The Salt Collective: Embracing Being the Token

The Salt Collective: Embracing Being the Token

Today I’m over at the SALT Collective!


“I am the only one. On most committees or organizations, I am usually the only one. The only woman. The only young person. The only racial “minority.” The only liberal. And most recently, the only mother with young children. It was something I grew accustomed to rather quickly, this being the token fill-in-the-blank.”

This was the opening to the chapter I wrote in Streams Run Uphill: Conversations with Clergywomen of Color. A book full of theological, sociological, cultural reflections on the experience of clergywomen of color I had the privilege of editing turned into continuous fodder for my own reflection on the complicated intersections of race, gender, economics, and more.

Being a Presbyterian minister now for over ten years I’ve spent much time struggling to articulate what it means to be the token, a standout and a novelty – a Korean American clergywoman. Though I’ve come to feel comfortable in my clergy-skin teaching, leading worship, administering sacraments, and preaching from the pulpit, I still wrestle with the gaze of the wider public when I am out and about with my collar on. The white tab in the center of my neck surrounded by the somber black seems to cause a double-take by those who walk by me. It’s the clash of the traditional images of the office with the (relative) youthfulness of my face, my being a woman, and my East Asian heritage that perhaps elicits this response.

But, I haven’t always worn a collar – it’s not terribly common attire for Presbyterian clergy. Generally, Presbyterians like to blend in a little more.

I chose to wear one because I wanted to stand out.

Read the rest at the SALT Collective.

Deeper Story: Yellow Fever and Letting Go of Shame

Deeper Story: Yellow Fever and Letting Go of Shame

Yellow Fever:

1. An infectuous tropical disease carried by mosquitoes.

2. A term usually applied to white males who have a clear sexual preference for women of Asian descent.

[From Urban Dictionary]

3. Feeling shame about one”s asianness. (My definition)

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A friend of mine lamented that his girlfriend did not know who Emmett Till was when it came up in conversation. Something about TMZ and Lil Wayne. I have no clue. He told me he could barely pick his face up off the floor – much less his jaw – when he tried to explain that the story of this little black boy is a huge part of American history, and how could you not know him???

But. Would people say that about … Vincent Chin? If I were to ask you to name 5 Asian Americans that have made a significant impact on American consciousness and identity could you name someone besides Jeremy Lin or Lucy Liu?

For the longest time I struggled with racial identity. Actually, that’s not accurate. I avoided it. I ignored the contradictions I felt in and around me. I pretended nothing was wrong. People often express surprise when I share this piece of my story.

“But, you”re Asian! It’s not like your Black or Hispanic.” (Wow. Not even sure where to begin…)
“Asians are rich and successful!” (Have you heard of the model minority myth?”)
“I don’t see you as Asian. I see you as American.”(That isn’t really helpful.)
“Your English is so good. There’s not a trace of an accent. What’s the problem?” (Sigh.)

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Pearl of the Orient. Whore. Geisha. Concubine. Whore. Hostess. Bar Girl. Mamasan. Whore. China Doll. Tokyo Rose. Whore. Butterfly. Whore. Miss Saigon. Whore. Dragon Lady. Lotus Blossom. Gook. Whore. Yellow Peril. Whore. Bangkok Bombshell. Whore. Hospitality Girl. Whore. Comfort Woman. Whore. Savage. Whore. Sultry. Whore. Faceless. Whore. Porcelain. Whore. Demure. Whore. Virgin. Whore. Mute. Whore. Model Minority. Whore. Victim. Whore. Woman Warrior. Whore. Mail- Order Bride. Whore. Mother. Wife. Lover. Daughter. Sister. -Jessica Hagedorn, “Asian Women in Film: No Joy, No Luck”

And for the longest time perhaps the most difficult piece for me to acknowledge was how church – ie. white, conservative, middle-class, evangelical Christianity – perpetuated this feeling of being less. Trying to put language to this less-ness was next to impossible, and there certainly was no space in Christianity to put flesh and blood on it because the illegitimization of it was so subtle and insidious I had internalized it. I was ashamed of my Asianness because it not only made me less of a human being, but a second-class Christian. And if I brought up anything contrary to the nice, neat narrative of white, evangelical Christianity then that was a sin.

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 The Gospel and I discovered each other in the least likely of places. In critical race theory, in feminism, in post-modernism, post-colonialism, post-structuralism, in the social histories of marginalized peoples, in liberation theologies.

Woman Warrior
We are unbinding our feet
We are women who write
We are women who work
We are women who love
Our presence in this world

-The Unbound Feet 1979 Performance at the San Francisco Art Museum

I remember how it felt to read about the internment of Japanese, Koreans, and Chinese (because they all look the same) during World War II. To read about Korean women brought over by US American soldiers after the Korean War and being abandoned by their American husbands, abandoned by the US government who saw those marriages as invalid, abandoned by the South Korean government who saw them as used goods. To read about the LA Riots and the scapegoating and pitting of African Americans against Koreans. To read about how those sorts of riots happened also in Brooklyn and Detroit. To read about Vincent Chin’s brutal murder and the injustice that surfaced in the community. People actually blamed him for his own death. People sided with the murderers. People didn’t care about the family he left behind or that his fiancé would never know “happily ever after.”

