I Am 100% On Pilgrimage {Jen}

100% is a guest post series focusing on multicultural identity and the unique journey of connecting with more than one culture. To share your story, click here.

I live and work in a squatter camp in Johannesburg, South Africa, as a missionary with Servant Partners. The squatter camp community I live in is approximately a square kilometer of land that contains somewhere between 50 to 100 thousand people of various South African ethnic groups—Tswanas, Sothos, Vendas, Zulus, Xhosas—and me, the one lone Korean-American. 

The other day, one of my teammates made the comment that he most enjoys walking through the squatter camp on the weekends, when the community is at its liveliest. Men sit outside their homes, talking and drinking beer, children run up and down the streets playing games, and there is always music emanating from competing sound systems, just houses apart from each other. 

In truth, though, weekends can sometimes be the worst for me. On any given day, I can expect to be “proposed” to multiple times a day as I walk from my house to just about anywhere else in the community. And by “proposed,” I mean more or less all of what might come to mind—professions of love and affection, invitations into (un)holy matrimony, and everything in between. 

And if I’m not being proposed to, I’m being called “China” (or having fake, vaguely Chinese-sounding gibberish shouted at me) or some other word that means, more or less, “whitey.” On the weekends, when more people are out and about, these verbal affronts tend to be even more frequent, and fueled by alcohol and group-think, louder and more offensive. 

As a Korean-American, I realize that I respond more negatively to being considered a “China” than to being considered white. I think I don’t mind being a whitey because I associate it with the color of my skin (as in, it IS lighter/whiter than my neighbors’) and the privilege that comes with it, which I don’t deny. 

But there is something about being called “China” that stirs up such a feeling of rage that while on my better days, I can politely (but generally unsmilingly) say, “I’m not a China,” I won’t tell you what I do on my worse days. I think, at some core level, being called “China” frustrates me so much because it forces me to confront the dissonance I feel with my own identity. 

I recently returned home to the States for an extended trip of four months. It’s the longest stretch of time I’ve been back in America since moving to South Africa, a few years ago, so I had time enough to settle back in and try to get back into some of my old rhythms. 

As part of this effort, I tried to explain to my friends what my life in South Africa is like, how some of my ways of thinking and acting have changed, especially how my relationship with God has changed. And though my friends could appreciate a lot of what I was telling them about, in all honesty, there is a very big part my life here that they are not able to understand because they have never experienced it. 

And now, I’m back in South Africa, back in a squatter camp, back being the only Korean-American within 1000 km (probably an exaggeration, but more or less accurate enough for my purposes), living my weird little life here. My friends are happy to see me again, and it has been lovely to be back and to see them again. But at the same time, when they ask me how home was, it is difficult to explain how different my life in Los Angeles is from life in Johannesburg. 

And then I realize even more strongly that while home was nice, it was not particularly home, either. I have always felt that home was where the people who knew me best were. But as I displace myself from comfortable environments, as I “incarnate” myself here, I feel more and more that there is no one who knows me “best” other than God, my only and constant companion. 

I am a second-generation Korean-American, born and raised in Hawaii, who now lives in a squatter camp in Johannesburg, South Africa. That was how I originally planned to title this post, because I feel I am 100% all of those words up there. But maybe greater than the reality that I am any of those words is the other reality: that in the final analysis, none of those words really matter. 

They represent elements of my identity that wax and wane in importance, but don’t tell the story of where I really am on my journey to walk with God, or where I am going with him. And so it is God, who knows me best, who is also where my home is, and where my identity lies.

Jen Chi Lee is on a journey with Jesus. For now, her pilgrimage takes her, as a missionary with Servant Partners, to live and work in an informal settlement community northwest of Johannesburg, South Africa. Read more at her blog or connect on Twitter (@jenchilee) or email: jenchilee [at] servantpartners.org.

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