I’m a second generation Korean-American woman, raised in the American South. I went to Korean churches growing up. Most of the Korean churches I went to were filled with poor immigrants who owned small businesses (I only attended one church where most of the immigrants were in professional white-collar jobs). Our parents attended the Korean Ministry service in Korean (“KM”) and their second-generation kids went to the English service (“EM”) every Sunday morning.
I’m going to tell you a little secret you may not know: in all my years of going to church with all my other Korean-American friends, I have never sung or worshipped in Korean with Koreans. Not even as a kid, except in choirs and with parents when we had joint services. I’ve only worshipped in Korean outside of my Korean church.
So when I first heard worship being done in Korean at a conference with non-Koreans, I was a little disoriented. On one hand, it was really great that my language was being represented. My people were represented. But then I asked myself, “Is this my language? Is this my people?”
Angie’s Korean Language Stats
My fluency in Korean is pretty conversational. Most of my Korean-American friends range from fluent (can understand the entirety of what is going on in K dramas) to nonexistent (needs full subtitles to the K dramas, understanding little words and phrases here and there). I don’t speak Korean with any of my Korean-American friends, except a few Konglish phrases or words here and there (there is no substitute for the word Nunchi in English!).
And I’m definitely not alone. A Pew Research study on second generation children of immigrants showed that only 4 out of 10 people like me speak their parents’ native language, and almost 100% consider English their primary language.
So I readily admit that Korean is not my heart language. There are times where my Korean gets better, such as hanging around my parents or binge watching the aforementioned K dramas, but for the most part it’s pretty conversational.
Here is what’s going on inside of my head when I hear the Korean language being sung for worship by non-Koreans:
- Cool! They’re singing Korean! That’s my people!
- This sounds so awesome. And other people are really trying to sing it, that’s great.
- Whoa, I don’t understand these words, but I can pronounce them better than anyone else around me.
- I feel kind of bad that I don’t sing in Korean on my own.
- I feel kind of guilty that my Korean is not good enough to understand what I’m singing.
- Why don’t I know more songs in Korean??
- Why do I feel like the non-Korean worship leaders are more Korean than I am???
- Why am I such a bad Korean? Don’t I know where I came from?????!!!!!!!
- I suck.
I have very mixed emotions after hearing these songs. I get a sense from the worship leaders that there’s a “you’re welcome.” I sense that all the other people are just loving the sounds and the sights of the leadership and songs, but this love feel skin deep and centered on a fascination with something oriental. I sense that native Korean speakers are touched whole-heartedly that they are being heard and represented as legit followers of Jesus. But I wonder… is there a sort of “third” space for people like me? A place where, culture, narrative, and behaviors have Korean distinction, but the language is English?
I Am A Perpetual Foreigner
Erika Lee, in her recent book, makes a point that Asians living in America are considered “perpetual foreigners at worst, and probationary Americans* at best,” even though a lot of us were born and raised in the States. Because we’re left out of most conversations about race and ethnicity in America, our country ignores us or thinks we’re just model minorities, even if it’s NOT TRUE. But since we don’t really feel like we have a place in society, we seclude ourselves into little bubbles, unless you live in L.A., which has huge bubbles.
But we’re also foreigners in our “original land.” Anyone in Korea could tell you that I am an American just by the way I’m walking down the street. I sometimes joke that I’m probably considered obese in Korea. So I don’t really fit in there either.
Worship Leader Identity
I am a worship leader and I have led worship at numerous conferences and retreats. I focus on worship and reconciliation and the music we do is pretty diverse. But recently I’ve been feeling really strange as I lead, because I feel like I have no clear identity when it comes to leading worship. People who have never been led in worship or even worshipped around people like me might assume that I’ll sing in Korean or bring that side out of myself. I feel this strange pressure to “go native,” as Gale Yee writes about. But this is not my authentic self, since my heart language is English, and I feel objectified.
Others may assume that Hillsongs are my heart language songs. Let me tell you, I have a hunch, with no real data, that for many Asian Americans this is may very well be true. And for me, it’s definitely close. But it is still limiting.
In my multiethnic church and my worship band Menders, I’ve worked very hard to try to establish a listening and empowering culture. I’m painfully giving away my authority and power to others to ensure that it’s not the “Angie show.” I’m trying my best to learn from others and value other cultures in the spirit of humility. And by the grace of God, we were able to build a culture of trust when it came to worship and worship music. But one day my artist friend asked me, “Angie, what you’re doing is great, but do YOU feel empowered to express yourself?” I sheepishly admitted that throughout this process of giving voice to others, I kind of lost my own voice. She encouraged me to carve out some time to keep developing my identity and expressing it. Artist friends are so great in encouraging this.
I want to be very honest and open about this journey because I know I can’t be alone. There are very few Asian American worship leaders that I know of that are on the calibre of the “big names.” I know this isn’t because we aren’t as talented or lack anything musically. But like everywhere else in society, Asians, Asians in America, and Asian-Americans are the quietest and most secluded voices.
I dare to hope that Christians can be different, however, because we matter in the vast Kingdom of God. We have gifts, both individually and as a community. In writing this I feel a Divine invitation for me to dive deeper in who God created me to be. He is calling me to “consider the lilies” – to pause and reflect on all those intricate details of myself that are just waiting to be discovered. I can’t help but think that this is really going to translate into how I view worship, and lead others into worship, and I’m so eager to share with you the different disciplines I’m discovering.
I’m finding some unlikely role models and heroes, and it’s been unexpectedly refreshing! Please subscribe to my blog for the most recent updates, and join me in the conversation on Twitter and Facebook.
*By using the term “America” Erika Lee and I am referring specifically to the United States.