Ah, to relive the ’80s. We pinned the cuffs of our already tapered jeans and rolled them up further. We desperately tried to get our Hypercolor shirts hyper enough to actually change colors. We marveled at the collision of musical worlds when Run-DMC reimagined “Walk This Way” by Aerosmith as a street-wise hip-hop jam. And, of course, we watched John Hughes’ films. Lots of them.
We realized that Ben Stein was, like, totally our teacher from third period as he bored Ferris Bueller to tears. We felt the pain of Duckie’s unrequited love in Pretty in Pink. We shuddered in horror as Judd Nelson revealed just what happened in the Bender household when someone spilled paint in the garage. And we laughed at Gedde Watanabe’s portrayal of foreign exchange student Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles. Or you did if you weren’t me.
As one of only a handful of Asian-American students in my school at the time, I had already endured my share of “Me Chinese, me play joke”-type teasing. And now I was being called “Long Duk Dong” despite the fact that I was born and raised in Michigan (not to mention that I am Korean by heritage, which is actually different from being Chinese). This ethnic stereotype of the bumbling, Engrish-speaking Asian can still be found in popular culture without much effort. In 2002, retailer Abercrombie & Fitch released a series of T-shirts that mocked Asians using various racial stereotypes. Last year, Details magazine released an article called “Gay or Asian?” in which Whitney McNally took bigotry to a whole new level when she managed the double-play of offending both Asian men and gay men in this puerile attempt at humor. Mad TV produces a sketch called “The Weakest Chink,” and on and on it goes. Even recent attempts to present Asians as burnouts or rebels (see Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle or The Perfect Score) only serve to perpetuate a different kind of Asian stereotype.
Unfortunately, the Church has not always served as a refuge from this kind of racism. Last year, the Southern Baptist Convention published a VBS curriculum through its LifeWay imprint called “Far-Out Far East Rickshaw Rally” that made full use of Asian stereotypes in everything from their music, decorations, gifts and even fonts. While studying in seminary, I was often asked, “So, what’s the Korean perspective on this?” as if I could possibly distill the vast diversity of opinions among the millions of Korean people living around the world into one neat answer. Once, while attempting to worship with a very well-known Southern California congregation, I was told by the greeter at the door, “Oh, the Korean-language service is that way.” My wife was told by a Caucasian pastor, even after explaining that she had immigrated to the United States when she was less than 1 year of age, that he could “hardly hear an accent” in her English.
I’m sure there are many lessons to be found in all of this: As believers, we are called to confront injustice and to work to bring about God’s justice for all of His people; racism is often more subtle than a public Klan rally. For me, the lesson has been more personal.
My journey to faith in Jesus Christ has been intimately tied to my search for identity. In some ways, my struggle to discover my racial identity in the face of a majority culture that has not always particularly understood me has reminded me of what it means to be a Christian. My feeling of being out of place, of being not quite at home has served as a reminder that I come from another place (even farther away than a journey across the Pacific Ocean). My citizenship, as the Apostle Paul reminds me, is in heaven. And if I do not feel entirely comfortable here in this world, it is because I am not quite home yet. So, while marginality is not something after which we should seek—in and of itself—it does remind us of our ultimate identity and final destination.