Culture / Global Church / Justice / Mission / Theology

Assimilation Displaces, and the Church is Complicit

Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders (AANHPI) have consistently been assimilated and displaced throughout American history, particularly immigrant families.


You can tell a lot about a local culture by the initial questions locals ask you. 

In South Korea, people ask, “What’s your family name?” and “What university did you graduate from?” These questions were contrasted by questions locals asked us when my family and I immigrated from Seoul to Philadelphia in the third immigration wave of the post Korean War era, when the United States’ 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act’s quota system was revoked in order to increase experts and professionals from East Asia.1 In the Northeast, locals often ask, “What’s your name?” and “What do you do?” In Korea, initial questions highlight the culture’s esteem for family honor, whereas in the Northeast, initial questions name the culture’s importance on individual accomplishment.  But to my family, we were often asked, “Wait, what’s your name again?” and “Where are you from?” These initial questions exposed a perpetual “ill-fit” that wasn’t unique to my immigrant family’s story; it’s sadly one that is commonplace to most Asian Americans today, regardless of their immigration status.  

Korea’s history begins in 4000 BCE. My own family tree is traced back to the Choson dynasty in the 1300s. My grandparents and parents told me stories about Japanese colonial rule and the division of our land under the Soviet occupation of Northern Korea and the American occupation of Southern Korea. My parents and countless others decided to leave their homeland and become a displaced people group, perpetual “foreigners” in the US because they witnessed their country being torn apart in the early ‘50s and the brutal economic and social aftermath of war. Most “gyopos” (Korean diaspora residing outside of Korea) like myself are also often seen negatively as people who are out of touch with my Korean roots and heritage. Most children of the third wave Korean immigrants lost touch specifically with their Korean language, as is often the case in immigrant family settings where assimilation is a decision towards survival and success.2 They were given easier to pronounce “American” names and pushed towards academic achievement.  In many ways, it helped to answer local American questions of “What’s your name?” and “What do you do?” with “I belong here.”  

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It is not lost on me that my Korean American story has such a keen affinity to my beloved Hawaiian community’s story. We have both endured occupation, loss of language and cultural identity, and a participation as the 'other.' (1/2) Click To Tweet

It is also not lost on me that we are living in a time, and particularly my children are growing up being shaped by our time, when a resurgence of both Hawaiian and Korean cultural identity has become explosive. (2/2) Click To Tweet


Fast forward to today, and I am a co-vocational senior pastor of a local church plant based in Honolulu, Hawaii. I am a physician, considered a healer in Hawaii, known as a “kahuna,” and a pastor, a spiritual leader or shepherd, known as a “kahu.” My husband and I moved our three young children cross-continentally and we have about five more years to go before we hit 20 years living in Hawaii, at which time, we would have resided long enough to prove we are, indeed, here to stay. In Hawaii, the initial questions are, “Eh, howzit?” and “Where’d you grow up?” The value here is placed on “talking story,” a cultural practice of sharing stories and sharing culture inter-generationally.

In the late 1800s, the independent Hawaiian Kingdom was overthrown by the US and Act 57, Sec. 30 of the 1896 Laws of the Republic of Hawai`i mandated that English become the only medium of instruction throughout Hawai`i and prohibited the use of the Hawaiian language in schools reinforced with corporal punishment.3 

“Language is the first aspect of a people to vanish,” said Kimura, who is now a faculty member at the University of Hawaii’s College of Hawaiian Language on the Hilo campus. “People don’t recognize that until it’s almost gone, because they’re hanging onto their typical culture identification tags such as their songs, their dancing, their foods, their religion maybe, or what they wear or how they look. But language is the one that is slipping away without them noticing it. And by the time it happens, it’s in very dire straits.”4

My father told me that when the Japanese colonization of Korea happened in the first half of the 1900s, he was born into a culture where Koreans were no longer allowed to wear traditional Korean hanbok or speak hangol, the Korean language. Koreans were once the epicenter of the most literate kingdoms in the world during the reign of King Sejong in the 1400s, and my father, a direct descendent of the king, was no longer allowed to read, write or speak in Korean. 

Similarly, my hānai (adopted Hawaiian) father told me that when the American colonization of Hawaii happened in the late 1800s, it became criminal to participate in Hawaiian music, Hawaiian practices such as hula, and `õlelo Hawai`i, which is the Hawaiian language. In the kingdom that was the first nation in the world to prioritize education and required it for 6-15 year olds for both girls and boys, my hānai father talked story about an entire generation having lost their cultural identity.

