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Walking away from the Korean church

When faith and culture are intertwined, leaving one can mean losing the other
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There was a huddle of schoolboys on the sidewalk. The majority of them wore tank tops or graphic tees. The circle was silent, except for the sound of a single pair of hands rubbing together. The boy’s twiggy arms aimed carefully at the target: the folded blue paper square belonging to his opponent.

He swung and flung his own red paper square with all of his prepubescent might. The blue square flipped in the air and landed on its bottom. A cheer erupted from the huddle as the square was swiped up by the victor. This was the intense game of ddakji, a Korean children’s game where the goal is to flip the opponent’s square over using your own.

I was one of those graphic-tee-clad schoolboys eagerly perched around this game of ddakji on the church parking lot sidewalk. I spoke in broken Korean, loudly sang church hymns, and even won a couple of ddakji rounds. It was a snapshot of youth that could have easily been mistaken for being taken in Korea itself. 

That was 10 years ago.

In fact, the last time I went to that Korean church in Singapore — a church that I practically grew up in — was five years ago. As a byproduct of walking away from my faith, I’ve long since severed ties with the community of Koreans that acted as my sole connection to my home culture. Leaving Christianity has greatly affected my relationships with my family and my community, and has even affected my perception of my own identity. To this day, it has left me with unanswered questions as I navigate university.

Korea and Christianity

Korea is a surprising country in many ways. Slightly less than one third of Koreans identify as Christians — an unusually high percentage for an East Asian country — and the majority of religious Koreans are either Protestant or Catholic. Whenever I visit relatives in Korea, it is hard to miss the neon red crosses looming atop the plentiful church steeples.

Among Koreans in the diaspora, Christianity is an ever-present part of life as well. Studies have even examined the role of Korean churches in fostering community and acting as a vehicle for social interaction between diasporic Korean communities. 

One locally based example, Kim’s Convenience — a TV sitcom that features a Korean family-owned store in Toronto — illustrates this perfectly with the family’s involvement in the local Korean church. Even Umma’s nagging questions about when Janet, her daughter, would get a “cool Christian Korean boyfriend” align with my lived experience that a lot of the community and relationships in the Korean diaspora are concentrated within church. As someone who resided outside of Korea but was raised as a Korean, I was living out that reality.

Home church and Sunday services

Nowhere was the intersection between community, family, and my identity as a Korean more evident than in the weekly “home church” gatherings that my family hosted at our house. Every Friday, we held a big dinner, and the hours before that would consist of hectic preparation of the guests’ food for the worship services that would be taking place at my dining table.

It was through these gatherings that I was exposed to Korean culture, both in the form of hymns and in the close relationships I developed with the families that came over week after week. 

It was with these same families that I would celebrate Korean holidays like Chuseok — the Korean Mid-Autumn festival — and New Years’. I celebrated with them almost as often as I would with my actual extended family back in Korea.

I had learned a little Korean at home, and Sunday services and home church were the places where I used it with people outside of my family. These were also the places where I would follow traditional cultural norms, like showing respect to my elders by bowing and adjusting my language to include honorifics. 

While I went to an international school that ran under an American curriculum, Sunday school lessons were taught exclusively in Korean. At school, I was rambunctious and talkative, but on Fridays and Sundays, I became passive and polite to appease my elders and parents. 

This was the dichotomy that defined most of my early childhood — and it wouldn’t last. 

My breaking point

As I entered my teens, there was a growing gap between my knowledge of the Korean language and what was expected of me. I struggled to understand the content of sermons and the discussions taking place between my peers. Not knowing enough of the language also began to stunt my social interactions with other Koreans: I could only respond to the most elementary of questions and could barely hold a conversation without resorting to English loan words. 

I began to lose track of trends back in Korea that made their way to my peers, and my previously native Korean accent became tinged. In the words of a childhood friend, I sounded “foreign.” 

All of this was occurring as I obtained a Western education. Meanwhile, on the internet, I was exposed to all sorts of new ideas — ideas I could understand and comprehend in English. I had no recourse to ask any theological questions within my Korean community due to my elementary grasp of Korean and a church culture that frowned upon doubt. Attending church on Sundays, which had previously been an obligation I didn’t question, gradually became a slog. Eventually, it was completely unbearable. 

At first, I would pretend to go to church, stepping away from the gate the moment no one was looking to head either home or to a quiet space like a café where I could read a book. It took a while for people to notice that the quiet, polite son of the deacon was missing from the youth service. Eventually though, I had to face my parents.

My father is a deacon and was elected to the position due to his reputation in the community as a pious and likeable member of the congregation. My mother is what I like to call a church socialite: always hosting gatherings and listening in on the various rumblings of the church. As their son, the weight of their status bore down on my every interaction, even when I was still attending church.

Word had gotten out that I was playing hooky, and out of concern, some churchgoers informed my parents. Needless to say, their reaction was severe for a multitude of reasons. It was shameful, according to them, that the firstborn son of a deacon wouldn’t even do such a basic thing as attend services. They also couldn’t understand how I had come to my alternative ideas about religion, and scolded me for being selfish by prioritizing myself over the obligations I had as a son and member of the family. 

