The Value of My Korean Cultural Identity

Today we are so happy to share the reflections and thoughts of our sister, Eunjin Kim. Eunjin is a 3rd year PhD student at Westminster Theological Seminary under the supervision of Carl Trueman. Her emphasis is on church history, particularly Reformation history. She is happily married, to WTS alumnus, Jang Won Lee, and her interests include 16-17th century Reformed theology, history of biblical interpretation, creeds and confessions, good food, sports, and Korean dramas.

Reformed Margins not only exists to provide a platform for the voices of ethnic minorities, but also of women, who have significant perspectives to share on life and theology for the edification of the church. We hope you enjoy her unique story!

On December 7th, 1993, I set my foot in America for the first time in my life. Being an eight year old Korean girl, I held my parents’ hands tightly as we waited in Chicago O’hare Airport for our next flight to our final destination, Grand Rapids, Michigan. My dad was the only one who knew how to speak English from my family, with his heavy Korean accent of course, but even that sounded awesome to my ears since I did not even know the English alphabet.

One of the first great challenges for my parents was to find me the right elementary school. They had no idea how to send their child to a school in America and which school would be appropriate for an Asian girl like myself. At first, they put me in a school that was the closest to our apartment. It turned out to be an all-Black school; I was the only Asian. After a month or so, my parents transferred me to a different school that had an ESL program, but this time about 60% of the students there were Vietnamese. After another couple months, my family moved into a new apartment. This led to my third transition to a new school within that same year. The new school was an all-White school in a nice and rich neighborhood. What shocked me were the clear differences between the three schools. In the first two schools, I played soccer on a tiny asphalt area with imaginary goals on each side. In this all-white school, however, I was able to play soccer on a full-sized grass soccer fields with real goals and nets. This experience imprinted in my mind a formula that stuck with me for a long time, that is, white is good and superior.

Fitting in with the white society, however, was difficult. I was a pretty good student. I learned English quickly and thrived to be one of the top students in my class. In high school, I played JV tennis and Varsity soccer. I was the first-chair violinist in my school orchestra and won awards at Science Olympiads. I did not do too bad considering I was the only Asian in the school. Regardless of my achievements, however, there was one thing I continued to struggle with: confidence. Being the only Asian among all white students meant always having to feel like an outsider. Although I spoke English at school, as soon as I got home, I spoke Korean with my parents and followed Korean traditions. During my free time, I watched Korean dramas and listened to K-pop. This was not odd to me since this was when I could truly be myself. For me, America was not a place where I could mingle, but it was where I would always have to feel like a foreigner. I got along with my white friends fine, who are still dear to me, and they treated me like their any other friends, but deep inside my heart, I shrank before (or even envied) the pride and the confidence they had of themselves. I wanted to fit in, but I wasn’t sure exactly how. As I got older, it became more evident that it was impossible for me to be one of them.

After spending eight years in America, my family moved back to Korea. I had just finished my junior year in high school. To my surprise, I was more Americanized than I had thought, but surely I felt at home in Korea, which allowed me to adjust very quickly. Here, I did not have to worry about my lack of confidence nor my different Asian appearance. Here, I did not have to go beyond myself wanting to fit in. I was to be who I am and that was just fine. I found that I identified myself more strongly with the Korean culture, even though I still envied and admired the white culture and their world.

Thirteen years have passed since my move back to Korea and now I am back living in America, particular in a predominantly white context. After finishing college and an M.Div. in Korea, I came to Westminster Theological Seminary to pursue further studies with an emphasis on church history. Similar to the tensions I had faced in my younger years, I found myself still struggling with my lack of confidence and the desire to fit in within the white male dominant theological world. I wanted to be one of those white students who were able to make casual jokes with the professors. I wanted to share my stories with my white classmates, but in order for my stories to be understood, one had to know somewhat of the Korean context first. Naturally, I became a quiet and an unnoticeable student in class.

Unlike my childhood years in America, however, there was a crucial change in the way that I came to understand my Asian identity. As I grew in my faith of Jesus as my Savior, I came to understand humanity in a completely different way. All have sinned and fell short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) and thus no ethnic group was perfect nor good before God. Everyone, without exception, was in need of a true Savior for their salvation. This was the perennial truth that connected all humanity from all time and places together. More important than my identity as a Korean was my identity first and foremost as a believer of Jesus Christ. What then, was the use of cultural diversity? Why did God create me particularly as a Korean? One answer, for me, was that it was because God had his reasons to do so. Being Korean was not a disadvantage but actually part of God’s plan for Him to be glorified through His created world.

Such theological understanding had a few practical implications in the way that I thought about my Asian identity. I no longer tried to be white nor envied them unexceptionally as I did when I was younger. I knew I could never become white no matter how hard I tried. What I could do, however, was to bring my Korean perspective into the bigger framework in understanding theology and church. My identity is strengthened not when I try to become someone else, but when I truly accept who I am and bring that understanding into context. What I had considered as my disadvantages were actually gifts from God that I could use to serve the church. To offer an example from history, the fact that John Calvin was a French exile also greatly shaped his identity and his theological interests even though much of his career took place in Geneva. His dedication of the Institutes to the French King in an attempt to plea for tolerance for the French Protestants demonstrates just that. Likewise, my identity as a Korean-Korean impacts the way I do theology and my perspectives on how I think theology should be applied in the churches. I am not white. I am a foreigner whose native language is not English, but I believe my Korean-Korean cultural context can be of value and of use in serving the Reformed churches. My cultural identity is not something that can be abandoned or considered apart from who I am. The cultural diversity of believers reveals God’s wisdom and glory in creation!

Eunjin Kim

Eunjin is a native Korean born in Seoul. After completing a B.A. in English Literature and her M.Div. in Korea, she moved to the States for further studies. She finished her Th.M. at Duke Divinity School and is now a Ph.D. student at Westminster Theological Seminary studying Reformation history. She is happily married to WTS alumnus, Jang Won Lee. Her interests include 16-17th century Reformed theology and history of biblical interpretation. She particularly loves chicken wings, Korean bbq, sports, and Korean dramas.

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