“She” is Sofia, from my English class. I like her a lot. She’s funny, talented, intelligent, and I want to be her friend. It’s my second year at Amherst College, a small liberal arts school in western Massachusetts, and despite its small population of just under 2,000 students, I’ve found it difficult to forge deep, genuine relationships here — friendships that go beyond remembering birthdays on Facebook, a follow-back on Instagram, and a few pictures on feeds that remind each other that the other still exists.
I’ve found it difficult to forge deep, genuine relationships here.
But my cursor hovers over her request between ACCEPT or DECLINE.
It’s recurring: the unexpected notification on the top right corner of the screen, the rush of dopamine, the urge to know who wants to know me, and then the contemplative silence as my fingers hesitate to click.
What I fear most is my own profile, the photos and postings I’ve assembled over the years. There’s a photo taken close to 10 years ago that I come back to sometimes. It’s the last day of eighth grade, and I’m at a beach in California with a friend, her arms around my sandy torso. I’m wearing a white triangle bikini top that my mom bought for me the night before.
Looking at the photo, I remember myself, my interests in boys, a boy named Zach, and my girlfriends comparing bodies and bathing suits on the shore. How I’d spent the entire day conscious of my posture and stomach, sitting rigid lest my stomach fold over when my shirt came off. How insecure I’d been. How unsure of myself, and how sad.
But Sofia doesn’t, and will not, know that. Neither will anyone else.
As much as I’d like to think otherwise, in that seemingly other-world online, everything signifies something. As a social media user, I’m semiconscious of the risk that comes with access — the misinterpretation based on another’s perspective of my reality. This might explain why a majority of people go to great lengths to collect, correct, and caption their photos.
Perhaps that’s why I’ve remained camera-shy, often choosing to stay behind the lens. My Instagram account boasts a gallery of trees, clouds, beaches, the moon. But when I compare my feed to the rest of my peers’, I begin to ask questions: Am I boring? What do people think? I notice that selfies and model-esque portraits get more likes, and I struggle not to self-obsess-and-obscure in the same ways.
And then, of course, what will non-Christians think? When I post something “Christian”, I’m afraid it feels exclusive of my non-Christian followers and friends. “Take up your cross and follow me” isn’t exactly inclusive.
When I post something “Christian”, I’m afraid it feels exclusive of my non-Christian followers and friends.
I attempt to take into account these two assumed audiences’ perspectives, often resorting to no action at all. I fear, then, that my paralysis speaks for me in some way, too — my silence speaking louder than my words — saying that I’m boring or unconfident or worse, ignorant.
I question whether my silence feeds into others’ long-held notions of Asians as apolitical, asexual, and un-
opinionated people. But much of my Korean upbringing is inextricably tied to my Christian upbringing. I grew up under Sunday school teachers and parents who stressed Biblical values over dinner, which led me to see anger as close to sinful, the body as sensual, and political matters as corrupt, impenetrable, and therefore not worth trying to change and more so, exhausting to discuss.
I came to see “good Christians” as meek and mild, always subservient, rarely loud or angry. Yes, I’d heard Jesus got angry, too. But maybe only once, since people always referenced that one time he flipped tables in the temple. Even two years ago, I would never have seen Jesus as someone who interrupted societal rules or moral codes. He just wasn’t presented like that.
I internalized these teachings, and subconsciously worked to keep my anger, loneliness, and seasons of despair offline. I felt pressured to cater to two audiences: one, a passively “loving” Christian people and two, a politically conscious, prone-to-anger but also “loving” people of my contemporary generation. Each action and non-action said something about who I am, what I believe or feel or think. And I felt the pressure to represent God.
I internalized these teachings, and subconsciously worked to keep my anger, loneliness, and seasons of despair offline.
Yet outside of Christian circles, through involvement in outreach events, through words spoken behind my back, through the averted eyes and visible discomfort of my non-Christian friends or acquaintances, I learned that being a Christian wasn’t cool. Never mind the Bible verses cited in Instagram bios or cross tattoos and jewelry that adorned even modern celebrities’ bodies; never mind the burgeoning churches and worship teams with colorful fog machines; and never mind the countless calligraphy businesses that partake in “Pinterest-worthy” wedding celebrations for men and women who want to become one under God.
Outside of Christian circles, through involvement in outreach events, I learned that being a Christian wasn’t cool.
Despite all these cultural celebrations of Christ, deep in my heart, I felt a rejection of the lowly, lonely man and what he really stood for — self-denial, becoming less, loving others over oneself, and eternal joy found in the unseen things.
I wanted to be seen as loving and likable so that Jesus might be known, but likability, at least online, seemed to predicate on self-promotion and trendiness. I was simultaneously conscious of my Christian audience, reluctant to share posts that’d oppose their notions of meekness and self-denial, while newly conscious of Jesus — he got angry, cared for politics and spoke out against social injustice, so I should, too. I felt so burdened by the ramifications of my every move that I couldn’t move at all. Eyes were everywhere. In this lonesome quest, I often found (to my fright and dismay) that the opinions of others mattered more to me than God’s.
In my Christian immaturity, I keep failing to turn to Jesus, his words and his eyes and his love, to discover my full self. Even as I hear my life is hidden in Christ, I struggle to believe that God’s truths about my appearance, my ethnicity, my gender, etc., are absolute and freeing while the world’s “truths” continue to change, lacking substance or real significance.
I struggle to believe that God’s truths about my appearance, my ethnicity, my gender, etc., are absolute and freeing while the world’s “truths” continue to change, lacking substance or real significance.
Now, more than ever, I think people itch to be known. I know I do. And when every move is on display, it’s tempting to do whatever it takes — whether buying followers and likes, meticulously making oneself up, etc. — to be known as one wants to be known, but never actually. Never fully. In my budding Christian identity, womanhood, Asian-ness, and all other unnamed, unexplored aspects of myself, I feel conflicted to share parts of myself online and constantly am unable to be my full self online. How can I be my full self if I don’t know who I am, and in the end, if so much of myself has been dictated, defined, and described
So my cursor hovers over Sofia’s request, debating between ACCEPT or DECLINE, between faith and fear. My need for a “like”, virtual or not, reveals my own deep-seated unbeliefs and misbeliefs about Christ. Frankly, I’m haughty enough to think God cannot meet someone without my meeting them, and further, without their
But I keep learning that my heart cannot be carefully curated, and no amount of online work will fix that. Posting an article against white supremacy will not redeem my inwardly racist propensities or vindicate me from the vile thoughts that flash across my mind while looking at another’s photo. Jesus redeems and vindicates. Gaining likes and followers will not guarantee my salvation or anyone else’s. Jesus alone saves. And my Christian audience doesn’t need updates on my love for Jesus. Jesus desires updates on my love for him. And he knows already. There is no fear of miscommunication or misperception with him. He has seen my ins and outs, my chaos as well as my careful curation. And he has loved them both.
By Hapshiba Kwon
Illustrations by John “Enger” Cheng
Hapshiba Kwon is a sophomore studying English at Amherst College. She works as a reading mentor and editor-in-chief for a multilingual blog at her school, and enjoys singing in an acapella group and biking in her free time. Read more of her writing here: eauderain.wordpress.com.
JOHN "ENGER" CHENG serves as creative director of Inheritance. He is a Los Angeles-based artist, designer and illustrator. He graduated from the University of Southern California Roski School of Fine Arts and is co-founder of Winnow+Glean. You can see his illustrative work and store at madebyenger.com.