Justin Seo is a Seattle-born Korean American, who has lived in Kailua-Kona on the Big Island of Hawai’i for 13 years as a staff member of Youth With A Mission Kona (YWAM).

In this interview excerpt, he discusses his experiences living in and learning about Hawai’ian culture with Jess Lim, a Malaysian kiwi born and raised in Auckland, New Zealand.

This conversation explores the intersection of immigrant experience, indigenous Polynesian culture, and Christian faith.

Jess: Can you share a bit of your background and history? You’re from Seattle, right? How did you come to live in Hawai’i?

Seo: If I'm being honest, the real story is that I didn't choose to move here. Seattle was not a good place for me in my teenage years. I got into a lot of trouble. My parents thought that YWAM would be a good opportunity. And I thought: Oh, Hawai’i? Dream. Vacation. Paradise. So I moved out here. That was about 13 years ago. And I think the reason why I stayed for so long was because I fell in love with the land.

A lot of people think I'm local; a lot of people thought that I was Kanaka [native Hawai’ian], which I never saw. Because I’m Asian, and I don't look Polynesian. But being able to fit in here led me to appreciate Hawai’ian culture, the people, the land. And that led me to discover my own identity as a Korean-American in this place.

Jess: You mention that studying and learning more came later for you, after you found a sense of belonging. Was that mostly an organic process for you? Were there specific moments you can remember?

Seo: I would say it started off organically. On one hand, because I was working in a parachurch organisation, understanding some of the history and pain that comes along with missionaries and the land of Hawai’i led to greater questions, like: how do we coexist in this place? What is my responsibility as someone who works for this Christian organization, but who also wants to redeem those parts of history and restore what was taken from the Hawaiian people? It was all of that—and, honestly, I just thought the locals were so cool.

I don’t know if I would recommend it now, but I started learning how to speak pidgin and trying to fit in. I think that as an Asian-American, it was easy to assimilate, because Asians have been doing that pretty much the whole time we’ve been in America. So my first question was: how do I fit in? That led me to want to learn the stories and history of the people here, and grapple with them in the context of my faith.

Jess: It’s interesting hearing how it's been for you. Because my journey has been so different. Even though I grew up in New Zealand, I went to schools that were predominantly white, and I didn't really learn about Māori culture or have value for it while growing up. It took me leaving, studying in the States, to realize that maybe growing up in this land was more significant in terms of my formation than I ever thought. From what I know of your stories, it seems like through these small, evolving steps, you were able to go through this process of being welcomed in a more embodied way than I’ve been able to experience. I feel like I’m still trying to dig in from the outside, if that makes sense.

Seo: I mean, I don't want to sound hopeless, but, I think we will always be the “other”. Which is painful to hear and even acknowledge. In one way, I feel like my heart has become Hawai’ian. I feel I belong. But in other ways, I still don’t.. And sometimes my friends will be like “Sup, Kanaka”, and it’ll be like: I am, but I know I’m not from here. Maybe one day, my friends will be like “Hey, Kanaka”, and it’ll be like “I am from here”—but I don’t know if that’s possible. But even that acknowledgment:—here they see me, and how I see them—that is something that’s so meaningful. Still, that only exists with my closest friends. To the rest of native Hawaiian people, I’m just some Asian that’s here.

Jess: For most of the Polynesian islands, the first European contact was through Christian missionaries, just like Hawaii. From your perspective, what does that relationship between the locals and the missionaries in Hawai’i look like now? Do you feel it’s improved over time? Do you have hope for the future of those relationships?

Seo: That’s such a complicated question. It's complicated because a large part of Hawai’ians lost their land and culture came hand in hand as the church arrived. To Europeans, Hawai’ians were savages, and their hula was not good, not holy. And their language—I mean, the power of language, which forms so much culture and identity—was taken from them. It wasn't until a generation ago that Hawai’ian Ōlelo was taught again in schools. So there are generations of kupuna, elders, that don't speak Hawai’ian at all. Younger generations are learning more and more now, but so much is lost. We have yet to fully recognize that missionaries were the ones that caused a lot of those problems.

So it’s hard for me to work with an organization like YWAM because, in some ways, I think they're doing better. They partner with Hawai’ian organizations that use a classroom on our campus to teach the Hawai’ian language. Our volunteers that go and help restore fish ponds, and clean up beaches in different neighborhoods. But at the same time, the community looks at us and goes: we don't need your help. We don't want your help. How about you just respect us and stop desecrating our land?

