By 변성주 기자
수잔 진 자원봉사자(Houston Children’s Museum 이사)가 휴스턴 크로니컬에 쓴 기고문에 잔잔한 공감을 일으키고 있다. 기사가 나간 지 일주일이 지난 지금까지도 피드백들이 답지하고 있는데, 감동과 자기 성찰의 계기, 격려가 담긴 것들이 대부분이지만 부정적인 의견들도 있다. 이번 기고문은 휴스턴 크로니컬 신문사의 요청에 의한 것으로, 반(反)아시안 혐오 이슈가 매우 민감한 주제라서 자칫 한인들의 보이스가 왜곡되게 비칠 수 있다는 우려를 하며 몇 번이나 포기하려고 했던 그녀였기에 이러한 피드백들에 대해 스스로도 놀라워했다.
그 중에는 “우리가 뉴스에서 접한 사건들이 집에서 매우 가까운 곳에서도 일어나고 있다는 사실에 놀랐고 사람들이 자신의 행동과 편견을 평가하는 계기를 마련했다” 외에도, “이민 초기 동급생의 친절을 아직도 잊지 않고 있는 수잔 진 씨처럼 나도 학부모 수잔 진 씨의 친절을 지금까지 잊지 않고 있다”는 어느 교사, 자녀의 인종차별을 최소화하기 위해 텍사스에서 캘리포니아로 이주했다며 “인종차별의 존재는 의심할 여지가 없으나 개개인이 그 영향을 줄여가야 한다” 등 수잔 진 씨 의견에 대부분 동의했다.
반면, “애틀랜타 총격 사건으로 의도적으로 분열시키고 있다”라거나 “(아는 사람의) 나쁜 행동에 왜 마스크를 벗고 대응하지 않았는가” 라며 반대 의견들도 보였다. 수잔 진 이사는 “실제로 반아시안 혐오로 다치고 목숨까지 잃은 분들과 그 가족들의 억울하고 아픈 심정은 얼마나 컸겠느냐”며 안타까워하면서도, 한편으로 “문제 해결에 법도 필요하지만 코리안 아메리칸으로 살아가고 있는 개개인이 타인에게 친절을 베풀 때 한 사람의 그릇된 선입관을 분명 바꿀 수 있고, 이런 노력들이 쌓여 커뮤니티의 분위기도 바꿔나갈 수 있을 것”이라고 강조했다.
주류사회에서 다양한 자원봉사활동을 해오고 있는 수잔 진 이사는, 2020 센서스 캠페인은 물론 코로나19 기간 중 한인사회 봉사자들과 수제 마스크를 대량 제작해 초동대응현장 등에 전달하며 휴스턴 한인사회의 봉사활동을 대외적으로 알리는데 일등공신 역할을 했다.
Korean Americans are just like you. We are more alike than different.
By Susan Jhin / April 14, 2021
Last Thanksgiving, I accidentally bumped into a woman while navigating the maze of people at H-E-B with their frozen turkeys.
“Go back to where you came from,” she sneered as she yanked her cart back.
I looked up at her, opening my mouth to say, “I’m sorry,” but then, I froze. I knew her.
“Can she even speak English?” the woman muttered as she pushed her cart away. I watched her neat blonde hair turn into an aisle, until I dropped my gaze to stare at the turkey buried in my cart. I blinked and smoothed out my list with trembling fingers. Ok, next. Sparkling apple cider.
She must not have recognized me behind my mask embroidered with yellow flowers. She did not treat me like the friend who worked with her on a charity fundraiser for a few months. The person who would spend hours brainstorming with her at a whiteboard over Starbucks coffee.
This memory gnaws at me, especially now in the wake of almost 4,000 acts of hate and violence against Asian-Americans over the past year. Did she respect me only when she knew that our kids went to the same school, that she would see me in carpool line or on the sports fields? Suddenly, when I wore my casual sweats and anonymity, did I, as an Asian, no longer count?
She judged me based on the fact that I look Asian. She did not see the person beyond her stereotypes. She did not acknowledge that I am a person like her.
That is the trouble with acts apparently motivated by stereotypes, hate or ignorance. They erase your personhood in the eyes of other people. And, presently, they create an underlying sense of anxiety among Asian American families, communities and allies that will continue to reverberate. The encounter in H-E-B still causes my fingers to tremble.
We can, however, overcome these divisions. While policy and legal approaches are important to combat racism, each of us can also easily break down walls in our own lives by reaching out to our neighbors.
For the Korean American community in Houston, one way we have worked to break down walls is through service. When our Houston community was in need, we made thousands of masks for underserved families, schools, hospitals and nursing homes across the area. As we work together with organizations across Houston and learn to value each other, we can begin to combat the scourge of racism and other forms of discrimination. When you give joyfully, people see and appreciate your service. They see your heart and they see who you are — a caring person. Together, we can get beyond our stereotypes and recognize each other’s value.
We, Korean Americans, are just like you.
We love our families. We work hard so that our children can have every opportunity to succeed in our great nation. We care for our elderly because that is how we were raised.
We each have our own journeys to Houston. Mine started when my father brought us to Pennsylvania as part of a large wave of Koreans arrived in the United States after the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. My father, along with many of his medical school classmates, immigrated in the early 1970s as United States opened its doors to foreign trained physicians, nurses and auto mechanics as there were a shortage of these professionals. Eventually, my husband and I moved our family to Houston where we have built our community and friendships.
Fortunately, my experience as a 9-year-old in a new town set the foundation for my American experience, not the incident at H-E-B. I arrived at a new school and a kind boy, Abraham, motioned for me to sit in the empty seat next to him. Throughout the year, he would make sure I had a seat at the lunch table. He did not look at me through the eyes of bias. He saw me as a fellow student who needed help navigating a new school and new group of friends. He showed me kindness and reached out to help.
I know everyone may not have experienced the same kindness I have, but I know it is possible. I know it is there in all of us. I know that kindness can help break down stereotypes and barriers. It just takes two people getting together — one person reaching out and another to open the door to sharing.
Know the person you are hurting. We are more alike than different.
Jhin is a volunteer and advocate for the Korean community.