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A Special Guest Post: Chanhee Heo

By Chanhee Heo

“Hello, my name is Chanhee Heo.” In the first meeting, many people ask me again after I introduce myself. “Where are you from?” “Do you have an English name?” “Did you come directly from your country?” The unfamiliar sounds of my Korean name and different pronunciation make them aware that I am not an American and they try to figure out whether I am an Asian-American, an immigrant, or an international student through these kinds of questions.

I came to Nashville last year to attend Vanderbilt Divinity School with my interests in social justice related to gender issues and promoting women and sexual minorities’ rights in Christianity. I was grateful to study at VDS and excited to experience a new culture in a different setting with people from diverse traditions. Against all expectations, however, I faced various layers of barriers shortly after I arrived: invisibility and ineffectiveness as a foreigner. Many Americans value ethnic and cultural diversity and emphasize awareness and acceptance of difference. Particularly, in Nashville, Tennessee, many people often bring up a phrase, “southern hospitality,” which describes the warm, sweet, and welcoming manner by which Southern residents respond to visitors. It is precious. And I really appreciate southern generosity. Yet the reality is quite different from what I expected.

Having a language barrier with dissimilar cultural background, I often have lost my voice. I didn’t know how to jump into a dialogue in a discussion class, how to react to American friends’ humor I do not understood, and how to express myself with a different language. With the exception of nodding my head, smiling, or keeping quiet, there was nothing I could do. Also, my ignorance of American culture often placed me in contrived moments. I answered seriously how my life was going, when someone says, “How are you?” A passerby’s greeting, “Thanks, sweetheart” was confusing, and when I was accosted in the street by a stranger, I didn’t know how to handle it. Everyday life was full of challenges that I needed to overcome.

Several weeks ago, I had a conversation with a Korean friend, who has been here for four years for her academic career. Sharing her experiences in Nashville, she said. “I am getting tired of trying to get involved in my community, since I know as an international student – with language barrier and cultural difference– there are some boundaries and limits I can never break. We are different from Korean-Americans.” International students are in a quite different place than Korean-speaking first generation immigrants, English-speaking second generation, and bilingual 1.5 generation, born in Korea but raised in the States. International students, who have recently come to the States, don’t belong to any generational groups, because of a strong Korean identity and cultural difference. Some part of us is always adrift. It is not that different within American. Many of my friends, international students, usually say that we are nominally here for diversity. In other words, it doesn’t matter who we are, but our racial identity as an Asian is important to fulfill the “diversity” quota in this community. Our race becomes our name: meaning, I cannot be Chanhee anymore because of my yellow skin color.

Being here for a year with my friends, however, I learned that I could be a friend beyond age, race, culture, and language. Their authenticity, generosity, attention, and love without any prejudice and categorization made me live as a human, not as a foreigner. And I could start a new journey to find myself in the States with their support. Many issues and dynamics are intertwined in my life as an international student. But through the relationship with my friends, I believe there is more than we can do to reconcile our struggles beyond boundaries and limits: Paying attention to each other and loving with authenticity.

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Chanhee Heo is a working with Scarritt Bennett Center for her field education requirement. She is a second year graduate student working on a MDiv at Vanderbilt Divinity School. She is from Seoul, South Korea.