Right behind “No, where are you really from?” is this question. “What’s your nationality?” is supposed to elicit the response that explains why my physical features say “Chinese” but my body language and attire say American and accent says Down South. Even though “What’s your nationality?” masquerades as the more polite version of “Where are you really from?” its purpose is the same – I need to explain that I’m not really American. While I am in America, I’m a modified American, a hyphenated American, in others words not really one of “them.” I need to protect the (all-White) American dream and explain that although I am American, I am really something else.
Endless questioning has conditioned me to understand the nationality question, or rather the answer, as not one of my relationship to any state or government. Instead, nationality is meant to stand in for ethnicity, or my assumed relationship to people who share the same blood, habits, language, culture. So you can imagine my dilemma when I’m filling out the online registration for the International Korean Adoptee Association (IKAA) conference and one of the questions is nationality.
I paused. Momentarily perplexed. My mind went back to the many, many times I’ve been asked this question. The subtext has always been explain why you’re not really American, but now the context is different.
Of course IKAA knows I’m Korean. Have I encountered one of the rare moments when nationality actually means American?
I stare at the screen for a few more seconds.
I finally fill in the blank and submit my registration.