Always a Foreigner, Never Home

My face is the filter through which people see me. It can’t be helped. When people look at me, they see an Asian girl. To some, it’s the face of familiarity, but to most it’s the face of a foreigner. It creates distance, division, and tension. It brings up questions of heritage and place and home. It stirs mixed feelings of embarrassment, being respected, kindredness, shame. I wish I could be seen without the filter of my face, without the filter of what my face represents, but it’s not that simple. I understand why I’m asked where I’m from- no, where I’m really from- because sometimes even I forget who I am. At work, at Christian conferences, at gatherings, I’m often the token Asian among mostly white people. When I look at myself in the mirror during a bathroom break, I’m shocked at the face looking back at me. I look so… Asian. So un-white. So foreign. Why is my face so round and flat? Why are my eyes so small?? God! You could’ve at least given me double eyelids! I’m ashamed of what I see because what I really want is to look just like everyone else.

I wish I could be white- to have the ability to blend in easily and yet be heard and acknowledged. That’s what privilege looks like to me. You’re seen for you. You are given credit, the benefit of the doubt. You have a place at the table without question, without explanation. Your words have authority and meaning because you look like someone whose words matter. But for me, despite my lack of an accent, despite my being born in California, I’m still seen as an outsider. People still look at me curiously because they can’t place me.

The truth is, I’ve never fit a mold before. I’m Korean by ethnicity, Korean-American-ish by culture, and from ages 9 to 16 I lived in Kazakhstan as a missionary’s kid, so there’s that too. Wherever I’ve been, I’ve never been part of the majority culture. I’ve always been an in-betweener. Not fully Korean, not fully American, not even fully Korean-American. When I visited Korea, I was looked down upon because I couldn’t speak Korean well. In Kazakhstan, I was too American. In the States, I’m neither/nor, both/and, and then some.

When I moved back to the States my junior year in high school, I lived in a city where everywhere you’d look you would find an Asian face. Instead of sticking out as the odd one out, I found myself in a sea of Asians- so many, in fact, that subcategories were naturally created. There were the fobs- “fresh off the boat,” i.e. immigrants. There were the white-washed Asians- second-generation Asian-Americans who somehow got in with the white crowd and had mostly white friends. And then there were the average second-generation Asian-Americans who hung out with other second-generation Asian-Americans. That was me. I knew I would never be cool enough to be one of the white-washed Asians (the closest thing to being white), but I didn’t want to be associated with the fobs. They were what I wanted to get away from- being foreign. They spoke their mother tongues loudly and without shame and didn’t seem to feel the pressure to assimilate. I didn’t understand it. White was the goal, the best, the standard. White was normal, beauty, and acceptance. Wasn’t it? I tried to stay away from anything too Korean- Korean dramas, K-pop music, the culture, the pride. I wanted to escape my ethnicity, my heritage, my face, but I couldn’t and I became resentful of my race.

I was trapped. I didn’t have a choice but to accept my place in society– to be quiet, to let others do the talking and leading and world-changing as they had been from the beginning. I was to be the learner, the supporter, the worker behind the scenes. I was to stay where I was, to smile and be demure, and not rock the boat. I was to be seen but not heard, acknowledged but not needed.

When you have privilege, you’re inherently of value. Your presence and your voice are desired. When you don’t belong, that inherent worth isn’t there anymore. You have to work for it, you have to prove yourself. You have to help people see beyond your skin, beyond the thin filter that separates you, that makes their vision of you blurry. When you don’t belong, you have to work your way up. You have to figure out a way to become enough like them so you can become less alien to them. You need to fight for a place at the table because you do deserve a place at the table.

I didn’t think I had a place at the table. No one who looked like me ever seemed to be at that table- not a man but especially not an Asian woman. So I believed my voice, my experience, my perspective, my writing didn’t matter until I was at least invited to the table, until I was given permission to be at the table by the people who were already sitting there.

I wanted out of the tension of being in between cultures where I didn’t belong, but God has been telling me to stay, to sit in the tension and own my cultural identity- all of them. He’s been showing me that there is a purpose for my being a foreigner but never feeling at home. I’m to be a bridge- someone to connect and hold, to become a way for conversation, resources, and understanding to flow back and forth. For such a time as this. For my generation and the generations to come.

The table I’ve so longed to be at isn’t the goal anymore. The truth is, He is inviting me to His table, and the ache I feel for a place to fully belong reminds me we’re not meant for this world. We are meant for a place where everyone who accepts His invitation will sit at His banquet table and know we’re finally and truly home.

Grace P. Cho
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19 thoughts on “Always a Foreigner, Never Home

  1. Thank you, Grace. Thank you for these words those of us in the “majority” need to hear, know, and understand. Thank you for your willingness to be that bridge, for holding conversation with such grace with us! You belong at this table, at His table, and so many more!

    • I couldn’t have written this without the encouragement and space you guys created for me. So grateful for the space you guys made for me here at the Mudroom!