There are similar tensions with churches on the islands, too. On one hand, so many of them are filled with indigenous Hawai’ians. On the other, there are groups of indigenous Hawai’ians that are like: Get out of Hawai’i. There are even groups that don't want to be a part of the United States anymore, that believe the US is illegally occupying their land.

So it’s complicated. It’s getting better in some ways, it’s still really painful in others. There’s just this weird tension. I don't know how to move forward, if there is a way to move forward—or if we just learn to live in the pain.

Jess: That makes sense. I would love to do a lot of more research into what that relationship is like here, because  seems like the first missionaries that arrived in New Zealand had a relationship with the locals in a way that was mutually beneficial. It really wasn't until a generation later that it all started to break down.

It's interesting, because there are so many moments, in the Māori stories that I read, that sound just like the creation story in Genesis. It makes me wonder if that’s the reason why the missionaries were welcomed when they first arrived. The breakdowns started to happen not because of people cohabitating here, but because of this really foreign and distant power that exerted its will over this land.

For me, returning to wholly believing in the church as it's described in the Bible—and as this really important and vital organ in society—brings hope. Because their beliefs did converge, at one point in time.

Seo: I hear what you’re saying. Even Hawai’ians had their own prophets and priests. There was apparently a prophecy about a little black box coming onto the shores of their land that was going to contain something that would change their nation and  land. And then, almost exactly 200 years ago, missionaries came carrying a Bible in a little black box. The church just exploded in Hawai’i. It’s said that Hawai’i had the largest church in the world at one point. I don’t know how they even know that, but hearing stories about the way it organically grew, you go: gosh, it was beautiful. The church was in some way a part of the Hawai’ian story from the beginning, before things went so wrong.

Jess: Something that you mentioned before about language is super interesting to me, and also a key reason why I thought about doing this interview while thinking about breath. Because Māori culture was an oral culture, I think there’s something about the idea of breath and spirit that is so vital. In part, because that's the means by which knowledge and culture were translated from generation to generation, through time.

So, contemplating breath, I thought about the hongi, a traditional Māori greeting. The hongi is really about acknowledgement of the other as a human being that has a similar flesh, similar earthliness. And that connection is made through breath, or the sharing of breath. To me, the Biblical translation of Adam, or Adamah, meaning ground, or earth, speaks to that same idea; that people are fundamentally connected to each other by our shared flesh, through our shared breath, and shared earth. Both express the need for humans to recognise their shared coming-from-earth-ness.

Are there similar aspects of Hawai’ian culture and tradition you've discovered that have really impacted how you view the Holy Spirit, God or Jesus?

Seo: Growing up in the Western church, you get taught that there’s a divide between what is sacred and secular. Your flesh, your body, is bad, and your spirit is good. Then I came to Hawai’i.

When you first hear aloha, it’s just means “hello, goodbye”. But it means a lot of different things. I’ve been taught that ha means breath. It directly translates as the breath of life. I’ve even heard of it being translated as the Spirit of God: breath being spirit. I was really intrigued by the word for haole, too. When the missionaries, or the colonizers came, instead of joining forehead to forehead, nose to nose, sharing breath, they wanted to shake hands. The Hawai’ians thought: these guys are without breath, without the Spirit of God.

To me a big thing has been the idea of embodying aloha. It’s not just “hello,” not just “hi”. It’s the thing that connects every person of the land. And not only to the land, but to the ocean, and to one another. All the Hawai’ians and locals talk about aloha, sharing aloha. We do things a different way, because of aloha.

Even the way that people responded to TMT [the Thirty Meter Telescope] going up on Mauna Kea [the largest sacred mountain on the island], the question was: how do we do these protests in aloha? I remember going up to the protest, and so many people were just approaching each other, forehead to forehead, nose to nose, taking a moment. When I first moved to Hawai’i, I just thought it was so “spiritual,” so “foreign,” so “wrong.” But then I began to connect it to the God story, how God breathed breath into man, a story I had grown up hearing. And it made me realize: that’s what aloha is. When I was at Mauna Kea, as people were sharing aloha, everyone was welcome. Everyone was mourning together, celebrating together, bearing each other’s burdens—in solidarity, standing against something they deemed evil. I thought: the Spirit of God is here. That’s what it looked like.

Growing up, I heard stories of indigenous Native Americans, the American Indian people. People are like: they smoke the peace pipe, they worship animals. Even I was like: “oh, it's so demonic,” at one point. But then I began to learn and realized there’s an intrinsic value and understanding that they have. They’re not above the earth, and they recognize their responsibility to make the earth beautiful and work with it. God giving Adam dominion over the land is often taught as: “We are in control, we deem what is valuable and worthy. We can do whatever we want.” But I think the story presents us as co-creators with God. God gave us this vast wilderness that was unruly and untamed. Then, a garden, which we are to tend. Looking at nature, you realize that all of these vines and trees are growing together. It’s beautiful in its wildness. But when you guide it, when you begin to prune trees so that they produce more fruit, or change how the water flows so more things can grow—to me, that’s the way we’re supposed to have “dominion” over the land. To nurture the life within it and make it even more fruitful.