In the same way this event catalyzed a movement and mobilized Asian Americans in huge ways all across the country I felt the first time I read these stories jump start my own heart, and shape my desire to articulate why experiences of racism towards Asian Americans are unique – they don”t fit the black-white paradigm of race – and most of all, how church needs to work toward reconciliation with all those who are the Other.

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I write about being “yellow,” being Asian, being Korean feeling like a disease and an illness and so it was yellow fever because I felt shame for this sickness – my skin color and cultural heritage. I became angry. Tears-of-rage and tantrumy angry. All the memories of how I was belittled and silenced while my family was ridiculed and stripped of dignity and agency flooded my waking moments. What seemed innocuous and innocent was painful. But what hurt most was when I didn’t say anything. Eventually during seminary I was able to work through that anger, which incidentally was a process that occurred during my first year of … marriage. To a white man. To another minister like me. To a recent seminary graduate. To a white man. I do not recommend this scenario or timing. But eventually I started to embrace. And celebrate. And remember. This month is Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage month. But for the sake of my children, my little Hapas, every month is AAPI Heritage month. I want them to know themselves. I want them to love themselves. And I want them to face and counter injustice in all its forms.

I’ve been healed of my yellow fever – being ashamed and allowing myself to be shamed by the dominant culture. That happened and continues to be nurtured by God, my creator, redeemer, and sustainer even as I struggle with social and political realities of faith being co-opted by the dominant culture and used as a vehicle of power.

My hope is that yellow fever isn’t hereditary, and that my little ones will never have to go through a process of letting go of it. There’s too much good to advocate for in them, and not a second needs to or should be wasted on what’s destructive, ugly, and mean. Rather I want us to pour our lives and love into following and trusting that the one called God-With-Us knows in his bones what it means to be rejected as the foreigner (he certainly was from waaaaaaay out of town), stranger, and Other. Because that story matters the most and as long as it is the one they carry in their bodies they’re going to be stellar.

“[Neighbor is] not he whom I find in my path, but rather he in whose path I place myself, he whom I approach and actively seek.” ― Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation

For more on this, please check out Making Paper Cranes: Toward an Asian American Feminist Theology.

Speak: On Stories and World-Changing

speak3_final How would your life be different if you shared your stories? …Nish Weiseth exhorts Christians to follow Jesus’ example by using story as a vehicle for change…Speak is a call for grace, openness, and vulnerability. [She] encourages those in the body of Christ to know their own stories of transformation and redemption and to use those stories as a catalyst for change. (From the backcover of Speak: How Your Story Can Change the World)

Utah wedding and portrait photographyI “met” friend Nish Weiseth around a year ago when Sarah Bessey, one of the editors and author of Jesus Feminist: An Invitation to Revisit the Bible’s View of Women, (shockingly) asked me to be a regular contributor to Deeper Story. What I’ve loved the most about being a part of the Deeper Story collective of writers was the access to a venue where I was encouraged to share the stories closest to my life and it never explicitly had to concern faith. And not just any stories, not pretty stories, not happy-ending or happily-ever-after stories, not even complete stories but snippets of our lives that revealed thin places, where the divine and human intersect in genuine and meaningful ways. All our stories were and are so different but there are so many wonderful ways we overlap, too.

It’s also a privilege to find one of my stories in her book, a blog I wrote called – Beyond Black and White: Yellow Fever and Letting Go of Shame.

Yellow Fever: 1. An infectuous tropical disease carried by mosquitoes. 2. A term usually applied to white males who have a clear sexual preference for women of Asian descent. [From Urban Dictionary]

3. Feeling shame about one”s asianness. (My definition)

I wrote about being “yellow,” being Asian, being Korean feeling like a disease and an illness and so it was yellow fever because I felt shame for this sickness – my skin color and cultural heritage. It was perhaps one of the few times I felt empowered to speak of experiences I’ve kept so close to my heart – stories about shame and racism within the church, and since then I continue to feel more and more compelled to speak out like through another blog called Faith Feminisms.

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. -MLK Jr.

I had been asleep, maybe dead for awhile, until I began to speak about God – to speak about faith and church, my family, and about racism and sexism. I spoke about my life, and I didn’t need to qualify it or explain it, defend it or have someone else affirm it. And speaking brought logos-life to my bones, and the resurrection somehow meant more when I saw that God was not man or a white man but someone who shared in my humanity right down to the core of my struggles. God became possibility, the ground of all being, חסד (the Hebrew word hesed – “steadfast love,”  “kindness,” “loving-kindness,” “mercy,” “loyalty”), continuous and constant presence, Wisdom and grace, giver of life, flesh-and-blood passion and love, and beyond-words.

I love Nish’s book for its direct and honest call to all of humanity to delve into stories as a way to transform individuals, communities, and the world. We don’t need more dogma or doctrine, more programs or prescriptives, more agendas or answers. We need stories. And it’s not just about us telling our own stories but about providing space for others’ to tell their stories, too.

Definitely, give her book a chance and check out Deeper Story for people who are passionate about the work of telling the stories of our lives.

When reaching out with our hands, resources, an dlove to those in need, may we always look into their faces and listen to their stories. Even though it can seem like the voices of those on the margins have been silenced…they have stories, lives, and experiences, too…it’s our job to simple be a microphone, offering our volume, influence, and privilege for the sake of those who need it most…May we be the hands and feet of Christ as we sit and listen and tell the stories of the least of these. -NW