It is not lost on me that my Korean American story has such a keen affinity to my beloved Hawaiian community’s story. It is not lost on me that both of our long-lined and heritage-rich families have endured occupation, loss of language and cultural identity, and a participation as the “other.” It is also not lost on me that we are living in a time, and particularly my children are growing up being shaped by our time, when a resurgence of both Hawaiian and Korean cultural identity has become explosive. My father could have never imagined a world where Korean music is played on American radios and Korean food is considered among the top cuisine echelon in the world. My hānai father could have never imagined a world where hālau hula (hula schools) has become popularized all over the world, and Hawaiian immersion schools have changed the national history day entries to include `ōlelo Hawai`i as part of the United States Language Revitalization Showcase.5

I often wonder what the American (and perhaps the extended Western) Church can learn from the stories of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders (AANHPI), whose stories are not separate from the Church but are a part of the history of the American story. There are so many intersections between the history of the Church and history of colonization. The Church implemented colonization in order to displace a people group’s culture, language, and identity. The Church practiced colonialism in order to demand the assimilation of AANHPI’s voices, reflections, ideas, and values. Of course, these racist, prejudiced practices fly in the face of the Kingdom of God. In Revelation, to name but one example, John is captivated by the vision of Jesus being worshiped by the multitudes, and he writes, “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9a, NIV). 

The Church often squeezes the Kingdom of God to become assimilated to its own image: to its own worship style, language, and preferences. It’s a dominant cultural decision, whether subconscious or intentional. In the history of the Church’s colonial ambitions, assimilation to the empowered and dominant culture of the White Church was often the end goal. But the depiction of the Kingdom of God throughout the Scriptures is one of keeping cultures, language, and identities intact as they are. This is the brilliance of the multitude worshiping the Lamb together in John’s vision – every culture, language, and people group stood before the throne of the Lamb as their fully human self, cultural identity fully engaged. 

What can we learn about how the Kingdom of God operates from Asian American stories? From Native Hawaiian experiences? From Pacific Islander voices?


The Church implemented colonization in order to displace a people group’s culture, language, and identity. The Church practiced colonialism in order to demand the assimilation of AANHPI’s voices, reflections, ideas, and values. (1/2) Click To Tweet

Of course, these racist, prejudiced practices fly in the face of the Kingdom of God. In Revelation 7, to name but one example, John is captivated by the vision of Jesus being worshiped by the multitudes. (2/2) Click To Tweet


Jonathan Tran comments on this cultural displacement in his profound work, Asian Americans and the Spirit of Racial Capitalism, writing:

“I think one of the things that God has a history of doing is connecting people and place together. Whereas when we look at capitalism and many of the other, the moving on up, and the, you know, the looking for the next best thing, there’s always this constant displacement and this searching for something better than what you may presently be at or presently have. And so when you talk about gentrification, and the idea of displacement, there’s always this notion of trying to disconnect people from place.”6

When the Church is not participating in the work of connecting people to place, then we are not participating in the Kingdom of God. Instead, we are perpetuating the work of colonization, where we disconnect people from place. The American Church’s work needs to include understanding the reflection of Christ in the Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander histories, and the continuation of these stories into the present day.

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Eun Strawser is the co-vocational lead pastor of Ma Ke Alo o (which means “Presence” in Hawaiian), with missional communities multiplying in Honolulu, HI, in addition to being a community physician and the co-founder of the ‘IWA Collaborative. She is the author of Centering Discipleship: A Pathway for Multiplying Spectators into Mature Disciples (IVP, 2023), and the forthcoming Sharing Leadership (IVP, 2025). Prior to transitioning to Hawaii, Eun served as adjunct professor of medicine at the Philadelphia College of Medicine and African Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, after finishing her Fulbright Scholarship at the University of Dar es Salaam. She and Steve have three seriously amazing children.


*Editorial Note: Each year, May is designated as Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) heritage month in America. Our colleagues at the Asian American Christian Collaborative have a slew of incredible resources and opportunities to learn more. ~CK


The Church often squeezes the Kingdom of God to become assimilated to its own image: to its own worship style, language, and preferences. It’s a dominant cultural decision, whether subconscious or intentional. (1/3) Click To Tweet

In the history of the Church's colonial ambitions, assimilation to the empowered and dominant culture of the White Church was often the end goal. But the Kingdom of God keeps cultural identity and language intact as they are. (2/3) Click To Tweet

This is the brilliance of the multitude worshiping the Lamb together in John's vision – every culture, language, and people group stood before the throne of the Lamb as their fully human self, cultural identity fully engaged. (3/3) Click To Tweet


Footnotes    

1 Chung, Soojin, “History of Korean Immigration to America, from 1903 to Present” Boston University School of Theology: Boston Korean Diaspora Project, https://sites.bu.edu/koreandiaspora/issues/history-of-korean-immigration-to-america-from-1903-to-present/.

2 Pang, Young Eun, “Langauge, Culture, and Identity: A Case Study of Korean American Transnational Adolescents.” Dissertation, Georgia State University, 2021, https://doi.org/10.57709/22741991.

3 Ka Papa `Ōlelo Hawai`i, “Hawaiian Language History & Revitalization”, https://www.kapapaolelohawaii.com/timeline.html.

4 Goo, Sara Kehaulani. “The Hawaiian Language Nearly Died. A Radio Show Sparked Its Revival.” June 22, 2019.

5 National History Day News & Events Press Release, “Historical Research Presented in `ōlelo Hawai`i (Hawaiian) Language, June 9, 2022, https://nhd.org/en/2022/06/09/nhd-hawaiian-language/.

6 Tran, Jonathan, Asian Americans and the Spirit of Racial Capitalism, New York, Oxford University Press, 2022. 187 (Kindle edition).