Recently, I came across an article in Axios with the headline, “Asian Americans least likely to feel they belong in U.S., study finds.” Quoting from a survey jointly conducted by the Asian American Foundation, the article reported, “Only 22% of Asian Americans said they feel they belong and are accepted in the U.S.”
CNN, too, recently reported that many second-generation Korean immigrants to the US are moving to South Korea because “they always felt like outcasts, always felt outside” in American society. However, CNN also pointed out that many of this group soon move back to the US because they feel that they are not welcome in Korea, either. According to the CNN reporters behind the story, therefore, Korean Americans feel “Neither here, nor there.”
Perhaps, the main reason for the difficulty of Asian Americans’ assimilation into American society is that Asians look rather different from white people. Most Asians cannot blend in, due to their radically different looks. Perhaps white peoplein Korea would feel the same because of their different appearances, no matter how fluent their Korean is.
Indeed, in the US, Asian Americans frequently encounter questions like “Where are you from?” If you reply, “I’m from California,” or “I was born in LA,” then another question will follow: "Where are you from originally?” “What do you mean by originally?” Frustrated, you want to protest, “Didn’t I just tell you I was born here in America?”
Indeed, such questions do not arise as frequently when the other party is a European American. Only Asian Americans have to deal with such questions. It is no wonder that few Asian Americans feel that they truly belong in America.
Humans are social animals and thus want to belong somewhere where they can flock together. It would give them a sense of not being alone because they could merge in a group of people who had a similar look and background. Therefore, it is only natural that people are attached to their hometowns and home countries, families and relatives, or alma maters and various organizations. Indeed, belonging makes you feel secure and comfortable by providing you with a point of reference and a place to return.
Nevertheless, you do not actually need to belong to any particular place. If you belong nowhere, you can enjoy the freedom of independence. Writers and intellectuals, especially, are free souls and spiritual wanderers who resist and often even detest belonging to a particular cultural faction or a specific political ideology.
Traditionally, great writers and intellectuals have always chosen the freedom of spiritual exile. For example, James Joyce refused to belong to even his own country when it tried to fetter his literary imagination with its political and religious ideologies. Joyce said, “I do not fear to be alone or to be spurned for another or to leave whatever I have to leave.” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, too, was an exile from a communist country that had suffocated his literary mind.
Those exiled writers were not necessarily lonely because they were free to move from any fixed place and belong everywhere instead. Indeed, Joyce spent time writing in Italy, France and Switzerland. Writing and lecturing around the world, Solzhenitsyn, too, became a global writer. The two great writers showed us the importance of belonging nowhere and everywhere at the same time.
Other great writers and thinkers, too, stressed the significance of belonging nowhere and everywhere. For example, Rumi, a 13th-century Persian poet said, “I am neither of the East nor of the West. No boundaries exist within my breast.”
The late Edward Said wrote, “For objective reasons that I had no control over, I grew up as an Arab with a Western education. Ever since I can remember, I have felt that I belong to both worlds, without being completely of either one or the other.”
Not only writers and thinkers, but also ordinary people, too, can enjoy the freedom of belonging nowhere and the pleasure of belonging everywhere. For example, when a Korean makes a trip to other Asian countries, he can think of himself as Asian, not simply as a Korean. When he journeys to Africa, America, or Europe, he can travel around as a global citizen, not simply as an Asian. Then, wherever he goes, he will be comfortable and can make himself at home, for he belongs nowhere and everywhere.
Therefore, Asian Americans do not need to be sad or frustrated simply because they feel they do not belong in American society or Asian society. Instead, they can cherish their unique situation of belonging nowhere and everywhere. The reward is spiritual freedom.
As Maya Angelou wisely said, "You are only free when you realize you belong no place --you belong every place -- no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great."
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.