Close Encounters with the Same Kind

So I’m sitting there in one of our office conference rooms with an SVP, a senior fellow/East Asia/nuclear security expert, a fellow fundraiser like myself, and some junior level program staff, all who were invited to meet the organization’s newest addition—our visiting senior policy fellow from South Korea. (For the sake of context, I work for an international policy think tank in Washington, DC.)

It was a work setting, there were numerous people in the room, and the discussion was purely professional, but I could tell that after I introduced myself with my very American first name and very Irish last name, I had thrown our newcomer an unexpected curve ball, for there usually is no denying it…I very much look Korean and am rarely mistaken for any other East Asian ethnicity. Of course it wasn’t the time or place to get personal, but I could tell our new senior fellow couldn’t quite figure me out.

I’m used to such reactions from non-Koreans and have heard it all, including questions about my marital status. (One guy once asked me if the reason my last name was Irish was because I was married to an American—as if that was any of his damn business! And for your information, buddy, I am American.) But besides such situations, including from when I was actually in Korea where confusion about my identity among Koreans is pretty normal and expected, I cannot recall many similar situations taking place here in the United States among Korean nationals. It was actually pretty strange and somewhat hilarious, now that I think about it. I could tell he was dying to ask, and even if I didn’t show it, I was kind of dying to share. But it simply wasn’t the time or the place.

But imagine my inner frustration when the conversation became specific, and our new senior fellow started making references to Korea that I was familiar with but many in the room were not (such as chaebols, taxation in Korea, etc.). You see, my colleagues do not see me as Korean nor as having any real knowledge of Korea (my professional identity as a fundraiser is so strong at work that many forget I actually have my master’s in Asia-Pacific Affairs, and few realize I even lived in Korea for five years working for Korean government employers). So when this guy started talking about all these Korea-specific issues, I was doing all I could to keep from jumping out of my seat and acknowledging that I actually knew what he was talking about. Talk about feeling all those weird things psychologists warn us about feeling, like knowledge suppression, identity suppression, and character suppression! Man, I was suppressing a lot during that short meeting!

Of course, the thing about first encounters is that they are only opportunities to really assess the surface of new people and new circumstances. This wasn’t really a getting-to-know you meeting, after all. That will come later. I am sure there will be more interactions with this new policy expert, and I’m sure he’ll eventually get his chance to ask, and I’ll then have my chance to share. 🙂


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