Check out my interview at The Table about #identity, #migration, #culture and my recent book here.
The 93-year-old Texan was affectionately called “Ellis halabujji,” which is Korean for grandfather (할아버지). Mr. Ellis Baskette Reed, Jr. spent more than twenty years mentoring foreigners, most of whom were Koreans.
Ellis would tip his hat to me each time he entered the office foyer and address me as “boss-lady” as if we had been transported to the rugged West where I managed ranch hands on a massive spread. He was a straightforward fellow, curved in spine and aged in years, possessing a simple, no-nonsense style. His family moved to Dallas in the early part of the twentieth century where his father started a hardware store which his two sons later ran. To my knowledge, these two brothers and their sister never married. They spent their years together and led quiet, unassuming lives.
Ellis died in February, flooding a rush of memories to me. Ellis had been one of my English tutors for a program I oversaw while I directed the International Office at a local graduate school. He came twice a week for the ten years I worked there, and he continued after I moved. He assisted international students in strengthening their command of the language at a graduate level. He was particular. He was incisive. Ellis was exacting when it came to English grammar and syntax, yet his demeanor was reserved, kind, and warm.
He dedicated at least ten hours a week to these nonresidents, often joining them in family events outside of class times. He did all of this to serve the minority in our community, for over twenty years and for free. As he aged, he became unable to drive himself to the school, so he began to pay to volunteer. He began to hire a driver to shuttle him back and forth to his lessons, and he continued teaching until his health prohibited it.
With the current furor regarding refugees and immigrants, Ellis’s example arrests me. What if humans did something unexpected? More than begrudging acquiescence or militant opposition, what if we paid to help the immigrants in our land? Far from patronization, since resident and newcomer are both guests on earth, what if we shared our resources, as we would want done to us?
 See the work of Gemma Tulud Cruz in An Intercultural Theology of Migration: Pilgrims in the Wilderness. Leiden: Brill, 2010.
I like to highlight people’s work that you probably have not heard of elsewhere. For example, see here and here. To celebrate the Chinese New Year and the work of Rachel Tanur (1958-2002), an attorney and artist taken early by cancer, I examine one of her photographs to illustrate sociological concepts.
Since most human behavior is non-verbal, photography is a superb way to study it, and I use visual images to illustrate sociological concepts in teaching. Using the photographic work of Rachel Tanur is a prime example. Consider her photo, “Chinese Prayer.”
Key sociological institutions—the family, church (religion), and the state—leap from the still. In this mix of patriarchal relations of power and gender, religion as agent joins the audience. This is one of Tanur’s many projects that adds an illustrative dimension of meaning for sociological discourse.
First, this photograph captures the dynamics of family and gendered behavior. The men positioned, encapsulating the women, portray the historical patriarchal system of Chinese dynastic culture. Even as this is a dubious structure to be overthrown, they stand in a guarded posture of protection. At the same time, the women fulfill a powerful role as spiritual mediators, the function of “warrior priestess” (albeit within domicile constraint). One notices their spiritual practice of prayer as action within the confines of an established cultural system. Curiously, the men are unattached to that same spiritual connection, seemingly as non-participants. Are they pausing to observe the outsider (photographer) at that moment, or does this portray their male constitution toward religious practice in general?
The child is in the center, notably the most protected position, and displays the most enthusiastic response in prayer. Why? Tanur’s art prompts the observer to ask sociological questions. Is it a childlike exuberance, an innocence to participate in the world’s cultural production, or is it a desire to demonstrate compliance toward authority placed over her? The daughter is imitating, to be sure. That she has acquired this behavioral knowledge via modeling indicates the process of socialization—learning and adopting the norms of a given culture—has already transpired. In this demonstrated collective behavior, how is religious ritual performative for each person in this photograph? What demonstrates individual attestation or group compliance? Visual analysis is a key method to explore sociology in a fresh, unbounded way.
An element of visual sociology is a consideration of the recorder herself. Why did Ms. Tanur record what and how she did? What did she leave out of the frame? She left unclear to whom the women were praying. She also tightly framed the family as one unit, yet one wonders why she included non-associated others off to one side. One of them, scarcely noticeable, seems not of Chinese descent, facing away. This female (a Western foreigner?) joins the men in their non-participation of a religious practice which otherwise dominates the scene. With her back turned to the patriarchal way of the past (or present, some say), what does this woman’s posture represent for religion’s future in a globalized world, in which the distance between public squares of vastly different cultures is shrinking? Tanur demonstrates in her extensive travel that globalization—in its best form, cross-pollination—exposes historical roles for questioning. Photography is a method of representation and, as such, lures us to observe, to imagine, to assess, to question. Awareness brings possible change, and in this, Rachel Tanur and sociologists may share the same spirit.
