Dark Side of Diaspora Missions: Challenges for Korean-Americans

by Sunny Hong

My experience in addition to stories I heard led me to reflect on the difficulties that KA missionaries face on the field. My hope is that by doing so, KA missionaries can be better equipped and the people around them can better understand KAs.


 src=A Personal Journey

When I was serving as director of the Korean office of Wycliffe USA, I told Korean-American (KA) candidates for Wycliffe that KAs have a lot to contribute to missions. In my MA thesis, I outlined the assets KAs bring to missions: 

1. They are bicultural and bilingual, to different degrees.

2. They can adapt fairly easily to a third culture because they are already familiar with two very different cultures.

3. They can relate well with minorities on the field (many of whom belong to unreached people groups) because they themselves have lived as minorities.

4. They may have gone through an identity crisis and can help people when they become Christians.

5. They can enter places where Caucasians may not be welcome.

6. Most KAs are highly educated.

7. They are not afraid of facing difficulties and work faithfully.

During the twelve years I spent recruiting KA diaspora workers to Wycliffe Bible Translators, I did not realize the difficulties that KAs were facing even though I heard many stories. When I started ministry on the field, I began to experience some of those difficulties as well. For instance, I heard a Korean missionary say that he could not trust KA missionaries because he could never know how they would react. He stated that KAs often reacted in a way that was convenient for them, instead of consistently following one culture. 

My experience in addition to stories I heard led me to reflect on the difficulties that KA missionaries face on the field. My hope is that by doing so, KA missionaries can be better equipped and the people around them can better understand KAs.

Methods of Data Collection

I interviewed fifteen KA missionaries who belong to four different mission organizations. To compare the data between KA missionaries and non-KA missionaries who have been working with them, I interviewed ten colleagues of KAs who work for two different mission organizations. All of the interviews were done by asking a series of open-ended questions through email.

Cultural Framework

One way to explain why KAs are having significant challenges on the field is by using the Grid and Group theory. Sherwood Lingenfelter described Grid and Group theory this way: 

We use grid to describe the different ways in which people define the place and role of individuals in a game or a social activity.…We use group to describe the different ways in which people define the identity and relationships of members of a team, extended family, or community. (1998, 25-26) 

A person’s status influences his or her social relationships in high “grid” societies, whereas social relationships in low “grid” societies do not take differences in social status, age, or education level into as much account. In a high “group” society, members conform to the group, while members of a low “group” society tend to pursue individual interests. Using these two concepts of grid and group, four cultures emerge: bureaucratic (high grid and low group), corporate (high grid and high group), individualist (low grid and low group), and egalitarian (low grid and high group).

Using Grid and Group theory, Lynda Hersman (1995) defined American culture as individualist and Korean culture as corporate. These are direct opposites in terms of the grid/group analysis: American culture is low grid/low group, and Korean culture is high grid/high group. Therefore, KAs are constantly navigating two cultures that are often at direct odds with each other, and this paradoxical cultural convergence can create confusion in one’s cultural identity.

Difficulties Korean-Americans Face

In their personal lives KA diaspora missionaries may undergo identity crises when they arrive on the mission field—crises different from ones they may have previously experienced in their sending country. In their social lives their appearances can give others certain cultural expectations while their behaviors may reflect the culture in which they have lived the longest. This can cause confusion and misunderstanding. 

In relating to ministry colleagues, KA missionaries may feel they belong neither among colleagues from their sending country nor among colleagues from their parents’ countries. In their ministries, they feel they cannot live up to their potential or that they are voiceless as minorities in their organizations.

Cultural Identity

The biggest issue for KAs is one of identity. They juggle two cultures, live as minorities, face generational issues, and are sometimes misunderstood by colleagues. 

Culture is a frame that helps one interpret the world and filter perceptions, judgments, and understanding (Simons, Vázquez, and Harris 1993). Cultural identity shows us who we are: 

On a personal level, cultural identity is important for a number of reasons. First, it provides us with a better idea of who we are and how we got there. By immersing ourselves in our heritage and traditions, our goals at work as well as other areas of our lives become clearer. From our cultural identity, we gain a sense of belonging; we realize that our identity connects us with others with whom we share certain things in common. Understanding cultural identity provides us with insight into why we have developed into the person we are. By recognizing how our identity unites us with others both past and present, we become more confident in the face of stereotypes and more resilient when our heritage is devalued. (Bucher 2008, 38)

Because KAs must manage two different cultures internally, they can experience confusion in terms of their identity. Sungho Choi comments, “This new generation, produced by diaspora, is often blurred and ambiguous in ethnic identity as it tends to be culturally mixed, which can at times lead to a serious confusion regarding identity” (2011, 33). 

When identifying with two sets of contradictory cultural behaviors, one can become very confused and not know which practices to keep. When conflicting values are not dealt with properly, individuals may become cultural schizophrenics who are culturally dysfunctional. On the other hand, proper handling of culturally conflicting values by embracing and handling multiple cultures well can lead to multiple healthy cultural identities. 

