Publicly Mistaken for the Arrival of a Stranger – My Story

“I do not understand. Where are you from?”

He was a scuba instructor and we were in a pool, about 90 degrees cool, on the east coast of Africa. His English was heavily accented in that clipped Kenyan cadence I never mastered. I was maybe 15. There were no other Asian tourists that I can recall but then again, I was technically a resident. And though I was racially Asian, I was ethnically white, with an increasingly amount of ethnic space under construction. Thus his confusion. He thought he knew me, and the words “adopted” “Nairobi” and “American” did not compute without further explanation. I thought I knew myself too, but that, I would learn, would never be the whole story.

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I am adopted from South Korea. I was raised by and primarily absorbed the white suburban middle class culture of the Pacific Northwest. At age 11, I went to South Korea and the Philippines and I felt more at home in the Philippines. Soon after, we were headed overseas as missionaries, in a state of constant travel and transition until landing in Nairobi at age 13. I attended an international school there, the 2nd largest nationality there being South Korean. My white parents adopted my three youngest siblings, who are racially black but ethnically a blend of the international sub-cultures they lived in and white suburban middle class. For university I returned to the States but a region I’d never spent time in before: Southern California. I attended a school that was committed to promoting multi-ethnic awareness and was proud of its diversity in a crowd of Christian colleges typically monocultural. I struggled as a Third Culture Kid (TCK) reacclimatizing to the United States after formative years away.

Out of college I began living and working in the diverse urban center of Los Angeles that reminded me in many ways of Nairobi. I married a white man whose family has lived in the same white suburb for generations. I also attended a seminary that forced me to continue to interact with and study from people with different racial, ethnic, cultural and theological backgrounds, by text and in person. We became certified to foster and adopt through the county and took cross-racial and cross-cultural parenting classes. I am watching my younger siblings make the tough transition across the ocean that I did, in the opposite direction, still not matching their surroundings, racially or ethnically. I daily interact with people who have had completely different experiences than me, partly due to their familial culture, their economic and geographical history, and partly due to their race. I love my city and my family and I am a career student of the stories therein.

These are the bullet points to a lifelong continuing journey of learning about race and reconciliation.

I am no expert. I don’t hold any keys or any exclusive rights to this conversation; quite the opposite. I happen to like writing and talking. I make a lot of mistakes.

From walking through sewered pathways in the Kibera Slum of Nairobi to reading Gustavo Gutierrez’s On Job to finding my heart ashamed as I realized deep, unfounded fear of another race in college to seeing the Gospel in new ways in the housing projects of Los Angeles, I am convinced that despite all my blindspots and all my mistakes, I will continue to learn from and talk about people with different levels of privilege than me. I am dead set on keeping in touch with the margins in this issue because I believe that Jesus is there and when I insist that the strangers to my life are strangers, I miss truth. I accept an under-developed level of compassion and understanding that will hurt my community, my siblings, the Church, and my own children. There is ample opportunity for this story-exchange and learning in today’s world; in tomorrow’s, it will not be optional.

It is my privilege that this is a choice. That I could choose to go through life without talking to people who are not white and not of the model minority race with which people secondarily attach me. It is a privilege that I grew up seeing leaders, authority figures, illustrated Jesus and the disciples, and heroes portrayed as the race I primarily identified with (though not the gender). Constant translation of pervasive icons and messages was unnecessary to me as a child because I so strongly accepted my white ethnic identity; my ethnic identity was normative and dominant so I did not have to be actively aware of my race or ethnicity. For others, translation and accommodations and making room for the stranger, the other story, the social norms that don’t correlate with your own identity and experience, are constant. That is called being a minority. And I tend to think that those who have been cognizant of their race and racial relations all their life have more to teach me about the subject than I them.

When Ryan first went to our local Costco with me, he left with a stark realization of his white-ness. Did it define who he was? No. Did it explain all of his behaviors, mistakes, idiosyncrasies and worldview thenceforth? No. But the fact that he had never been in a public place in the United States and been forced to think about being the only person of his racial background spoke to his racial privilege. This isn’t an indictment; this is a fact.

I speak and learn about race not as a victim or as an intrinsically conflicted adult TCK with adoption issues (both of which I’ve been accused of). I speak and learn about race as someone who has enjoyed a great deal of privilege and knows it. I do not feel guilty about that; I feel more informed about that than I used to be. That’s all. I wish more people would learn about this with me, correct me and listen to my limited stories. I wish that more of my brothers and sisters in Christ would be vulnerable and humble online and in person, sharing their stories, their questions, their fears, and listening in this arena.

I sincerely apologize to those that I have rubbed the wrong way in this journey for the things I have said and tones I have used that have inadvertently excused you from the conversation. I am truly sorry for the part I’ve played in separating us from connecting and engaging with this topic to the degree that your response has to do with me. I am not going to stop talking about race and listening to and highlighting the voices of the underprivileged, but I am hoping to do it better. I am new to this topic; for those who have not been racially or ethnically privileged, they do not have that luxury.

