I had the privilege of having a Zoom call with one of two:nineteen’s new trustees, Mike Sohn. He met me in his study room at Oak Hill College, London where he is currently in his final year of theological study preparing for full-time pastoral ministry.
During the course of our conversation I realised how fortunate we are to have Mike as one of the trustees. He has deep personal experience of living and building relationships across cultures, added to which is a profound vision for churches to be places of welcome and fellowship for people in all their cultural and national diversity. It’s a real blessing to have him on board!
Mike’s parents moved to the UK from South Korea in the 1980s in order for his father to work in the British office of the large Korean electronic company, LG. They chose to settle and raise their two children. This meant that for Mike and his sister, Monday to Friday meant school work and local culture was (in) English while Saturday school, Sunday church and family life was (in) Korean. (We’ll come later to explain why we have put those prepositions in brackets when we hear some of Mike’s reflections on the impact of language on thought and culture!)
After university, Mike worked in finance for 6 years, and following a pull towards full-time Christian leadership he has been training (while helping his father run their family business!) at Oak Hill College. Mike is married to Jemima and they have a18 month old daughter.
As Mike shared his experiences of living as a ‘second gen’* (*someone who is born in the country to which their parents have immigrated) it was clear to me that his insights would be of great help to those of us who want to deepen our relationships, open our homes and churches across cultures.
“Home culture feels safe.”
Mike was talking about the Korean church that his family were part of when he was growing up. For those who, like his parents, were living away from their homeland a church in which they could worship, pray in their own language and enjoy the strong, collective sense of community was profound. It was safe. I can imagine for his parents, living and working in another land and language, adjusting to a new place and culture, that this church was like a refuge. Spending time with those who share the nuances of language and gesture, cooking, eating and smelling foods together which remind you of home. And all the more precious because you have found yourself far from that home.
And living in that way can be physically and emotionally demanding. Mike spoke of how exhausting it can sometimes be to be outside of that ‘home culture’ and sometimes feeling the need to be with Korean friends, or indeed with those who share a similar story. As he explained to me, this can mean others who may not share a ‘home’ culture or language but share that experience of being a ‘second gen’. I found this a fascinating insight. Firstly, for someone like me who is not an immigrant or a ‘second gen’ to be mindful of that need among some of my friends. It is not rejection of me or our friendship, but simply the very human need sometimes to rest. Second, it makes me think about the energy that is expended by ‘second gens’ and others to be with me. What a privilege that they should consider this something they want to do. What a blessing it is to be in friendships of that kind? How enriching it is when churches are full of relationships like that.
But this stuff, like all good things, is not straightforward. Thankfully Mike has spent a lot of time thinking about it, not least about how language affects the way that we think and feel. Mike explained to me that his schooling was in English but his earliest home life was in Korean (there are those prepositions again!), and this has meant that English is for him the language of business and work but Korean is the language of love and relationships. This has some quite amazing implications. For Mike it means that the language of intimacy that we use to pray is Korean. When God hears Mike He listens in Korean. But when Mike preaches or listens to sermons which, in most English speaking congregations, is often propositional and more rational Mike listens and teaches in English. I found that fascinating. But as Mike helped me understand, this means that if we want our churches to be places of fellowship between the nations and languages we should know that prayer is not a language-neutral zone. Do not be surprised if those who are fluent, literate, highly educated suddenly freeze when asked to pray in English. It’s not that they don’t want to. Merely that God is waiting for them to speak to Him in another language. For those of us who are teaching English to Christians or seekers, I think we should be mindful of this.
“Stopping myself from relating!”
But this has implications not just for the way that we make space for each other in our churches and in our friendships but in the way that we understand how language affects the way that we think.
Mike explained that sometimes in his biblical studies at Oak Hill he has to stop himself relating, adding that this was something he found at school too. When I asked him to explain what he meant, he said that it was about a way of thinking, of trying to see the connections between things rather than digging down deep into the thing that he is looking at. I guess this means that when he’s reading the Scriptures he’s always seeing how this verse relates to that verse, this passage to that passage? Sounds to me a really interesting way of thinking. But he explained that it is not merely a personal quirk of his but may have its roots in the structure of his heart language, Korean, and offer an insight into some differences between Western and Eastern ways of thinking.
Mike pointed me to an essay by the American social psychologist Richard E. Nisbett ‘Is the world made up of nouns or verbs?’ (in The Geography of Thought, 2005). In this Nisbett suggests that the way in which we think, the way that we organise the world, the way that gets all our ducks in order may very well be affected by the language we use. Mike explained it to me in this way. Korean, like some other Asian languages, tends to place verbs at the beginning or end of sentences while English usually puts them somewhere in the middle.
This means that the Korean speaker is primarily seeing connections and relationships between things rather than focusing on the things themselves. This has so many interesting implications, not least in the way we think about how others think.
It means that when Mike speaks with his daughter in Korean she is learning about how things are related, rather than deeply focusing on things in themselves. For example, in Korean she is learning about the relatedness of milk and water, soup and Calpol. They are all connected by the verb ‘to drink’. So, for example, chocolate milk and orange juice are both sweet and lovely things that I can drink (and spill all over myself and the stains on my clothes will never go away). Only secondarily are the differences between them important.
However, for the child learning to speak in English it will be the individual properties of chocolate milk and orange juice which will be foremost. For example, what is important is that chocolate milk is brown and sweet and chocolaty whereas orange juice is orange, sweet and has bits in (and that if I smear them on my hands and then on the walls the colour it makes is different!)
Now, all this might seem quite trivial. But according to Nisbett it’s pretty profound and in Mike’s experience it means that through his interactions with his daughter in Korean she is first learning about the relationships and connections between things and then focusing on the differences between them and their unique properties
So within this linguistic structure lies a key to a profound difference in the way that different people look at and behave in the world. It’s maybe why Mike is always relating, looking for the connections between things. And for those of us who speak English in our hearts maybe it helps explain some of our behaviour too? (Remember those prepositions in brackets at the beginning? That’s why we needed them. What Mike is suggesting is that we don’t merely learn a language we learn how to think in that language.)
I found this all so helpful (and challenging). For those of us teaching English to remember that we are thinking Englishly and it will require our learners to think Englishly as they learn English. But also for us as Christians seeking to be part of churches in which there are those from East and West, North and South. Mike’s experiences and reflections do, I think, help us to think about how we can understand each other more, make space for each other, love each other more (and Mike passionately believes that this will require patience and work and that we must do this together in churches of different cultures).
In all this I can’t help thinking that Mike has opened up something special about how churches can really demonstrate something special about the triune God here. Even though it will be hard work to do this, Christian fellowships which are made up of people who not only speak different languages but whose languages help them see the world differently would be rich places. Rich in difference, but united in Christ.