There was a time in my life when I had to pick up a job at a sushi bar. A tiny hole-in-the-wall type of place whose claim to fame was that it was the oldest sushi bar in Nashville (since 1982), but also boasted the best sushi in town. There must be some truth to it as years later, I still have the occasional craving.
It was a sushi bar that was not known to have male waiters or hosts — let’s just say I broke a fairly long trend of cute and young Asian waitresses who really needed this particular job at this particular sushi bar. I, on the other hand, only worked there out of the sheer lack of ambition to look any further.
In any case, the regular customers took note that a not-so-attractive Asian male was delivering the unagi to their table, and occasionally I would get the audacious question, “How did you get a job here?”
Of course, I didn’t quite know how to respond, but managed to shrug my shoulders and say, “I guess I look the part.”
And that would be true. In that sushi bar, only the customers (and the dishwasher in the back) were not Asian. My genes — those DNA recipes that put together all those magical ingredients that created my flat nose, black hair, and smooth olive skin — were my ticket in for the job.
And those genes I could also blame my flat feet on, oh and my thick calf muscles, not to mention my myopia. Of course, not all bad things came from this curious genetic code, it gave me enough IQ points to prove my true mettle in Algebra II (coincidentally the last showing for said IQ points) and a strong liking for spicy foods.
While some of this I could easily attribute directly to my parents, whether it was my near-sightedness (mom) or my flat feet (dad), there were things that seemed to transcend familial “trackbacks” (Agh! the blogosphere has affected my daily vernacular!)
Case in point, during my years in college, there was a small Korean fellowship that was student-led, which met Friday nights on campus. It was a wonderful mix of 1st and 2nd gen Korean students, some local residents, some who actually went to school there. The speaker was a pastor of a local church and after worship (which to that point, had always been in Korean), he would give a brief message every week. But this was not his ministry, he was just the father of one of the attending girls.
One night, some of the younger students (including myself) had the chance to lead worship, and we sang a few songs in English. As we completed worship and sat down, exchanging places with the pastor, he got up and said in Korean, “We are Korean. Your parents are Korean, you are Korean, we should worship in Korean. Although we live in America, you should never forget who you are. OK?” He pointed emphatically at us and made a stern face. He wasn’t sugar-coating this at all.
He kept on for a few minutes and closed the service with a brief homily as usual although I don’t remember a word he said after “OK”, which ironically was the only word that was English. All I saw was red after that.
Afterwards, the handful of “2nd-gen” (although we never called ourselves that) students gathered in one of the dormitory lounges and fumed. I didn’t talk much. I was so angry but I didn’t quite know why or how to articulate it.
As the conversation started to meander and we cooled off and began to joke again. One of the girls said to me, “Wow, you totally scared me. You totally have the stereotypical Korean temper!” She made a mocking face making her eyes into little slits and flaring her nostrils.
“Whatever,” I said. “I don’t have a temper.”
“You were a total ah-juh-shi, man! Trust me, if you’re a Korean guy, you have the Korean temper.” (Ah-juh-shi = Korean older man, akin to mister).
And I did trust her. Once she named it for me, I began to see more of it, not just in me, but in Korean men all around me. I saw it when the church I attended in Nashville had its ups and downs. In fact, I became attuned to the “Korean temper” and more. I saw “Korean pride” and “Korean stubbornness”. I also became familiar with good things too, like “Korean friendship” and “Korean affection”. I put all of these in quotes for the fact that there are particular Korean words that go with them, and while I understand that there are counterparts to these words in English, they simply “feel” different in Korean.
Sure, i know that these sound like generalizations, but the funny thing is, Koreans acknowledge many of these things about other Koreans! I’ve heard Koreans in Korea assume this as easily as Koreans in America. It seems understood among Koreans at the very least, that these characteristics are virtually universal.
Dave Chappelle used to do a bit where he couldn’t escape the stereotypes about black people that even he himself was not even consciously trying to uphold.
“I just thought I liked fried chicken.”
“Everyone knows that chickens and black people are quite fond of another!”
“Look at him, eating that fried chicken and loving it. Just like it says in the Encyclopedia Britannica…”
So perhaps I don’t just look the part. It’s not just a genetic thing that we’re talking about at this point. It’s in my memes. These types of nuanced behaviors are not just about black hair and brown eyes, we’re talking cultural genetics or something like that.
This could mean that I’m more than just racially Korean, deeply embedded in my memes, I’m Korean there too.
OK, now let’s talk church. Jesus is the ultimate subversive, yet saving force for any race and culture, and I believe that Jesus is out to make himself known (and glorified) by any memes necessary (In my mind, that’s some sort of Malcolm X-type, kill you with kindness, no really, kill you-type Jesus). I can’t help but wonder then, that although Jesus has impacted my race, and the country of my heritage, is it possible that conversion to Christianity was a only a memes to an end? Because some of the things that I see that cause split after split in among Korean churches, I’ve seen before and heard before. They are things that Koreans here and in Korea are familiar with, and simply shrug off saying, “That’s so Korean.”
If that’s true, God, I want to be changed all the way down to my DNA, don’t stop at my heart. I don’t want a memes to an end, I want … an end to these memes.