THE IDEA OF MULTICULTURAL INDIVIDUAL

'Wait, are you more Korean or are you more American?,’ other Koreans in America would ask me. ’Neither,’ I would answer, confusing them even more.


As long as I viewed my cultural identity as a 'bi-cultural spectrum' — with Korean on one end and American on the other — assiduously moving myself towards becoming more and more American, I could not arrive at a harmonious resolution on my relationship between two cultures. I was becoming American at the expense of shedding my past.


Nor subscribing to one of the subcultures available — the Korean-American or Pan-Asian subcultures with its own set of norms that I couldn't quite connect or identify with — would have given me a sense of resolution on my relationship between two cultures.


I was surprised to learn that my Jewish friends in college — whom I assumed were none other than 'white' in the suburbia, were also struggling with their cultural identity. My favorite sociology professor in college, who happened to be Jewish, said to me one day: ‘The difference between you and me is that you have to be a minority while I don’t have to be one.’ I found it fascinating that they were white and considered themselves a 'minority.' Some proudly and openly claimed their Jewish heritage while others seemed uncomfortable to be perceived and identified as Jewish, while others simply was, with no need to assert or hide it. I learned from them that cultural identity — one's relationship with one's heritage and how one chose to express it — was an individual choice.


It wasn't until I stepped out of America to pursue a graduate study at Oxford that I came across what I came to understand as the idea of a multicultural individual.


There, I met individuals who grew up moving all over the world, whose exposures and experiences of having lived in different places and cultures were comfortably collected in themselves to make up who they are. Their cultural identity didn't reside in taking a position along a bi-cultural spectrum nor claiming a prescribed group identity — which seemed to be the only choices available in America. Rather, their cultural identity was comprised of an accumulation of layers — exposures and influences from different cultures that were comfortably collected in themselves to make them who they were as an individual unit.


There, I met individuals who grew up moving all over the world, whose exposures and experiences of having lived in different places and cultures were comfortably collected in themselves, all the while being firmly rooted in their own heritage, to make up who they were. Their cultural identity didn't reside in taking a position along a bi-cultural spectrum nor claiming a prescribed group identity — which seemed to be the only choices available in America. Rather, their cultural identity was comprised of an accumulation of layers — exposures and influences from different cultures that were comfortably collected in themselves to make them who they are as an individual unit.


I felt that I had finally arrived at a resolution on the dilemma of my cultural identity and harmonious integration of different cultures within myself. I eagerly claimed the idea of multicultural individual as my own, and felt a sense of belonging to a community of individuals floating all over the world who inhabited this position. Given the cult of individualism in America and its image as a dynamic melting pot, I found it ironic that I arrived on the idea of multicultural individual only by stepping outside of America.

* * *

In my teaching, when I ask my students from the Midwest what they think a 'multicultural individual' is and whether they consider themselves as one, they mostly say they consider a multicultural individual as someone who has ‘a mixed heritage’ or has 'lived in many different places.' And 'no,' they don't consider themselves a multicultural individual, because they are 'white' and they have never lived outside of their hometown. 'No,' I correct them. The idea of multicultural individual is not an inherited one but an acquired one. Anyone can become a multicultural individual by virtue of having acquired a comparative perspective between cultures, and the norms of one's own culture is thrown into question when juxtaposed against the norms of other cultures. Being a multicultural individual was an orientation open to learning about different cultures and even internalizing aspects of different cultures as one’s own as one connects and intersects with them. The layers of exposures and experiences from different cultures are comfortably collected in oneself to make up who one is as an individual unit, that intersects and connects with other individuals as distinctive units. My students seem visibly relieved by this newly awakened idea of a multicultural individual. 'You mean I can be a multicultural individual too?,' they say, eager to claim it as their own. I refuse to believe that the idea of multicultural individual — the choice to become one — is a privileged concept and only those who are able to live abroad or travel to many different places can become one. I have seen far too many individuals who had all the privilege they could have had of traveling all over the world and having had access and exposure to diversity, but remained a narrow minded typecast of one's own culture or race. Becoming a multicultural individual was a conscious choice and positioning. And I believe that everyone — including all of my students who might never have the privilege enough to ever step out of their own hometown nor have access to diversity — can become one, by inhabiting the orientation of being open to learning about and understanding different cultures, which don’t remain outside of oneself but become part of oneself as one intersects and connects with them. I imagined America, no longer segregated along racial lines — Whites, Blacks, Asians, Latinos — but full of multicultural individuals, each individual with layers of influences and exposures to different cultures comfortably collected in one body as an individual unit and proactively seeking out interactions and connections with people across cultural and racial boundaries. This was America fully harnessing the benefit of diversity — 'diversity' not merely as coexistence and tolerance for each other's difference, but a dynamic and enriching lived experience for everyone involved.