 Jenny Hyun Chung Pak, Korean American Women: Stories of Acculturation and Changing Selves, Studies in Asian Americans: Reconceptualizing Culture, History & Politics, ed. Franklin Ng (New York: Routledge, 2006), 31-33, 40. Rosenlee, departing from the dominant view (e.g. Julia Kristeva, About Chinese Women), contests this historical dichotomy in her feminist interpretation of Confucianism. See Li-Hsiang Lisa Rosenlee, Confucianism and Women: A Philosophical Interpretation (New York: State University of New York Press, 2006), 69-70.
 Catherine Bell, “Acting Ritually: Evidence from the Social Life of Chinese Rites,” in The Blackwell Companion to Sociology of Religion, ed. Richard K. Fenn (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), 383-84.
I first met Dr. Deanna Womack in Canada at a conference in which we both were presenting papers and wish to draw attention to her scholarship. Now at Emory University, she has completed important work on the history of North American missionaries in Beirut in the 19th century. She discusses the inter-religious interaction between Christians and Muslims in the Ottoman Syria. Like any set of sociopolitical relations, it’s complicated.
I found her work compelling and timely in light of this year’s election. Let us not oversimplify. Let us not vilify. Let us guard against gross overstatements. Let us be even-handed and generous. Let us resist categorization and confirmation bias. Let us think more critically than to merely represent “‘the other’ [as] 1) a collectivity rather than recognizing individual identities and 2) to presume to speak authoritatively without taking the subjects’ own perspectives into account.”
Dr. Womack’s profile available here.
The term regional history is used instead of national because nation-states as such are relatively new phenomena and represent too large a territory to categorize per se. One’s sense of national identity can vary substantially within its regional borders, such as in India or the United States, and current borders do not designate previous combined regions, such as Korea, or vice versa, the previous Germanys.
Following Dr. Dan McAdams, I argue for understanding personal identity through its narrative format: a life story. A key component of one’s narrative identity formation is its historical setting. Jenny Hyun Chung Pak elaborates upon McAdams’ work relating it to her study of South Korean migrants, particularly fathers, who immigrated to the United States in the twentieth century. A brief history of Korea will end in the particular pattern of han (unrealized hopes and thwarted dreams) expressed among some Koreans. Understanding ourselves in part depends on understanding what histories we have lived.
Historical Background of Korea
The history of Korea can be categorized into three periods: its prehistory until the Confucian state was established in 1392, its five hundred years under China’s influence, and its twentieth-century history. In the land now formally known as Korea, Tan’gun, according to myth, founded the Choson Dynasty circa 2333 BCE. Centuries later, Emperor Wu of China (Han Dynasty) defeated the Choson Dynasty in 108 or 109 BCE. This event commenced a long history of occupation by its surrounding neighbors. The three kingdoms of Shilla (originally Saro) in the south, Paekche, and Koguryo in the north remained from 57 BCE to 668 CE. Each of the kingdoms officially adopted Buddhism, beginning with Koguryo in 372 CE and ending with Shilla in 528. In the seventh century, Chinese tribes (e.g. Sui, Tang) invaded Korea until the three kingdoms were bloodily unified into the Korea of Shilla in 668. The first Confucian school was established in Korea in 682.  Features of the Shilla kingdom included the “bone-rank” system (a class system based on blood lineage), an educational system that was limited to nobility, the introduction of Confucian bureaucracy, and the widespread practice of slavery. During this time, growing dissension allowed a rebel leader, Wang Kon, to overthrow Shilla and establish Koryo, a kingdom characterized by Wang Kon’s diplomatic reign and slavery reform. The Koryo Period (918–1392) saw multiple invasions by the Khitans, Jurchens, and Mongols and ultimate Mongol domination until King Kongmin assumed the throne in 1365 as a result of General Song-gye Yi’s successful military tactics.
General Yi succeeded the throne as King Taejo and established Hanyang (Seoul) as the new capital, commencing the Yi (Choson) Dynasty (1392–1910). His government adopted Confucianism as its official religion in 1394 (demoting Buddhism) and introduced the elaborate Chinese bureaucratic and civil service examination system. This development gave rise to a rigid five-class system with slaves (nobi) accounting for one-third of the population. Korea suffered still more invasions by the Japanese and the Manchu in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries followed by two hundred years of relative peace. By 1871 Korea had developed an isolationist policy to avoid domination by imperialistic powers (such as Russia, France, and the United States), a stance that earned it the name “The Hermit Kingdom.” Korea, however, was eventually forced to open trade with Japan and fell prey to its occupation (1910–1945). Notably for this study, during this time of annexation Japan attempted to erase the national identity of the Korean people by requiring subjects to take Japanese surnames, suppressing nationalistic movements for Korean independence, and conscripting Korean males to fight in World War II. The well-documented injustices Korean people suffered in the Japanese colonization include the March 1st movement (1919), trade inequalities between the nations, conscripted slavery of males for labor and the military, and sexual slavery of females for the Japanese military.