I knew whatever explanation I gave wouldn’t satisfy them, so I just kept my head down and my mouth shut. 

Attempts to draw me back 

My parents weren’t the only ones who would lecture me in the coming days, months, and years. A host of visitors would stop by my house in attempts to convince me to return to church.

The first to arrive on the scene was the head minister of the congregation, who tried to ask in broad terms why I had stopped coming. Each time he showed up to my house, he managed to fit small sermons into our conversation. I never asked for him to come visit for dinner, so I had the sneaking suspicion my parents had called him over for an intervention. 

I couldn’t give him a straight answer, so family friends were brought in next to try to convince me. No dice there either.

After that, in a clever and subversive move, my parents enlisted help from my guitar teacher to try and get me back to church. He was a couple of years my senior, and because he was closer in age to me than the rest of the solicitors, they probably figured that his youthfulness would help in winning me back. I quit playing guitar several weeks later.

All of their advice couldn’t reconcile my fundamental issue with the Korean church: it had become a place where I no longer felt like I belonged or understood anything. 

The feeling was akin to waking up one morning and realizing that your body is not your own — like your voice sounds a lot different than you remembered, and suddenly you don’t even have the faintest idea of what anyone is saying to you. No amount of proselytizing, moral arguments, and preachy anecdotes could change that reality.

A fake Korean?

When I stopped going to church, I stopped attending all of the activities related to it, which included the annual sports day, youth retreats, and holiday worship services. These had constituted the bulk of my interactions with other Koreans, so when I disconnected myself from church, I also unplugged myself from the Korean community at large.

In effect, I had stopped trying to pretend to be Korean. I spoke in English exclusively when I was outside of my home and gave up trying to keep up with anything happening back in Korea. If you had asked me what bands I liked, shows I watched, or movies I enjoyed, the response would have lacked any trace of my heritage. 

For me, leaving church behind also meant leaving Korean culture behind. I wouldn’t say that I loathed my culture, but over the years, I had subconsciously come to associate it with the church. My rejection of religion had also turned into a simultaneous rejection of being Korean.

It forced me to reconsider who I really was. Does it matter if my parents are both native Koreans if I can’t even speak the language well? Am I still Korean even if I’m out of touch with the culture? If I’m not Korean, who am I? All of these questions swirled around my head like bathwater going down the drain. 

I still haven’t found an answer to them, and I don’t expect to anytime soon — but that doesn’t mean that I’m not making any efforts to. Despite everything that happened with my split from the church, I’ve felt compelled to reconnect with Korean culture in recent times, especially since moving to Canada. Losing my connection to my Korean identity was the unfortunate consequence of distancing myself from Christianity, and I do miss the feeling of belonging that came with the label.

One way that I’ve attempted to make my way back into Korean culture in a way that’s separate from religion is through music. I’ve developed a penchant for artists like Zion T and DPR LIVE, and I try my best to sing Korean songs at karaoke nights with my friends. I’ve also taken Korean language courses in an effort to improve communication between myself and my parents. All of this comes with the silent acknowledgement that I will never truly be as integrated as someone who grew up in my homeland, but I pursue that integration regardless.

Speaking of my parents, they have largely accepted the fact that I am no longer religious, despite their many dogged attempts in the past. The unexpected church visits stopped a while ago, and I can safely say that no musical teachers have attempted to convert me to Christianity in recent years. 

It’s taken me a while to realize that I had never really chosen to be Korean, much less Christian. For people who have never really lived outside of their home country, their nationality is a given. But for third-culture kids like myself, there are often a lot of thoughts to be had and decisions to be made in order for us to consider ourselves a part of our ‘home’ country.

I suppose that the most important thing I learned from all of this ruminating is that it was my own decision to leave Christianity and the Korean community in which I felt like a foreigner. I made my own choice and that autonomy applies to my identity too: I wanted a choice in who I was. 

(Fake) Korean solidarity

I was at a gathering for U of T’s Kendo club when I first met them: Koreans who had grown up in Canada and spoke the same broken, English-accent-infused Korean as me. I had never really met anyone else that shared my lack of knowledge about our native country, so this encounter really gave me a jolt — in a good way. 

There was a sense of solidarity that came with our shared situations: the same solidarity I had felt playing ddakji as a church boy all those years ago. But this time it was different, because I was realizing that there were Koreans like myself who were confused about their identity out there in the wider world. 

The most impactful moment in this encounter was when, after I realized one of the members was older than me, I started using honorifics to address them like I would have back in my church days. They shut me down quickly, saying, “There’s no need to be so formal, just speak casually.”

There it was. 

It hit me that I could stop either pretending to be both fully Korean or rejecting my heritage entirely: I could just be who I wanted to be.

For the rest of the night we chatted away in our imperfect renditions of our native tongue. But this time it was different. This time, I felt like I truly belonged.

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