The band is introducing their next song when I hear someone speaking in the audience behind me. “That guy’s definitely Japanese. I don’t know what that guy is,” bellows some undergrad. Knowing my surroundings, I ignore him, but my wife shuts that shit down. “Not that it should matter to you, but they’re all Korean-American. Maybe you shouldn’t guess people’s ethnicities,” she growls, as he gets visibly cowed. I ready myself to hold back my beloved in case she feels the need to rip his head off.
We’ve driven an hour in a snowstorm to catch Run River North in concert. They have accompanied me through many important seasons of life. I played their songs on my iPod the day I moved to America for graduate school, the day I married my wife, and even the day my father died back in my home country, half a world away from me. Everyone who loves music has a band like this – staples on their life’s soundtrack.
On this night, they’re playing at a Christian liberal arts college in rural Western Pennsylvania that leans heavily conservative and Evangelical. Unsurprisingly, the college (and surrounding town) is also a very white space.
This is an unusual place for three Asian-Americans from Los Angeles to play a show, which they mention lightheartedly between songs. I smile knowingly at their self-awareness, but also feel the sadness of the truth underlying their words; as the ignorance of the undergraduate behind me suggests, it’s clear that the few non-white people in the room (me + the members of Run River North) are other here.
Despite this, Run River North’s performance is received enthusiastically in large part because they sound like this (and even better live):
I also suspect that part of the reason they’re received so well at this particular Christian college is because there’s discernible Christian language in the lyrics of some of their songs. Bands like Run River North – those with possibly Christian members, but not a “Christian band” – are valuable for people with Christian identities, but who also recognize that most of what is explicitly sold as “Christian music” is artistically and musically inane.
I didn’t see a single other Asian audience member; perhaps I was alone in feeling pride as I watched people who look like me completely own and rock a space that tends to be monochromatic. It empowers me in the way I imagine watching Black Panther might for African-Americans. I would never qualify Run River North as an “Asian-American” band, as if their music did not stand on its own merit. But I cannot deny that the shared identity affords me a deeper resonance with their craft.
I surely can’t do justice here to their nuanced stories that are easily labeled “Christian” and “Asian-American” and the undoubtedly complex ways they embrace the different parts of their identity. But I can’t help but notice what’s on display as Run River North commands their audience; those with more than one-dimensional identities are able to flourish even in environments where they appear as outsiders.
Many of us who live in and navigate religious/ethnic/cultural/national worlds other than our own have learned to do so by drawing on different aspects of our identities. Let’s call this duality.
Duality was sometimes thrust upon us as an unavoidable burden: learn to assimilate – i.e. speak/act/eat like them – or remain an outsider. Some of us did so as completely as we could, and yet were never completely let in. Some of us did for a time and only later learned we could not whitewash the deepest parts of us. This duality in our souls could feel like a fracture, as we learned to move back and forth between our identities, highlighting different dimensions at different times.
I instinctually view my own duality as a burden, forever resigned to be part-this-part-that, only ceasing to be an outsider if I can somehow suppress those particular parts of me that the mainstream culture considers foreign. But once in a while, I glimpse others using their duality to cross those barriers that would make them outsiders, as Run River North does in venues like this.
If the whiteness of a space results in some failing to see beyond the ethnicities of Asians, how else can connection be forged? A band like Run River North has multiple well-springs to draw upon: a shared Christian vocabulary if needed and music that gets people rocking hard enough to temporarily forget their ignorance. Multidimensional identities allow the breaking of barriers that make us other (even if only for a moment).
This duality is fittingly known by many names. Psychologists and linguists speak of code-switching. Theologians speak of “double-vision” – the capacity to see from perspectives other than your own. Anthropologists refer to this as liminality – not belonging fully to any one culture, but inhabiting the spaces “in between”. This opens us to opportunities to experience the new (for we are not beholden to a single culture), to radical community (because outsiders share experiences and intimacy by necessity), and allows us to take prophetic stances against the dominant culture (because we see it without being beholden to the baggage of the status quo).
It is a fight to see and exercise my own duality as something that saves me from the forces in the world demanding assimilation. Those who have never been forced to confront the dualities inherent in their identities will easily collapse into caricatures. Is it any wonder the ethnicity-guessing undergraduate feels the need to label the identities of others, as if someone’s identity could be summed up by one dimension?
Being multiple things (Christian/Asian/Progressive) can feel like I am not any one thing, but it saves me from viewing myself and others as one-dimensional categories. It grants me the freedom to see boundaries of ignorance for what they are and to defy them. It grants me eyes to see and ears to hear.
Duality is nothing more and nothing less than the capacity to see the complexities inherent in the world and human beings. So maybe even the ignorant undergraduate is more than he shows himself to be (and more than I can see). If only he could see this and embrace it, rather than reinforcing the caricatures he breathes.
On good days, my own duality helps me glimpse the duality in God’s character and promises. God is one, but a Trinitarian community. Jesus is human, and somehow also God. We are citizens of earth, and also heaven. God’s Kingdom has come, though not fully yet. If such duality is inherent in God’s being, I can trust that my own duality is crucial to bearing God’s image in the world. I can hold it as a gift.
To hold it as a gift, I need others who share in it. I need others to affirm it in me. I need to celebrate others as I see them living it. Even better if that’s done at a rock concert in the whitest of spaces. Our duality shines in the whiteness, and the whiteness will not overcome it.
Created by: Kevin Soo
About the Author: Kevin is a graduate student in cognitive psychology, who often finds himself immersed in data and statistics. He has learned to love dwelling in the intersection of his Asian, immigrant, and Christian identities.