For Su Yon Pak, decolonizing her mind took decades of undoing, learning, and reclaiming.
Her sense of identity since coming to the U.S. at the age of 10 has been shaped by her upbringing in Queens, New York, her parents’ story of migration to the U.S., and her Korean Christian church community.
“That sense of not belonging, being different and being teased changes your whole inner landscape of how you see the world because you’re looking out to all white people,” said Pak.
Pak’s parents moved her and her siblings to a Greek and Italian neighborhood in Astoria in 1971. They left South Korea at a time when authoritarian leader Park Chung-hee was militarizing South Korean life, cracking down on unions, teachers, students, and religious leaders while promising the revitalization of the country’s economy and de-politicization of armed forces.
Her mother’s family came from wealth and education in South Korea but were also subject to limited social mobility under Chung-hee’s regime. Pak’s mother had to start running a pharmacy to provide for the family.
“It was hard,” recalled Pak. “It was a hard rebuilding.”
Pak and her siblings lived above her mother’s pharmacy in South Korea as her father rose in Chung-hee’s army as a lieutenant colonel. When the regime worsened, Pak’s family moved to New York.
“They knew very little English, and they weren’t in their 20s,” said Pak of her parents. “They were in their forties when they moved, and that would be a real hardship, you know, different. The different cultures, different worlds, and different ways of being.
When being a “good Korean Christian” comes at a cost
Pak’s parents were uprooted many times and struggled to navigate American life, but their lifeline was the local Korean Christian church in Astoria. It was the only place that held a sense of community for Pak and her family.
“The church was the only place that really catered to cultural connections and how we all survived being an immigrant,” said Pak. “We attended every Sunday, and this is where we would hang out with our real friends, connect and speak the language.”
As Pak grew older, she became distant from the church that raised her. She began to reflect on this Korean community she never asked for but was raised in as a young child.
“There is a sense in which it’s like a village that raises you,” said Pak. “People are deeply committed to your well-being. Not just your parents, because a lot of the parents were immigrants working and many of them had vegetable stores and were merchants. So, it was a powerful way of growing up to have that sense of community and belonging.”
But while Pak’s church community had embraced her as a daughter of the church and she felt support from church members, she could not help but feel there was something missing from what she was taught about being “a good Korean Christian.”
“What comes with [the community] is the restrictiveness,” said Pak. “If you are outside of the norm, you are either excommunicated or talked about like you are a bad example. There is a sense in which you are either in or out, you cannot be both. With religion I could not separate the fundamentalist, very conservative theology with what it means to be Korean. If I did not want to be that theologically, then I could not be Korean.”
How Pak reclaimed her Christian values through the teachings of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Shamanism
For Pak, it was a long journey for her to say, “No, I could be Korean, and not theologically that way.” And it took years of studying Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity, and Shamanism to redefine her sense of self as a Korean woman and how that is tied to her spirituality.
She started with Buddhist meditations in search of a new sense of consciousness and explored a religion that felt closer to her ancestral and cultural roots. And it was not something that felt foreign to her – the Buddhist teachings felt like “being a duck in water.
“That’s when I realized, wow, these teachings are so ingrained in who we are,” said Pak. “For me, it was intra-religious, that I am working through myself navigating my Buddhist self, with my Shamanistic self, my Confucian self, and my Christian self. That is true with many people who were colonized.”
For the past three decades, Pak has immersed herself in these different religions, which she has described as an “intra-religious” experience. Embracing “multiple belonging” to those spiritual practices has informed her work at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where she serves as Dean and Vice President of Academic Affairs.
Finding space for AAPI voices in interfaith settings
Pak is one of few AAPI leaders in interfaith spaces, even as the landscape of Asian Americans across the country is increasingly characterized as spiritual over religious, according to Pak.
It is not always easy for Pak to find solidarity in the Asian American interfaith experience, where she feels expected to speak to the needs of all AAPI communities. But she has found ways to build community through groups like the Pacific, Asian, and North American Asian Women in Theology and Ministry (PANAAWTM) and continues to bring forth her unique lived experiences to create more space for Asian Americans in the context of spirituality and religion.
Her larger mission is to bring awareness to the power dynamics in Christian white supremacy and how that influences interreligious engagement.
“My commitment is to understand that kind of power that I bring when I show up as a Protestant Christian in the interreligious spaces,” said Pak. “It is important to me. And it is honest and very implicit because it is the air we breathe and the water that we swim in this country.”