When I moved to Germany in 2015, I couldn't help but wonder had my family immigrated to Germany instead of America when I was 13, if I would have been able to become German as I was able to become American. Does the concept of becoming German exist? And if so, how would the shape of my 'German' identity have been different from my 'American' identity?

Having spent my childhood in South Korea, I was well familiar with a society where the concept of becoming didn't exist. You were either born Korean by blood or you were not Korean. One could never become Korean — no matter how fluently one came to speak Korean and fully acquired the habits and customs of Korean culture. The idea that a non-ethnic Korean could become Korean simply didn't exist in Koreans' imagination. This didn't signify any ill intentions by Koreans of wanting to exclude anyone, but it was simply the way it was.

When I moved to America in 1993, the 'concept of becoming' presented itself to me as an open-ended idea compared to what I knew growing up in South Korea. Anyone could become American and the shape and form of one's American identity — in what sense one felt ‘American’ — was left up to the individual to define for oneself. No one could challenge me whether I was a ‘real’ American. And if I ever encountered few ignorant individuals who did try to challenge that, I knew that I had the society's back — the dominant ethos of the society stood on embracing the idea that anyone could become American and define for oneself in what sense and form one felt American.

I couldn't imagine that I could have come to feel American or developed a sense of belonging to the American society if the concept of becoming didn't exist. And knowing what a critical role the concept of becoming played in my own process of integration into the American society, I wanted to understand whether the idea of becoming German existed in Germany. Because without the concept of becoming embraced by the society, I couldn’t imagine that I could have come to feel a sense of belonging to the German society as a thirteen year old who moved there or even as the second or third generation who was born there.

When I asked my German friends whether the concept of becoming German exists in Germany, they seemed to know exactly what I was talking about: 'Yeah, we still call the Turkish in Germany Turkish, not German, even though they have been here for three generations.' Other Germans cut me short: 'Of course they are German just like any of us.’ And when I asked Germans of the migrant background, the answers were singularly, ‘No, the idea of becoming German doesn't exist, and I don't feel German.’

The variations in the answers alarmed me. While there might be a plenty of ethnic Germans who saw non-ethnic Germans as none other than ‘German’ — as 'one of us,' there didn't seem to be the dominant ethos of the society that embraced the idea that anyone could become German, and the shape of one’s German identity and in what sense one felt German was left up to the individual to define for oneself. No matter how culturally ‘German’ a German of migrant background felt and how flawlessly he or she spoke German, it was left up to the society, not to the individual, to decide whether he or she was considered ‘German.’

What's wrong with confining who is considered German to ethnic Germans, as long as the society acknowledges dual identities — like Turkish-German, Korean-German or Vietnamese-German?

The problem was that these dual identities were not 'chosen' by the minorities, but prescribed to the minorities by the majority as the only option to belong to. If I had grown up in Germany, I would have had no option but to be defined as ‘Korean-German' or 'Korean.' I wouldn't have been able to define myself as 'German,' because it was up to the Germans, not up to myself, to decide whether I was considered German or not. I would have been defined by the society rather than defining for myself what felt true to myself.

Moreover, what I found striking was that the ‘whites' with migrant background in Germany were not identified by hyphenated-identities. They had a choice to disclose their heritage and identify themselves with hyphenated-identities or not. It was those with a clear mark of exterior difference who were assigned hyphenated-identities. As the footballer Mesut Ozil put it: 'But clearly, I'm not German…? Are there criteria for being fully German that I do not fit? My friend Lukas Podolski and Miroslave Klose are never referred to as German-Polish, so why am I German-Turkish? Is it because it is Turkey? Is it because I'm a Muslim?...I was born and educated in Germany, so why don't people accept that I am German?'

The difference in America was that anyone could identify oneself as American — if you felt American, you were American, and underneath this overarching umbrella, one had a choice to express one's heritage in different ways: I, for one, came to feel American, but I didn't personally identify with Korean-American subculture, therefore I felt both American and Korean at the same time. My brother felt more Korean than myself, and he would identify himself as more ‘Korean’ than ‘American,’ but still not 'Korean-American.'

The shape of these identities in America were left up to the individual to determine for oneself, and in what form one wanted to express it, which were left open-ended and could evolve overtime. They were not just 'labels' to be assigned to, but how an individual felt about oneself — its choice and expression to be respected by the society as an individual right that couldn't be infringed upon by any other than oneself. Besides, there was no group in America who held the power to assign other groups what they were and what they were not.

Who defined whom?

I wondered whether a growing diversity would automatically push the German society so that the boundary of who is considered German would be expanded to include non-ethnic Germans, or rather push the society in the other direction and the line between who is considered ethnic German and non-ethnic German would become even more clearly demarcated.

What would the society have to lose by opening up to the idea that anyone could become German and the shape of one’s German identity is left up to the individual to determine for oneself? Would that threaten the sense of German identity?