Rowman and Littlefield International

Towards Home: Musings of an Immigrant

Published on Tuesday 11 Jun 2019 by Emily Lee, California State University at Fullerton

The process of purchasing a new home motivated me to more deeply consider my aesthetic in architecture and what evokes a sense of comfort—a sense of home.  Usually, the notion of home relies upon memories of childhood.  But because I moved—immigrated--twice during my childhood, I do not have a unified feeling or idea of home.  I am one of the luckier immigrants.  At a time when historical numbers of refugee populations are without certainty about their future, with the anxiety that DACA recipients must be experiencing, as well as all the undocumented immigrants who are the most vulnerable to harsh economic realities, I am very lucky that my immigration did not face such legal challenges.  And yet immigration without the legal challenges is difficult, if not traumatic.  This short essay endeavors to try and understand the ramifications of immigrating on the self.


"Memories of Korea are too distant to really evoke a sense of home and comfort [...]"


When I was younger, home had something to do with Korea.  I liked hiking on the wooded hilltops that remained undeveloped, in contrast to Seoul’s metropolitan congestion.  Courtyards enclose houses.  The living rooms have only three walls opening on to the courtyards.  I loved the combination of being open to the outdoors, yet still enclosed within the walls of a courtyard.  I liked the tiles on roofs.  These were the architectural designs that made me think of home. 


My family left Korea when I was at the age of four, and now that I’m in midlife, the memories of Korea are too distant to really evoke a sense of home and comfort.  Now my happiest memories from childhood are of the beaches on Tamuning, Guam.  My brothers and I were dropped off at a beach almost every weekend during our five years on Guam.  Though in stark contrast to the coniferous forests on the hills of Korea, the coconut trees and the warm Pacific Ocean also elicit a sense of home.  I must admit, though, that the architecture in Guam is nothing to admire.  My apartment complex was architecturally similar to those from underdeveloped countries—four apartments, two on each floor, of unpainted concrete with small patios upfront.    


To date, I lived in New York City, predominantly in the Bronx, for the longest period of my life--17 years.  As a result, I love the bustling, electric energy of this major city.  I like the brownstones that mark the more residential areas of New York City.  I enjoy the ease of travel and the people-watching on public transportation systems.  Like most New Yorkers, I have become a connoisseur of ethnic restaurants. 


As an adult, I have moved at least four times because of my career.  After somewhat brief residences in Paris, Syracuse, and Philadelphia, I have lived in the greater Los Angeles area for the last 10 years.  I still do not like all the driving and frenzied searching for parking that living in Southern California demands.  I find strip malls hideous, and still cannot feel aesthetically comfortable eating at restaurants located in strip malls.  But I do like the mix of retro 60’s and modern designs in the scattered city centers of Los Angeles.  I love the Mediterranean weather.  Perhaps because of the memories of Guam, I love the beaches and the palm trees.   


"I do not want to fall into the romanticization of attributing safety to the home environment."

But while searching for a new home, I began thinking hard about what makes me think and feel at home.  I admit that I never thought I would ever buy a house in Southern California; I picture myself as more of a condo person.  But marriage to someone who needs more space than a condo, sparked thoughts about homes and houses.  I realized that up to this point I did not pause to contemplate what sort of housing would evoke feelings of home.  Until this point, during all the other moves, finding housing was simply a question of affordability and adequacy.  In other words, questions of survival occupied my mind up to this time.  I recognize that to be able to think about architectural designs which summon a sense of comfort is a luxury.  Long Beach has an incredible variety of house styles, from craftsman and traditional four-square homes to Spanish Colonial and modern styles.  In the end, I realized that I do not have a sense of what feels like home; I could not figure it out even after eight months of looking.  So, I gave in, primarily, to my husband’s desires as long as we were somewhat in a walking neighborhood. 


The experience has left me even more startlingly aware of the difficulties of immigrant life.  The culture shock that I experienced at least seven times (from Seoul to Tamuning; from Tamuning to NYC; from NYC back to Seoul; from NYC to Paris; from NYC to Syracuse; from Syracuse to Philadelphia; and from Philadelphia to Fullerton) have left me struggling with an understanding of space, both in terms of architecture and natural environments that make me feel comfort.  I agree with Maria Lugones, Mariana Ortega, and others, who write about how one’s childhood places of residence were not necessarily places of safety.[1]  Although they are Latin American women, their analysis about their experiences of home parallel Asian American traditional families which do not readily tolerate challenges to patriarchal gender expectations and normative sexualities.  I do not want to fall into the romanticization of attributing safety to the home environment.  For a number of reasons, I felt ease more often while living alone, away from constantly fighting the demands of taking care of others or of serving that forms the center of female gender expectations, even as I fought the difficulties of loneliness.  Moreover, my immigration entailed class-climbing, so I do not want to replicate aspects of my childhood homes, especially the aesthetic elements.  A little too much religious paraphernalia, kitsch, and family photos marked my childhood homes.  My classist aesthetic tastes very much reflect my negotiations with class mobility.  I recognize the ambiguity between a desire for evoking the feelings from childhood, and yet at the same time, a desire to gain distance from aspects of that period.  My experiences of alienation are both circumstantial and a result of choice.  Consequently, I am lost as to what kind of architecture and natural climate would make me, an Asian American woman, who immigrated with her family for survival and moved alone for my career several times, feel at ease.