In all indigenous cultures, that’s the way that they farm. It’s so different from how the West farms: so mono-culturally, planting only one seed, using pesticides on everything, trying to control it. When you look at how Hawai’ians plant kaloor “taro”, you see how they divert the natural river into the farm, and only take a small percentage of it, in a very sophisticated way. What the West would call primitive actually works better than anything else. There’s no damage. It’s like working in unison with the land.

Jess: I resonate with everything you’re saying. This makes me think about the whole idea of tangata whenua, or “people of the land,” in New Zealand. The hongi is part of this ceremonial process by which people are welcomed onto sacred land and transformed from manuhiri, visitors, to tangata whenua. In Māori tradition, there’s a consciousness that everyone is family through the blood relationship we all have with the land and our being descendants from Papatuanuku, the Earth Mother, and Ranginui, the Sky Father. To be transformed through the hongi, the sharing of breath, from a foreigner to family, sharing the same lifeblood, makes me think about our adoption as sons and daughters of Christ through Jesus’s blood and the Holy Spirit. Our confession through breath performs the same spiritual bonding as is found in the hongi.

As an immigrant, or a child of immigrants, that hits deep. The idea of belonging to a land, being adopted into a land, a family. Because, as a child of immigrants, my history, and family history, seems so inaccessible at times. It’s hard for me to know stories from my grandmother and grandfather’s time, or before that, because I’m so physically separate from them. And in my family, so many different languages are spoken, forming multiple barriers between me and my history, my genealogy. So the ideas in the Bible story, and in these Māori stories, of being of the same blood as fellow humans, my brothers and sisters, is super powerful. It’s really shaped the way that I see my place in the world as a Christian, and how I should read the passages in the Bible that talk about treating people as neighbors, as siblings—fellow children of God.

Seo: Yeah. I love everything that you said. I guess I’ve never thought about it that way. It makes me think about my being Asian American in Hawai’i and my connection to the first Koreans that immigrated to the US, who were actually located in Hawai’i as plantation workers. Maybe it’s not a coincidence that I live here.

Jess: Maybe you could share with us how your family came to America, and your background as a Korean American? How that history has shaped your desire and willingness to engage with new cultures, and this indigenous culture? Are there any parallels that you’ve seen between these three cultures that gives you hope for the future, in terms of the increasingly globalized society we live in today?

Seo: My dad immigrated to Canada when he was in his early 20s. Then my mom was amongst some of the first Koreans to come to Washington. She was 13. My parents came for a better life. To the Korean Americans, the American Dream was everything. To come here and find success, to completely assimilate, to blend in and not stand out, to work hard and achieve success: that was the goal. So growing up, not understanding my own Korean-ness, and facing the stereotypes of Korean men as not masculine, undesirable, weak, small, nerdy, good at math, with bad smelling food—all of those things, I really rejected them. I pushed that stereotype as far away as I could, and almost hated my Korean culture. I lost my identity. It wasn’t until I was 18—or really, actually, when I moved out here to Hawai’i—that I realized: I’m both. No wonder I don’t fit in in America, because I’m Korean. And I don’t fit in in Korea, because I’m American. I’m already this third culture, Korean-American. Somehow, diving into indigenous Hawai’ian culture and finding so much beauty there helped me to find beauty in my own culture.

Jess: I completely resonate with your story. Especially the part about not really being one or the other, trying to find some sort of balance in the middle. And getting to a place where you’re like: I’m okay with being all of these odd bits and pieces, and I can find meaning from all these different places, and all of them feed into who I am.

Seo: Yeah, I love these questions and thoughts. It’s cool to verbally process with another Asian, another immigrant in indigenous communities—as I prepare to move back to the mainland, actually. It’s crazy, because two years ago, I would have never thought about leaving this place. But I think the Lord is calling me elsewhere. It’s been good to try and process this season, and even mourn its ending. Talking with you has been so helpful for me to realize, wow, I’ve learned so much. My life has changed so much. Because of Hawai’i, because of this land.

Jess: Yeah, thank you, Seo, for this conversation.

Seo: Totally. And I love Māori culture, I love New Zealand. Maybe I’ll come visit you someday over there, or we can catch up whenever you’re stateside.