When I was six years old, all I wanted was a yard.
My family had recently moved to the United States. We lived in a beige condominium in Bergen County, the most mundanely bourgeois county in New Jersey. It was surrounded by nothing but stretches of concrete. My parents, not too familiar with English themselves, wondered how they were supposed to immerse me in the English language. The answer came in the form of television, which became my nanny-turned-best-friend-turned-English-tutor. And so my parents parked me in front of a screen for hours on end, leaving me to try to make sense of moving characters whose words I could not yet decipher.
But I sat in front of that TV with a sense of purpose. I hadn’t fully puzzled out the true intention behind my parents’ encouragement of my 150th viewing of “Shrek,” but I understood that the words coming out of these people’s mouths were the same as those coming from my teachers’ and friends’ in kindergarten. At school there were some important issues to figure out: how to ask to go to the bathroom, or how to ask to trade the cheese slices in my Lunchable, the balanced meal my mother packed me every day for two years, for my lunch buddy’s juice box.
Soon enough, I noticed that there was a strange recurring image in the shows I watched. Americans had a thing, it seemed, for well-manicured stretches of grass in front of and behind their homes. Everything of importance took place on these stretches of grass: cookouts, playdates, developing friendships with neighborhood kids. I was born and grew up in the center of Seoul, a concrete jungle where the concept of any stretch of green beyond a flower pot was nonexistent. The idea of a “yard” was novel, and, even more importantly, became associated in my mind with some kind of quintessential American experience. I started thinking that if only my family could acquire one of these mythic “yards” for ourselves, we could have those truly “American” experiences.
My dad, too, was not immune to yard-romanticization. As soon as we moved into our first single-family home, a simple grey colonial complete with both a front and back yard, he made his virgin trip to Home Depot, embarking on what was to be the first of many spending sprees he called “cultural exploration.” To both his and my disappointment, the American-home-package that we had bought came with a lawn and a house, but not that “Americanness” we had been searching for. I had failed to read what would have been the fine print of the advertisement: “Stamp of American genuinity not included.”
Despite our well-manicured front and back yards, our interactions with our American neighbors—Bill, with his all-American swimmer daughter and Yorkie Bailey, and the old cookie-baking lady across the street whose hearing made her attempts to understand my parents’ broken English all the more difficult—remained awkward. The invites to the cookouts and the playdates did not come pouring in. Instead, we remained the nice, quiet Asian family on the street. And so, after only a few attempts at attaining his Don Draper dreams of muscled ’60s American wholesomeness, my dad put down the lawn mower and picked up his wallet, choosing to outsource instead. He started curling up with Korean dramas on the weekends as he did before our move, the “secret-to-my-birth-involving-my-long-lost-twin-sister” plot twists capturing his imagination much more than any American show ever would. I, on the other hand, threw myself into reading, disillusioned by what I once thought was the key to assimilation. I looked instead to gain proof of my own “Americannness” through language.
Eventually, I realized that what I once took to be the “American home” was a specific dream of American suburbia that was not meant for me. I joined the ranks of many kids who lived in between two cultures, a hyphen tenuously connecting what could not always be reconciled—for me, the words Korean and American. We dream of a different kind of American home. The yard with the white picket fence is not for us, so we look for other evidence of belonging.
I’m still on that journey; I am constantly seeking confirmation of my own genuinity as an “American,” some outside affirmation that I am meant to be in and of this country that I love. Though it has given me so many reasons to doubt that I belong here, America has also engendered in me, as she does in all immigrants, a hope that America and I are meant to be. The longer we are here, no matter how many times we are reminded of the ways we are different from those behind the white picket fences, the more we are convinced of a sense of destiny that sounds ridiculous when spoken out loud but makes perfect sense when spoken in the heart.
Despite encountering many flaws during my short time here, I marvel at the diversity at Harvard. I marvel at the many people I see achieving amazing things at this school, who, like me, are sure to have pursued some symbol of Americanism only to realize that those symbols were not made for them. But I’ve waited it out, as others like me have waited it out. And today, as I look out the window of Holworthy 16 while writing this piece, I realize that in a short two and a half months, I’ve come to find a real “home” in America. Funnily enough, this home has a yard, too. But this time, it’s a Yard in which I feel I have as much of a stake as anyone else.