"The move from Korea to Guam turned me into a hyphenated identity."


I know that feelings of comfort and ease have to do with a desire for authenticity, of belongingness, of a sense of community.  Like so much about affect, these feelings are difficult to know with certainty and deriving their causes is an equally formidable task.  I struggle thinking about authenticity—probably motivated by a desire to belong somewhere, somehow.[2]  Most of my intellectual investigations led to the conclusion that authenticity is a farce, contra Heidegger.  I would love to feel the sense of authenticity that Heidegger advocates, to be true to myself, to let my real self surface and express itself.  But his authenticity depends deeply on one’s horizon, one’s world, and if one’s horizon changes drastically enough times, one loses the attachment, the situatedness within a horizon.  With so much immigrating and moving, these feelings of belongingness and community that an environment creates have pretty much lost hold of me. 


Do I feel like a fish out of water?  Yes.  But I have felt this since the first move, the move from Korea to Guam, that turned me into a hyphenated identity.  It was with this move that I first saw differences among people, and recognized my immanence--that I was a being that can be perceived.  In other words, although psychoanalysts place the mirror stage (the moment when children recognize themselves in mirrors and realize that they are beings who can be looked upon) much earlier, at around 6-18 months of age, becoming a hyphenated identity really brought to awareness the gaze of the other upon my embodiment.  It is not that I go forth and walk in the world always hyper-aware of my embodiment as an Asian American woman, but I always notice other Asian American women in public spaces.  This awareness varies depending on the makeup of the population, of the locale.  For example, living now in southern California, I still notice the presence of Asian American women in public spaces, but am less attentive of their presence than during my time in Syracuse and even NYC.  And unconsciously, very briefly, I assess their embodiment.  I am not sure why.  Is this as Laura Mulvey argues within film theory an internalization of the male’s gaze or as Frantz Fanon argues the internalization of the colonizer’s look?  Some form of the normalized look, oppressive as the normalized’s look, must be functioning within me.  I am aware that I assess these women’s embodiments because they are somehow representative of my embodiment.  Minority existence is representative existence.  So, I assess how much their embodiment--in the clothes they wear, but also in their posture and gait—provides clues about whether they are more recent immigrants or established Americans in their performance of femininity.  Such awareness of my group identity speaks to the sense of feeling like a fish out of water.  So, my experience of feeling alienated from my environment comes not only from a lost sense of place, but also from my own embodiment.  This is where the simile no longer applies because the environment ambiguously molds my embodiment—the kind of fish I become depends on the kind of water. 


If my place of comfort and belonging does not come from the past horizon, might I evoke a sense of comfort and belonging by existentially endeavoring towards a future horizon?  As a phenomenologist and not an existentialist, I think this is not wholly possible.  My past will always have an indelible influence.  There are limitations on the places I might call home, even in the future, in terms of countries, because of citizenship issues, and cities, due to employment opportunities.  Nevertheless, the emphasis on building a horizon into the future is all that I can cling to.  I have always liked Aristotle’s emphasis that the habitual activities we engage in every day make us who we are as people.  I continue to focus on developing good habits and skills, toward developing virtue, such as exercising, making art, reading, being nice to strangers.  So, following this emphasis on developing and building, what kinds of spaces facilitate these activities?  I wonder if it is a bourgeois tendency, since I am now solidly middle class and an academic, but I am drawn to modern architecture--large open spaces and large windows.  Perhaps it is because my bourgeois aspirations entail regularly visiting museums that I enjoy such modern, large, open, clean spaces--spaces without the details and clutter of a past history that I do not share.  I know that the architecture of museums has been criticized for a lack of context, for their sanitizing and ahistorical presentations.  Yet such cleanliness invokes the sense of a tabula rasa, of starting over and building. 


To write about the sense of disorientation, of feeling adrift, about the alienation in not having an aesthetic sense of home as a result of immigrating, to repeat, I recognize as a luxury.  I cannot even imagine the traumatic immigration process for refugees in so many areas of the world from Myanmar, Syrian, El Salvador, and Bolivia, to name just a few.  The United States have surely caused trauma in separating children from parents in the Mexican American border.  Additionally, in much less dramatic terms, modern career demands force so many people to relocate, that it seems likely a sense of disorientation is felt by much of the population.  Perhaps the feelings of disorientation, feelings of a lost sense of place, are common among most of us.  For these reasons, perhaps attention should turn to building communities. 


[1] I am thinking about the following work:  Maria Lugones, Pilgrimages/peregrinajes:  Theorizing coalition against multiple oppressions (New York:  Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2003) and Mariana Ortega, “Hometactics:  Self-Mapping, Belonging, and the Home Question,” Living Alterities:  Phenomenology, Embodiment, and Race, ed. Emily S. Lee (Albany:  SUNY Press, 2014); 173-188.

[2] See my articles: “The Epistemology of the Question of Authenticity, in place of Strategic Essentialism,” Hypatia:  A Journal of Feminist Philosophy, v. 26, no. 2 (Spring 2011): 258-279; and “The Ambiguous Practices of the Inauthentic Asian American Woman,” Hypatia:  A Journal of Feminist Philosophy v. 29 n. 1 (Winter 2014): 146-163.   




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Emily S. Lee is Professor of Philosophy at California State University at Fullerton. Her research interests include feminist philosophy, philosophy of race and phenomenology, especially the works of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Her new book, Race as Phenomena, publishes in July 2019.