Jean Song '05 on Becoming A (Christian-Korean-American) Storyteller

Jean Song '05 on Becoming A (Christian-Korean-American) Storyteller
Amy Barnard

At age seven, Jean Song walked into a second grade classroom where everyone—students, teachers, custodial staff—spoke a language she didn't understand. The day didn't flow quite like it did at her previous school and she had to rely on her eyes to tell her what to do: The teacher said something new. Now the students are closing their books. Everyone is standing and walking to the door. Where are we going? Is it lunchtime?? Oh, an assembly.

A Korean man and his wife in business clothing stand outside with their young daughter and son who are dressed for school.

Song was lucky: While her first days in the US were disorienting, her ears quickly tuned in to the rolling, full-mouthed cadence of English. She traded her urban life for sprawling green lawns, ate hamburgers and rich treats, and more or less navigated this transition from Seoul, Korea, to Ellicott City, Maryland well.

The greater struggle didn't come during the confusion of that first transition. The days developed a predictable rhythm of school and home life: her father worked through his graduate studies in public policy at the University of Maryland, Song and her brother went to school with Americans, and the family accommodated what they saw as a temporary sojourn in a foreign land.

A young Korean girl sits in front of an art display at a mall. The display is paintings made by elementary school students.

It was later, after her mother started graduate school in Minnesota, and once Song realized she would be in the United States for a long time, that her "otherness" seemed to grow and expand.

"I became more aware of my Korean culture and how my background might be different than many of my Minnesota friends," Song says. The differences went beyond the food she ate or the jokes she thought were (or weren't) funny.

"Minnesota felt less diverse compared to where I lived in Maryland," she says. It was harder to find people who understood the intense experience of living cross-culturally, or even those interested in hearing about her experience.

One day, Song tried to share about her life in Korea with a friend. The friend snapped, "If Korea is so great, why don't you just go back and live there?"

"In some ways, I felt like an outsider starting at a young age because of the microaggressions I experienced," she says. "In elementary and high school, I would have rather assimilated into the majority culture of the US than to showcase my Korean American was definitely tough."

• • •

In 2001, when Song transferred to Minnehaha she joined band, studied French, and played tennis under the beloved Mr. Norlander.

On the outside, her life looked pretty similar to the lives her classmates lived.

At home, her family worked through the extensive and at times exhausting process for becoming permanent residents. Internally, Song still felt that in some intangible way she was different from her classmates. When she looked to the media and the society around her, she found few models for what it might look like to integrate her Koreanness with her Americanness.

In spite of these questions, Song still remembers feeling especially loved and encouraged by the MA faculty during this season. "Ms. Hallberg, Mr. Norlander, and Dr. Whaley in particular, they all made me feel very seen—even though biology was not my strength," she says.

MA also brought something foundational to her life: A daily focus on her faith walk. Coming from a Christian family, Song already considered herself a Christ-follower. This space, however, with the freedom to discuss issues relating to her faith in the midst of a US history or biology lesson, was new.

"It was a very nurturing environment where I could grow and be true to my faith. Being a Christian was that identity that [I] could really lean on...and so for me, it was a great place to learn and affirm that part of my identity."

It was a very nurturing environment where I could grow and be true to my faith.

Years later, working in the newsroom at CBS, faith would be an additional element of her identity that now and again created a sense of being on the outside. At times portrayals of Christians in the media, as well as assumptions made about Christians in general, felt jarring and out of step with her own faith journey.

For Song, the season at MA to wrestle with and grow in her faith was "a freeing experience," and something she looks back on with gratitude.

• • •

Grounded in her identity as a Christ-follower, Song embarked on the adventure of college. After a false start in pre-dentistry ("By the end of the first semester I knew that wasn't for me!"), Song studied communication design and then went on to Northwestern University for her master's degree in multimedia and broadcast journalism.

"It wasn't until I went to college that I think I kind of came into my own as an Asian American," Song says. "I made a lot more Asian American friends who shared similar life experiences as me...I think having people understand and see me for who I am, instead of having to constantly explain myself, helped me come to terms with [my Korean American experience]."

Having people understand and see me for who I am, instead of having to constantly explain myself, helped me.

And here, she says, is where her own experience became the impetus for the type of storyteller she would become.

Today Song works as a producer and journalist for CBS News. Scroll through her list of recent projects and you'll see news stories that celebrate the grit, generosity, and creativity of small business owners and everyday change makers. Ranging from her piece about Minneapolis chef Ann Kim who opened her fourth restaurant mid-pandemic to her profile of Mahogany Books, a Black-owned bookstore in Washington, D.C., Song's stories seek out opportunities to spotlight and celebrate diverse voices.

"The stories that I pursue are those that I've wanted to see in the past, and that you don't always see represented in the media," she says. "As an immigrant and woman of color, I think I bring a certain perspective and sensitivity to some of the stories that I pursue."

• • •

Song's profiles crackle with hope and joy: stories of people bringing light and goodness to the spaces around them.

In one piece, she introduces us to a Wall Street executive who opened an innovative, plant-based restaurant that hires individuals re-entering society from prisons. The restaurant then donates 100% of its profits to projects like schools in Ghana and cancer screening programs in Haiti.

The executive, April Tam Smith, told Song: "I believe that everything that I have is given from just makes sense for me to share and give it all back."

In another story, Song explores the work of Bond, a Baltimore nonprofit that mentors single mothers and their daughters. In yet another, she highlights EPIC, a theatre company that provides a creative space for neurodiverse individuals and those with disabilities.

An Asian-American woman interviews an actor, who is in front of TV cameras and a bright light.

"Part of my job is amplifying other people's voices...If I have an opportunity to honor their stories and honor their journeys, that always gives me joy," she says.

• • •

As 2020 and 2021 brought stories from across the country of Asian Americans targeted with violence and even murder, Song felt furious and overwhelmed.

"It has been really tough...seeing traumatizing events happening to the AAPI community and thinking, oh, that could happen to my friend or a member of my family."

As one of the few Asian Americans in the newsroom, she also felt pressure to speak to those events on behalf of the Asian American community, a pressure that could be draining.

"I think hearing [of the violence] can also be kind of traumatizing over and over again. So part of my recent perspective, in terms of how I pursue those stories, is to find stories that can still convey that joy and strength and love in the [AAPI] community instead of just focusing on the trauma."

• • •

In all of her work, Song sees opportunities to partner with God: to see where he is at work in herself and in others, and to find opportunities to be a light-bearer in the spaces she enters.

"Part of my journey has been: How do I be that person of love?...Not just generic [love], but how do I be that person of Christ's love? Just making sure that every story I touch, every person I meet on my journey, can sense that it's not me as a good person, but that it stems from my faith in Christ."

Part of my journey has been: How do I be that person of love?...Not just generic [love], but how do I be that person of Christ's love?

Song watches for and expects to see God's hand in her work. Sometimes it comes as unexpected connections with the right person at the right time. Sometimes it manifests as stepping into a project that speaks directly to an issue God is working on in her own life. She sees her work as an extension of her walk with Christ.

"It's having that perspective that even in the details of my work, God has a hand in it. I truly believe that."

As Song embraces her heritage and faith walk, the opportunities she has to tell the types of stories she once wanted to hear bring her joy. "As I'm growing older, I definitely am proud to be Korean American, and also to be a voice or person, even in the media, that can highlight diverse stories...It's such an honor to be able to have that opportunity."


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