Disclaimer: These thoughts are based on personal experiences working as a Korean-American surgeon in rural Burundi and do not represent all other Asian Americans serving as missionaries in Africa.
According to the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs 2015 report on migrant populations, there were an estimated 46 million people living in the US as foreign-born inhabitants. This represents about 15% of the total current population of the US, and about 20% of the world’s foreign-born population.
In Burundi, according to the same UN report, there are an estimated 250,000 inhabitants who were born in another country, representing 2.5% of the country’s total population. While I don’t have the data to support this hypothesis, I suspect that most of the 2.5% are from other African countries. I mention this only to highlight the homogeneity of the vast majority of the country. If you are not Burundian (or African), you stand out, accentuated all the more when you live outside of Bujumbura.
As far as Asians in Burundi are concerned, there are many Chinese construction workers as well as a handful of Korean family units, almost all of whom are living in Bujumbura. At least to our knowledge, our family is the only one of Asian descent at Kibuye and distinctly the only Korean-American one in the entire country (note: if you are reading this and happen to be a Korean-American living in Burundi, we would love to meet you!).
As you can imagine, there are many moments in my daily life where my Asian-ness is made more apparent and where certain pre-conceived notions are revealed. For example, I am greeted nearly every day on the walk to or from the hospital (or even at the hospital) by a local Burundian with a “ni hao,” which is a greeting in Chinese. Perhaps they are assuming I’m Chinese because if you are Asian in Burundi, you are most likely Chinese. It is usually said in a friendly tone, and I recognize that they are trying to connect with me, albeit under an incorrect assumption. For comparison, in the US, if a stranger came up to me and said the same thing, I would probably be offended. Some days, I will say “ni hao” cheerfully back to them, usually getting them to laugh or giggle, but perhaps also reinforcing the misconception that I am Asian and therefore must speak Chinese. Other days, I might continue walking on, pretending like I didn’t hear them, or if I have the energy, take a moment to explain to them in my broken Kirundi, “No, I am not Chinese. I am Korean.” Or maybe I should be telling them I’m Korean-American. In either case, explaining this to every person that says “ni hao” would be exhausting.
Another question that I get asked from time to time is “Where are you from?” I typically respond with “I am from the US.” More often than not, there will be a puzzled look on their face, with the follow-up question of, “Yes, but where are you REALLY from?” To this, I will usually respond with, “My parents are from South Korea, but I was born and raised in the US.” And that usually brings a cathartic “Ohhh, now I understand.” Not infrequently, I reflect on my reactions and emotions stirred up by these situations, which is usually a mix of amusement, disbelief (ie Did that just happen?), frustration, and/or irritation. Is it because I am being misunderstood or pre-judged based on my appearance? Is it because of racial stereotyping or cultural ignorance? Perhaps it’s an unrealistic expectation that a Burundian (or anyone else, for that matter) know whether I’m Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, or Korean?
Food and cooking bring up other slight differences in our home life. For example, there are certain items that we use regularly in meal preparations, many of which we brought with us from the US: rice cooker, soy sauce, sesame oil, red chili paste (gochujang), ground red chili pepper (gochugaru), soybean paste, nori, roasted seaweed, dried seaweed for soup, curry sauce mix, etc. We don’t eat Korean food every day, but we enjoy it and eat it regularly according to the availability of our limited supply ingredients. Eunice has even figured out a way to make a version of kimchi (spicy pickled cabbage), which is a staple in all Korean homes. With kimchi, we’ve now opened the doors to a whole new world: kimchi stew, kimchi pancake, kimchi fried rice!
In conclusion, being a Korean-American in Burundi has some unique challenges, but I believe there are rich blessings found within as well. For example, I’d say that it gives me a slightly different insight into Burundian culture’s importance of group and family over self, which I think is more similar to the Eastern community-centric collectivist mindset of Korean culture than the Western individualism in North America. Furthermore, it affords ample opportunities for self-reflection on who I am, often pointing me back to my primary identity as a follower of Christ. And this is the reason I am here in Burundi, as a follower of Christ, to love and serve the people here in the way that God has uniquely made me.