The premise of this blog is to introduce the “third culture” perspective to evangelicals who might be unfamiliar with the experiences of immigrants and other hyphenated Americans. To that end, I want to share my experiences growing up, some of which are included in my upcoming book, Blindsided by God. I think they serve as a good illustration of how difficult it is for third culture people to navigate not only the culture in which they currently find themselves, but also the one that they left behind.
I was born into the Roman Catholic Church and attended Catholic school for much of my childhood. Most of my classmates were white, with good Irish names like Maureen, Colleen, Gavin, and Donovan. To the best of my recollection, there were only two other Asians in my class. Most people assumed that we were all from the same country (China), even though two of us were from Korea and the third was from Taiwan. Whenever the conversation turned to who liked so-and-so, my classmates always assumed that I liked the Korean girl in my class because, you know, we were both Korean.
In order to integrate my siblings and me into American culture as quickly and fully as possible, my parents never insisted that we speak Korean or learn Korean customs. I knew only how to say my name in Korean. (I also knew the word for “idiot,” because that is what my relatives often called me when they discovered how shoddy my Korean was: bah-boh.) We played good ol’ American sports like baseball, and the slightly less American sport of hockey. I believe my parents’ hope was that this would help integrate our family more seamlessly into mainstream American culture. But it didn’t really work.
Because of my upbringing, and because most of my classmates were Anglo, I assumed that I too was a white person. After all, my skin color was not all that different from theirs, and I certainly wasn’t black, the only other option that I thought existed. When I told a friend that I was white, he shot back, “You’re not white—you’re Chinese!” I found this statement enormously puzzling on several levels. When I finally accepted that I was not a white person, I didn’t feel alienated from my classmates, at least not at first. It actually made me feel special to know that I had a unique heritage and culture. But all that would change in third grade.
I had fallen into the habit of writing my Korean name next to my English name as a way to celebrate my ethnic identity. But one day my third grade teacher, who always seemed to have it in for me, yelled at me for not having the sanctioned kind of loose-leaf paper. At the end of her tirade, she snarled, “And you can stop writing that Chinese gobbledygook all over your papers.” Then she turned and stalked away. My face burned with anger and shame. I hung my head, not daring to look her or anyone else in the eye.
This is the reality for many immigrants and other third culture people, that we are told that America is a melting pot that freely accepts people, no matter what nation or culture they hail from. But the truth is that despite our best efforts, many immigrants cannot help but feel a profound sense of alienation and otherness in the United States. This holds true for immigrants’ children as well, even though this is the country of our birth. What makes this even more difficult is that this dynamic goes both ways: Not only is it hard for a Korean-American to be American—it is hard for a Korean-American to be Korean as well.
After I left the Catholic school in junior high, my family started attending a Korean Presbyterian church where I would eventually be saved. It was there that I learned my first lessons not just in Reformed Protestantism, but in Korean culture. I still remember one of my first Sundays at that church. I was walking the hallways, completely lost, when a group of impressive older men passed. The youngest man of the group looked at me with an expression of hostile surprise. He walked right up to me and asked, “What are you doing?” Not knowing the proper response to such a random question, I said nothing.
“Don’t you know who this man is?” he said, gesturing to the man who was at the front of the group. I said I had no idea. “He’s the mook-sah-neem.” I didn’t have the slightest clue what that meant, although I would later learn it meant “ordained pastor” in Korean. He must have interpreted my clueless expression as a sign of calculated disrespect, because he said, “Don’t you think you should in-sah to the mook-sah-neem?”
It was clear he wanted some response from me, so I ventured a timid, “Yes?” I actually didn’t know what in-sah meant, but would learn it’s the term for respectfully bowing to leaders or elders. He seemed satisfied with this and after flipping me another contemptuous look, walked away with the head pastor, who I later found out was his own father.
This is the second half of the third culture experience. As difficult as we find it to be accepted by our present culture, we often find it equally difficult to be accepted by our past one. The contours of our lives no longer fit either context perfectly. As such, we are forced to create a new identity for ourselves: a hyphenated one. We can no longer be fully Korean, nor fully American, so we became fully Korean-American, a fused but distinct cultural identity.
Why is it so vital for evangelicals to be aware of this narrative? Two reasons: First, whether people like it or not, the number of nonwhite immigrants in this country is growing every year. In 2012, there were 41 million immigrants in the United States, 10 million more than in the year 2000. The number of second generation immigrant children, like myself, has an even steeper growth curve. Between 2000 and 2012, that population grew by a startling 46 percent, from 10.4 million to 15.2 million. Some even project that by the year 2043, Caucasians will no longer be the majority in the United States.
If the church wants to engage these millions of people of diverse countries and colors appropriately and effectively, it must take steps to understand the unique cultural milieu in which these people find themselves. If the church refuses to do so, their Christian witness to those people will be severely compromised. After all, no one is going to want to attend a church if it is clear that its leaders and congregation have no interest in understanding where they are coming from, as well as what they are going through.
Second, and more importantly, the third culture perspective might be exactly what the American evangelical church needs most right now. You see, I don’t share my experiences as an immigrant child in order to complain about them, although they were certainly difficult in some respects. No, I believe that like any difficulty that we face in life, those experiences were refining ones. Our experience as hyphenated individuals affords us a sense of cultural nimbleness that many others have never had the need to cultivate, a sense which is of increasing importance in our ever-changing culture.
For instance, our cross-cultural experience makes us effective missionaries, able to easily transition from one culture to another. Our familiarity with multiple languages allows us to translate not just words but ideas to people across boundary lines. Our exposure to diverse and even exotic cultures and ideologies makes us flexible and open-minded, adept at finding common ground, a skill that is sorely needed in our increasingly polarized and dogmatic society.
By virtue of our unique experiences, we are natural emissaries, code switchers, missionaries, bridge builders, and forgers of community. So third-culture people are an enormous blessing to the evangelical church—if the church is willing to hear our story and embrace us fully.
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