One random day in college, a friend and I got into a conversation about why I am so adamant in saying I am from Argentina when I have, in fact, lived in Paraguay for most of my life and I am of Korean ethnicity. (I lived in PY from the time I was six until nineteen and both of my parents are Korean). This was something I had never thought of deeply, so I was taken aback by the thought of questioning it. For me, it was always natural to say, “I am from Argentina.”
The word “from” implies not just ethnicity, but where I grew up, citizenship rights, what language (and accent) I am most comfortable with, and what culture is the most innate in me. The only country that fits all of the above is Argentina.
Why I could never say I am from Korea:
The only citizenship I have held since birth until now has been that of Argentina. When I came to Korea for university, I didn’t enjoy any privileges for being ethnically Korean. I had the same visa as any other foreign student. Although I had the same visa as any other foreign student, people often thought I was a Korean citizen and would often think I enjoyed privileges which I did not. This made me more adamant to share that I am from Argentina paper-wise and culture-wise. I hated it when people assumed I enjoyed benefits for being of Korean ethnicity because the nation of Korea had not given me any benefits whatsoever, whereas Argentina felt like the country that reared me and gave me the background to be a person with rights.
It’s been six years of living in Korea, and I am still learning a million new things about its culture. I am learning how I am expected to interact with fellow Koreans. I always make some blunder that teaches me a huge lesson in interacting with a Korean-Korean. Hierarchy does not get any simpler the more I learn about it. There are so many exceptions, rules, and seemingly unchangeable systems that apply to it that I am at a loss on how to ever get the hang of it. I always think that now I know enough, but always discover that there’s layers and layers to be discovered before I ever get at the core of what it means to be a Korean.
Why I could never say I am from Paraguay:
When I moved to Paraguay from Argentina (for those of you who don’t know, Paraguay and Argentina both speak Spanish), I distinctly remember people thought my accent and my vocabulary were weird. So wherever I went, people would say, “That’s Eli from Argentina.” However, living in Paraguay for such a long time, I started to slowly talk like a Paraguayan. Still, my classmates knew that if I was caught off-guard or if I got really upset, my Argentinean accent would come back. So they would provoke me, and my Argentinean would come out to my peers’ amusement. So it always felt like deep down inside, there was still an Argentinean in me, and I had to protect that.
Also, Paraguay once ranked as the third most corrupt country in the whole world. From the moment we moved to Paraguay, my mom tried to get my brother and me a permanent residency card. A process that should have taken one year ended up taking almost nine years because my mom refused to pay the bribe fee. I can’t feel loyal to a country that made it almost impossible to legally reside in it.
On top of all of this, I seem to know all of these unspoken things about Argentinean culture that I didn’t even know I knew. I started discovering this as I started teaching Spanish in the current school I am at. I would think up of things to say about Argentinean culture, then pause and think to myself, ‘How can I be sure this is really Argentinean? Maybe it’s just something my mind made up.’ So I researched it. And every time, it turned out that whatever I thought of was, indeed very Argentinean. In contrast, most of my Korean, Paraguayan, and international-English-speaking cultures feel like they’ve been acquired. They feel ‘acquired cultures’ because I remember how or when I learned that these cultures do things a certain way.
In other words, they are ‘taught’ cultures. Of course, there are a few Korean-cultural things that I just knew because my family did them, but after living in Korea for almost six years, I realize that was just the tip of the ice-berg. The Korean culture has been evolving and transforming in ways that make it VERY different to the kind of ‘Korean culture’ I was exposed to at home. Also, there’s the fact that the only exposure to it I had was from my own family and occasional churches on Sundays whereas Korean culture is a much bigger thing than that spectrum of exposure.
And so far, Korea hasn’t really given me any legal rights until very recently (this is another long story). So, I still feel most comfortable saying I am from Argentina. This country has given me a citizenship and has been a huge part of my basic culture formation. On top of that I have Paraguay and Korea, along with the international English-speaking-culture have mixed in me.
But until further notice,
I am, sincerely,
An Argentinean of Korean ethnicity who lived in Paraguay for a long time and attended various international schools (a.k.a. international-English-speaking schools) and can’t really give you a short answer on ‘where I am from’