So I’ve recently been thinking through what it means to be Asian American, angry, and Christian. People have said or implied to me that they don’t really feel like I’m entitled to being angry because as an Asian American, I’m a beneficiary of what America has to offer and as a Christian, I should forgive and be joyful anyway.
Quite a conundrum. And I’ve been taking this to heart. I don’t want to make my ethnic identity or culture an idol, rather I feel that my recent questions about ethnicity and the distinctiveness that comes along with it to be simply a matter of good stewardship – after all, what good is salt if it has lost its saltiness? James Choung pointed out to me that people wouldn’t bat an eye if I said that I was trying to ask what it means to be a good Christian. Nor would they feel as though I’d stepped out on a limb if I said I wanted to ask what it is to be a good Christian man. But when I add the dimension of ethnicity, what does it mean for me to be a good Asian American Christian man? that’s when it seems to draw looks and comments of bewilderment.
What is it about ethnicity that seems to throw a wrinkle in this process of discipleship? And what is it that draws the annoyance of people?
A book that has been sitting on my bookshelf for a while, but recently recommended again by Eugene Cho (what’s with all the name dropping today? gyah~tacky) in a recent online conversation is “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” by Beverly Daniel Tatum, Ph.D. In it, there are a few paragraphs that really clarified something that I had sensed…
Another dimension of the “model minority” stereotype is the notion that Asian Pacific Americans are quiet and content with the status quo. Mitsuye Yamada challenges that stereotype in her classic essay, “Invisibility Is an Unnatural Disaster: Reflections of an Asian American Woman.” She recounts her experience teaching the Asian segment of an ethnic American literature course, discovering that her White students were offended by the angry tone of the Asian American writers. Yamada was puzzled by this response, since her students had not been offended by the Black, Chicano, or Native American writings. When she pressed them for an explanation, they said they understood the anger of Blacks and Chicanos and empathized with the frustrations and sorrows of the American Indians. But the anger of the Asian Americans took the by surprise. Said one student, “It made me angry. Their anger made me angry, because I didn’t even know the Asian Americans felt oppressed. I didn’t expect their anger.”
Many white Americans don’t want to deal with these questions and, through much of their lives, have not had to deal with them. In contrast, my memoir explores how, up until my late twenties, I mainly attempted to avoid dealing with my sansei identity, and tended to think of myself as a middle-class white person. The result of such an identification, as my memoir makes clear, was self-hatred and self-abuse, a long string of depression, promiscuity, and failed relationships. If I had not become self-conscious about my identity, I might have destroyed myself. What appears to certain white readers as either negligible or a flaw in the book is actually its very lifeline.
But anger is not synonymous with hate. I don’t hate the dominant majority. I think I hate the fact that I sold my ethnic heritage so quickly. Unlike my Black brothers and sisters who perhaps had their freedom and identity taken from them, I’m disappointed that I gave mine away. I sold my inheritance for a bowl of soup. I’m angry that no one told me that who I am is valuable, where I came from is beautiful and proud, and that I have something to offer even before my grades come back or resume is read or my paycheck stub is necessary. And if it’s true that God created race and wants to bring the glory of the nations into heaven, I want to know that race matters and that I’m fighting a good and worthy fight so that my child will have a sense of who they are to go along with the content of their character and the color of their skin. Because you cannot have a healthy sense of character when you hate the color of your own skin. And just because we are beginning to take steps to define ourselves rather than be defined by the majority doesn’t mean that we are less Christian or less American, in fact it may lead to more of both.