Richard Bucher considers a person who develops multiple healthy cultural identities as having multiple consciousnesses, or “the ability to adopt multiple cultural perspectives or lenses regardless of the situation” (2008, 116).

While living in America, many KAs may need to deal with some degree of cultural confusion within themselves. But when KAs enter the mission field, living in a third culture may intensify this confusion. One KA explains it this way: “Oh yes, I am still Korean; I am American; and I am Ethiopian. I was never able to make a distinction or definition of all three. I am just who I am—so confused, privileged and disadvantaged at the same time.”

When living in a third culture, KAs face identity-related challenges on the mission field that may be different from what they experienced in America. In America, they may have been able to negotiate two very opposite cultures (corporate and individualist), but on the field they must learn to negotiate additional cultures—the field culture and other missionaries’ cultures—and identify their place among them.

KAs can also use culturally American responses in certain situations and culturally Korean responses in others. When KAs’ colleagues overseas observe this phenomenon, they can easily be misinterpreted as “picking and choosing” behaviors across cultures that suit them. 

For example, American culture emphasizes planning and organization, which may become integrated into KA culture depending on one’s assimilation experience. KAs may approach work in a highly structured, planned way, but enjoy spontaneity and less structure in relationships. This could be viewed as KAs choosing to do things according to their whims and not being consistent. Likely, in some individuals this selectivity is more intentional than unconscious. 

Ten KA colleagues shared that their biggest difficulty in understanding KAs was not knowing how KAs would respond to situations. What bothered the colleagues most was that it seemed that KAs reacted to certain issues in ways that were convenient for the KAs instead of consistently following one culture.

When KAs go overseas, those they meet may make assumptions about their cultural background based on their appearances. When KA missionaries were treated as who they were not, this experience brought about resurgent identity issues. People who do not understand the complexity of hyphenated cultures may not be able to imagine the added complexity of being KA on the mission field. 

In America, if KAs want to explain who they are culturally, they can go back one step and explain Korean culture. But on the field, they must go back two steps and explain their affiliation with both Korean and American cultures. Without mentioning both cultures, it is impossible for them to express who they are culturally. In addition to these cultural issues, there are personal differences when it comes to cultural assimilation. Therefore, explaining who KAs are culturally becomes complicated and problematic.

Minority Culture

Another identity issue relates to KAs living in America as minorities. If a person’s culture is minimized or lacks support from the dominant culture, he or she can feel culturally marginalized. “Minority groups are the least integrated into the wider society and have the least amount of choice in terms of self-identification” (Mittelberg and Borschevsky 2004, 92-93). Even if KAs are born in America, they are sometimes treated as foreigners, different from immigrants of European descent (although there were notable periods of marginalization of these groups as well). When KAs work in an international mission agency, they may face this issue of being a minority again because Caucasians make up the majority in many agencies, even when they serve in non-Western countries. 

Many KAs have had to adjust to American culture to survive. Some may have had to suppress aspects of themselves that were more Korean when they were operating in a predominantly American setting. When situations arise in which Korean cultural protocol is at odds with American cultural protocol, KAs may unconsciously follow the American protocol because they are used to suppressing their Korean-ness in America. This suppression could be viewed as cultural imperialism or American superiority by non-Americans on the field. 

Generational Issues

KAs can be classified by generation. First-generation KAs immigrated to America as adults. KAs who identify themselves as 1.5-generation immigrated to America as children or as teenagers. Second-generation KAs are ethnically Korean but were born in America. 

In general, first-generation KAs’ mother tongue is Korean, and they are very familiar with Korean culture. Second-generation KAs’ mother tongue is English and they are more familiar with American culture. KAs who are 1.5 generation are more evenly bicultural and bilingual. In the formulation of cultural identity, each person assimilates to new cultures selectively. Even though there may be general characterizations made of first-generation, 1.5-generation, and second-generation KAs, they make different individual choices about how much to assimilate into mainstream American culture. These choices become the basis of their cultural identity. Depending on their generation, KAs can behave either extremely Korean, extremely American, or according to a mixture of both cultures, which can confuse people around them.  

Relational Issues

People who self-identify with more than one culture may feel that they do not completely belong to any of these groups. One of the reasons why KAs do not feel they belong is because of their bicultural-ness. When KAs serve on a mission field where Koreans from Korea and Caucasian Americans work together, they may not feel completely accepted by either group.  

Just as the KAs interviewed felt excluded from time to time by their colleagues, people around them felt estranged from KAs as well. One Korean missionary said that when he met a KA who expressed himself as an American culturally, the Korean missionary felt perplexed and created some distance between them. For some Korean missionaries, KA missionaries are culturally foreign to them because they behave like Americans from time to time. English proficiency and American cultural knowledge also create a gap between KAs and Koreans. Because of these issues, KAs may sometimes be excluded from the social network of Korean missionaries.

KAs may sense uneasiness not only in their colleagues, but also in the locals. One KA felt that her longstanding friendship with locals evaporated when the locals seemed to show an obvious social preference for other westerners.

