I Am Invisible: Will You See Us?


With the recent hate crimes against Asian-Americans, I am reminded again I am invisible.

When I was a boy, someone had spray-painted a swastika on my father’s dojo. My dad painted over it, but on hot humid days we could still see that Nazi symbol like a pulsing writhing scar.

We got a voicemail on our answering machine—maybe the same Nazi artists—who spent ten minutes making fun of my dad’s accent. I remember seeing my dad listen to it several times, staring quietly out a window. When he noticed me, he turned it off and said, “Just boys playing a joke.” The voices were from grown men.

In middle school I remember being assaulted, shoved around, called “ch-nk yellow belly,” having fries thrown at me during lunch (I sat alone) which were drenched in ketchup, some kid yelling “your dad killed my dad in the war” and then I watched his dad pick him up from detention.

At weddings, funerals, leadership meetings, conferences, I am often the only Asian. And I am invisible. I have literally sat in rooms before where I speak and no one looks my direction. Not even glances. I once called my wife in a dramatic panic, asking, “Do I exist?” And she knew what I meant. The invisibility.

I could tell you a hundred stories like this, and a hundred more. I have. And, well—no one hears. Or remembers. I know my experiences pale in comparison to racist violent acts done to so many others. I only wish I was heard. Seen.

A couple years ago I was a guest at a panel where we discussed race. I shared how I felt invisible. Afterwards, a wonderful Black woman approached me with tears in her eyes, hugged me and said, “I see you. I see you. God sees you.” Over and over, she whispered, “I see you.” And I was so moved, I wept with her. “I see you.”

I still hear her. Thinking of it now, I still weep. For a moment, at least, I was seen. We saw each other. We have so much work to do—but that day, that was enough for me. I was seen. To see is to make visible.

— J.S.

It’s Bad News and Good News: It’s Not All Up to You


Culture breakdown.

There’s a philosophical principle in South Korea called Hongik-Ingan (홍익인간), the devotion to benefit all of humanity. It’s a good thing, but it also has some very dark implications.

Basically, many Koreans are told that if their life doesn’t measure up to a surplus benefit, they might as well take their own lives. In other words, always contribute and never consume—or die.

The upside is that Koreans (and easterners in general) have a remarkable work ethic. We work crazy hard. But the downside is that if any of us encounter failure, disaster, or even imperfection, we immediately fall into an abyss of worthlessness.

I’m convinced this is one of the reasons why South Korea has the tenth highest suicide rate in the world.

The westernized philosophy of American Exceptionalism is not a lot different than 홍익인간. You see it in hustle-porn podcasts and bootstraps literature: “Believe it, dream it, achieve it, ”—but with the hidden clause, “And if you can’t, it’s all your fault. Why can’t you just …?” The eastern judgment is based on how others see you, but the western judgment is based on how you see you. It’s the same problem wrapped in different coats.


The overarching message: If you fail, you’re somehow no good. If you can’t beat this, it’s your problem. If you haven’t succeeded, it’s on you. Bigger, faster, more, or you are literally smaller, slower, less.

So when it comes to mental health, racial trauma, chronic illness, problems in the larger system—all of these are considered “excuses.”

Both the east and west are brutally unforgiving to those in uncontrollable circumstances. “Maybe you’re depressed because you’re not trying hard enough. You’re homeless because you didn’t do your homework in high school. You got abused because you were asking for it. You’re always sick because you don’t have faith. That wasn’t racism, you just weren’t acting right.”

These shaming statements revolve on the same terrible axis: that when life is bad, you are bad, and that you attracted the terror to yourself. We believe this because it fits a logical worldview. But it is not a rational one.


Here’s what I know. Your goodness absolutely does not hinge on what happens to you. There is no 1:1 ratio of your value and your life, of your effort versus outcome, no matter how someone got here. And no one ever became successful by themselves; no one is a self-made person. So it is also true that no one has ever totally failed themselves.