In international communities, it is normal to acknowledge race and nationality and celebrate the differences. It’s not the basis from which to understand people but it is a useful description that is not taboo. Current events in our nation continue to raise the issue of race relations, which are incredibly relevant and important to my family and local community. Yet this has struck a good/bad false choice in people that jars my heart deeply. I had forgotten, after many years in an international community, the academy and now in international Los Angeles, that debating racial issues could be an abrasive topic from the outset in circles where the very subject of race is politely avoided (out of often good intentions). I recognize that in bringing up solidarity with the race-based experiences of other races, I have threatened a white solidarity unspoken norm at times. As a result, I have been rejected from circles to which I used to belong. I can see my own past and current tendency with what has been termed “white fragility” in avoiding acknowledging any privilege or dominant influence my ethnic category has had on society as a whole. I almost daily recognize knee-jerk reactions against these hard, awkward conversations and situations in an attempt to make myself feel more comfortable and innocent. I get these postures. But I want to move away from them. And if this is a constant source of alarm and offense to you, perhaps we should unfriend and step apart for a time; I deeply hope to reconvene later.

At the end of my life, I hope that I was able to be a public learner–which is to say, a public, apologetic, messer-upper. I’ve said before that part of my purpose in this blog is to write part-way–to disclose weak and deconstructed parts of my journey in order to normalize and invite the secret struggles of others. Part of my purpose as a parent and older sibling is to show them why Jesus matters in every context and to model being brave and broken. This matter of race and reconciliation is of utmost importance to me and, I believe, central to an understanding of the Christian faith. For this reason, I’m willing to have awkward and fruitless conversations and go there. I’m okay with being publicly embarrassed and discredited along the way. I’ve accepted that I’ve made mistakes and I’m going to make more and I know that the people I need most in life are going to still track with and love me through those blunders.

I yearn for companions on this journey. Would you let me know if you are on this path too? I know that you are strong enough and there is courage in numbers. I love the black women who reached out to people with different hair and capitalized upon racial curiosity. I love that now that I live south of Koreatown, I am learning about my own hair for the first time! There is such freedom in talking about our differences, from hair to how we define respect. All I am saying is that I am listening to new accounts and it is changing my own to be more truthful. It is opening wider places of understanding and humility and while it is hard and frustrating, it resonates in my soul as right and He is near.

This is my story with this collective story of our country called race and ethnicity. This is why I care and why I keep talking about it. May our lifelong pursuit of wholeness (shalom) bring us ever closer to each other and our Creator.

Matthew 25:38-39
“And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You? ’ The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.”

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2 thoughts on “Publicly Mistaken for the Arrival of a Stranger – My Story

  1. I love that you’re doing this, and I’ve loved learning from your learning. Intend to continue. I’ll support you whole-heartedly in it. But I’ll admit to finding it difficult to find my own way in this journey.

    I lived in Mongolia for six months and experienced the racial fish-out-of-water, the furrowed brows, laughter, and later-learned faux-pas. But I also experienced openness and acceptance, a desire to teach me where I was wrong, and laugh with me when I got it wrong. Now, was that because they wanted to be close to the “rich american”? Possibly. But whatever their motives, it was hugely beneficial to me.

    Unfortunately, that hasn’t been my experience in the two western cultures I’ve lived in. I’ve found that racial questions, curiosity, and discussion most usually ends in accusations of ignorance and privilege, which is undoubtedly true. But how to learn without going to the source?

    So I’ve gotten to a place where I fear blundering over lines and fences that are usually invisible to me, and often move depending on who’s on the other side. I’ve stopped asking, politely avoided discussion in an effort to avoid offence. But am frustrated by that too. Because I KNOW it benefits no one, really.

    I’ll be watching and listening and learning carefully. And if you ever find the key to how to approach the discussion from the position of white privilege, please let me know. Because I’d love to open that door.

    • Thanks for your vulnerability and candor, Aimee. I totally agree and can identify–the fear of saying the wrong thing or making something worse somehow can be so powerful and intimidating. We don’t do well with mistakes but the more bravely we make them and affirm other people’s mistakes and well-intentioned awkwardness, the more we build a climate of change and grace. Your self-awareness and desires are so encouraging to me.
      We often learn from people similar to us; it’s a safer environment from which to try out all the new motions and words, like toddlers learning to walk in their own living room. Are there others around you that want to learn together–even just 1 or 2? That share some of the same orientations and history as you do? I have a racial unity study guide I can send you if you’d like to customize it for your learning community.
      As writers and readers, books come to mind as another way to learn and get our feel wet–slowly, carefully. The New Jim Crow by Alexander, Disunity in Christ (about disagreement and difficult issues from within church, which is where most of my heartbreak personally lies) by Cleveland, and Color Blind by Wise are a few possible starting places.
      Apologetic and humble language, sharing intentions, asking questions, goes far. “I can’t see this but can you tell me your experience of…” or “I don’t understand but want to; would you gently help me see why …” can help traverse those gaps. Trust is slow across these lines, for good reason. Our relationships have taught us more than any thing else. While in some places, relationships across cultures or races requires strategic gymnastics, upsetting norms and going to unknown places and settings, others push this awkwardness upon you. Visiting and committing to a group or setting that is unfamiliar to you can lead to relationships that in turn will build trust and in turn make the direct cross-racial conversations easier. It could start as simple as going to a specific grocery store and always interacting with the same clerk. This is incredibly hard and each person has to examine if they are ready for this and ready to bear down and stay for the long haul in those settings. But there’s so much to gain.
      Love you and if you decide to read any of those books, let me know so I can read it with you and we can discuss if you want to. 🙂

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