I am a third culture kid. When people ask me where I’m from, I’m constantly torn between simply and quite easily telling them that I am from South Korea, and telling them the actual truth. To be honest, I always feel like I’m lying when I tell people that I’m from Korea. Anyone who looks at me will identify me as an East Asian, but my physical appearance is deceiving—I am a mixture of many things.

Because of the nature of my father’s job, our family moved around frequently. From Korea to Malaysia to Singapore to Kuwait to New York—in a way, I am still constantly moving. Out of all the places where I have left my trace, however, I want to talk about Kuwait.

Kuwait is an Arab country in Western Asia at the tip of the Persian Gulf, which shares the border with Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Most importantly, Kuwait is my home. I spent thirteen of my twenty years of life there—quite a significant amount of time. So if you ask me where I’m from, I’ll tell you that I was born in Korea but am from Kuwait, although I cannot fully identify with either. This might confuse you. Frankly, I’m not so sure myself.

Ever since I was a kid, the azan (Muslim call to ritual prayer) rang out various times on a daily basis. I can remember the early morning azan that played around 5am, could hear the clear ringing of the voice throughout the whole country—sometimes an annoyance and disturbance to my deep cloud-like dreams, sometimes a calming companion to my sleepless nights. The azan was also an indication that I had to get up very soon and get ready for school.

The heat was unbearable. Sunlight so strong, stinging my skin and scalp. If there is anything that one should know about Kuwait, is that it is extremely hot (goes up to 54 degrees Celsius during the summer), sandy, and wealthy. Because of these conditions, I have never walked to school. I always had a ride from my parents, but it was typical to have chauffeurs drop off kids, for it is very normal for people to have maids and drivers in Kuwait. Although people outside of Kuwait might call this “spoiled,” it is normal to see very few people walking on the streets. It is mostly the migrant workers in Kuwait (who constitute up to 30% of the population) that walk around, or the “madams” stroll the neighborhood, but rarely the children.

Now how can I even begin to describe the incredible (and quite horrible) sandstorms? You could almost see the change of hue, as if you’re moving the “hue” slider on a photo editing application—from blue to dirt-blue—from dirt-blue to beige—from beige to yellow—from yellow to opaque orange. The world would dress into a sepia-toned filter with astonishing swirls of wind, tiny bits of sand crackling against my bedroom window. The day after a sand storm (we also had a “Sand Day” once), the whole country would seem a hazy mess, like an abandoned institution or a forgotten antique at the back of a museum. When I opened up my locker even my textbooks were covered in orange-yellow dust. I didn’t think much of it back then, but now that I look back, that was pretty bizarre and, in a way, pretty hilarious, too.

Many people view Kuwait as a repressed place, and perhaps this is because the country is Islamic. But if you are immersed in that culture, it is hard to see anything for what it is—I was this way. My typical day in Kuwait consisted of school and home, and nothing else really. But I cannot define Kuwait as a place where nothing happens. There are huge and elaborate malls that constitute a large portion of a teenager’s life in Kuwait. With various shops and restaurants filled with ornaments, the malls are beautiful and nothing short of fantastic. It is almost as if the malls are trying to make up for the lack of entertainment throughout the country—the lack of parks, the lack of museums.

In these incredible malls, there are always cinemas—it’s a very popular place to go since there aren’t things like Netflix in Kuwait. I have visited the cinema frequently myself, but something started to bother me only when I was around seventeen years old. I noticed that the movies always ran shorter than the original version, with hasty and choppy edits that disrupted the whole experience. Any scenes that were considered haram (sinful; any act that is forbidden by Allah) such as kiss scenes, violent scenes, nude scenes, and sex scenes did not exist in the movies. The movies were sometimes shortened up to almost an hour’s length because of all the “inappropriate” scenes contained in the original. For some people this would be unimaginable—stripping away the freedom to watch something that one desires to watch with one’s own money—but this was my life, it was all that I had ever known, it was normal.

Now walk with me outside the dark halls of the movie theatre. Imagine we just finished watching a movie together (with ridiculous amount of edits). In the span of that short walk, boys would call out obscenities in Arabic and in terse English, whistling and hissing at me just because I was a foreigner, and an East Asian whom Kuwaitis tend to look down upon. This was something that just happened naturally in malls. There was no word for it; I didn’t even know it was called “cat-calling” because I was not completely sure if it was something I had to stand up against. People knew it was something bad, I knew it was bad, but there wasn’t much we could do. In a Kuwaiti’s eyes, I was a stranger in a foreign land, no matter how attached I was to Kuwait.

