Why Do All Asians Look the Same?

This morning, my family engaged in one of our all-time favorite activities, watching the United States Women’s National Soccer Team play. Today we cheered on from our living-from the United States as they beat North Korea 1-0 in the first round of 2012 Olympic play. Watching the USWNT play over the past few years has been one of the most powerful and important things my daughters have experienced. The names Hope Solo, Alex Morgan, Abby Wambach, Megan Repinoe, Lauren Cheney and Carly Lloyd are known in our house much like sports figures like Kobe Bryant, Drew Brees or Big Papi might  be known in others.

Despite the great fun of winning and watching the great play of the United States, as my wife and I followed the commentary on Twitter, we noticed a disturbing trend. Here are just a few examples from some the seemingly innocuous to the blatantly offensive:*


So to point out the obvious and absurd in all of this, all Asians do not all look alike. Still, do this search or this one or this one and you will see ample evidence that some believe and experience the contrary. Sprinkled throughout the tweets you see some folks calling some people out, others including a “I don’t mean to be racist.” disclaimer and others simply wondering outloud.

While it is one thing to call out the North Korean squad for their rough play, it is quite another to wander into the realm of “all Koreans look alike.” While this might not be a huge deal to many folks, this “they all look the same” rhetoric this has been one of THE primary ways that society has historically denied and dismissed the human experience and expression of people of color. Sure, everyone is mistaken for someone at some point in time, but I simply do not think this happens to White folks as much as it does for people of color. For many of my Black, Latino and Asian friends out there, I am sure that we can all list instance after instance after instance when we have been mistaken for a like-raced person who looks nothing like us.

Let me give you an example of how this plays out in real life in an innocent, yet telling way. If I had a dollar for every time that someone made a Bruce Lee reference to me, I would be a very wealthy man. Now you might be thinking, “Well, duh, your name IS Bruce and you ARE Asian.” Sure this train of thought MIGHT might sense if I was also ripped with muscles, was 30 pounds lighter, 2 inches taller and could kill you with a one-inch punch to the heart and but alas, these are not traits that I possess. While I am not actually mistaken for Bruce Lee, it does give insight into the place where people start and usually stop when first meeting me . . .  my Asian face and an automatic connection to another Asian face. This plays out even more personally, when I AM mistaken for other Asian Americans in my own church denomination. Despite the fact that I look nothing like Rodger, Joey, Neal or Kye it happens again and again, further illustrating the reality that many people really do think we all look alike.

In the end, seeing this trend in the midst of an event that is meant to bring the global community together, I was reminded that there is still much to do in trying to build better relationships between people of different racial backgrounds. We must be able to take the time to actually get to know each other in a way that does not dismiss the genuine racial and ethnic background/s of a person, but allows us to incorporate these elements into the lens through which we interact with one another. This could be said for many issues that make up our complex existence and unless we are willing to see one another’s humanity in a way that truly incorporates all of those things, we will continue be a people who find ourselves battling across false and one-dimensional dichotomies of  race, gender, sexuality, age, ideology, etc.

If you feel comfortable, please feel free to leave your story of mistaken identity as I do think telling the stories of our mistakes and brokenness is one way to help us all move towards some level of forgiveness and healing. Engaging in these conversations about race is certainly not an easy task – community rarely is – but I am convinced and convicted that it is well worth the effort.

*I chose not to publicly call these folks to the extent that I would include the links to their twitter accounts. Many are young folks who I believe are still learning the nuances of social media. My intent is not to bring down the hammer on any one person, but only to point out that issues of race are still in need of addressing in today’s society.

Grace Ji-Sun Kim – Mother’s Day: I Can Only Imagine

As part of my Guest Blogging Series, this week I am glad to welcome back  Rev. Dr. Grace Ji-Sun Kim as she muses on Mother’s Day. Grace received her M.Div. from Knox College and her Ph.D. from the University of Toronto. She is an Associate Professor of Doctrinal Theology and the Director of the Master of Arts in Theological Studies program at Moravian Theological Seminary and the is the author of two books, The Grace of Sophia: A Korean North American Women’s Christology and The Holy Spirit, Chi, and the Other: A Model of Global and Intercultural Pneumatology. Grace was recently ordained as a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and also blogs for 99 Brattle.

