Inked Identity: To What Extent Can We Separate Ourselves from Our Heritage?

HeritageThe Big Question

I have lived in New Zealand for seven years now, though I was born in South Korea. My experiences may resonate with those who also live in a place that is not their country of origin.

I feel connected to New Zealand, perhaps because I have lived here since I was very young. I am familiar with New Zealand culture, and I feel connected to the people who live in and know this place.

When I travel to another country, I sometimes get asked where I am from.

“New Zealand.”

Their eyes widen, sparking a friendly conversation. After talking for some time, I usually get asked, “Oh, I see, so you’ve lived in New Zealand for a long time…then where were you born? In New Zealand?”

Although I live in New Zealand, I live a Korean lifestyle — I eat Korean food, speak Korean at home, and carry out Korean traditions and mannerisms. Ultimately, my Korean heritage is part of my identity.

All these actions I exhibit in my lifestyle may be considered my “heritage.” However, the truth is that heritage can take numerous forms, since our cultural upbringings play a significant role in influencing it. To me, heritage refers to materials, ideas, and traditions passed down from the generations above us. This form of receiving and giving is what has kept cultures and faiths surviving even in modern times. Furthermore, heritage may be entrusted to the next generation in many eclectic ways. Some may pass it down through language, teachings, or even through the arts, such as music.

One rather striking way of passing down heritage is tattooing, which is observable in New Zealand. New Zealand is a beautiful country, home to its indigenous people, the Maori. In my view, heritage is essential for the Maori. They value everything that has been passed on by their ancestors as sacred, especially nature.

One of the unique aspects of their culture is the Ta moko. Ta moko is traditional Maori tattooing, often on the face, and considered taonga (treasure). Each moko contains ancestral messages specific to the wearer — these messages tell the story of the wearer’s family and tribal affiliations, and their place in Maori society.

The Maori people wear the moko as an expression of cultural pride and integrity. More than just a tattoo, it serves as a symbol of identity that tells people who they are and where they have come from. The moko is permanently engraved onto the skin, symbolizing how their heritage is always with them no matter where they go.

While living in New Zealand, I learned that the Maori work to maintain their history and culture. To them heritage is not only a valued treasure, but also what defines their identity.

After learning how the Maori construct their identity, I thought about my own. I have lived away from my homeland for years now, and wonder if there is a possibility that I have, consequently, been separated from my heritage.

When I scrutinize my everyday actions, I realize that my identity as a Korean is undeniable. My cultural upbringing has shaped who I am today and connects me to my heritage even though I live in another, culturally different, country. I feel as if I have a Ta moko of my own, an inked identity that signifies my heritage. This is a tattoo that only I wear and understand; it is a tattoo that reminds me of my Korean origin.

We may not know it, but we are drawn towards the “gravity” of our heritage, so to speak. Heritage is a permanent core that exists as an inseparable aspect of any individual. Like gravity, heritage acts as an attracting force that naturally pulls us to it; our heritage influences our identity, defining who we are and ingraining in us a sense of longing to be within its circumference.

As mentioned earlier, heritage is passed down by different forms of inheritance like language, teachings, or the arts. When we continue to follow the gravity analogy, these forms of inheritance can take root in us as an indescribable force that brings us back to our heritage when we stray too far. In other words, even if we try to completely separate ourselves from our heritage by living in another country, it is fruitless, as we will only be led back to it.

Having realized this, I figured that even though we may be in circumstances where we are simultaneously physically and psychologically separated from our heritage, we still retain our ancestral identity. Just as the Maori have a permanent identity that has been molded by their history and ancestors, I too have an identity that has been influenced by my cultural upbringing and country of origin.

In the end, heritage is a significant factor in our world that may represent an individual or collective identity. It exists as an innate, inseparable force that influences how we identify and perceive ourselves.

We can be separated from our heritage to an extent, but we cannot be fully torn from it. There may be times when we lose focus, but our heritage naturally draws us nearer to our original self, which manifests our ancestry and culture.

In a way, we each wear the tattoos of our heritage — indelible markings that we can trace back to our heritages when we stray too far.

Jung Woo Bae is 17 and just graduated from the 12th grade. He lives in New Zealand, and his hobbies include writing and being in the beautiful outdoors of his country. He loves barbershop (a cappella) and he hopes to study medicine in the future.

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