While Korea was liberated after Japan’s defeat in WWII, it then fell under a new kind of domination. Korea was subjected to a three-year occupation by the Allied Powers and a division of its country into north and south, with the Soviet Union and the United States presiding over the two regions. Although the Allied Powers (which also included China and Britain) originally agreed that Korea would become “free and independent” (and at several points the occasion could have materialized), the plan for an independent Korea was ultimately stymied, lastly when the Soviet Union rejected the U.N.’s call to elect a new Korean government. North Korea’s political ideology became communist, and South Korea’s became free-market democratic. Just five years later in 1950, North Korea, using Soviet artillery, invaded South Korea and began the Korean Conflict.
After the two sides signed an armistice in 1953, South Korea (the Republic of Korea) has flourished economically while North Korea (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) has suffered political repression and economic hardship due in part to its dictatorial government, the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1990, and the floods and famine of 1995. While North Korea’s dictators have been Kim Il-Sung and his son, Kim Jong-Il, South Korea has had its run of authoritarian presidents, namely Rhee Syngman (1948–1960), Park Chung-Hee (1961–79), and Chun Doo-Hwan (1981–88), with the latter two achieving power via military coup.
Jenny Pak’s narrative analysis of Korean-American women shows the effects of paternal ambition on her participants. Each of their fathers had lived in Korea during Japan’s occupation, World War II, and the Korean Conflict. These men faced the meager economic prospects of the Korean Reconstruction (1946–1960) as well as the han that arose from this social climate; each left their homeland for opportunities abroad. Pak summarizes han as “a complicated concept born out of a long history of collective experiences of oppression.” These Korean males met resistance as first-generation immigrants to the U.S., struggled with a new language and culture, and experienced marginalization in their occupations. Their frustrations influenced their daughters, and in response, their daughters dutifully pursued similar aims for professional success.
Others, however, differ in the emphasized referent of han. Han connotes a deep angst, even depression, among primarily women over male oppression in a patriarchal society. Women in Confucian Korea were given very few rights and little access to education or literacy. In short, females had no voice in society but were meant to endure sacrificially. Kang argues that if han is only understood as minjung (social and economic deprivation), it neglects the han of women enduring sexual discrimination.
The United States
This leads me to consider the national history of the United States and individuals’ psyches. Surely, this differs by participant and group. The history experienced by the white majority in the U.S. over our three centuries has formed a substantially different psyche from those ethnic minorities who experienced quite dissimilar histories within the U.S. I think of the indigenous native Americans, the Chinese immigrants during the 1860s building of the transcontinental railroad, the Japanese internment in the 1940s, or the longest lasting (and on that basis perhaps the most heinous)—the enslavement and segregation of African-Americans for two hundred years plus.
How do Americans characterize their psyches? Confident? Religious? Independent? Civil? Faithful? Arrogant? On what bases?
***This is an adapted excerpt from Religious Identity and Cultural Negotiation. More about narrative identity, migration, and self-understanding are discussed in chapters 2 and 3 .
 Dan McAdams, The Person, 409–13, 424–25.
 Jenny Pak, Korean American Women: Stories of Acculturation and Changing Selves. New York: Routledge, 2006.
 Breen, Koreans, 75.
 Nahm, Historical Dictionary, xxi–xxvi.
 Breen, Koreans, 79–85; Walker, East Asia, 263.
 Nahm, Historical Dictionary, 9–10.
 Breen, Koreans, 86–87.
 During the early 1600s, Catholicism was introduced in Korea.
 Nahm, Historical Dictionary, xxxxiii, 48–49.
 The Soviet Union was not the only nation culpable as Nahm dutifully records. Ibid., 15–21.
 Buzo, Making of Modern Korea, 175–76.
 Ibid., 212.
 Pak, Korean American Women, 210–13.
 Namsoon Kang, “Han.”
Christopher Sneller, a fellow PhD student during my time at King’s College London, has written a piece I wish to highlight. He summarizes how the tea and opium trade between China and Great Britain and the resulting humiliating Opium Wars (1839-60) damaged the “national Chinese psyche” and Western relations, including missionaries. A few missionaries even served as translators on the opium clippers and for the very government treaties that crippled China but opened wide the access into the country for their simultaneous pursuit of sharing the Christian gospel. Other missionaries, however, exposed and condemned opium trafficking and Britain’s involvement.