Ministry Issues

Some KAs have encountered the glass ceiling in American society and have felt prevented from living up to their full potential. Therefore, when they are excluded from work in which they feel they should be involved, it is natural for them to conclude that they have encountered the glass ceiling in a mission organization dominated by westerners. Of course, alternative possibilities for someone else getting the work include: (1) someone else might be better qualified to be in charge of a project, (2) there might be a need to involve someone new, or (3) because of language or cultural reasons, others want to work with people with a similar cultural background or language proficiency. Another issue is that being a minority sometimes limits the degree to which one is heard because majority people may not understand the issues coming from a minority.

When KAs work in a strong grid culture, the KAs interviewed had difficulties with not being recognized as leaders over older westerners by their Asian colleagues. On the other hand, when those working in Asia practiced Asian culture, trying to adapt to the local context, they felt misunderstood by some of their Western colleagues.

Since mission history is longer in America than in Korea, KAs can think, consciously or unconsciously, that the American way of doing missions is better than the Korean way simply because of the rich experience that comes with a long history. This can be viewed as KAs subscribing to cultural imperialism or to American superiority, or just being arrogant.

Suggestions and Conclusion 

It is critical to realize that KAs may be following two very different cultures unconsciously, and that people around them may understandably be confused. Recognizing this would be the beginning of solving the problem. Whenever, or even before, misunderstandings arise, it would be helpful for KAs to explain why they behave in a certain way, or which generation with which they identify.

It would be helpful for KAs to prepare to be treated as Koreans or something that they are not, because others who may not have dealt with hyphenated people before cannot automatically detect that KAs identify with two different cultures. 

KAs can also endeavor to develop the “multiple consciousnesses” that Bucher describes:

Developing multiple consciousnesses will allow us to shift gears, both intellectually and emotionally. Depending on the lens we are wearing, we might need to take someone’s age, sensitivity, disability, and cultural background into account. This might mean changing our language slightly, being more reserved, asking certain questions, or listening very, very carefully. (2008, 116)

At the same time colleagues of KAs can give them the benefit of the doubt and exercise grace. It is normal for KAs to behave somewhat unpredictably in different situations because this is what they have learned. When colleagues are confused about KAs’ behavior, it is helpful to treat the incident as an opportunity to understand the reasons why KAs behave the way they do and to learn the intentions behind their behavior. Rather than give into the temptation to generalize about all KAs, colleagues can proactively ask KAs around them how they would prefer to be treated. 

KAs face these issues because they are part of two radically different cultures and because they are in the minority. Other Asian-North-American missionaries may find themselves in a similar position. Therefore, KA issues can be extrapolated to some extent to other Asian-North-American diaspora missionaries. 

Many people are naturally ethnocentric. If we stay as who we are and do not try to understand where others are coming from, we will not make progress in celebrating how God has molded individuals uniquely. Learning from each other and respecting each other are vital to having good working relationships in our kingdom work.

Diaspora missionaries have many strengths they can bring to missions. I personally believe that just like Paul, who himself was bicultural and overcame Jewish cultural barriers to contextualize the gospel for the Gentiles, diaspora missionaries have a special place in missions in the twenty-first century. However, they face unusual difficulties in working as missionaries. 

KAs may experience identity issues, relational mishaps, and difficulties in ministry because of their bicultural-ness. Therefore, it is important to train KAs about the potential issues they will encounter, while at the same time informing their colleagues about unintentional misunderstandings they may have with KA missionaries, so that both KAs and their colleagues can fulfill the calling God has given them.


Bucher, Richard D. 2008. Building Cultural Intelligence: Nine Megaskills. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Education Inc.

Choi, Sungho. 2011. “Identity Crisis for the Diaspora Community.” In Korean Diaspora and Christian Mission. Eds. S. Hun Kim and Wonsuk Ma, pp. 25-34. Oxford: Regnum Books International. 

Hersman, Lynda R. 1995. Teamwork with Diversity: Grid-group Analysis of National Structures for International Mission Teams (Master’s thesis). Pasadena, Calif.: Fuller Theological Seminary. 

Hong, EunSun. 2001. Understanding Korean-American Issues in Missions: In Order to Develop New Strategies for Mobilization (Master’s thesis). La Mirada, Calif.: Biola University.

Lingenfelter, Sherwood. 1998. Transforming Culture: A Challenge for Christian Mission. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.

Mittelberg, David and Nikolay Borschevsky. 2004. “National Minority, National Mentality, and Communal Ethnicity: Changes in Ethnic Identity of Former Soviet Union Jewish Emigrants on the Israeli Kibbutz.” International Migration 42(1): 89-113.

Simons, George F., Carmen Vázquez, and Philip R. Harris. 1993. Transcultural Leadership: Empowering the Diverse Workforce. Houston, Tex.: Gulf Publishing Company.

. . . .

Sunny Hong is a member of Wycliffe Bible Translators, works as an intercultural consultant at SIL International in Dallas, Texas, and is an adjunct professor at GIAL (Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics).

EMQ, Vol. 51, No. 3 pp. 304-311. Copyright  © 2015 Billy Graham Center for Evangelism.  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.


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