What It Takes To Become An American

Learning the history of this land and connecting with its people

November is Native American Heritage Month. It seems fitting since it has Thanksgiving Day in it. To tell you the truth, my knowledge of Native American heritage only scratches its surface. As you cannot see what you don’t know, I do not see Native Americans. I probably see people who are Native American while being unaware that they are Native Americans. In my brain, they live in the past, in lands far away from me, both in time and space.

I have lived in the United States for the last 23 years. For most of it, I did not think consciously of myself as Asian American. I was concerned about my life as an individual as if it stands on its own, independent from the racial and ethnic dynamics in this country.

Among what the COVID-19 pandemic brought me is a wake-up call that I cannot live my life in the US without being Asian, without the constant reminder of it. While other Asians fell victim to violence targeted at them for having Asian bodies, I had to accept the truth that this violence can happen to me at any moment. As I cannot escape my Asian body, I cannot escape my Asian identity whether I want it or not.

Meanwhile, other things happened that made me contemplate the latter half of my label—Asian American. In the first episode of a podcast I just launched with my Korean friend, we talked about our ethnic identities. I confessed, “I don’t call myself American.” That label feels inaccurate. At the same time, I am not fully Korean, if it makes any sense, because I am afraid of living in Korea. “Korean American” is a compromise I can use to label myself. Still, this word “American” doesn’t work as an expression of my identity; it is rather a descriptor of where I live, as in the name of my new podcast channel: American K-sisters (more info at the bottom). Its Korean name is 미국사는 언니들, literally translated as “sisters who live in the US.” That’s what I am.

This year, the American corner of my identity shifted through a series of experiences: two museums, one book, and one day of the tour. This spring, after being inspired by Dorothy Wickenden’s book the Agitators: Three Friends Who Fought for Abolition and Women’s Rights, my mother-in-law arranged a family trip to Upstate New York. We first went to the Visitor Center of Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, NY, and then Seward House Museum in Auburn, NY. I learned a lot about the interracial coalition among suffragettes, but what hit me hardest was how the Seward house served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. At the time of our visit, an exhibition, Forged in Freedom: The Bond of the Seward Tubman Families, was being held in the basement of the house, where Harriet Tubman had lived with other Black people whom she rescued from Southern states. As I stood in a dark kitchen area with its original stone walls, I felt the power of place. All of sudden, the Underground Railroad was not a term out of a US history book. It was under my own feet. I could picture people moving around the small stove in long skirts and slacks.

An image of the Harriet Tubman Memorial in Cambridge, Maryland by Preservation Maryland

Anti-black racism and the Black Lives Matter movement were not new to me, but I never felt personally connected to the issue. At most, I supported the movement in solidarity because I believed that coalition in the fight for justice is vital. After all, I was not a Black person, and I do not have Black experience. However, the momentary connection I felt with Tubman developed further when I read Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, Jason Reynolds’ remake of Ibram X. Kendi’s book. What I learned from this book was more expansive and impactful than the whole year worth of my US History class from high school. The information I got out of that class was a compilation of proper nouns and dates, which escaped my memory shortly after the graduation exam. Feeling more knowledgeable about Black history in the US made me feel more qualified to be American. You cannot fully understand yourself without knowing your history. No wonder I had a hard time identifying myself as American. I had not known the true history of this country, in which I have been living for two decades.

But I knew that US history did not start with Black slavery. While researching the real story behind Thanksgiving Day, I stumbled upon RhodeTour.org. It has 35 self-guided tours around Rhode Island with descriptions and images of historical sites and figures. My partner and I went on a tour called First Peoples of Rhode Island curated by Dr. Katharine Kirakosian and Tomaquag Museum. I had a moment of silence before the stone marker where Metacomet was killed at the end of King Philip’s War. I circled around the Great Swamp Fight Monument where Princess Red Wing initiated the Great Swamp Massacre Ceremony, which continues to this date.

Mural at 32 Custom House Street (Courtesy of Cat Laine): Created by the artist Gaia, in consultation with the Tomaquag Museum, "Still Here" depicts Lynsea Montanari, a member of the Narragansett tribe and educator at Tomaquag. Lynsea is holding a photo of Princess Red Wing.

The knowledge I gained from these visits and reading transformed me not just mentally but spiritually. I no longer felt like a permanent visitor. I felt more connected to the people who came before me on this land. For the first time, I felt more open to the idea of applying for US citizenship. On paper, a person might be able to become a citizen of a new country overnight, but it takes more than forms and fees to be one in their heart.



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P.S.1. Check out my previous letters about my experience as a Korean/Asian American.

P.S.2. Here is my first ever podcast with my best friend, Heena: American K-sisters. We talk about our experiences of living in the United States as Korean women over the last decades. It’s in Korean, so please share it with your Korean friends (if any). I’d very much appreciate it!