More Than Serving Tea


Learning & Leaving – Reflections after reading “Honoring the Generations:Learning with Asian North American Congregations”

One of the earliest photographs taken of me and my parents is of the three of us in front of Chicago’s First Korean United Methodist Church. I grew up in the Korean/Korean-American immigrant church. It was at church where I took Korean language classes. Where I learned Korean folk dancing. Where we spent many Christmas Eves waiting for Korean Santa to show up while many of us were dressed in our Korean dresses and Sunday best, and where we spent New Year’s Eves to the smells of rice cake soup and the sounds of four wooden sticks being thrown up in the air in a lively game of yoot. Where I learned to say the Lord’s Prayer in Korean before I knew it in English. Where I learned to sing hymns and read the liturgy in Korean before I would learn the meaning behind the words.

But also learned about leaving. Elders’ meetings going on for-e-vah. Phonecalls. More meetings. Angry words. More angry words. Churches splitting, leaders resigning, families leaving.

My husband and I left the Asian American church about seven years ago after a series of cultural and generational differences that lead to our decision to bless the mission of that particular church by leaving it. The decision was one of the most difficult and painful to make because it pulled at our identity as a Christian Korean-American family longing to integrate the very best of what we had gained from our immigrant church experience into our “grown-up” lives.

Every now and then the Asian American church pulls at something, tugs at my heart, hits a nerve just under the surface. I wonder what, if anything, my three children are missing out on by not being a part of an Asian American church and youth group. I wonder how different my circle of friends would look like if we were still a part of an Asian American church, how our Sunday afternoons would be spent, and what a small group Bible study would be like.

And then that wonder turns into a hint of longing for what was once familiar, and that is exactly what happened for me as I read Honoring the Generations:Learning with Asian North American Congregations (M. Sydney Park, Soong-Chan Rah, and Al Tizon, editors; Judson Press 2012).

The stories of cultural and generational conflict and misunderstandings resonated deeply with me. I found myself nodding not to sleep but in agreement and affirmation, as if my nod would be felt by the authors and collaborators. Our ANA church history (is your church an art museum or a hospital? p.88) is important to understand and know, not just for those of us who lived and live it but for all in the Church. I found myself nodding because even when I wanted more (would it surprise you if I said I wanted more from chapter 6 on women and men leading together?) I hoped that non ANA church leaders would pick up the book and learn.

Some of the chapters provide more concrete steps for ministry practitioners to take to help move ANA ministry forward. Others leave more space and ambiguity. My personal preference tends to want more concrete steps – something I can either agree with and implement or something I can disagree with and move on.

The book is divided into two main sections covering the ANA church from a generational perspective and a ministry issue/strategy perspective. Each chapter covers a different topic, and each chapter is written by a pair of authors who are using information and stories gathered from a group of ministry practitioners and scholars. In true Asian American form, collaboration takes the lead in shaping this book.

Readers may find this approach, this collaborative voice, both informative and frustrating. If you’re not familiar with the ANA church the stories will be new and informative, and they may be frustrating because they don’t fit in your paradigm and experience. Creating new categories aren’t easy when they are someone else’s story, particularly someone else you may have considered as “White” as Asian Americans have often been seen by the majority culture.

But for me it was like singing a hymn in Korean. It tugs at my heart because the hard memories continue to soften with time, and there is a longing to continue learning despite having left.

Full disclosure: I received an e-copy of the book for free from the publisher post-release to read and review for my blog.


A Case of “The Others” – Asian-owned Businesses in Black Neighborhoods

Why are so many dry cleaners owned by Koreans?

Why are so many nail shops owned by Thai or Vietnamese?

Why are so many donut shops/convenience shops owned by Indians?

Why do Asians and Asian Americans own businesses in Black neighborhoods?

Why are they taking our money?

Why are foreigners who don’t speak our language and disrespect us take our money out of our communities?

Are these stereotypes or archetypes?

I’ve heard all of those questions posed in various ways, most recently from Marion Barry, former mayor of D.C. and recent victorious incumbent in Democratic primary race for the D.C. council seat he has held since 2005. He celebrated as cameras rolled by saying,

“We’ve got to do something about these Asians coming in, opening up businesses, those dirty shops. They ought to go, I’ll just say that right now, you know. But we need African-American businesspeople to be able to take their places, too.”We’ve got to do something about these Asians coming in, opening up businesses, those dirty shops. They ought to go, I’ll just say that right now, you know. But we need African-American businesspeople to be able to take their places, too.”

You can take a look at Barry’s twitter feed  and read the WP article to get a sense of how things unfolded. It’s typical. A politician/public figure says something offensive, people offended speak up, figure claims it’s taken out of context and apologizes (in this case Barry actually says, “I’m sorry.), tries to do what he/she should’ve done in the first place and put things into context.

But the context is complicated and entrenched in broken systems run by broken people and then communicated to the masses by more broken people (myself included) who are missing each other because, in some cases, they aren’t even talking with and being heard by one another. Creating “simple” dichotomies makes it easier – us against them, respect versus disrespect, rights and entitlements, etc.

I know this because as a newspaper reporter in Milwaukee I reported this story. A Korean American owned beauty supply store in a predominantly Black neighborhood became the target of a protest. Black community leaders wanted to know why Asian store owners were rude, didn’t employ anyone from the community, didn’t contribute to the community. Store owners didn’t want to talk.

But I understood why they didn’t want to talk. Why they didn’t hire anyone from the community. Why they didn’t contribute.

My parents owned a dry cleaning business for years. My parents, who hold degrees in engineering and accounting, turned to small business ownership to help pay for college and weddings and to provide so much more. They didn’t hire anyone from the community. Why pay someone when my sister and I could work for free and my parents were willing to be there everyday (except for the two days off I remember they took for our weddings!).

A significant difference for our experience was that the dry cleaners was in the suburbs, but my parents experienced many cultural clashes in an effort to make a living and provide a service that was in demand.

Most customers were fine – pleasantries exchanged and business as usual, but there were plenty of customers who looked down on my parents as if they were uneducated foreigners. Few of them ever had to say anything because those of us who learn to be invisible, blend in, assimilate learn to read the looks, the tone, the small gestures because we learned to “speak” American even though we continue to be questioned about actually being “American”.

So I took that experience as the child of one of those Asian store owners first to my White editors and then to the Korean-American beauty supply store owners. The readers, the editors, the community leaders, the store owners and I all learned from one another.

We learned that we all considered each other as “the other”. We learned about how exchanging money – one-handed, two-handed, eye contact, a nod or a look – can be rude to one and normal to another. We learned that the owners were Americans, just not American-born. We learned that there was great pain and suffering in the community, and community leaders wanted participation, not handouts. We learned about cultural differences and expectations. We learned about prejudice, misunderstandings and misinformation.

I can only hope that Barry will take the time to learn that he didn’t just offend Asian who own dirty stores but offended Americans, some of us who happen to be Asian Americans. I hope we stop to learn about the corrupt, broken and racist systems and policies that limit Black entrepreneurship.

I hope we learn that life is more than Black and White and that we all need to develop cross-cultural competencies. All of us.



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