“Are you going home for the break?” is a pretty mundane question—not infrequent to small talk as the semester comes to a close. I’m sure most people can whip up a response without a single thought. It is a simple yes or no question, after all. “Yeah, I’m going home,” you might say. Or maybe, “No, I’m traveling for a while.” Either way, the answer is pretty clear: you’re either going home or you’re not. But what does it mean to be at “home?” Defining home is certainly not the same for everyone, but there are some qualities that overlap. It is a place where you may feel the most relaxed and comfortable, somewhere you generally fit in, somewhere you’ve lived for a while. Home could be somewhere all your loved ones are, where you know all the street names, or the only place you feel like you’re on familiar ground.
Along those lines, my home is surely in Oklahoma. Maybe I wasn’t born there, but I spent a good 15 years of my life there, and every memory of growing up is centered around Oklahoma—scraped knees, middle school crushes, botched haircuts. In the third grade I won the school spelling bee, several years later I made the state orchestra, and one time I spent the whole afternoon collecting bottle caps at the shore of the lake near my church. Of course I’m a die-hard Thunder fan, I put hot sauce on everything I eat, and I know all the words to Jesus Take the Wheel. With all that in mind, it’s not hard for me to say that Oklahoma is my home.
Nowadays, however, I’m actually starting to question whether my home really is in Oklahoma, as I have gradually become alienated from everything that made it feel like a part of me. My mom is selling the house, the Thunders suck, and they closed my favorite restaurant. Within 2016 alone, my mom and brother disowned me, my friends chose to side with my perpetrator, and almost everyone I know voted for Trump. In the place I called my home, I now feel the dramatic pain that can only be personified by the over-the-top acting exhibited by a character in a soap opera who loves someone who doesn’t love them back. And it’s pretty accurate, I think, to describe it this way—I love something that doesn’t love me back. In the place I believed was my home, people on the street often shout at me, “GO HOME,” as though I’m not already there.
Evidently it’s really difficult for most people to believe that my true home is in America. Apparently I need some kind of written proof that I belong here, and even then I’m labelled an “alien,” some kind of being that will never truly be one of us. They portray me as extraterrestrial, making everyone think that my place is to remain hidden behind a wall. According to US law, my true home is in South Korea, and according to US documents, that’s where I am now. (News flash: I’m not! Surprise!)
What I think those people don’t understand is that I really wish that were my reality. I want more than anything to have grown up in a place where there isn’t even a question as to whether I belong. If I had instead spent those 15 years in the place they keep telling me is my home, perhaps I could have experienced the joy of having a big extended family and enjoying old traditions together. I would be much worse at English, but at least I wouldn’t ever have to be prepared with two different answers to the question, “Where are you from?” and I certainly wouldn’t keep a list of creepy dudes with Asian fetishes to avoid. I might instead be writing about checking my privilege right now. Maybe if I had never come to this country, my family wouldn’t be broken, and I wouldn’t have ever been poor, or hungry, or homeless.
Although I now have a roof over my head and food in my stomach, I am still homeless, in a sense. A lingering feeling reminiscent of the innocence and pain of freshly scraped knees remains in the pit of my stomach, and I recognize it as the familiar, childlike ache of longing to be heard, to be seen, to be loved. I just want so badly to exist in a place where as soon as I start to cry everyone will know I am hurting and my wounds will be properly dressed. I want to wail, and thrash, and sob, and have my blubbering cries be met with soothing voices telling me they’ll fix it and that everything will be okay. If I storm away and slam my door shut in a fit of anger, I want them to knock softly on the door, calling my name, and then beckon me to come back to them, promising we’ll mend things together. Instead, my tears fall silently as I stand hidden in the shadows, frozen by fear, and before I can even think about crying out for help, I am silenced by the harsh voices spitting pure hatred at me. They tell me that I have somehow wronged them, and for that I don’t deserve to be in pain. The logic follows in some twisted way—how can I feel pain if I’m not even human?
But I am resilient, and I have yet to lose faith. Growing up, I bounced from family to family, looking for one to care for and nurture me, before I found myself at Tufts with the biggest, most loving family I could have ever asked for. Of course, we’re not a perfect family, and there’s one thing I’m still working out with them. You see, I sent them a love letter, signing it “Do you love me back? Check yes or no,” and they didn’t even respond (*cough cough* Tony Monaco). But I haven’t given up on them yet.
Someday when I find my true home, I will feel as though I’m welcome and recognized as more than just “an illegal.” I’ll live somewhere that I can jaywalk in the street without fear of being ticketed, then interrogated, then arrested, then deported. Photos of me will portray myself smiling happily with my new family, and then I can burn the fake portraits of me posing with my green-card-marriage step-father that I only just met. I’ll host a big dinner party with all my friends and look around at their faces with gratitude untainted by anxiety for my future with them. We’ll argue about politics without heavy hearts, and maybe I’d shed a tear as I watch who wins in the first election I ever voted in, but I won’t feel afraid. At my first Red Sox game, during the national anthem, I’ll put my hand over my heart with pride, as though I’ve been singing it my whole life. Then on the grungy subway ride back I’ll think, What the hell are they spending my tax money on? And soon, I’ll fly back to Korea for a brief trip to meet my family for the first time, then return safely in a few short weeks. At the airport, they’ll scan my passport without even blinking, and then upon arriving at my house, I’ll crawl straight into bed and sigh in utter relief to be back in a comforting familiarity. I’ll take a deep breath and think, I am home.
But for now, I’ll just fake it till I make it.