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  • Writer's pictureChristensen

What are you?

Ain't he a cutie? Dang! Love that kid!

“He’s a foreigner,” said the little girl as she stroked my son’s hair. She had a smile on her face, so I knew that she didn’t mean anything negative by that. My son was being held by my wife, a Korean national, so it surprised me a bit.

And since hearing that comment, I’ve struggled a little with sadness. I want my son to be viewed as he is – a Korean and an American. He is both. That is his citizenship. Other than that, he is simply Daniel (so he is whatever identity he chooses to put in that).

Ultimately, I want my son to be known for his character, his heart (1 Samuel 16:7). The rest are just accidents of birth.

My son was born two months ago in Seoul, South Korea to a mother who was born in Incheon, South Korea and a father who was born in Kansas City, Kansas, USA. Those who know me might be shocked that I was not born in Texas since I consider that to be a huge part of my “identity”. I consider myself a Texan. But, yeah, I’m not a native Texan. Excuse me while I go and cry a bit…

Though, national and ethnic identity is an interesting thing. I identify as Texan because that is where I grew up since the age of five. I left that great state when I was 24. If you do the math, I have actually lived outside of Texas more years than I have lived in Texas. Can I still consider myself a Texan then?

However, my entire family lives within its borders. In fact, I’m the only one who has lived for more than ten years outside the state (my brother was in the US Navy, so he might have lived more than five years outside of Texas). As well, on my mom’s side, my ancestors have lived in Texas for generations, and some of them even founded large cities in Texas (Denton being one of them). But my father’s side is from the East Coast (in fact, that side of the family has some pretty recent immigrants). So, for me, I’m a Texan even though I have lived most of my life outside of that state. That is part of who I am, and I hope to share some of that with my son.

But sadly, we often think of specific physical attributes when we think of national or regional identity. When we think of Nigeria, we envision a people that looks a certain way. I have a friend who grew up in Nigeria and can even talk with the pidgin English from that region. As far as I know, he identifies as Nigerian. But he is an extremely light-skinned person with European heritage (you might call him “white”). His parents immigrated there from the US, but he considers Nigeria his home. In a previous blog, I mentioned a doctor who was born and raised here in South Korea, and I believe even his parents were born and raised here. I have heard him talk in Korean, and if you close your eyes, you hear a Korean man speaking. And he is Korean even though his physical attributes are not typical here! His grandparents were from the US. I’m not sure where his ancestors came from, but there has been a lot of migration over the millennia. So, it really doesn’t matter, right?

You probably have seen this video about being an American and “where you are from”. But if not, enjoy! 😊

My son will probably have some features that are common to people here in Korea. For instance, he has something that most Koreans have – a blue butt! Yes, you read that right. He has a blue butt! 😉 Most Korean children have it (maybe 80%? But that means 20% do not.). If you look it up on Wikipedia, it is called the “Mongolian spot”.[1] And it is a congenital birthmark, so he got it from his mom because he didn’t get it from me! After he was born, I was curious if he had one. We searched his whole body for it and didn’t see it anywhere. Then, the caretaker we had hired found it hiding in his butt crack. This little blue spot that is barely visible. And it will also disappear, I’m told, by the age of two. But that proves that he has a genetic link to his mom!

But that little spot also shows that he has a genetic link to ancestors who have spread over most of the earth. If you look it up, this “Korean trait” connects him genetically with Native Americans, Polynesians and African Americans.

But isn’t that the point? We are all genetically a mix-match even if our physical features can be different. We have bits and pieces that connect us to everyone else around the world.

I’ve imbedded a few videos on this blog that talk about this “mix match” of genetics. Please watch at your leisure. 😉

I can remember a few times riding the subway in Seoul and “people watching” and thinking, “you know, the people here are physically diverse. Some tall; some short. Some thin; some not. The skin tone that is thought to be ‘Korean’ is a diverse shade from darker to lighter. As well, the eyes are different shapes. What truly defines the identity of being Korean? I see a general pattern that so many people do not fit.”

My son has lighter skin than most people in this country. He inherited that from me, unfortunately. Honestly, I dislike my skin tone. I keep saying that to people, and they might misunderstand what I am saying. Sadly, I know that my skin tone represents privilege in many contexts. I have a skin tone that is even favored by a lot of people here who carry umbrellas to shield themselves from the sun. But I really don’t like my skin tone! I grew up both loving and hating the sun. Put me outside on a sunny day for just five minutes, and I’ll start to burn. I can remember once going on this river tubing trip with my church group when I was about 16 and getting a sun burn so bad that it bubbled and then grew hard. I was in bed for a week after that, and I couldn’t stand the feel of anything, even sheets, on my skin. I have always envied people who could get sun tans as I have never had one. When we are walking around, my wife can enjoy the wonderful feel of the sun on her skin, but she will nudge me into the shade when we are waiting at a traffic light or whenever we are just in the sun for any given time. So, I was hoping my son would get his mom’s skin tone so that he could be less of a vampire like me. He’s only two months old, so the melanin in his skin might change like all of his current features.

And, honestly, a part of me was hoping he would have a darker skin tone so that it might be easier for him to be accepted by kids here. But I hope and pray that he will simply be accepted for who he is. The cute and gorgeous little guy he already is.

This morning, I went to the ENT doc near our home. When I walked into the office, the nurses at the front desk did a double-take and started giggling. Even though I talked to them in Korean, they seemed extremely nervous that I was there. They had judged me by my appearances. Yesterday, when I was on the subway, I had a few people refuse to sit next to me even though that car was packed because I’m a “foreigner” (I might be assuming their thoughts, but their body language told me that they were switching seats because they felt uncomfortable sitting next to me). Numerous times, children have refused to sit next to me when their parents pointed to the empty seats to my left or right, and babies have cried when they see me (I can only guess that I look like a clown or alien to them). More starkly, I have been told to my face to go back to the US (only a few times). And I have countless, daily, stories like those. Various levels of discrimination and just awkwardness due to how I look. Honestly, it irritates me that I’m judged here because of my outward appearances. But I know that this is a world-wide epidemic. And I also know that my experiences do not compare to my friends in the US who are of a darker skin tone (I use the term skin tone because I believe race is a social construct).

Just…I would prefer that my son would be exempted from these experiences. Or less than me?

When I told my wife that I was writing this blog, she asked me why it was so important for me that the little girl would think of my son as a Korean. It is not. I just don’t want people rejecting him because he doesn't look like them, you know? I want people to consider getting to know him and loving him for who he is and not what they think he is.

Sadly, I have heard of how mixed-heritage kids have been bullied here in South Korea and in Texas (almost every place on the face of this earth has this). Thankfully, this is becoming less and less of an issue, and I hope that my son will not have to go through that. But if he does, I will try to be there for him…listening….praying…hugging him. But most parents want to simply protect their kids, right? They don’t want them to go through difficult situations. Though, I know that God can mold him through those struggles.

My son has two nationalities given to him at birth (he didn’t choose either), and I hope that that fact will be respected just for his freedom in those countries. But in the end, I hope he will be known as simply Daniel. I hope and pray that he will simply be loved for who he is rather than any genetic or ethnic identity put on him (which in my opinion is so mix-matched it really is a farce).

I pray he will be loved. That the world will enjoy the little child I have come to love. He is Daniel.


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