  2. “…the ache I feel for a place to fully belong reminds me we’re not meant for this world.” A. Men.

    Sister your words are so bold. Thank you for your heart to speak into the tension and be that bridge. Continually inspired by you.

  3. Grace, this is such a moving post. It is vulnerable and true. Thank you for challenging my own white eyes to see better and more clearly. I love that you see yourself as a bridge. Wow. Thank you. I’m so glad you’re here at The Mudroom.

    • So glad I’m here too! You guys set out a chair for me, and sometimes I look around and think, “How did I get to be so lucky??”

  4. You already know I love this post and I love how boldly you’re coming into your voice and the confidence to know you are made for such a time as this. You are a bridge builder and that can be so tiring because you end up getting walked on from both sides but you also have the opportunity to speak into places others simply can’t. It’s hard to feel like we’re never invited to sit at the cool kids table, I know those feelings well, but I think you’re right in saying the Kingdom way was never about sitting there anyhow. There’s a third way, a place to pull up a chair and also offer a seat and make room. I’m just so proud of you, friend. I can’t wait to see what your words do to set others free to claim their voices and also to inform those who thought they arrived at the place they are without any help, when really, so much privilege pushed them right through. Also, amen to the, Why are my eyes so small and my face so flat! My mom used to say at least I had double eyelids, not like her. All these years later, she’s realized what the standards of beauty taught her about her own face and it’s value and worth in the world, but yes, those things stick with you.

    • GAHHHH!!! #allthefeels I love the idea of a third way- pulling up a chair and making room. I’m hoping that the more we, Asian-Americans, write, speak, and lead, the more people will see that God’s kingdom is more open than they could have imagined! Cannot wait to hug you in person next week!!

  5. Thanks for sharing your heart. I will gladly join you at the table and listen to you share.

  6. As a white person living in Japan this is very interesting to me. Much of what you say applies to the way people perceive me. But there is still a sense that being white is the privileged position in some respects. The big difference is that even after 10 years, a Japanese spouse and so so language skills I will never belong. Having a voice within Japanese society is not something I would even consider. I can have an opinion about English language but that’s it. But I see the complex ways that race identity plays out from the opposite side now.

    But I also think that I never felt I belonged growing up in England, where I am the majority. My gender and class status don’t add up to privilege or having a voice. I think everyone has a their own journey of belonging to go through.

    And side note, it took me years to figure out what people were talking about when they talked about double eye-lids. Years. My son’s eyes are his most Asian feature, but he has double lids, none of my family even notice unless I point it out. I generally have to explain what I’m talking about.

    • It’s so true that what I shared could be the reality of anyone who is the minority living in a majority culture, whether that be race-related, culture-related, socioeconomic status-related. We are all finding our way <3

      I had to explain double eyelids to someone- I didn't know it was just an Asian term (or is it?)

      • I guess that all caucasians have a double lid so nobody needs to think or talk about it.

        But when I first came to Japan I definitely would not notice people’s eyelids specifically. I can notice now though if someone has drawn in a line, or those who have naturally double lids.

        Eye color is the differentiating feature about eyes for caucasians. I guess.

        Your post really got me thinking! I guess if you’re white and you don’t like your eyes, or shape of face or whatever, then you just wished you looked different. But what you’re saying is the things you dislike are indicators of race?

        • The things I disliked about myself was because I wished I were white- white being the standard for beauty, acceptance, legitimacy. Just being the majority culture changes how you’re perceived. As a white person in Japan, have you felt the longing to be Japanese or part of the majority culture? I wonder if it would be the same.

  7. This is a great post…I grew up in Hawaiʻi and now that I live on the mainland, I really miss the multi-cultural environment that I grew up in, where I was just another island girl. I miss the sounds of different languages, different faces, and different ways of looking at things. I miss that my sentences aren’t full of words and phrases from Hawaiian, Portuguese, Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Filipino, and pidgin. People here have trouble pronouncing my name, much less remembering it. I feel like an outsider lots of times, too.

    Thank you for your wonderful words. I really appreciate them, and I’m grateful that you’re a bridge.


    • Thank you for commenting, Mokihana! Where do you live now? May we both be bridge builders as we continue to feel like outsiders to some extent!

      • I live in Oregon now and love being a bridge builder. I’m learning that it’s okay (and sometimes wonderful) to pepper my language with words and phrases from home, and to share the joys of multi-cultural living with others. I still feel like an outsider sometimes, but will continue to keep trying to bridge the gap.

        • Awww I was just in Oregon visiting some friends in June (in Portland and Bend)! I love that you’re using home language more! I was embarrassed to do that before, but I’m embracing it more now and it helps others come across the bridge when we do, I think.

  8. This is one of the most beautiful posts I have ever read! Thank you for sharing so authentically and boldly. In sharing your voice, as an Asian-American woman, I feel I can step more boldly into mine. Thank you for putting to words what so many of us feel and experience in such a grace-filled and emboldening way!!!

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