I was young when I first realized that my biracial existence inhabits liminal space.
We piled into the sticky church van, and left the Californian mountains where I’d spent a week at an Asian American Christian summer camp. It was my first experience at a summer camp, my first experience with a large group of Christians, and my first time exclusively surrounded by other Asian Americans. As we drove down the mountain, away from late night campfire worship songs and Bible stories I’d heard for the first time in my life, a friend in the van turned towards me and announced, “You should’ve heard how some of the boys talked about you in our cabin last night. They are obsessed with mixed girls like you.” I could tell he thought the comment was something I should be happy about, but all I felt was the heat rising between my skin and cheekbones.
Years later, thinking about that comment would make me feel small and shriveled up inside. It weaved itself into everything. It was clear that being obsessed with “mixed girls like me” meant being obsessed with the power of whiteness more than anything. I tell a friend about it, but she asks why I’m upset and making things about race, and claims she would be happy to have the attention—however it comes.
Even before I knew his name, white supremacy was waging a war around me and within me.
Without any formal training, I learned to resist my Koreanness like I was on a strict diet. I cut things out, hid what felt most like home, brushed and beat the wild out of my mixed hair, and said no to things I’d always loved. I tried to starve the Imago Dei in me.
It took many long years before I began to realize that my biracial body was a beautiful bridge of existence.
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The first day of spring was the color of dust and stone this year. That morning, I backed our minivan out of the garage under a continuous cloud stretched across the sky, a barrier between us and the warmth of the sun. The skin around my eyes was puffy and pressed against the plastic rims of my glasses like pillows, reminding me how turbulent the last night of winter was. Despite the mercies of a new morning, I woke in the aftermath of my own storm. There was wreckage to clean up, things to mend.
I drove my daughter to preschool and looked forward to being back at home in an empty house. Outside our window, we passed the same unremarkable strip malls we pass every time we go this route. Their homogenous messages blurred into one. We passed beige fields and rows of trees that remain thin and naked, their branches reaching to the sky like bitter fingers.
Don’t they know it’s the first day of spring?
It’s easy for me find beauty in shades of gray and layers of fog. I am not afraid of the melancholy of cloudy days, of bare brown tree limbs, or the visible effects of a long winter.
But today, all I see is the litter of plastic bags tangled among the tree trunks.
Have there always been so many?
There’s trash wrapped around the foundation of almost every tree I see. The grief I feel wraps around me as well.
I’ve been passionate about racial reconciliation for years, but engaging in it exhausts me. Since I was a little girl, I’ve thought about the way cultures collide. I’ve seen the effects of those collisions up close. I’ve lived them. My own body feels like a collision of worlds, of ethnicities and cultures, of the East and the West, of racial distinctions made with the intention to separate and classify. If I try to ignore racial reconciliation, I attempt to ignore myself.
But engaging in it is not a calling that makes me feel alive. There’s no arriving or hustling that fits into the work of it. My heart beats faster for it, but it’s lonely and heartbreaking and I have no choice but to face it.
Racial reconciliation isn’t something anyone in the church should be able to choose to be apathetic to. And yet, there are many who believe they don’t have to engage because they aren’t feeling it and weren’t born facing it. It’s a flat-out privilege for anyone to say they aren’t feeling itand it’s not their thing.
I wonder how many people weren’t feeling it as they watched their neighbors leave homes with a suitcase of belongings and a yellow star pinned onto their clothes.
Don’t they know we’ve always belonged to one another?
The last couple of months, I was knee-deep in writing about racism for a project I was a part of. I was hopeful at times, comforted and riled up as I honed in on Jesus’ ministry of reconciliation, but terrified to hope for anything in the world I know. Writing about such a huge topic with such a tiny and inadequate space for the words was daunting, and I came home from the library where I worked and cried often.
The lament I felt as I re-read books, found new ones and tried to write anything worth anything, felt as heavy and ridiculous as wearing a mink coat in the summer. I would rather not wear it. I would rather not be a person who wears a winter coat and tries to get others to wear one with me while they are trying to enjoy their ice cream.
We had a few unusually warm days this past winter. They were so warm that buds showed up on some of the trees in our backyard. After the most recent tease, winter came back with a vengeance. I walked through our backyard covered in ice to marvel at the way winter has the power to silence things. It was eerily quiet but it felt like someone was laughing. The buds were completely frozen, their tender hope stopped cold.
