The first day I arrived at O’Hare to attend Wheaton College, my sweatshirt was stained by the grey smell of the 15 hour-long plane ride from S. Korea. My eyes were loose and my stomach felt empty but at the same time filled with the endless air of grogginess. My college life was about to begin as I pass through the customs.
“Hello,” I said to the customs worker with a weak and nervous smile as I handed him over my passport.
The worker looked down at me with a jolly smile. He flipped through to the first page of my passport.
“So, where are you coming from?”
I was unexpectedly amused to be welcomed in Korean language by a Caucasian man at O’Hare. He was excited to greet me in Korean.
I slightly bowed my head as I greeted him back, just the way it should be done in Korea.
“Were you in Korea for the summer vacation?”
I wasn’t quite sure how to answer his question. Yes, I was in Korea for the summer vacation, but I was there for the past 20 years of my entire life as well. Yet I am also an American, like it says on my passport. Standing in front of his cubicle-looking-like station with numerous other tired travelers lined behind me, I knew that I had to answer him quickly and with honesty.
“Umm… Well, my parents live in Korea, so…”
He nodded as he swiped my passport against the machine. Then he said in an affirming voice, “summer vacation.” He grabbed his purple stamp and hit it down on my passport. I saw it and I heard it. He then folded the passport and handed it back to me.
“Welcome back home!”
I said “Thank you” and made my way out to the gate, to Wheaton College, the “home”. This brief meeting marked the very first dialogue that awakened my racial, ethnic, and cultural identity, followed by countless of other conversations I had so far here. These are some of the main questions that often times came about when I had the chance to talk about race, ethnicity, culture, and diversity with my fellow Wheaton students. Here are some of my personal opinions and answers I gathered. Brothers and sisters, I hope you find them helpful.
1. Why are we making a big deal out of this?
Perhaps you don’t see this as a big issue and you feel tired of only some people mentioning about it all the time. This might be because we have not made intentional choices to mingle with different people and listen. How many times this week did you have a meal with someone different from your race, culture, or ethnicity? How many times have you been to an OMD event? Or sometimes we just don’t talk about it even when we are with people who are different from us because nothing is going wrong and we feel like we are already treating each other equally. Does something really need to go wrong in order for the conversation to begin? “You are just like me” attitude, in other words, “color-blindness,” is not right when we all are different inside and out. We will be missing out on getting to know each other and to love one another well if we don’t talk about it now. Plus, after all, you are reading my blog post. Meaning, you do care about this issue, right? Then, let’s not ignore it. Let’s talk more about it.
2. Why do I have to feel guilty about this issue when I didn’t do anything wrong?
There is a difference between feeling guilty and feeling uncomfortable. We live in a broken world, a broken system where injustice is inevitable. Conversations about race are hard and should make us feel uncomfortable because they bring us closer to observing the brokenness that relate so deep into our identity. They open our eyes to see some painful things about ourselves and/or others that we just didn’t notice before. Guilt doesn’t make us go anywhere, but responsibility to act righteous does. God is opening our eyes to see the beauty in how he has designed each and every one of us. Take heart.
3. Don’t minority groups on campus segregate our community more than they bring unity?
Shouldn’t we look beyond race since we are one in Christ? Is race-specific ministry biblical? Well, did you know that Christ led a group of 12 Jewish men? Confession: I did not want to join Koinonia the first time I came to Wheaton. I thought, “I had it all”. However, I realized that I was letting a part of myself be lost in the midst when I was ignoring my fellow Asian students. My ethnic/cultural identity was found when I had the space to identify my similarities with others in community and be able to share that with people outside of Koinonia. The minority groups are needed on our campus because they provide foundational cultural contexts to allow our diversity to be lived out. They are pleasing to God’s eyes: “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Revelations 7:9).
4. How do I engage in the conversation when I feel like I have nothing to attribute?
Some people told me that it should be easier for me to be involved in the conversation because I come from a unique background. When I was back in Korea and was considered one of the majorities, my background was everyone else’s background. In such setting, I did not recognize that I was exchanging my culture with one another in my interactions because we all shared the same culture. Yet, this does not mean that my Korean culture is any less in Korea than it is in the states. Likewise, my culture is not any more in the states than it is in Korea. Saying that one background is more interesting than another in itself reflects our tendency to “box people”. All and every culture is present, not absent. So no, you do have something to attribute. Use the conversations to allow yourself to see and articulate who you are better. You are made in His image – don’t forget that.
5. How do I go about asking the right questions when I don’t want to offend people?
Before you ask away, ask yourself why you want to ask the question. If your reasoning behind asking the question is simply because you are curious or you want your expectations and prior-knowledge to be justified, your question is more likely to offend the other person. However, if you want to ask the question because you deeply care to know more about the other person, ask away. Asking genuine questions can be hard because it puts us into the posture of humility. We can ask the “right questions” only when we know that we don’t know. As long as your intentions are straight, the other person should understand. The worst it can get, the other person will misunderstand you. But if you really were putting the other person before you, his or her misunderstanding shouldn’t come before judging how good of a question you asked. Saying sorry is an option too – I mean an honest apology. But you can always open up by saying “This might be a dumb question…” – it’s okay. You won’t regret it.