I used to feel hatred for these boys and men. No matter how I dressed, I was always a target because of my ethnicity and sex. If I walked with my attractive Caucasian friend, the effect was twice as worse. However, although catcalling is never acceptable, I came to understand that this was also a way for them to express their oppression and let out whatever they were deprived of.

Public schools in Kuwait are segregated—girls and boys are kept separate. This would be a good enough reason to explain the boys’ extreme reaction to a female presence, but also, the things that the schools teach the children are selective. I attended a private American school so I cannot speak for what students learn in public schools, but I can say that it would be much more limited than what I learned—and what I learned was pretty damn limited as well.

Speaking of classes, do sex education classes actually exist in the United States? Do teachers really give out condoms? It just seems a myth—almost as unreal as a unicorn (except much less magical). I know for a fact that if a teacher gave out condoms to students in Kuwait, they would be deported—exiled—banished—and heavily criticized for a very long time.

There is no doubt when talking about the importance of knowing and understanding our own anatomy. After all, it is our own body; we must know it well and be informed as to how it works. In my health class, however (segregated too, by the way), all the anatomical photographs were “censored” because it was haram,and I was to imagine how the opposite sex’s bodies looked like. While I was able to watch documentaries about cells and organs, the reproduction video clips were fast forwarded for they were too “graphic”. I would’ve much preferred to have learned everything in class, no matter how shocking it would’ve been, because I eventually found out through alternative routes, which was triggered by curiosity. School, and a classroom, are places where questions should be answered instead of avoided, confronted instead of covered.

I did not necessarily feel oppressed at that moment, although I did find it a little strange. When something is hidden or masked, it implies that that something is bad and inappropriate. But is the human body a bad thing? Is sex inappropriate? The way that my health class presented the materials made me create a sort of mindset where I thought the human body and its interaction with another being was negative, whether it was safe or not.

If you read thus far, you can imagine how drastic my move would’ve been from Kuwait to New York. I have only been in New York for a little over four months, so I cannot say that I know this city well at all. I am frequently lost, and am afraid of seeming too lost, so I act as if I know my way around—but I secretly cannot function without my Google Map. One thing is for sure about this city: there is always a discussion going on about a controversial topic. The ability people here have to speak openly about offensive topics is amazing to me. People are passionate about the things that they believe in and will act upon whatever that belief is. Between such people, I feel like a wilting flower—just accepting whatever comes, never really standing up for anything. I learned to keep quiet; I learned to watch from the sidelines.

The main event that triggered me to think deeply about the kind of environment that I was in back in Kuwait was a photo exhibition in my school by one of the staff members at the very beginning of this school year. The photo was of girls getting “raped” by men who were wearing dolphin costumes, and was titled “Dolphin Rape Cave”. When I first saw the image, I thought that it was graphic; but I also thought that maybe it was acceptable, because it was hung at an art school in New York. But oh, how very wrong I was.

This piece of photography brought up many problems. The topic, and how out of context the photograph was, offended people and even mentally hurt some. This issue even led to a formal discussion between the faculty members and the students in the SVA Theatre, which I attended out of curiosity. Some students demanded that the image be taken down, some wanted faculty to provide trigger warnings, some wanted to even censor it. I even learned the word “trigger warning” for the first time through this experience, and realized that there was a world out there that I just was so oblivious about.

When a culture is exposed to countlessly colorful ideas, there comes a point where it just becomes too much for some people. For me, it was always too little, or even non-existent, thus I have no concept of what too much even is. I am just eager to eat up any new ideas that pop up, like a homeless cat that has been thrown some remnants of a fish at the back street of a crummy restaurant. To me, everything is new, and everything is excellent.

My life has been nothing short of dynamic. My high school self, sitting on my white Ikea bed reading The Grapes of Wrath for English class, would highly disagree; but truly, it’s been dynamic. As cheesy as it sounds, I have seen so much and reflected upon my life through traveling and experiencing. So have I found myself at all? Kind of. Am I still confused as hell? Definitely. The answer is the same: if you ask me where I’m from, I’ll tell you that I was born in Korea but am from Kuwait, although I cannot fully identify with either. In the meantime, I will rediscover my life in this concrete jungle, which seems to be in countless layers like an onion. So I’ll leave you with one last beautiful goodbye: Ma’assalama.

Joeun Lee is a freshman majoring in Photography.