One Good Phrase: Mihee Kim-Kort (Be different.)

Mihee Kim-Kort is whip-smart, kind, and somehow able to get at the nitty gritty of theology in a vulnerable and approachable way. Every time I read her work, I’m challenged by it. And I consider it an honor to host her  today.

 

Most of my life, I have struggled with wanting to belong. To the group of cool kids. To the group of smart kids. To the group of athletic kids. To the group of Christians. To the group of cool, smart, preppy, white Christians.

My parents were the stereotypical Korean American Christian parents. Growing up, we hardly watched TV. My first music video was Tom Petty’s “Last Dance with Mary Jane,” my senior year in high school at a friend’s house. We weren’t allowed to do any sports because they would take away from our studies (although, eventually in late high school we would convince them to let us run cross country). We weren’t allowed to go to sleepovers, parties, or anything generally fun. We weren’t allowed to listen to a certain kind of music.We were at church all day on Sundays. And Wednesday nights. And Friday nights. Sometimes Saturdays. We had dinner together at a set time every night until my parents’ businesses required them to be out later. We had to practice the piano for hours on end each day.

And every time, I would complain and protest.

“Everyone else gets to…!!!”
“This is America! We should be allowed to…!!!”
“It’s normal to…!!!”

To which my parents – mostly my father – would respond, “Be different.”

I hated hearing that phrase. I already felt different enough. I was one of 3 Asian American students in my class. I was the only one in my class with a different sounding name that was easily caricatured and ridiculed. Mee-hoo. Yoo-hoo. (Actually, they are kind of funny now.) I was the only one who was with my family at church from dawn to dusk on Sundays, and the only one who didn’t have cable TV, and the only one who didn’t go to football games. I didn’t want to be different. I wanted to be the same. I wanted to be like everyone else.

I wanted to belong.

“Insist on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift you can offer with the cumulative force of a whole life’s cultivation, but of the adopted talent of another, you have only an extemporaneous, half possession.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson

Eventually I let go. In a way I won. Because I eventually did become a part of those groups. I became one of them. Popular (senior class president, homecoming and prom queen). Smart. Athletic. Musical. And a Bible-toting, journal-carrying, sermon-note-taking, yuppy-ish/preppy, evangelical, white Christian. But in all of this, especially in the last category, I lost. I lost something.

Be different.

It wasn’t until later in college, and then in seminary I started to feel some deep contradictions in my life. They were ones that I had held pretty well as I sought to assimilate and be accepted into the majority culture. Pretending that it wasn’t a big deal that most of my Christian friends were white. That most of the people in the sanctuary around me were white. And that a lot of what  I would often hear would be so narrow-minded and ignorant, I could barely register it without imploding myself. But, it became too much to sort out all the time. Too much to try to pretend and fake it all the time. Too much to run away from all the time.

In trying to become like everyone else I thought looked happy, successful, or content, I lost myself. I lost the value of myself. The value of my family, my heritage, my culture, and the church community of my childhood.

Be different. 

It’s interesting to think back to cliques in high school. Groups formed around some interest. Maybe it was sports. Or debate. Or choir. But I never felt really comfortable in any one group. Subconsciously, I liked being around people who were different from me. And eventually I realized that there was something incredibly wonderful about connecting with someone, especially someone who seems totally different.

I’m not wanting harp on “celebrating diversity” or tolerance. Those are well and good, but they’ve become white noise. They gloss over the reality that no one is perfect, and that all our upbringings were flawed, and our churches had issues (Korean churches are notorious for issues).

But while these words are great, they aren’t Gospel. Because the Gospel is the shock and surprise of finding some overlap with someone who is not only different, but foreign. Alien. Strange. And while my parents weren’t necessarily talking about this when they were telling me to be different, I’m feeling this is an important shift. Being different is simply a call to recognize and embrace that we’re all different. We’re all a little weird. 

At least once a day I will pause to think about my life, and look around at where I am and how I got here, and I will say outloud, “God is weird.”

God’s different, too. Different from us. But the miracle, the really bizarre and wonderful truth is that there is a glimmering – a little flicker, the soft shimmer of light – of God’s kingdom when we connect with people who are different and see that we are actually looking in the mirror.

I will tell my kids this as they grow up. Be different. Be open. Be different.

“I want there to be a place in the world where people can engage in one another’s differences in a way that is redemptive, full of hope and possibility. Not this “In order to love you, I must make you something else”. That’s what domination is all about, that in order to be close to you, I must possess you, remake and recast you.”
― Bell Hooks, Reel to Real: Race, Sex, and Class at the Movies

Mihee Kim-Kort is mostly a stay-at-home mom to three, but moonlights as a Presbyterian minister and writer. She and her family live in Indiana in the heart of Hoosier country where she ministers with college students. While a mountain girl (Colorado) at heart she misses the fast-paced energy of the East Coast where she and her husband met in seminary. Meanwhile, she makes due with the parks and hills of Bloomington, and the rush of chasing after her twins with baby #3 in her Ergo. She recently published her first book - Making Paper Cranes: Toward an Asian American Feminist Theology (Chalice Press), and is working on two more projects – Streams Run Uphill: Conversations with Young Clergywomen of Color (Judson Press) and the tentatively titled Yoked: Stories of a Clergy Couple in Marriage, Ministry, and Family (Alban). She blogs regularly at First Day Walking, and contributes to 8 AsiansDeeper Story, and Fidelia’s Sisters.

  • http://www.coffeestainedclarity.com Bethany Bassett

    You had the Korean American Christian parents; I had the Fundamentalist American Christian parents. Our phrase was “stand alone,” and whole body shudders would not convey how much I hated those words as a junior higher when all I wanted in the world was to fit in (and to burn every denim jumper ever created, amen).

    I love your perspective on this though. I honestly have never considered how that differentness might have been a good thing or might be worth carrying into my own parenting. I like your definition of being different as acknowledging our inherent differentness and your observation that this is one way we take after our father God. Thank you for such a refreshing look at a concept that has only left me cringing before!

    • Mihee Kim-Kort

      The more I talk about this upbringing the more I hear how it was experienced in so many different cultures. It’s a tough thing to hear as a young person – ‘stand alone’ and ‘be different’ – so lonely and isolating in a time when connecting with others is so crucial to identity development.

      It definitely was redeemed for me later on – I hope it is a gracious thing for my kids. Thank you for sharing.

  • http://twitter.com/felicitywhite Felicity White

    I think this is brilliant advice for kids (and for me). Hard for them to hear (just like it was for us) but worth repeating anyway.

    • Mihee Kim-Kort

      I imagine pushback but hope we experience it differently as they grow older and can talk back (coherently) :)

      • Felicity White

        Exactly. And with my 12 and 10 year olds I have to be okay with the pushback remembering their brains aren’t fully developed yet. They can’t recognize my brilliance. : )

  • http://howtotalkevangelical.addiezierman.com/ Addie Zierman

    Lovely.

    • Mihee Kim-Kort

      Thanks, Addie!


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