Between Two Worlds

For first-year student Sung-Min Kim, becoming a U.S. citizen doesn’t mean leaving behind her Korean identity

The day Sung-Min Kim, A21, became an American citizen was in many ways like any other day: a freshman, she woke up in her dorm, had breakfast at the dining hall, and thought about homework. But then again, of course, it really wasn’t like any other day, as she made her way to the John Joseph Moakley U.S. Courthouse by Boston Harbor.

Born in South Korea, Kim had spent much of her life in the U.S. Her father got a job here when she was a baby, and as a youngster she traveled back and forth between America and South Korea, learning both languages, both cultures. Starting in fifth grade, though, she became more rooted to America, and went to boarding school for high school. There a teacher encouraged her to think about her identity as an Asian American.

She realized that it’s hard being both Korean and American. “You’re living between cultures,” she said. “You never quite fit in anywhere.” Koreans were surprised by how well she spoke Korean; they automatically thought she was American. And in the U.S., people would remark that her English was perfect.

Kim is happy to have grown up in America, she said; there are more educational opportunities here than in Korea, and it’s a better fit for her. Her older brother paved the way, in some sense: he became a U.S. citizen before her. Still, she wonders about her identity as a Korean-American. In a literal sense she is; there is no dual citizenship for Koreans. All the rest of her family is now back in South Korea, and her extended family tends to view her as an outsider.

She had been officially a Korean citizen and permanent resident in the U.S., but becoming a U.S. citizen made the most sense given the political climate. She had planned on working and living primarily in the U.S., and her family agreed that it would be easier to do as a U.S. citizen. It was, in the end, a practical decision.

She had to take the citizenship test, and was astounded by some of the questions, such as the one asking if applicants are members of the Communist Party. (“Obviously the answer is no.”) But the process went smoothly, and she found herself at the courthouse in early February, ready to take the final step.

As she raised her right hand to swear allegiance to the U.S., along with some one hundred others, Kim said later that it felt like being at an airport and wanting to call someone and tell them “Goodbye, I’m about to get on the plane.” Donald L. Cabell, the magistrate judge doing the ceremony, swore them all in and welcomed the new citizens to the next stage of their lives, and Kim waved her little American flag, now on the other side.

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