In the aftermath of the YS/Zondervan “Skits That Teach” fiasco (h/t to Soong Chan Rah on a well-executed campaign to address the issues), I think that we saw some interesting systemic problems with racism, the church, and interestingly enough, the boundaries of responsible, creative writing. Emergingtruth has found another interesting twist in this tale, that of Ms. Camy Tang. I think Camy’s case and perspective brings up another interesting facet to the discussion of race, culture, and the Christian faith — that of how Asian American Christians present themselves to us fellow Asian Americans and how they present themselves to “others.”
In short, I think we are sending harsher criticism Ms. Tang’s way because she is Christian. Obviously, if Margaret Cho had done the same thing, we would’ve shrugged it off because the C.H.O is, after all, “notorious”. Is she wrong because she takes on a more “white” perspective? Is she less a Christian and/or less an Asian?
If Ms. Tang was sold out to Jesus, she wouldn’t have sold her Asian American brothers and sisters in Christ out; But she did, and therefore she’s “sold out” and is an immature (at best) or ignorant (at worst) Christian who is unaware of how the dominant culture has manipulated this “loud Asian chick” who thinks she is writing “loud Asian chick lit”. Is that the complicated logic that we’re asking writers and artists to be aware of before they create?
I’m not sure exactly what the problem is, but there is some cognitive dissonance there. And I assure you it’s larger than Ms. Tang and her upcoming novel. I’m trying to put my finger on it…and I pulled out the following post that I had bookmarked a while back. It’s particularly more interesting in light Ms. Tang’s recent post and many reactions to it.
With their universalist aim, Asian-American churches have brought together not only East Asians (and the occasional Southeast Asian) of different ethnic backgrounds but of different levels of Americanization: FOBs, FOB-wannabes, adoptees, and more — kids who are all over the chart on various axes of assimilation. And it assimilates them not into mainstream American culture, as so many Americans think of their church doing for pagans, but rather, it assimilates them into church culture, and often, a culture specific to the given group of believers. What are the contents of this culture? Keep reading:
Distrust of authority, whether that means anyone over 30 or a majority white culture, often breeds a subculture of discontent. For Asian Americans turned off by the superficiality of racial politics on campus, the discontent translates itself into a spiritual forum that retains an ethnic character and yet removes itself completely from the dialogue of race and protest. Ironically, a religion borne to Asia by Western imperialism now manifests itself in a resistance to cultural assimilation in America [emphasis mine]….
And what does that culture promote? Most notably, the mentality that Christians, specifically one’s own congregation, are under attack from all sides, both by the allegedly heathen and sinful customs and values of Asian cultures such as saving face or burning incense for your ancestors, and by the cesspit of mainstream entertainment and society, which young Asian-Americans often like to identify as “white entertainment” and “white society,” because they see themselves represented in it so little and dislike or deliberately ignore the role models, even of their own co-ethnics, which it provides for them. Thus, Christianity provides the perfect excuse for those pre-existing Asian-American tendencies of disassociating from non-co-ethnics as well as for not making any effort to learn about your ancestral culture: both could lead you to temptation to turn away from the church. Assimilation, especially in terms of entertainment choices and friendships, becomes equated with sin. But for those who are already assimilated in the larger ways of language, personal habits, and cultural custom, and who might see adopting more of those as sinful, they’re left with the option of emphasizing their non-assimilation in other areas in order to distinguish themselves from the mainstream.
In the case of Asian-American evangelicals, the extent of that non-assimilation usually amounts to belief in Jesus Christ and their ethnic appearance which they see as closely tied to that belief, because almost all the other members of their congregation are of that same ethnicity. Often, the ethnicity, even more than the belief, becomes the strongest marker of membership in the culture. Outwardly Christian behavior could be easily imitated, but race couldn’t be; it’s the real proof that you’re not a member of that corrupt mainstream AKA white society. But it’s the intersection of ethnicity (with the attendant common experiences and pains that may result from being assumed to be a foreigner) and shared belief that provides a stronger sense of community than simple shared ethnicity or simple shared belief could….
I tend to wonder how much of this disidentification with the mainstream is the result of a congregationalist mentality which emphasizes close personal ties and the creation of a sense of community among a specific group of believers who meet and see each other often. when that group of believers is all of one race, due to their pre-existing proclivity to avoid mainstream institutions, the two tendencies feed off of and amplify each other to produce an “us vs. them” mentality….
The cliquishness and distrust of outsiders which the Asian-American church promotes without actually expressing revolutionary sentiment against that society, manifests itself in personal relationships. More and more young Asian-Americans, especially males, may turn to a church to meet potential co-ethnic mates, because it provides an environment in which they don’t have to worry about Evil Whitey stealing Yellow Bedfellows. Their kid grows up in the Asian-American church, and the cycle begins to repeat itself again … unless someone knows how to break it.
Many Asian Americans feel that the Gospel transcends, rather than having the power to transform, their heritage — that ultimately, redemption of their culture is to write it off, which is why the above writer feels that AAs still congregate yet do not feel free to explore what aspects of their culture and history are redemptive and can be transformed in a healthy, acceptable form. It seems that many AA Christians are crippled with fear as opposed to empowered with the Holy Spirit, which makes us superb critics and judgemental spectators, but poor artists and slow activators. The fault of many Asian American churches is they have not instilled us with that greater sense that we are free to explore every sense of what the Gospel means, which is — stepping fearlessly into diversity, investigating our past, rage against the machine, and fight for the rights of others, holding up our culture to the standard of the Kingdom, and taking an active part in the creation of “a new way” in our generation — To live in the tension of being Eastern and Western, Asian and American, but Christian through and through. The Gospel demands more than new church buildings and a new sound system.
It’s not whether we sell out or not, it is a question of what we are buying — not what we consume, but what we produce, not what we are, but what we are becoming. This is not about us preserving culture, this is about creating it.