Youth Group: Then and Now or Asian American + Christian youth group = Depressed?

I started this post out wanting to write about how my youth group experiences were different than what I experienced recently at my daughter’s youth group kick-off…and then I read this article I saw on Angry Asian Man about how participating in religion may make adolescents from certain races more depressed – Asian American girls topping the charts. My guess is that my observation #4 is part of how culture and faith collide.

Noodle fencing and marshmallow archery were for me the personal highlights of my first “majority culture” youth group experience.

Sunday night, Bethany and I went to the youth group kick-off meeting while Peter sacrificially stayed home to get the boys to bed, nearly missing the first quarter of the Bears-Colts game. In all honesty, the church is still a bit new to us after a year so I was looking forward to putting together names and faces and children and to see youth group in action.

I grew up in an immigrant church where Sunday School was taught by Moody Bible students, hymns were sung in Korean, Christmas or New Year’s Eve services were a bit like a family talent show, and the fellowship hall smelled of steamed rice, kimchee, sparerib soup and barley tea mixed with Dunkin’ Donuts and coffee. If we played we played games like Mafia and Bunny-Bunny (which I know for a fact are still played with much enthusiasm).

Though it was a rare thing to live near other youth group friends, it was rarer still to attend the same school. Our families attended church less in allegiance to a denomination or physical community but to a cultural community that sometimes meant driving 45+ minutes to church. We were a rather homogenous group, but there was a comfort knowing that we understood each other and our families. There was competition and drama (so-and-so got a near perfect SAT score, so-and-so is going to Juliard, so-and-so speaks, reads and writes perfect Korean and cleans her room, so-and-so got asked to the prom) but I wonder if it was all easier to tolerate at youth group because there we were safe from the racial slurs and jokes and pressures to be something we never could be – white American.

Anyway, Sunday night both parents and students were present, and it was great to see the evening start with a birthday cake for one of the girls. We moved onto a rock-paper-scissors face-off/adult v. child. We were divided into teams (we were team Italy) and off we went to play and compete.

There were a few things that struck me Sunday evening:

  1. We started the year out together. I don’t recall my parents ever attending a meeting or being invited to one. They were still mastering the English language and American culture; anything they didn’t like they would correct at home until they could get the elders or pastor to deal with it.
  2. Parents and children competed, but there were no prizes or punishments. No “here are cookies for the winning team and oh, look we have enough for everyone” as my friends who grew up in the Chinese churches would describe. No winning team making the losing team do something embarrassing or no bundles of Ivory or Dial soap or Bounty paper towels as my fellow Korean Americans might recall.
  3. The entire evening was in English. I know that may sound strange, but again, having grown up in a Korean church youth group there was always a mix of English, Korean and Konglish (a mix of both language’s vocab, grammar, and pronunciation). I feel it even more now that we have been away from the 2nd generation Korean-American church and its subculture for the past few years.
  4. Not once did I feel guilty or ashamed. It’s hard to describe this, but I my spiritual formation is inextricably connected to an East Asian shame-based culture. So while we sang a few worship songs Sunday night, it “felt” different than what I recall youth group worship to be. The lights stayed on, there was more of a celebratory, upbeat tone, and the music set was short.

Overall, it was a great way to start out the week as Bethany and I chatted on the way home about the 7th grade girls and about how she understood the theme of remaining in a relationship with Christ plays out in her life as a middle school girl. Peter and I are hoping that our family will benefit from being a church with a strong youth and children’s ministry, but I can’t say that we don’t have moments when we ask ourselves if we should consider returning to our Asian American roots. Our church looks much like our community – predominantly Caucasian. Our children are growing up far more “American” than I ever did, but keeping them connected and aware of how culture and ethnicity connects with faith has become more complex with more choices and opportunities. How ironic. And now, reading about depression, ethnicity/race and faith the picture and choices become far more complex.

How will participating in a majority culture youth group impact my Asian American children or my biracial nieces and nephews? How will not being part of an Asian American community – Christian or otherwise – outside of immediate family impact them? 

What do you think? Did being in youth group help you through adolescence or make it more painful?

1 Comment

  1. Susie November 26, 2008

    Hi,
    i’m just a random reader. i found your blog through angry asian man and have been browsing it for the past hour or so! anyway, as a korean-american girl (turning 20 in two months!) who grew up in a korean-american church in LA, having my youth group was one of the best things to happen in my life. actually, i’m not a christian anymore (hmm, i stopped being christian when i was 17 and ever since then have been filled with lots of angst and grief about my spirituality… -__-;;)(uh, of course i never stopped going to church because my parents would be severely disappointed if they found out), but through my youth group, i met my core group of girl friends who have become my second family. i think because we shared spiritual, emotional experiences that extended past the normal relationships people have at school/ work, we became tied to each other in ways we didn’t even realize back then. also, we developed an “us against the world” complex because we shared our family, school and relationship problems in group therapy-like sessions. hahaha. we are still super close even though we go to different colleges all across CA (we’re all UC students), and one phone call with one of them consistently proves how closer we are to each other than anyone else in the world.
    being in a korean american church caused a great deal of pain and confusion in my life (with the inner church power struggles and political drama), but it also helped me understand my community and my culture better. i learned to accept all the good and bad things of being a korean-american female and be PROUD of it.
    also, i have issues with the majority of white americans. but that is a whooooole other story.
    sorry for writing so much! it just kinda… poured out. anyway, i liked reading about your life and finding random moments and thoughts that seem familiar either because of my own experiences or my friends’.
    p.s. to your “oprah” post- yeah she’s done amazing things and i’m glad she is a successful woman of color , but she has always struck me as being too self-righteous at times. she needs to realize and fess up to her faults in a way that doesn’t act to promote her “goodness” even more.

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