Written by Nic Ramos Flores, ETA ’12-14
The first night I met my host family, we sat down, all seven of us, to a table packed with a feast fit for a king. There must have been 20 different little dishes all perfectly plated, and love just permeated from the food. The twins were arguing about something and my host parents were chatting as we waited for my host grandma to come back to the table.
After we said grace, I dove into one of the dishes that looked like something from home. What was most surprising was that it actually tasted like home. The meat, which was meticulously cut and mixed with peppers and other seasonings, was delicious, just like mami used to make. My host mother (or 엄마, as I liked to call her), thinking that I would not like the food, actually made me some fried chicken, which I ignored. My host mom, with a half-excited and half-perplexed face, asked, “Do Americans eat tripe?” After a short pause, all I could say was, “I don’t know, but Puerto Ricans do and we eat tons of rice, too.”
Not too long after, I went to dinner at a friend’s house to visit her host family. After rushing to the building, I finally made it, panting and sweating since it was still quite warm for October. It was only then that I realized that I needed to bring something, so I made a mad dash to the closest Paris Baguette looking for a cake, something sweet to show my appreciation for this family’s hospitality. I could hear my grandma say, “No seas maleducado—don’t be rude.” I chose the prettiest chocolate cake with little bears on it. When I went up and presented the bear cake to the family, their gleaming faces showed me that I had done right. “Looks like Fulbright’s six weeks of training taught you well about Korean culture,” my friend said. But all I could think was that it was my abuela who had taught me how not to be rude.
As I travel through Korea, confusion strikes the people I meet. They don’t seem to understand that I am neither completely American nor completely Puerto Rican, but both at the same time. Maybe it has to do with the muddled political status of Puerto Rico, or maybe it has to do with the fact that Koreans are not used to massive migration like we are back in the United States. I am a contradiction, a fusion of two worlds that are both far away and poorly understood. So, they always end up asking, “What are you? Where are you from?”
“Where are you from?” asked the store owner in a stationary shop. The shop was already crammed with shelves of shiny paper and snacks and stickers; it did not have room for us or the weighty question hanging in the air. There were three of us staring back at the old man flanked by a kaleidoscopic wall of pens. Min Ho answered with “저는 서울에서 왔어요,” (“I’m from Seoul”) in her annoyingly perfect Korean accent, while Hunter’s fair skin and blue eyes caused the cashier to nod rather knowingly when he responded with, “I’m from America.” Then it was my turn, and I grappled with my answer. Do I say Puerto Rico, the place where I was born and where countless generations of my family lived, worked, loved and died? Do I say my adopted home, America, where I grew up, learned English, had my first date and would jam out to both Chris Brown and Calle 13?
I just blurted out “Florida” in an attempt to make the mixture of guilt and resentment stop. But, to my indignation, the stationary man said I couldn’t be from the United States. He insisted that I must be Pakistani or Saudi Arabian because a short, kind-of-tan, green-eyed, kinky-haired young man simply couldn’t be American.
But I simply am American, although there’s really nothing simple about it. I’m a mutt by all accounts: culturally, ethnically and linguistically. Even a Skype call back home is not only a collection of various faces on the other end but an attempt to connect with the binary culture I have come to admire. The computer gets passed from person to person, covering generations of my family, and a hum of English and Spanglish and Spanish cascades from my 13-inch laptop.
One of my host twins, the one who loves soccer, came up to me after one such call back home. “Was that Spanish? Because you said Ronaldo like they do on TV.” Excitedly I said, “Yes, yes it was.” I began to explain to him that I’m American but I’m not the type of American you see on TV. I am Puerto Rican American, and I love café con leche as much as he loves kimchi. The reason I can stomach so much rice is because my mother would make rice every single day when I was growing up. I celebrate Thanksgiving with turkey, arroz con gandules and plátanos. My native language is Spanish but I studied English on a formal level first. And I’m a little dark with green eyes because of 400 years of Spanish colonial rule that brought with it Spaniards and Africans and a little bit of meddling from the Taínos.
When I finished this barrage of an answer, all my host brother said after my long monologue was, “Oh.” And with that, he walked away, a blank expression on his face indicating that he had not grasped or cared to learn about who I was. This is what I will remember about Korea: Never being American enough, but always eager to show them how Puerto Rican American I love being.
Hector Nicolas Ramos Flores is a 2012 – 2013 ETA at Gumi Boys High School in Gumi.