens, New York. After seeing people from all over the world, and looking at different signs on the street in English I was even more frustrated, nervous, and scared. During the short break before I entered elementary school officially, I started studying English intensely so that I would not struggle as much. My first impression of elementary school in New York was very similar to what I had expected. There were boys playing football with hands and groups of girls talking to each other. When I entered my classroom, I was introduced as a boy who came from South Korea and spoke a bit of English. Surprisingly, my classmates kept silent, when I expected some kind of greeting. It was customary in Korea for the class to greet the new student in unison. Thus, I thought my classmates were uncomfortable and unhappy that I joined the class. Nevertheless, I did not really care because it was only six months away from graduation. As time passed, I became more isolated from the class. However, I created some friends who helped me with English. They were affable enough to teach me English and sit next to me during lunch, but the rest were less than friendly- they only teased and embarrassed me. When I was in school, I could participate only in math, gym, and music with my classmates, but I could not participate in classes where English was predominately used. Fortunately, I had an awesome teacher. My teacher paired me with one of my classmates’ everyday to teach me English one-on-one out in the hallway while my other classmates were learning, and this helped accelerate the process of learning English.
A year later, due to several problems, my family decided to move to New Jersey, where the majority was Caucasians. This was the beginning of the second chapter in my life. When I was informed that we were moving again, I was not surprised that my parents unilaterally decided again, but once again I was afraid. My English was better than when I first arrived, but participating in class was still difficult. When I entered the building of my new school, I did not feel uncomfortable. I was already familiar with schools in America. However, the atmosphere was different. The fact that I was one of the few Asians in the school allowed me to be welcomed by my classmates and faculty. My first few days of school, compared to my old school in New York, were very different. Instead of indifference, I received the attention of the faculty and classmates, which I greatly appreciated. There were many people who desired to be my friend. Everyday people sat next to me during lunch, walked home with me, and said hello to me in the hallways. All this interest in me made me comfortable and it brought my confidence level back to where it was in Korea. When I entered high school, I started to think of the “American dream” again and I felt that it could happen to me as well. In high school, I became more outgoing. In order to become successful, I started to study harder and got involved in many sports teams, clubs, and volunteer work in school. However, I always had the disadvantage of being a foreigner. Some classmates still teased me for speaking only a bit of English.
The third chapter of my life began when I came to New York University. Last year, during the brutal application process, I made my decision to go to New York University, where it was known to be very diverse. The number of Korean students, Korean international students and Asian students was one of the key factors that motivated me to choose this institution over other colleges and I was excited to join the group of international students from Korea. I have met numerous Koreans who were born in America and I always thought that we were different. Although, we looked similar, I grew up in Korea, and they grew up in America. I thought that if I associated with international students it would bring my identity back to where it was seven years ago. Through a New York University online club that was made for Korean international students’ class of 09,’ I met tons of Korean international students. After chatting with them online, I found that we shared many common interests, I became overjoyed about going to college. Although I was going to a new place, it was different than moving from Seoul to New York, or New York to New Jersey, because I already made friends and it gave me confidence. The first day when I arrived in New York University, I started to meet up with friends that I made online. I was nervous and excited to see them because I had never seen them in real life and it had been a long time since I talked to a group of Koreans who just came from Korea. When I saw them for the first time at New York University, it was very awkward. They all said “hi” to me, but they were not happy to see me. They said hi, and then they went back to whatever they were doing. It reminded me of my first day in elementary school in New York, but I did not really care. I still had a strong feeling that we could still be good friends in a couple days because we came and grew up in Korea. I figured it felt awkward because it was our first time seeing each other. As time passed by, my prediction was off the mark. In addition, they began to treat me like a foreigner. I became distinguishable in that group and I felt uncomfortable to remain within that group. Surprisingly, the very friendly people I met the first couple of days at New York University were Koreans who were born in America. Unlike the international students, they welcomed me and were very friendly.