Engaging in racial reconciliation as a woman of color in the world, and in evangelical circles today, feels like being a tender bud trying to survive Winter’s constant comebacks. There’s hope and there are new mercies every day, but there’s still so much silence and cold. When someone says they are scared to be too bold about racism for fear of scaring people away, we all know which people are the ones everyone is most worried about scaring away. What about those of us who are just trying to keep one bud alive in a world frozen with the power of winter?
Isn’t anyone worried about scaring us away?
Do they know how many times we’ve wanted to leave already?
The calendar says that spring is here, but I still see the bags littered among bare trees. I cannot ignore them. I refuse to ignore them.
Will anyone else notice the trash we’ve all left on the imago dei? There’s wreckage to clean up. There are hearts that still need mending.
When I was a teenager living in the Midwest, I ate dried squid in the winter. My mom would roast the ojinguh in our fireplace while cups of Swiss Miss hot cocoa grew cold waiting on a coffee table close by. Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus sat on our mantel above the fireplace where she took the dried squid flesh out of the flames and pulled off long, ragged strips resembling pale-yellow beef jerky. My parents, my sister, and me huddled together on the floor next to the fireplace, leaving the couch lonely. We eagerly gnawed on these strips, our teeth working hard on the tough texture to get to the chewy bursts of sweet and salty.
It was on the coldest nights of our midwestern winters when my mom would ask my dad to get a fire going with ojinguh on her mind. He obliged, putting aside whatever he was doing, the same way he almost responded to her requests. Squatting in front of our white-washed brick fireplace with the fire screen wide open, he placed new logs on the log pile and shifted the old ones around with a poker.
The smell of wood and ash mixed with an inescapable scent of burnt sealife took over the entire lower level of our home on nights like those. I love remembering those nights and the way my family of upbringing shared food. It wasn’t just the sharing of food I treasured. It was the language of love my mom spoke effortlessly, knitting our multi-cultural, bi-racial family together.
When my mom held a large squid in the fireplace, her eyes lit up with dancing flames. I could almost see the seaside vendors in her simultaneously-happy-yet-ever-lamenting eyes. They reflected the fire of hunger she held close no matter how the time, distance and understanding between then and now stretched. The same fire fueled her everyday desire to make sure my dad, sister and I were always more than full. It was this fire in her that packed my dad carefully-curated lunches every day for as long as I can remember. No one told her she was supposed to be a Proverbs 31 wife. She did it, because she knew what it was like to have nothing but the hope of a few seconds of warmth from someone else’s fire, and only the scent of what roasted over it to feed her empty stomach and aching heart.
I have these memories of my mom making hand motions while singing San Toki, Toki Ya when I was sad or right before I went to sleep as a little girl. She would hold one arm up to symbolize a horizontal path and then prop her other hand behind it with her first two fingers peeking up from behind her first arm like a rabbit’s ears. She moved her finger-made rabbit up and down to show it bouncing away and then bouncing back again. It was this one song she sung to me in Korean about a bunny who ran away and came back home again that attached itself to my heart and never let go.
We didn’t speak Korean to one another at home when I was young. I’ve heard different reasons for why this was. And while this might be bold to say, considering the fact that I cannot have a conversation with anyone in Korean, the language feels like a piece of home to me. I can pick it out of a busy city street. I know the curves and movements of it’s sound. I’m convinced it rests deep in my heart. It’s as if it were there in my earliest moments, God speaking it straight through my mother’s thoughts, mouth, and body, pressing it into my bones and ligaments, letting it help form my innermost parts.
She lifted her hands to show me how small I was at birth. Her eyes bulged and she declared again, as if it was the first time she’d ever told me, “You almost didn’t make it! Did you know, you didn’t even cry?”
There are those stories parents tell and retell, and by the time I began elementary school, I knew this story of my birth by heart.
My body had hesitated upon arrival; it wasn’t ready.
Wrapped up in the womb of my mother, my story began within hers. And when it was time to make an entrance, my lungs weren’t finished and I’m told I couldn’t breathe. No one knew if the frailty of my lungs would be too much a burden for life, or whether by a whisper or prayer, I would come through.
For the first 21 days of my life, I lived in an incubator. It was the waiting space and the watching space. Wires intruded on my isolation while connecting me to a possible future outside hospital walls. Fingers and voices reached for me through holes while I could not be fully embraced. Prayers and pleas hung over my compact frame like a blanket.
I had entered the room in unmitigated weakness. Somewhere, someone said, “It’s a girl!” I had no voice or breath to respond to my welcoming.