If it were all on you: every rainstorm would be your fault, every disaster would be your doing, winning the lottery makes you a saint, and being Jeff Bezos makes you god. Which, of course, is straight up lunacy.

Sometimes the environment or system or leaders or our own bodies were hostile, and so we never stood a chance. Unfortunately our world is not always kind to those “lesser” because we see it as their fault, therefore they’re not given an opportunity, which only reinforces a vicious cycle. You and I simply do not get better by being told, “Hey it’s entirely your fault, so good luck.”

Yes, I believe in both personal responsibility and interdependent community. We must make wise choices. I’m proud of much of my culture and how strong we are. But our choices can be limited by the mechanisms that surround us. We can always choose, but the world often determines how far we move.


All our philosophies may have many strengths, but they are built on a lie: that somehow it’s all up to you. The truth? It never was. At times the world around you has failed you. And sometimes you need help, and you won’t be able to contribute for a time because you need others to support you. And it’s okay to ask for that.

It must not be shameful to ask for charity. Any culture that makes this shameful is in itself a shameful culture that must be dismantled. You and I need help. We need each other. We need the gift of grace, a God-given help outside ourselves. We need to be okay to fail. And that does not make you less. The best of us emerges when we find where we need help.

My hope is that my daughter knows: your worth never hinges on your work. Sometimes life is just hard. It is unfair. It is ruthless. You will need help. That does not make you less. In fact, to ask for help makes you more. It makes you yourself.

Or as esteemed theologian Captain Jean Luc Picard says, “It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness. That is life.”

— J.S.

Not Quite Asian, Not Quite American; Fully Human

My mom and dad came to this country separately over thirty years ago and met in New York City, where they were married; my dad came to the U.S. with sixty dollars in his single pair of pants, and my mom couldn’t speak a word of English.  My dad was a Vietnam War Veteran, 2nd Lieutenant in the R.O.K. Army on the side of the U.S., and the only escaped prisoner of war from the Tet Offensive in 1969.  He’s also a licensed veterinarian and a Grand Master of Tae Kwon Do, a ninth degree black belt, the 54th 9th degree in the world.

Before my parents divorced when I was fourteen, my mom owned a laundromat and a grocery store next door to each other and would run back and forth between them to serve customers; sometimes she took old clothes that people left behind because we were too poor to afford any. My dad owned a martial arts dojo and mopped the entire floor every morning, then taught four classes in the evenings almost all in Korean.  Between the two of them, they worked almost 200 hours per week and slept maybe three hours per night.

One summer, someone spraypainted a swastika on the front wall of the dojo. My dad painted over it, but on those hot humid days, we could still see that Nazi symbol like an angry pulsing scar.

We got a message on our answering machine — maybe the same Nazi artists — who spent a good ten minutes making fun of my dad’s accent. I remember seeing my dad listen to it several times, staring quietly out a window. When he noticed me, he turned it off and said, “Just boys playing a joke.” The voices were from grown men.

When we visited with friends, we felt the invisible walls of cliques and class between us.  We were aliens from another world, just a foreign prop in the hero-story of the Westerner.  I was the token Asian.  When I visit churches, I still am.  Christians feel proud to know me because I meet their diversity quota; my other friends are proud to know me because they can make Asian jokes and explain, “Don’t worry, I have an Asian friend.”

In elementary school, when I first made friends and came over, I would immediately take off my shoes and bow to their parents.  I remember freaking out the first time I saw a fork.  I asked for two sticks to eat my food, and they said, “No, you can stab your food now.”  I still slightly bow to people as a reflex, and I still don’t get forks.

When I meet native Koreans from my own country, they call me kyopo, which is a slang term for misplaced native.  They make fun of my heavy American accent when I try to speak Korean.  They’re surprised I’m taller than them and say, “It must be hormones in the McDonald’s.”  They think I’m arrogant because I watch American TV shows and I have a blog written entirely in English.

I live in two worlds. I do not fully embody either, yet belong to both.

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