‘There are many worlds in me’: Asian American Christians reject conformity

Hosanna Wong, J.S. Park and Nikole Lim have forged expansive faiths that acknowledge the rich dimensions of their identities.

Hosanna Wong, center, shares the gospel in Singapore in 2022. Submitted photo

(RNS) — In her poem “I Have a New Name,” spoken-word artist Hosanna Wong boldly lists the names God calls her in Scripture: Friend, chosen, greatly loved.

But when she first released her bravura anthem of acceptance in 2017, it was under a pseudonym.

“Early on, a handful of leaders told me that my background might stand in the way of me being effective in the places and spaces I felt called to,” Wong, 33, told Religion News Service in a recent interview. “So they suggested that I don’t go by the last name ‘Wong.’”

After performing for most of her career as “Hosanna Poetry,” Wong, 33, now records under her own name. She’s one of several Asian American Christian leaders who have rejected the mold that others tried to force them into, forging a more expansive faith that acknowledges the rich dimensions of their identity.

But being open about who you are isn’t easy when you’ve been “shape shifting,” as Wong put it, from an early age.

Hosanna Wong in Chinatown, San Francisco. Submitted photo

Hosanna Wong in Chinatown, San Francisco. Submitted photo

Growing up in San Francisco in the 1990s, Wong felt most at home serving alongside her dad at his Christian outreach ministry for people living without homes and battling addiction.

“We had outdoor services two to three days a week. People brought their alcohol bottles, people brought their needles. That’s how I learned church,” said Wong, whose father was a former gang member who battled heroin addiction. “That’s where I learned that Jesus could save anyone’s soul and redeem anyone’s story … and that’s also where I learned the art of spoken word poetry.”

Freestyling about homework or her favorite snack, Wong felt accepted on the streets. But at school, where she was the only Chinese girl in her class, she learned to hide the home cooking she packed for lunch and to use makeup to make her eyes look wider. 

“I just thought if I watered down my details, I’d be more accepted and have more friends, and maybe an easier life. I didn’t want to explain my dad, I didn’t want to explain my past, my background, my heritage.”

After Wong’s father died from cancer when she was 18, she packed two suitcases into an aging red Toyota Corolla and performed her Christian poetry at churches and ministries across the country. A successful summer turned into years of touring. At some point she decided to omit details about her family’s story in her set and dropped her last name.

She began to question her approach when she learned that others saw themselves in her Asian American heritage and in her experiences of losing a parent or having a loved one who battled addiction.

“They saw beauty in something I had not seen,” Wong said.

Chaplain Joon Park, 41, a second-generation Korean American, remembers being made to sit facing the corner of his Florida preschool classroom as punishment for not speaking English. But by the time he was 10 or 11, his parents had long since stopped speaking Korean at home, and he could no longer remember the language. 

J.S. Park. Submitted photo

J.S. Park. Submitted photo

“So here I am, Monday through Friday being picked on at school, then I go to a Korean church and I’m being picked on there, too,” said Park, who goes by J.S. Park for writing and online. “And I just thought, in church, there’s not even safety here.”

At a Baptist seminary, he was again an outsider, hiding his social and political views from his deeply conservative fellow students. By the time Park started hospital chaplaincy in 2015, assimilating was almost instinctive. Entering a patient’s room, Park would launch into a lengthy introduction, speaking English quickly so he wouldn’t be read as a foreigner.

“There was so much racism I internalized because I was Korean and I just wanted to be white,” he said. “I thought white was safe, so therefore I ended up hating my Korean self.”

But it wasn’t until he joined the chaplaincy staff at Tampa General Hospital that he found acceptance. In chaplaincy, Park feels challenged daily to be the “hands and feet and heart of Christ.” A onetime atheist who knows what it’s like to stifle his identity, Park said his experiences have prepared him to sit in the sacredness of people’s most vulnerable moments and meet them exactly where they are.  

