Written by Sarah Chang //
“Sarah, have you ever been treated differently because you look different?”
This question caught me off guard. Two of my coworkers and I were sitting around the kitchen table at work, sipping coffee during our break, when one of them asked this question. I responded with a “yes” and they looked at me with surprise, but with also an unexpected expression of relief. I was asked to explain more about my response, and a million thoughts ran across my mind. How was I was supposed to respond to this loaded question? How I was supposed to explain my complicated experience without making it too complicated? How much do I say? What exactly do I even say?
I saw their faces waiting in anticipation, so I shared that there were different times in my life—even to this day—in which people speak, act, and even look at me differently because I am Asian.
Right then, one of my coworkers said in an affirmative tone, “Sarah, you are just like us.”
Though the conversation was interrupted after a couple of minutes, I was taken aback. I never expected anyone, especially my coworkers, to ask me such a question. On top of that, I did not expect to hear a response of how I belonged with them through the similar experience of being treated differently due to our ethnicity. Majority of my coworkers are ethnically Karen, which is an ethnic group from Burma. Though the level of suffering from systematic oppression and racial injustice that I have faced is not equal to the experiences of my coworkers and their communities, there was an unspoken connection that was present.
Through the Human Needs and Global Resources program at Wheaton College, I had the privilege to work alongside diligent, resilient, passionate, faithful, and selfless Karen women and men for six months at an organization called Partners. Through holistic action, Partners demonstrates God’s love to communities made vulnerable by conflict and oppression. Their three main methods are sustainable development for a nurturing environment and the community’s wellbeing, strengthening families, and emergency relief in times of crisis. I was able to taste a glimpse of the beauty in the Kingdom work that the organization is faithfully pursuing in places that have been destroyed and communities that have been displaced.
Although I got to witness the macro-level results of racial injustice—I traveled to refugee camps and heard personal stories from Karen women and men about being treated differently due to their dark skin color and their ethnic identity—I want to invite you into a story that someone dear to my heart invited me into during my time in Thailand.
At the beginning of August, I had the chance to travel with my Partners coworkers for a team workshop. During that time, I got to meet Say Say, who used to intern at Partners and is now finishing up her last year of nursing in an international program at a Thai university. Say Say is a 24-year-old Karen woman who grew up in a refugee camp with her family, and she dedicated her life to become a nurse because of the immense need in her community. She not only went against all odds of being able to attend an international program to pursue nursing at a Thai university, but she is also one of the top students in her program.
Knowing the systems were against her ethnic status and background as a refugee, I asked how her experience was being Karen in a majority Thai context. Say Say smirked and said, “Sarah, it was so so so hard. It still is so hard. I just want to graduate.”
Right then, I felt a painful tug in my heart. Say Say then began to share how because people knew she was Karen by her physical appearance and her not-so-fluent Thai, people not only did not want to be friends with her, but treated her as the “other” and out-casted her from the nursing community. She also shared how other students did not like that she was not the “typical” Karen woman. Say Say was outspoken in and outside the class; she refused to assimilate into the culture, she lived in discomfort, and she fought back when people would mess with her identity as a Karen. Her entire body embodied the ongoing resilience in her life.
However, she ended our conversation by saying, “But this is normal, Sarah. It’s okay.”
My heart was already heavy, and those last two statements devastated me. Why? Not only was it so wrong that this is “normal,” but it’s also so wrong that I have heard that similar phrase so many times back at home in the States.
Say Say then asked me, “Don’t you understand me?”
I immediately remembered the moment with my coworkers and replied, “Say Say, I can’t say I experienced the same level of difficulty as you, but I do understand what it means to be treated differently because of my skin color.”
A month later, I had the opportunity to go visit Say Say at her university and attend one of her nursing classes. As Say Say and I walked into the classroom, the group of seven students who were sitting in the front row looked up. I could obviously tell how confused they were when I walked in, but Say Say kindly introduced me—saying where I was from and that I was visiting. They greeted me, and we sat a couple rows behind the group of girls. Their laughing and chatting continued as if we were never there.
There was a combination of familiarity and the strange feeling of being in a classroom, but even more strange was walking alongside Say Say in this very moment of time. I noticed the distance, the dis-acknowledgement, the absence of care or interest, the division, and the tension that Say Say had shared with me the month before. The people, the atmosphere, the location, and the situations that were shared in the stories were right before my very own eyes. What Say Say experienced felt so familiar to me at that very moment.
I sat through that hour-and-a-half lecture with Say Say with an extremely heavy heart because of my personal experience of placelessness, but even more so because I was able to taste and see a glimpse of the painful stories that Say Say had invited me into.
Sarah Chang is an Asian-American college student at Wheaton College. She recently returned from a six-month internship in Thailand through Wheaton’s Human Needs and Global Resources Program.