belong_ing pt. three : overcoming fear of being misunderstood

When I was a freshman in high school, there was a kid that bullied me by the bus loading zone after school. One day, I was sick of him telling me that Asian dudes have small penises. After a short altercation and in an emotional flurry, I fast-walked to the school counselor, swiping at tears along the way.

I slowly walked into the counselor’s office, pretty distraught. She sat down and asked me “What’s wrong?” and I half-sobbed to her something like, “He’s—-telling—-me—-saying—-asians—-dicks…”

There was clearly a lot going on here. For starters, this is probably the second time I had ever gone to a teacher about a racial bullying incident, I was convinced that she wasn’t going to get why this was upsetting me so much, I was a blubbering mess, and on top of that, my bus was going to leave in six minutes – I didn’t want to be that kid that missed the bus home, and then have to explain all of it to my mom. I left in a rush after a short, unsatisfying, half-explanation that left the counselor confused and probably helpless.

In the end, there was a stern talking-to with the kid that had said these things. He didn’t apologize to me, I was only told that it had been “taken care of” a day or two later. After it all, though, all I wanted was to be validated and to not feel constantly alienated or alone.

One of my biggest fears is being misunderstood.

Being misunderstood has caused me pain, shame, fear, and isolation.

One thing is for sure, this bowl of ramen will always understand me.

In my writing this morning, I contemplated this fear of mine. Why am I so scared of people not understanding me? Why does that matter? What’s wrong with being misunderstood? Questions that could be posed against many of our fears… These questions led me to conclusions that I’ve made above, and these answers are rooted in a lot of insecurities that I have. I’m ashamed to not be able to speak Korean here, where everyone assumes that I do. Like I am, but also am not, Korean. Communication is needed when building trust, and lack of both have really burnt me in the past. Lastly, Being very alone is something that has always scared the shit out of me.

Anam-Dong, my neighborhood in Korea, the night I arrived.

Moving to Seoul, South Korea, where I don’t know the language at all, is probably the biggest, riskiest decision I’ve made in my life.

But all of this comes with time, much like healing, learning, and growing. I’m here to learn Korean, absorb the culture, potentially find my birth family, and overall learn and grow my spiritual and emotional identity. Embracing the ambiguity, discomfort, and fear in this process will be part of why it is so monumental for me. There isn’t a magic answer to overcoming the fear of being misunderstood. But for me, it’s been through deconstruction and self-awareness, embracing some of the uncomfortable parts of growth, and trust in myself that I have integrity to why I am doing this that give me peace. Here is an affirmation that is helping me reframe my lack of language and communication:


I am learning to communicate, with others and myself. Gaps in understanding do not make me ineffective, and there is no shame in lack of connection – there are just obstacle I haven’t found a way around yet.

Learning = New Connections = New Brainwaves = Growth.

In growth, I find peace.

After reading this post, I hope you consider these questions:

  • What do you feel when you are misunderstood?
  • How do you go about achieving mutual understanding with someone?
  • What are obstacles you have that prevent you from understanding others? Yourself?

belong_ng pt. two : humblebeast

I wish I had a dollar for the amount of emails I send with one of the following in the subject line or as a salutation – I would be rich:

“connecting”, “let’s connect!” , and “I’d love to connect with you!”

There are so many things that encourage or set us up for connection. Social media corrals us to find our communities and to follow who we relate to. Social movements establish common identities and call people to act and be a part of a change. Whether it be a subreddit about why water is amazing, or the global women’s march, people unite under almost any fandom or cause.

Communities like these uncover passion and purpose of their subscribers. These two concepts create baseline for connection.

Shared Passion + Shared Purpose = Connection

Connection built on our Passion (what we love) and Purpose (why we love) instills a sense of belonging in relationships.

poster for the Prophiphop x Murs tour in 2016
the show I really met Matt and Kali

humblebeast records stands out as one of my favorite record labels. The signed artists release their music and poetry for free under values of creativity, humility, theology, and doxology. In a genre full of braggadocios, inflated egos, and traditionally toxically masculine monoliths, this stood out as an organization I could do more than just listen to.