“I’ve described myself before as a grief catcher,” said Park. “I’m catching people’s emotions and feelings and their dreams that were cut short. Sometimes I literally am catching bodies as they collapse. And so I’m there catching people, not as a way to stop them, but to be with them as I go all the way to the floor.”

The work has, he said, given him a self he never had. “What I discovered was, I am not this person split in half between Korean and American,” said Park. “I’m fully Korean. I’m fully American. And it makes me more and not less. It doesn’t make me torn between two worlds. Instead, there are many worlds in me.”

Playing down her Asian identity wasn’t a problem for Nikole Lim, 34, who was raised to celebrate her Chinese heritage at the Salvation Army church her grandfather pastored in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

Nikole Lim and her grandfather. Submitted photo

Nikole Lim and her grandfather. Submitted photo

Nevertheless, Lim struggled to conform. Her baggy clothes and boisterous personality didn’t jibe with cultural expectations for women. “I felt like there wasn’t enough room for who I was as a person, being that I wanted my leadership to expand beyond the church walls, being that I wanted to use fashion and what I wore as an expression of who I am, being that I was also very vocal and very loud and had a lot of strong emotions that weren’t often nurtured or celebrated in our more Chinese context.”

Beginning in college, Lim worked for international nonprofits as a documentary filmmaker, focusing on stories of survivors of war, famine and abuse. In 2010, Lim befriended a 13-year-old girl involved in a wedding she was filming in Zambia. “She had this attitude, she’d roll her eyes at me all the time. I was just like her when I was 13,” Lim said.

When the girl explained she was a survivor of sexual violence, Lim railed against God for being absent. At the same time, she said, she sensed God asking her how she would respond.

Lim pivoted from filmmaker to nonprofit founder. Her organization, Freely in Hope, provides training for people to prevent sexual violence throughout Zambia and Kenya, while hosting storytelling platforms for abuse survivors and funding women scholars impacted by sexual violence. As Lim learned from survivors, her narrow perception of God grew to encompass the paradoxical faith she witnessed: If they could find God in the mess of injustice and violence they faced, so could she.

Nikole Lim. Submitted photo

Nikole Lim. Submitted photo

Seeing the power of the survivors’ stories also informed how Lim advocates for survivors in her Asian American community.

“With African culture and Asian culture, where it’s based on shame and honor, we typically silence our own individual stories and our own perspectives for the sake of saving face and showing honor to the collective,” Lim observed. “I think the process of healing is both individual, together with communal. And when our cultures are only driven by the communal, we negate our own selves.”

Lim employs the power of story through her book, Liberation is Here, and will be shifting her role at the organization to teach churches and other nonprofits best practices to care for survivors.

“It’s always been my goal to give the organization back to the community,” she said. “I want Freely in Hope to be survivor led, Afrocentric.”

While Lim, Park and Wong grew up differently and travel in very different circles, all three have pursued spiritual callings that helped them reclaim parts of themselves that others dismissed.

Hosanna Wong, right, and her grandma "Nin Nin" in her grandma's home in the Bernal Heights neighborhood of San Francisco. Submitted photo

Hosanna Wong, right, and her grandma “Nin Nin” in her grandma’s home in the Bernal Heights neighborhood of San Francisco. Submitted photo

Next year, Park will be releasing a new book about grief that integrates his experiences at the hospital bedside and his path to reclaiming his Korean American identity.  

Wong has also written a book, expected in August, that’s a guide for seeing oneself through God’s eyes, not the lens of others. In March, Wong re-released “I Have a New Name,” this time as Hosanna Wong, and she has a new album coming out later this year.

Wong told RNS that her decision to take back her last name is only in part about embracing her Chinese identity.

“It is me owning my heritage and background, but it is also because I allowed God to come and heal so many places in my life. I feel free and safe to share so much of my story,” said Wong. “I feel called to reveal who God is and how he works in the messiness of our real lives.”

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