I can only imagine . . . how terrifying and difficult it was for my mom to bring her two little girls on a plane, via Alaska, Hawaii finally to arrive at the Toronto Pearson Airport only to find that my dad wasn’t there to greet or pick us up. As usual, he was late.  It was January 17, 1975 when we immigrated from Korea to Canada. My dad had already left on his own a month earlier.

Growing up, my mother did not have the privilege of a higher education as her family was poor and she had seven siblings. She grew up during the aftermath of the Korean War and life was extremely difficult. In Korea, if there was any extra money left in the family, the boys were educated before the girls.

So I can only imagine the anxiety and trepidation she must have felt as she left Korea, got on a plane the first time in her life, without knowing a word of English and not knowing what future awaited her in a new foreign land.

I still remember the day that we left Korea. My grandmother (chin-hal-muh-nee) told me that the flight would be very long and there were no restrooms on the plane. So she made me sit in the bathroom for a very long time so that I would not have to go again till I landed in Canada. I remember my uncle (keun-ah-buh-gi) giving my sister and me a very pretty necklace (which I still have) with personal information written on the back of the pendant just in case we got lost. I remember being in the airport with my mother and sister, and uncles, aunts and cousins who came out to say their goodbyes. My sister and I carried these very big red bags that my aunts called “immigration bags” as we flew across the Pacific to an unknown territory. Every one of our family members was weeping–especially my grandmother. They thought they would never see us again.

Since I was only five, I didn’t realize the impact that day would have on the rest of my life. My mother was only twenty-nine and did not know what was waiting for her as she left Korea. She left her entire family so she could join my dad since it was his idea to leave Korea against all the wishes of his family. She left behind everything she had known; her family, her house, her community, her friends, her culture, and her history in order to start afresh in a new and foreign land. I can only imagine the fear in her heart as she obeyed my father. As many first generation immigrants can remember, it was not an easy life. It was not a “land of milk and honey” as everyone had told them it would be. Rather, it was a harsh and sometimes a heart-wrenching life.

We landed in Toronto in January during one of the harshest winters in Canada. We were so cold and miserable that I can remember just wanting to stay indoors all day long. I started kindergarten and remember being mocked by others who did not know “what” I was. Many Canadians kept asking me if I were Chinese, or Japanese. When I told them I was Korean, they said, “What is Korean?” You can’t be Korean. You are Chinese or Japanese (and other terms were used to describe me…). With the lack of English, I was a constant target of racism.

I can only imagine the frequent regret my mother must have felt when she experienced extreme isolation, loneliness, and a sense of hopelessness as she tried to adjust to a foreign land which did not welcome her or her family. In the midst of all her suffering as a result of prejudice, racism, and sexism, she endured it all in her silence. She never openly shared her pain even though it was visible on her face and her body. Like many Korean immigrant women, she suffered in silence and alone.
In the midst of all these difficulties and obstacle, my mom did her best to raise my sister and me. She provided for us in the midst of racism, subordination, sexism and prejudice. She was a good, kind, compassionate, giving, thoughtful and caring mother. She passed away on January 12, 2010 after fighting a battle with lung cancer.

Now, I can only imagine her sorrow since she did not share with me her own personal stories or dreams not yet realized, her fear, solemnity, and trepidation. I can now only imagine the pain, the suffering, and the distress she must have endured during her whole immigrant life.

But, I do not have to imagine her hard work ethic, diligence, determination and perseverance in order to survive faithfully in a foreign land. I do not have to imagine her deep love for God, her strong commitment to the church, her constant prayer, and her love for her community and family. On this Mother’s Day, I do not have to imagine that her Spirit-Chi* lives on, as I know it does within me and my own three children.

Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers and moms-to-be! What a blessing and privilege it is to be a mother.

*Spirit-Chi is the spirit that exists in all of us which gives us energy, warmth and life. For more discussion on Spirit-Chi please see my book, The Holy Spirit, Chi, and the Other (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).