By Dona Park
ReconciliAsian held its first youth peace camp called “We Are LA!” from July 21-23. The ten high school students from the Los Angeles area, along with eight counselors from Indiana, Iowa, California, and South Korea, were all excited to see what the Lord would do in three days focusing on identity and racial reconciliation.
To be honest, I didn’t know how the students would react to a topic that I considered pretty profound. I never learned about building up my own cultural identity or talked about racial identity amidst a multitude of other identities. I knew I was somehow Canadian, but Korean, and also have a bit of an American influence. It wasn’t until my second year of college when I attended my first diversity conference where I recognized that, as a person of color, I had been treated differently and there was such a thing as internalized, subconscious racism; it was here where I learned a little bit about how to describe my experiences through a language that dealt with racism. In middle school, I couldn’t understand why I was so embarrassed to bring my Korean lunch box or angry when people assumed I was some other Asian nationality other than Korean. I didn’t understand why I felt annoyed or frustrated when my friends asked me why Koreans had weird names and would claim that “Asians can’t drive,” while patting me on the shoulder, “except for your family.” As the saying goes, hindsight is 20/20.
Obviously, even as I write down my experiences for this post, you, the reader, might sense that my keyboard is on fire. If I am still coming to terms with all of my experiences in my short, young adult life and am still struggling to juggle identities and trying to be a Christ follower, I wondered how my younger friends would receive such a message.
Person of color in a culture of “whiteness”Surprisingly, the youth embraced these truths with grace and compassion. I witnessed another level of sensitivity that I did not see amongst my college age and older adult friends. Throughout the week, the students had the opportunity to discuss their own experiences as a person of color and the term “whiteness.” They also reflected on what the speakers shared about their experiences. Osheta Moore, Tim Nafziger and Charletta Erb, as well as Kenichi Yoshida, all gave different perspectives on their identities living in the United States.
The students also enjoyed less serious, but still significant, activities including exploring LA’s Fashion District for a scavenger hunt, walking through alleyways and streets, asking questions of the garment sales people, and trying food from the local taco trucks. Los Angeles is another level of culture—surrounded by “something Town” and “Little this and that.” This region is a hot spot for a lot of amalgamation to happen. Although that healthy integration amongst different ethnic cultural communities is oftentimes rare, the environment for students and adults to explore different customs still exists.
Being comfortable with discomfort
When the temperature hit the high 90s, I didn’t hear students complain about the food, the weather, or the different things we encountered during the learning experience. Rather, when we met up back at the Korean food court, the students who weren’t accustomed to eating different types of food tried new cuisine and snacks. Even when I initiated a mystery snack tasting game in which students tried interesting, international snacks, from canned pupa to takis, I could see the students’ efforts to not judge the culture but to describe the food’s differences or similarities. As a child, I remembered being hurt at how others reacted to my cultural experiences but, at this camp, I was encouraged and impressed by the responses of the students and their efforts and intentions.
The opportunity to attend a youth peace camp is extremely rare, and topics of racial reconciliation intersecting with faith is even rarer. As I mentioned above, I’ve only just recently had this time in college to analyze my identity and its multicultural influences. I hope the campers realize that their experience in a safe setting surrounded by counselors, pastors, leaders, and speakers with an array of experiences is not an educational opportunity that is easy to come by. I want to encourage other students to seek events and possible relationships like these, to continually learn about different cultures and accept that it will be uncomfortable. Because, when we are uncomfortable, it means we are being challenged—a chance for us to learn and grow.
Again, I can’t help but mention how amenable each student was to this message of openness and the steps it takes to get to know the so-called “other.” All of the students possessed a level of sincerity and sensitivity. Witnessing their attitudes challenges the polarized viewpoints that I have seen within the United States, whether they be political or racial. The education these students received extended also to me, and their receptiveness to learn more about a so-called “other” culture, gives me hope and encourages me to continue believing my own dream that racial reconciliation is, indeed, a possibility.