It was the longest trip of my life. I was five years old, and we were flying from Seoul, Korea to the United States, the Land of Opportunity. In America, I was told there is more food than you can imagine and everyone gets a good education. I thought I was going to heaven on earth!
The best part was that I would see my dad again. He moved to the United States a couple of years before us so he could find the right place for our family to live. He first landed in Los Angeles where there was a growing Korean community, and found Seattle unintentionally when his friend asked him to help on the long drive up. Once my dad arrived in Seattle, he knew this was where he wanted to live. The majestic mountains all around and bodies of water everywhere enamored him.
Coming off the plane at SeaTac, I ran to my dad’s arms. He looked just as I remembered, but his voice sounded funny. He picked out “American” names for us: Elizabeth, Abraham, Mary and John. He chose biblical names, hoping that we would follow the legacy of each name. He wanted to change our last name to “Usa” to show his devotion to his new country and told us to only speak English to each other so that we would pick up the language quickly and lose our accents.
We have more in common than different.
At school, the kids were mostly friendly. Some of the boys would point at me and call me “Chinese.” I did not know what that meant so when I asked my dad, he said they thought I was from China. Back then, most Americans referred to any Asian as Chinese or Oriental, as no one even knew about Koreans. It bothered me that people were calling me something that I was not, but I was too shy to tell anyone.
When we moved from Seattle to Bellevue, I was in fifth grade and it was a very different place than it is today. My parents knew every Korean family living in Bellevue because there were only three others. One was the gardener for the City of Bellevue. In class, I was usually the token minority student and still mistaken for being Chinese.
I had a happy childhood, but I was keenly aware that people looked at me differently. I wanted blonde curly hair and blue eyes to blend in and look like all my Barbie dolls and everyone I saw on TV. No matter how perfect my English was, people would still look at me differently. I felt like everything around me looked all-American so I wanted that, too. Seeing other Koreans was a once-a-week event at church on Sundays. In those days, most Koreans went to church, whether they were believers or not because that is where they came together as a community.
There was not much room to be different and diversity was not an issue because it did not exist.
A few years later, when refugees from Vietnam started arriving in the area, I should have been elated to see other Asians. Instead, I was happy to hear my white friends say, “You are not one of them…” It was such a conformist society back then. There was not much room to be different and diversity was not an issue because it did not exist.
Fast forward to 2017. Both Bellevue and I have grown up. It has moved from suburban status to a city with commerce and growth that is the envy of many. The Eastside clearly looks different from the place where I grew up. The ethnic makeup has drastically changed, so much so that sometimes I feel like I am in the majority. Students in Bellevue schools speak more than eighty different languages at home, and the minority population has surpassed the Caucasian population.
Still, some things are the same. People assume that because I am an Asian woman, I am not a good driver. Or people tell me that I speak English correctly and think they are complimenting me. Often, I am still the token minority at gatherings. There is still room for us to learn and grow.
We all want to be open-minded, and we all want to be welcoming. What stops us from reaching out is prejudice. We all have them but we can choose if it will rule how we treat others. It is easy to judge people by appearances, not just by race, but how one dresses, someone’s size or age. John 7:24 says, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.”
Often, I am still the token minority at gatherings. There is room for us to learn and grow.
The other reason we are not welcoming is fear, fear of things that are different or people that are different. Sure, someone may speak another language or eat different types of food, but we are not that different. The events in our lives that are most significant and personal are events that happen in most people’s lives no matter what race, gender, religion, geography or political affiliation. We all rejoice at the birth of a child, celebrate at weddings, and grieve the passing of a loved one. We all experience moments that make us laugh out loud, scream in anger, or weep in silence. We have more in common than different. I think God planned it that way.