I follow humblebeast with some of my closest friends – Matt and Kali. We consider each other family. We met each other at a concert in 2016, two days before their oldest child was born. I saw a very pregnant lady give an entire plate of peanut butter cookies to Propaganda and I was not only jealous of the cookies, I was honestly jealous because those cookies represented a connection with one of my favorite artists.

It turns out, we had been to several of the same concerts in our area over the past several years, leading up to this one.

Kali and Zion, Matt and Sojourner

Since then, we’ve shared many meals, obsessed over emerging and dated musicians, ranted over generalized trends in religion, and laughed at the quirky things their two beautiful children do. We’ve shared a lot of experiences and a lot of time. But we also are vulnerable with each other. By peeling back layers in our relationship, we’ve continued to discover things we love together – and reasons behind that love – shared purposes. Our belonging together represents emotional and spiritual healing, healthy relationships, and creating thriving communities.

So, what is it that you are passionate about?

What in your life gives you purpose?

How do you share those with people in your life?

Answers to these questions tend to be uniquely human and beautifully simple. Please share answers you have to these questions and see what you have common with other readers.

belong_ng pt. one : tennis

In 9th grade, I joined my school’s tennis team. We bussed to another school because our program was too small to establish our own squad. But my best friend Sam and I just wanted an excuse to play a sport together. There was a tennis court near our neighborhood and at first it was a place to take our sodas and candy and claim as a hangout. Well, we later found out via our parents, that tennis is actually a fun sport – so we went out for the team.

I remember the first day of Captain’s Practice. The captain took attendance and when he called my name, his eyes skimming the 20 or so boys for a “Karl Johnson”, my stomach twisted with guilt and I raised my hand.

“Oh, haha, you don’t look like a Karl at all.” He laughed casually.

Can you find me in this family Christmas photo?

I’ve had many accounts like this throughout my whole life. As an International Korean Adoptee growing up in a majority white community, school, and family, it’s easy to imagine the mixed bag of reactions I get. Things like: “Oh you don’t even seem Asian!” and “So, where are you really from?” are not uncommon for people like me.

The spirit these statements might be well-intended, or curious, but they all connect to the simple fact that: I am an other, and I do not fit in. 

The fact of the matter is that I’ve struggled to feel like I Belong in many aspects of my life. I’ve always had this displaced feeling. Like I’m not where or who I’m supposed to be, or that wherever I go, the “I do not belong here” shadow is always looming.

So this begs the questions:

What does it mean to Belong?

Where do we find Belonging?

Can we create a culture of Belonging?

That’s what this blog is set out to explore. 

Brené Brown has answered that belonging is the opposite of “fitting in.” These words are taken from her Netflix special “The Call to Courage.”

           “We’re hard wired for belonging, it’s in our DNA… The opposite of belonging, from the research, is fitting in. That’s the opposite of belonging. Fitting in is assessing and acclimating. Here’s what I should say, be, here’s what I shouldn’t say, here’s what I should avoid talking about, here’s what I should dress like, look like – that’s fitting in.

Belonging is belonging to yourself first. Speaking your truth, telling your story, and never betraying yourself for other people. True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are, it requires you to be who you are, and that’s vulnerable.”  (Brown, 2019)

Until I started taking steps towards healing, it didn’t occur to me that my adoption was something that required it. I have always pit myself against others’ expectations of me, trying to measure up to an image that I would never be able to fill. With each interaction like I had going out for the tennis team, I had built up enough of an understanding that I would never be what people expected.

But, in turn, I’m now understanding that I don’t have to be. I’m starting to see how I Belong in every part of my own story. I hope readers are able to do this in their own narratives as well. Please comment your answers to questions asked in this post, or your own thoughts about belonging vs. fitting in.