We're holding hands, staring at the door. My siblings and I were waiting for my mother to come back from the hospital. She was there because my grandmother had cancer surgery that day. Finally, the doors opened, and she said, "She's gone. She's gone." She started sobbing and immediately said, "We must make arrangements. Your grandmother's dying wish was to be buried back home in Korea."
I was barely 12 years old, and when the shock wore off, my mother's words were ringing in my ears. My grandmother wanted to be buried back home. We had moved from Korea to Argentina six years prior, without knowing any Spanish, or how we were going to make a living. And upon arrival, we were immigrants who had lost everything, so we had to work really hard to rebuild our lives. So it hadn't occurred to me that after all these years, back home was still in Korea. It made me ponder where I would want to be buried someday, where home was for me, and the answer was not obvious. And this really bothered me. So this episode launched a lifelong quest for my identity.
I was born in Korea — the land of kimchi; raised in Argentina, where I ate so much steak that I'm probably 80 percent cow by now; and I was educated in the US, where I became addicted to peanut butter.
During my childhood, I felt very much Argentinian, but my looks betrayed me at times.
I remember on the first day of middle school, my Spanish literature teacher came into the room. She scanned all of my classmates, and she said, "You — you have to get a tutor, otherwise, you won't pass this class." But by then I was fluent in Spanish already, so it felt as though I could be either Korean or Argentinian, but not both. It felt like a zero-sum game, where I had to give up my old identity to be able to gain or earn a new one.
So when I was 18, I decided to go to Korea, hoping that finally I could find a place to call home. But there people asked me, "Why do you speak Korean with a Spanish accent?"
And, "You must be Japanese because of your big eyes and your foreign body language." And so it turns out that I was too Korean to be Argentinian, but too Argentinian to be Korean.
And this was a pivotal realization to me. I had failed to find that place in the world to call home. But how many Japanese-looking Koreans who speak with a Spanish accent — or even more specific, Argentinian accent — do you think are out there? Perhaps this could be an advantage. It was easy for me to stand out, which couldn't hurt in a world that was rapidly changing, where skills could become obsolete overnight. So I stopped looking for that 100 percent commonality with the people that I met. Instead, I realized that oftentimes, I was the only overlap between groups of people that were usually in conflict with each other.
So with this realization in mind, I decided to embrace all of the different versions of myself — even allow myself to reinvent myself at times. So for example, in high school, I have to confess I was a mega-nerd. I had no sense of fashion — thick glasses, simple hairstyle — you can get the idea. I think, actually, I only had friends because I shared my homework. That's the truth. But once at university, I was able to find a new identity for myself, and the nerd became a popular girl. But it was MIT, so I don't know if I can take too much credit for that. As they say over there, "The odds are good, but the goods are odd."
I switched majors so many times that my advisors joked that I should get a degree in "random studies."
I told this to my kids.
And then over the years, I have gained a lot of different identities. I started as an inventor, entrepreneur, social innovator. Then I became an investor, a woman in tech, a teacher. And most recently, I became a mom, or as my toddler says repeatedly, "Mom!" day and night. Even my accent was so confused — its origin was so obscure, that my friends called it, "Rebecanese."
But reinventing yourself can be very hard. You can face a lot of resistance at times. When I was nearly done with my PhD, I got bitten by that entrepreneurial bug. I was in Silicon Valley, and so writing a thesis in the basement didn't seem as interesting as starting my own company. So I went to my very traditional Korean parents, who are here today, with the task of letting them know that I was going to drop out from my PhD program. You see, my siblings and I are the first generation to go to university, so for a family of immigrants, this was kind of a big deal. You can imagine how this conversation was going to go. But fortunately, I had a secret weapon with me, which was a chart that had the average income of all of the graduates from Stanford PhD programs, and then the average income of all the dropouts from Stanford graduate programs.
I must tell you — this chart was definitely skewed by the founders of Google.
But my mom looked at the chart, and she said, "Oh, for you — follow your passion."
Now, today my identity quest is no longer to find my tribe. It's more about allowing myself to embrace all of the possible permutations of myself and cultivating diversity within me and not just around me. My boys now are three years and five months old today, and they were already born with three nationalities and four languages. I should mention now that my husband is actually from Denmark — just in case I don't have enough culture shocks in my life, I decided to marry a Danish guy. In fact, I think my kids will be the first Vikings who will have a hard time growing a beard when they become older.
Yeah, we'll have to work on that. But I really hope that they will find that their multiplicity is going to open and create a lot of doors for them in their lives, and that they can use this as a way to find commonality in a world that's increasingly global today. I hope that instead of feeling anxious and worried that they don't fit in that one box or that their identity will become irrelevant someday, that they can feel free to experiment and to take control of their personal narrative and identity. I also hope that they will use their unique combination of values and languages and cultures and skills to help create a world where identities are no longer used to alienate what looks different, but rather, to bring together people. And most importantly, I really hope that they find tremendous joy in going through these uncharted territories, because I know I have.
Now, as for my grandmother, her last wish was also her last lesson to me. It turns out that it was never about going back to Korea and being buried there. It was about resting next to her son, who had died long before she moved to Argentina. What mattered to her was not the ocean that divided her past and new world; it was about finding common ground.