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When people ask, "Where are you from?", I always start by saying, "Well, it's complicated..." I'm currently living in Tokyo, but I was born in China and my family is Korean—they are part of the Korean minority in China. If I remember correctly, my ancestors moved to China two or three generations ago from the Korean Peninsula. My parents were living in China, but my dad moved to Japan for his postgraduate degree. When I was born, my grandparents took care of me in China until my dad's student life settled down. I moved to live with my parents in Japan when I was two and a half years old, and I've been living in Tokyo ever since.

It sounds a bit paradoxical, but when I hear the word 'home', I imagine a bird flying in the sky. A bird that has a place to go back to. But by "a place to go back to", I don't mean a specific place, I mean "a person or people I can go back to". People are where you go back to. People you can be yourself with. I can't define home as a place.

The home that I think about has warmth, but I don't think this warmth can be brought about by connections based on ties to a region. For example, for me, visiting my relatives feels more like going on an adventure. Most of my relatives are in China but I don't particularly feel close to them because we can't communicate in the same language. My parents' generation mainly uses Korean rather than Mandarin in daily conversations. I've long forgotten Korean so I can't communicate with my relatives. I can speak Mandarin but my relatives use Korean at gatherings so I'm an outsider. It's almost like I'm an anthropologist, coming into contact with a completely new culture and customs. I make interesting discoveries through these observations.

Neither China nor Japan is my home. I like both countries, but I don't fully belong to either of them. I've always been an outsider in societies that I've lived in, so it's not like I've been able to be myself. But this isn't to say that I've felt this way because of China or Japan; I don't want to blame society. I simply feel like I'll be an outsider wherever I go. That's why home for me isn't defined as a place; rather it’s where the people I can be myself with are. My definition is centred on people.

In Japan, I've felt like an outsider ever since I was young. After coming to Tokyo, we moved to Ibaraki Prefecture when I was five because of my dad's work. I lived there for four years until I was around nine. My name was "Zhengyan" (禎妍) back then, and whenever I introduced myself at primary school, everyone would immediately realise: "Oh, she's not Japanese." I didn't think my name was cute, and those characters didn't compose a name that would be accepted in Japanese society.

I didn't mind this at all during nursery. When I entered primary school and started to understand the world, I became more self-conscious about how my name was different, how people asked me to repeat my name when I introduced myself, and how people giggled when they heard my name. I was humiliated. It was really difficult feeling humiliated about the very first thing you mention when you introduce yourself. You know how you have to introduce yourself every time you change classes for the new academic year? I still remember how I hated that time of the year. So when my parents' job took us back to Tokyo, I changed my name to "Yoshimi" (禎み). We thought it was a good timing given the change of environment. This has been one of the most significant events in my life.

I changed my name to "Yoshimi" so I could assimilate better into Japanese society, but my surname was still "Li". When I told my full name to people, they'd be like, "Oh, you're not Japanese." But because my first name is "Yoshimi", they'd say, "Are you hafu [‘half’: Japanese word used to refer to mixed-race people]?" Even though I was young, I thought this was great progress. While I couldn't assimilate into Japanese society completely, it was a step forward to being accepted. Looking back, it's a very sad way of thinking about it. I changed my name, but the feeling of being an outsider didn't go away. Between primary school and high school, I struggled with how to assimilate, how to fit in.

Whenever I went back to China, I was treated as if I was Japanese. Even though I was young, I struggled with this inconsistency. This happened about 14 years ago, but there's an incident I still remember to this day. Everyone in China accepted me because my name is considered to be 'normal' there. But one time a group of kids from the neighbourhood called me rìběn guǐzi (日本鬼子), which means something like a "Japanese brat". My parents' house in China is in a rural area, so people have old-fashioned values. They remember the Sino-Japanese War and have lived through times when China-Japan relations were worse than now. So they used the word that was from the wartime once they knew that I was from Japan. They were not being malicious at all. They were saying it as a joke. But what's burned into my memory is how the 10-year-old me desperately tried to fight back by saying, in Mandarin, "You're wrong, I'm not Japanese, I'm Chinese." But in Japan, I was trying my best to assimilate by saying, "I'm not Chinese, I'm Japanese." It was around that time that I started to feel like I couldn't be myself anywhere.

English was the only way for me to free myself from the sense of stagnation that I'd plunged into during junior high school and high school. I worked very hard to learn English during that period in my life. It's a way to connect to the outside world, you know? I had never experienced other places outside of Japan apart from China, so my encounter with English was an encounter with the outside world. I had been going back to China about twice a year since primary school so I always had some contact with the world outside of Japan, but English felt new for someone like me who lived as an outsider even in that outside world that I had a connection to. I thought maybe I could go to a world—somewhere different—where I wouldn't be an outsider. Driven by desperation, I put all my heart into studying English.

The year abroad I spent at Tsinghua University in Beijing was a turning point in my life. With a diverse group of exchange students from all over the world, it was the first international environment that I experienced. The shared understanding that formed the basis for all communication in the community of exchange students was that everyone is different. There was no pressure to conform or any kind of judgement that I'd felt in Japan. It was so freeing, and I felt a huge mental burden lifted off me during that year. I was having lots of fun in Japan and was fortunate to have great friends, but I realised that I had unconsciously been feeling under pressure. For my entire life, I had been trying to assimilate into society. The fact that there was a community full of people who accepted me as who I was, without me having to assimilate, was a total shock. I think people like that are what I would call a home.