After spending seven years in America, I realized that my identity has changed. At the same time I regained the identity, which I had previously lost, again at New York University after encountering different types of Koreans. I always thought that I was a hundred percent Korean. However, I realized that I have become Americanized by my surroundings and peers. My five years in New Jersey without any Koreans in my school brought a massive change in my life. I became more comfortable with my Korean friends who were born in America than international students who just arrived in America. My friends who were born in America seem to understand me more than the international students do. Although, being an official American is determined by a United States citizenship, I consider myself an American.
But what does it mean to be an American? It was more than just a simple definition. I saw that there is no accepted generalization of being American. How was it that a person like me born outside of America be American? As I went to school, I had to deal with racism. They called me ‘chink’ and sometimes told me to go back to my country, back to where I was born. Was it because I did not speak English well? Was it because I was not white? As I read books written by American authors, being American was more than just a matter of skin color. It was the ideas that shaped someone to be an American.
There are many people in America that speak English differently. There are the Indian people who speak English with a different accent than Koreans. There are the people from the south who speak English differently than a person from New York. Even in New York, I saw that Brooklyn people spoke a very unique kind of English. But these people are still Americans no? In the beginning, I talked about the “American dream.” I believed that these people all came to this country for the same reason as me. The reasons being finding the opportunities that were not available back home where we came from and becoming successful through our hard work here.
America was a country that was founded by Puritans who believed in the importance of hard work. These are the roots of America. When I was Korea, I was told that America was a country that worked hard, and had the best resources available to those who wanted to succeed. It was an equal country. I believe this is the real face of America most of us forget. Every time, someone told me to go back to my country, I wanted to say “I deserve to be here just as much as you.” My parents work hard, and we are not as fortunate as those who live in luxury, but I know that in the near future, this life is also possible for me.
Every race, not just Koreans, experienced racism at some point in their American experience. Yet like me, they worked hard, believed that one day it would get better. They had to start somewhere and I am starting from the beginning. It is still frustrating that being an American still means being a blond hair, blue eyed person. I still feel like I don’t belong, but I know that if an American came to Korea, he would feel the same way. However, through time and perseverance, being accepted is only a matter of time.
I am still Korean, but it seems as if I have assimilated into the American culture to a point where I consider myself American as well. When I first met the Korean international students, I approached them how American students approached me. I was friendly and nice, but I realized that it is hard to become friends with people who don’t share the same interests as you. These students wanted to go drink and party till 5 in the morning, but it was not something I wanted to do. These students were very inclusive and did not want to meet new people outside of race. They viewed the outsiders with suspicion and like me, in the beginning, did not want to leave their comfort zone. They didn’t feel the need to make new friends, or friends outside of their race. It was a hassle and unnecessary. Within these 7 years, I saw myself becoming an adventurer. It did not matter if a person was white or Korean, as long they were friendly and shared the same interest as me, I was able to become their friends.
The final chapter of this story is too early to write but I see myself becoming more American. I think this is evident in that fact that slowly I find myself thinking in English. As I become more comfortable with my command of the English language, I see myself becoming the confident Korean kid I was before, before I came here. Yet there are times when I feel there is still much Korean in me. I am scared to argue with a teacher or an elder, because in Korea, people with age are highly respected. I know that living in a country that values individualism, I became an individual and do not feel the need to hang out in a group like the international students. I am not afraid to be around new people and new environment. Instead, I do not see this as a misfortune, but an excellent opportunity to grow and learn more about myself. I didn’t believe when I came here 7 years ago that I would see myself as an American but time and effort changed me into a whole new person, an Americanized Korean.
I am not a Korean American. I am an Americanized Korean. The ideas and customs of Korea are deeply rooted in my bones but all around it are American ideals. Sometimes I think it is unfortunate that when I go back to Korea, I will not be considered hundred percent Korean. However, when I think I have a place in America, that I belong here, I am proud of the progress I made and sacrifices I had to make. There are still those in America that believe that being American has something to do with skin color, but it has become my goal to prove them wrong. It is the hard work, persevering through the hardships, learning to work and live together with other races that make someone American. These are the values that America was first founded on and these are the values that I will carry on in my walk as an Americanized Korean. This is the America my parents saw when they first moved here and this is the America I see in the near future, not only for me, but for other Koreans as well.