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Q&A with Young-Sam Won

By Young-Sam Won
In eLetter
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In celebration of AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) Heritage Month, we are elevating AAPI voices within our church body. This week, we’re featuring a quick Q&A with Sam Won. Sam's family is relatively new to IBC, and we are so happy to have them!

How long have you been attending IBC? What drew you here?

Our family began attending IBC this past December. We had served for over a decade as part of The Bridge Church, a small, diverse church that closed last summer. In the wake of such a difficult season of ministry, we were thankful to be able to visit IBC where I could finally join Barry, a good friend going all the way back to our DTS days. We knew that we would find a church that shared our ministry values and as expected, our time here has been very encouraging.

How do you identify within the AAPI community?

I am a second generation Korean American. My parents were part of the Korean immigration wave following the 1965 Hart-Celler act which abolished de facto discriminatory immigration bans affecting various European groups and Asians. My family arrived in 1970 and we became citizens in 1980.

How has your heritage shaped the person you are today?

Growing up as a Korean immigrant during the 70s & 80s meant few people knew much about East Asians beyond Chinese and Japanese cultural tropes. As a result, my parents sought to help my brother and I be as “American” as we could be. We adopted Americanized names, took part in activities like sports and band, and were encouraged to have non-Asian friends. As I entered my teen years, I realized that life was easier when I was seen as a “cool Korean,” meaning someone who spoke English well and understood American culture, i.e., an assimilated Asian person. However, I also continued to have meaningful relationships with Asian friends through the Korean church. I learned to code-switch as I spent time with both Asian and non-Asian friends. Despite my dual cultural life, I struggled with my own Korean heritage and felt painfully aware of my perpetual foreigner status. In my college years, I rediscovered a robust Asian community and grew to love my Korean identity. I saw that no amount of assimilation could erase my Asian racial identity in the eyes of majority culture. These days, I see myself as a third-culture American, meaning I am not fully Korean nor am I fully American. I exist as an American citizen who is still defined in significant ways by Korean ethnicity. Despite that tension, I am learning to embrace the beauty of Korean culture while appreciating all the good that I experience as an American citizen. I hope that my life as a third-culture person gives me insight and wisdom that I can use to help various communities see, understand, and embrace one another.

Are there any specific beliefs or traditions within your culture that shape how you see or understand God?

My upbringing in the Korean immigrant church has given me a wonderful appreciation of the power of communal prayer, the beauty of brokenness and humility, and finally, the blessing of Asian hospitality. Being raised up in a branch of Christianity that exists on the margins has helped me to understand that the church is not built on earthly power nor is it energized by material means. Faith lived as a minority community, as immigrants, has given me a profound appreciation for what it means to be exiles.

What can others do to support and celebrate the AAPI community?

One of the things that means a lot to the AAPI community is to be seen. AAPI often experience invisibility in American society. We do not fit neatly into the Black-White racial binary that is so definitive in American society. As a result, Asian people are often assumed to be either perpetual foreigners or assimilated honorary white people. Both stereotypes erase the distinctiveness of so many Asian and Pacific Islander cultures. Though we are racially classified as AAPI, ethnically and culturally, we come from many countries and cultures. Asian-Americans are far from a mono-cultural, mono-ethnic demographic. Recognizing and appreciating our individual cultures and ethnicities is a wonderful way to honor AAPI in America.

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