Michelle Kim on Asian American Voice

Michelle KimSome of my consistently favorite moments at church come when we have the opportunity to hear a testimony from someone working out their faith in real time. When someone shares in an authentic way it has an ability to create a powerful and sensitive environment for others to do the same. As you know, we observe Asian American Heritage Month each May, and were fortunate to hear an amazing testimony almost every Sunday this month. Michelle Kim has graciously offered to share hers on the River City blog, and for that I am very grateful. I'm sure you will be encouraged and stirred by her account:


Once in 1st grade, I saw my classmate across the room doing something the wrong way, and I yelled out her name. My teacher turned to me and cried,

“Michelle!”

I braced myself for her rebuke.

“I’ve never heard you talk so loudly!”

I think I got a star sticker on my chart for that, too.

In school, I was quiet. It was on every report card, mentioned in every parent-teacher conference. I don’t know how many times I’ve been asked,

“Can you speak up?”

I began to think it was just the way I am. Quiet. But one day, years later in high school, my piano accompanist bailed on me right before a competition, and in tears, I choked out my frustration that she informed me so late that I couldn’t at least look for a different accompanist. When I told my mom, she remarked,

“You have this way of always speaking up if you have something to say.”

And in that small moment, I started to realize that it was true. Even in the instance in 1st grade, the whole thing started because I could not hold back from yelling my classmate’s name.

Whenever I felt that I had something to contribute, something in me would not let me stay silent.

And yet.

The voice that came out was often barely a whisper, or the words would come out all wrong and jumbled. This infuriated me.

I wanted to speak up. I really did. I started noticing that many people mistook my shyness for arrogance and an unwillingness to engage with them, and I hated that. I had things to say in class, but in order to speak up, I would rehearse what I was going to say over and over, and hear my heart thumping in my chest as I raised my hand, not knowing if I hoped the teacher would call on me or just pass me by.

In college, a whole other dimension was added when I started to realize the cultural factors that came with being quiet. Again, it was a tension. On one hand, I started realizing that maybe the reason I struggled so much with speaking up was from the way that I was taught to respond to unknown situations—defaulting to learning by listening rather than by asking questions. In this sense, it was liberating. On the other hand, I realized that my quietness fit into a stereotype about Asian women.

When God started opening my eyes to issues of racial reconciliation and social injustice, I heard a subtle message from people around me that told me that I needed to defy stereotypes as much as possible.

Last spring, I participated in Spring Break CUP where we explored issues of racial reconciliation in the context of the gospel. This was when I yelled at God.

“Why would you give me the heart to fight for justice and not the voice to do it? Either take away this heart, or equip me with what I need. Why on earth would you give me this useless combination? If I am to be a voice for the voiceless, shouldn’t my voice be strong?”

I had never been angrier with God.

Obviously, God knew better than I did.

My voice did not sound like that of successful leaders I saw around me. I didn’t know where I fit. But the more I tried to change my voice, the more I strangely started realizing that I didn’t want to. As I’m slowly learning to be content with that, though, I’m faced with another question.

What does it matter that I speak up if no one hears me?

Even if I’m comfortable with my voice sounding the way it does, if the society around me does not know how to listen to it, what difference does it make? To what extent do I change to gain respect and to what extent do I keep true to myself?

One day I was thinking about Korean dramas. In many of them that I grew up watching, when the heroine faces injustices, she squares her shoulders and works even harder until her perseverance prevails. It struck me as interesting that many of the American heroines I admired responded to injustices by speaking out and prevailed through a refusal to submit to them. If these pictures of a Korean and American heroine saw each other react to injustice, using their respective voices as loudly as they could, what would they think of each other? What does that mean for me, who grew up admiring both?

I don’t have the answers to these questions. I know I probably won’t for a long time. But that’s ok. I know God knows the answers and he knows me. Writing this testimony, I realize how far he’s taken me on this journey, and though it’s not easy, I’m excited that it isn’t over yet.