In high school, I had the opportunity to be part of a program that allowed for a unique class called "Theory of Knowledge". It was, as the name perhaps reveals, an open-ended, discussion-driven class that poked at the epistemological methods of adolescent minds. Some days, I have to confess, featured the type of discussion that go unappreciated by the average high schooler; other days, like the one I'm about to discuss, go unforgotten.
The topic was multiculturalism and pluralism. The classroom held about 22 students. I was the only Korean-American, there was another guy from Hong Kong who had been in the country for a few years, one Indian guy, one Indian girl, one Pakistani girl, one half-Japanese, half-American girl, and one Cuban girl; there were also two African-American girls in the group. The other 13 students, to the best of my recollection, were Caucasian or at the very least had families that had been in the country for multiple generations and could not be picked out of a group visually as "non-white".
The teacher began by talking about how wonderful multiculturalism was, how the acceptance of other races, creeds, and peoples had begun to really show us how things could be, that world harmony was possible. She led the conversation to the point that we all responded hypnotically to the fact that yes, it was a good thing. Even a few of the students chimed in and said how nice it was to learn new languages and eat new foods. One of us "non-whites" piped up and remarked how good it was to have opportunities here that we would not have had any where else. Then as the discussion seemed to die down and the class period was coming to an end, I ruined it.
I raised my hand and the teacher gave me permission to speak.
"But you don't know me. You don't know Korean any better because of me. This multiculturalism thing is not all true. I mean the world is becoming a smaller place, and yes, there are wonderful opportunities here, but I don't radiate my Korean-ness here and he doesn't radiate his Hong Kong-ness here or her Pakistani-ness."
The teacher interupted me. "But by you being here, we have a window for discussion. The possibilities are there. Even that was never possible before."
I don't know where my anger came from but it started to flow more freely. "A window? I know a Cuban. I don't know what being Cuban is like. I know two African-Americans. I don't know what being black is about. That's not a window–that's a peephole. When I'm here at school, you don't know that I don't speak English when I'm at home or what my life as a Korean is like at all. This is not multiculturalism — it's uni-cultural with all the rest giving up what they have to have the opportunity. I'm not Korean any more, I'm just an American with a Korean face! Or at least I have to be if I want to be a part of this multicultural facade."
You could have heard a pin drop. We certainly heard the bell ring.
I think it was the first time that even I realized that culture is something we fight to maintain – perhaps fight isn't the right word, but it is something that we work and develop and re-create with every generation, like building sand castles. There is a slow erosion and tectonic movement to identity, cultural and self. I think it becomes even more complicated in Western cultures where the self precedes the culture, as though one element could stand on its own.
Perhaps the difficulty with ethnic churches is that there are two forces that are re-worked at once – culture and faith. The fight to maintain either begins anew with each generation, and while each promises a more clear identity of the self, well, let's just say it can be easy to get lost in all of that as well, now more than ever.
I think with all the emphasis, technology, society, mass culture driven to idolize the individual, isn't it a natural conclusion to just forego the traditional definiton of culture and just develop a culture of self? But where would that self come from? Isn't that the line we're fighting to recover to some extent? Isn't that what we want to stand the test of time? I want to know what it means to be Korean, American and Christian all at once — isn't that why I'm so wrapped up in this?