Ambivalence

Praise Competition

“Did I hear that correctly? We’re having a praise competition, complete with judges and quite possibly prizes?”

These were the thoughts firing rapidly through my brain recently as I outwardly wore a carefully composed pleasant smile that betrayed little of the inward discomfort I felt as I listened in on the discussion taking place among some of our church’s worship leaders. Apparently this idea of a competition between different components of our ministry (EM, youth, KM) is not at all as radical as it seemed to my uninitiated ears. I suppressed my desire to raise questions and critiques and waded into the uncertainty waters of this informal conversation: what song would the EM group do for the upcoming praise competition.

Mostly I listened as various songs were thrown around, mostly well known contemporary Christian music. Off handedly then I mentioned a song I’d heard before and found quite beautiful and powerful. It was a Korean song. The response to my suggestion…?

A lot of questions and a definite ambivalence about the whole idea.

As I left the church that day, the reality of the ambivalence that was expressed reverberated in my conscience for the rest of the day. How is that at the recent Urbana missions convention I watched as thousands of students learned to sing songs in Spanish, French, and yes, even Korean enthusiastically and without hesitation and yet here in a Korean church meet with a firm ambivalence about doing the exact same thing?

It seems odd, but yet here it was, a remarkably awkward moment of truth when the dissonant relationship between culture – which is expressed most powerfully in language – and faith, in this case worship, became clear. There seems to me to be ambivalence, an unresolved relationship between a desire to live in, celebrate and enjoy one’s culture (as evidenced by participation in a Korean church or even in a “praise competition) and the expression of oneself in worship wherein the simplest expression of culture, language, becomes problematic.

Why?

Why does such ambivalence exist? Why did it seem conspiratorial, even subversive to suggest the song? Why did the idea of it make people feel uncomfortable? Why am I, a cultural outsider, asking these questions rather than those who have the most to lose and the most at stake? Why do these questions go unasked and unanswered? Is it okay that they do?

It would be strange if a Black church never sang any music in the gospel style. It would be stranger still if a White church only ever sang in that style. Why is it then that it is more comfortable for a Black man to suggest, learn, and be willing to sing a song in Korean than Koreans themselves? There seems to be a definite discomfort with being Korean American and Christian all at the same time.

I don’t have any of the answers to these questions, and as a cultural outsider, it is in some ways not even my place to ask them. There is so much I don’t know, can’t know, and don’t understand that permanently impairs my ability to accurately assess or judge. There are nuances of experience and dynamics of culture to which I am not privy that make my observations crude sketches at best and grotesque caricatures at worst. Even so, I hope for the day when my 2nd generation brothers and sisters have as little ambivalence about the questions as I do.

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4 thoughts on “Ambivalence

  1. Maybe it’s coming out of this tendency of feeling “shamefully asian”? For some strange reasons some Asians (shamefully more common than we would like to admit) are ashamed to be who they are and they do everything in their power to fit in to this mainstream American culture and by getting rid of their asian-ness they hope to achieve this twisted sense of being Americans. This is definitely one of those corporate sins Asians in particular need to address.

    Why would they have a praise competition anyway? American Idol, the church edition or something?

    – Ken

  2. I know next to nothing about the Korean American experience. I do however know a thing or two about being white.

    The vast majority of white people in the US have deep ethnic roots that were thrown away by the first generation of immigrants, in order to gain access to a good life for their children.

    But it was those children – or rather their childrens’ children – who were homeless and white, and who felt like cultural orphans. I commend to anyone the book “How the Irish Became White”.

    The situation you found yourself in sounds a lot like an early stage in “How the Koreans Became White.” You were right to spot what was going on. White people were worse off (spiritually speaking, not economically) for having become white; Koreans if at all possible should avoid becoming white.

  3. Good but disturbing thoughts Paul. As a person whose people never had the choice to become “Black” it is a bit poignant to see others willing trade in their birthright so easily.

  4. Thanks for sharing these thoughts. I came to your blog via David Park at Next Gener.Asian…

    You have raised some very important questions. I found myself smiling when I read your first couple of sentences — I can totally relate to your confusion. Although I have pretty much always been a part of the Korean American church, there are always cultural elements that leave me staggered (for better and for worse). Praise competitions remind me of a time when I was helping to lead an elementary ministry’s praise time. We split a song so that girls sang, “hallelu, hallelu…” and the boys sang, “Praise ye the Lord!” It quickly degenerated into a room full of red-faced kids, straining and screaming at the top of their lungs, but not a lot of actual praise to the Lord 🙂

    Many 2nd generation folks live in that constant tension of being both/and Korean and American, without being fully either. I get the feeling that the resistance to the EM singing a song in Korean might come from the search for an identity separate from the 1st generation (although not so separate as to actually leave the church). In that sense, singing a song in Spanish or Swahili would be more acceptable, because it would not encroach on their sense of identity the way a Korean-language song might.

    I’m sure part of it is also the “we’ve always done it that way” mentality. The 1st generation sings in Korean, the 2nd in English — that’s just how it goes. What might be really interesting is if the two groups switched songs.

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