History provides us myriad examples of those laboring in the name of Christ doing much good while overlooking other wrongs. I think of the Puritans whom Kevin Olusola (K.O.) of Propaganda among others have called out. I think of A.W. Tozer who penned several Christian classics as his family suffered; Trevin Wax recaps such duplicity here. I think of Martin Luther King Jr.’s amazing leadership and yet presumably his failed leadership in his own marriage. Before we are tempted to lose hope, I can also recount countless others who, while human, have shone brightly. I think of Sir Thomas More. I think of Sojourner Truth, William Wilberforce, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mother Teresa, Elizabeth Elliot, and the scores of those poor or mistreated who, despite injury and squalor, were faithful to God profoundly. I suggest that the collusion of missionaries, church leaders, or whomever else should not drive us to despair or apathy; rather, we should be driven to sobriety. Should we not take careful inventory of our own lives? Secondly, they provide us an opportunity to honestly recount history—the dynamic, complicated, mired, offensive, hopeful picture that it is. We need to own our history, the parts played, and the consequent promotion or disadvantage granted to certain groups because of it.
A student asked me over lunch one day, “How did the missionaries get it so wrong?” She pointed to slavery, the commodification of evangelism with imperialism, etc. I responded, “No one gets history right all or even most of the time. Each of us is born with cultural constraints, some of which we don’t recognize, much less question. In one sense, they did the best they could with what they had. We may trust that their hearts desired to honor God, but they were still constrained in doing that well. This is not to excuse their behavior by any means, but can we judge them based on our hindsight? The percolation of cultural change is slow. Even as blind spots blotted the missionaries’ methods and attitudes, they in their brokenness were still used to forge great change. I think of William Carey, Amy Carmichael, Francis Xavier, and Alexander Duff, all of whom brought sweeping change to the marginalized in India, for example, through linguistics, literacy, health care, and education. Missionary failures do us a sad service in this: they remind us how easy it is to get it wrong and call us to be extremely critical in evaluating ourselves.”
Unfortunately, hindsight does not ensure foresight, which leads me to ask myself:
In what have I been complicit?
“A particular evil not only inhabits us so that we do what we hate (Romans 7:15), it has colonized us to such a thoroughgoing extent that there seems to be no moral space left within the self in which it could occur to us to hate what we want because it is evil.” – Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, p. 89-90.
The 2016 Summer Olympics games have ended. By flat gold medal count, the United States dominated. But does a straight gold medal tally make for the best measure of true Olympic success? What if we considered other broader and structural criteria?
See the rest of my article for the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. here.
What do you see in this picture?
A poor man? A day trader? What status did you assign him? Is he alienated? Is he a pawn of capitalism? I occasionally use this photograph in class to illustrate how easily opinions can be formed based on appearance rather than true information gathering.
This man rolls in his goods to sell to tourists every day, each for one dollar. I was caught by the glimpse of this burden. Unlike many of us, encased and seated in air-conditioned offices, what is daily life for him? He toils under heat and rain, with worn shoes and callous feet—no Nikes here. He displays an industrious profession, a vendor selling artwork, tapestries, and carvings.
I had joined a group excursion during an international conference to visit a major archaeological site on the Yucatán peninsula of México. Apart from the pre-Colombian Maya temple ruins, I was struck by the residents running the sales and noticed this man in particular. Did he enjoy his labor? Was he struggling to survive? Was he caught in a scheme where the yield of his labor was withheld and placed in the hands of another? I remembered how stratified the world’s wealth is. My own presumptions based on cultural mores, however, were called out. I had unwittingly superimposed on another the status of “less fortunate.” This man could well be satisfied with his life.
My lessons in that moment were: Be slow to judge. Work hard. Be grateful. Share what you have. And the next time we travel and see something to buy that costs less than it’s worth, consider paying the artisan what it is worth, in a small personal redistribution of wealth.
“Well, I’m weary of the spoils of my ambition, and I’m shackled by the comfort of my couch. I’m just a little jealous of the freedom that you have, unfettered by the wealth of a world that we pretend is gonna last.” – Andrew Peterson, “Land of the Free” on the album, Clear to Venus
Adapted from original publication in the International Educator.
I have noted, from all sides in the barrage of social media regarding the recent shootings of civilians and officers, these tendencies:
These further no one’s cause and foster the opposite, as any social scientist will tell you. Talking in terms of “us versus them” alienates. It objectifies and dehumanizes. It distances people from seeing or seeking commonality. Herd thinking, or mob mentality, is the human tendency to copycat, and research shows we lapse into it by default. Confirmation bias is the “seeking and interpreting evidence in ways that confirm what you already think,” according to Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind, p. 80.
I was born into white privilege (and by that I mean, a Caucasian, middle-class, educated home), and society has treated me well because of it. Thirteen years ago, I married into the African-American community, and without sharing his story here, my husband had a disparate experience growing up in America. With a foot in both worlds, I have experienced life differently. I have personally encountered the effects of structural oppression. We have experienced times and locations where we stood out and have seen threat. The Saturday after the police were killed in Dallas we were to spend the day in a metropolitan city. My husband said, “Let’s not go.” I asked, “Why?” He replied, “Because [this city] already has enough racial tension, and I don’t want to be there if a riot or shooting breaks out.” I protested, “Well, isn’t that cratering to fear? I say we should live our lives freely.” Kevin slowly replied, “Things are too hot right now. I don’t want any trouble. I don’t want someone getting upset over us or me. I have to think about you. I have to protect my family.” Being white, I have rarely considered such a thing. I thought, Wait a minute. This is the United States of America. This is a free country. Or is it? Is it equally free for everyone?
The things I hear. The things I have said.
My observations did not start with marriage. Once at a public speaking conference, my roommate was an African-American college student who later shared her experience with me. She was part of the team who led the evening sessions, and the main speaker, educated and well-meaning, turned to my roommate and said, “Why don’t you lead tonight’s music? Surely you sing given your background.” What background? Because she was black and somehow this ushered her into the talent of her African ancestors’ rhythm? My friend, in fact, had admitted no musical talent, so not only was she placed in a very awkward position, she was tempted to feel shame for not somehow representing “her people” well. I was stunned.
Recently, my friend, at a university association, expressed his difficulty during a session in being a person of color at a principally white institution (PWI). A colleague, again presumably well-meaning and trying to be helpful, said to him on a break, “Why don’t you leave this PWI then and go to an all-black institution (e.g. HBCU) where you might be more comfortable?” Really? My friend was not looking to leave; he was seeking encouragement. How about offering support in some tangible way?
These are not isolated incidents. These may seem minuscule, even innocuous, by comparison to the altercations that have led to so many deaths. These absent-minded comments, however, represent the mere surface of the micro-aggressions that persons of color can face every single day. Ezekiel Kweku describes his “ambient fear” poignantly.
I can personally testify for all to heed:
They’re not making this stuff up.
Or rather, we’re not making this stuff up. It is real. It is tragic. Here are two other personal narratives. Tim Scott, a black Republican U.S. senator (and only), shares the first; Brian Crooks offers the second.
I am, of course, not at all condoning the related loss of life of policeman as justified, any more than I would say that police deaths should justify officers being more brutal with persons of color. Do not let the realities of “black on black violence” or those who claim victimization illegitimately detract us from the reality that people are treated differently in this country because of the color of their skin. See more about that here. Of the many articles and opinions posted, here is a highlight that I found most life-giving, one that points a way forward. Writing as a sociologist and as an African American, Dr. George Yancey shares his thoughts.
I share, lastly, a stunning moment of balance and truth and wisdom. After the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, my friend, who is an African American living in Dallas, struggled in light of tragedy and confusion and outrage. She posted a photo on Facebook and wrote, “With a heavy heart and forced smile, I debated what to wear today. I chose this.” Her selfie showed her wearing a deep purple shirt with this etched on it, #Love. I felt sadness that she would have the burden of enduring and yet set her heart to love. Her response was a seasoned, mature, and weary one: always love. Forgiveness disarms evil. She is my example.
Actions seed from the human heart that spawns our thoughts and motivations. What are ours? Change happens first personally and daily. My friend chose well. As Bryan Loritts has said, “Patience is not passive indifference.” We must seek each other. All must seek due process in every case. All must be humbly self-critical. We must speak truth without bitterness. We have a ways to go yet.
Learn More: Bryan Loritts recommends his top five books for understanding black America. On my list to read are Beyond Racial Gridlock, Divided by Faith, Notes from a Native Son, and The Souls of Black Folk (free at the moment on Amazon).
“As you press on for justice, be sure to move with dignity and discipline, using only the weapon of love. Let no man pull you so low as to hate him. Always avoid violence. If you succumb to the temptation of using violence in your struggle, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and your chief legacy to the future will be an endless reign of meaningless chaos.” – Martin Luther King Jr. (1956).
“Nothing can be changed until it is faced.” – James Baldwin