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“Get Over It”? Not So Fast…My Thoughts on the Deadly Vipers Controversy

“Get Over It”? Not So Fast…My Thoughts on the Deadly Vipers Controversy

We have a guest post today from Helen Lee, editor of the book, Growing Healthy Asian American Churches. Helen is an accomplished Asian American Christian woman we’ve admired on this blog before, as DJ Chuang notes in his interview with Helen a couple of years ago, “She is also cofounder of the Best Christian Workplaces Institute, and formerly an editor at Christianity Today.” So when she sends us her input on the last week’s controversy, we post it. Plus, it makes a little announcement for how we see this blog growing…enjoy!

I’ve been following the recent controversy surrounding the book Deadly Vipers with great interest. Numerous people that I respect and admire have already made articulate, thoughtful, and thought-provoking assessments about the situation, and I have largely agreed with the sentiment amongst those, Asian American and otherwise, who felt the book’s haphazard use of Asian-related cultural symbols and the regretful choices of marketing strategies were in poor taste. I don’t really want to re-hash why; that seems like old territory now. But I would like to reflect on what I saw amongst those who did not seem to understand the outcry.

I read a number of comments in the blogosphere along the lines of, “I don’t understand what all the fuss is all about,” or “Don’t you think you’re overreacting?” or more to the point, “Get over it!” And to some extent, I can understand those reactions. As much as we may try, it is impossible for us to ever fully be able to walk in another’s shoes. I will never know what it is like to grow up as, for example, a Caucasian male here in America. Or a black woman, or a even a Korean-American man. Of course there will be shades of overlap, some larger than others, but we can never really know what another person ‘s life experience is or has been.

That, however, does not mean that we shouldn’t strive to understand. And conversely, those of us who have felt misunderstood in some way must do more to explain our own cultural context and background better. We cannot assume that another person will automatically understand what it means to be Asian American or any other minority in America—and I use the word “minority” loosely, with the knowledge that it will not be long before there is no ethnic majority in the United States, Caucasian or otherwise. We cannot assume that every American company will automatically know what it means to be culturally sensitive to the broad spectrum of diversity present in our country and world today. Perfect cultural understanding is an ideal that may never fully be reached this side of heaven, which means that we all must be willing to show one another grace when we feel someone has wronged us in this area, as well as being quick to offer apologies when we make offenses, which we all have the capacity to do.

So in the meantime, because it could be a long way until the vision of Revelation comes to pass, when every tongue and tribe of every nation bow before the heavenly host in perfect unity, what can we do to further peace and reconciliation amongst those who possess vastly different cultural backgrounds? One simple and yet powerful answer could be this: we need to share our stories with one another with greater regularity, and simultaneously take the time to read and hear the stories of others who are different from us in order to help develop empathy and understanding across the various chasms which divide us, such as race, gender, and class, just to name a few. We particularly need to be willing to reveal our points of pain from the past, not for the sake of trying to bash others, but to provide a window into understanding our experiences that would not be there otherwise.

To this end, a small group of like-minded individuals, who share similar concerns about where to go from the DV controversy, has been in dialogue about creating a place where such narratives could be collected and shared. We’re grateful to David Park, who has offered this blog for this purpose, although narratives will be welcome from any voices, Asian American or not. The details are still being formed, so we’ll let people know at some future date when the site is ready for people to submit their stories. Our hope is that by creating an online portal in which people could come and share their own personal narratives about their cultural backgrounds and the various scars and triumphs they have experienced along the way, they can be encouraged by finding similar stories and seeing that they are not alone, or by educating others through their narratives. It has the potential to become a rich repository of experiences that could help us all become more culturally sensitive, whatever our background, because there is no end to the learning and growing we can each do in this regard.

To illustrate…if I say something like, “I found the promotional videos used by the authors of Deadly Vipers to be offensive for their insensitive characterizations of Asians”, that has one kind of impact. But if I tell you that when I was in college, there was a group of fellow male students (all Caucasian) who regularly called me “Heren Ree” with a mocking Asian accent (despite my protests) and labeled me the “dorm Geisha” whenever I’d bake a batch of cookies to share with my fellow students, that might give a little more insight into why I cringed when I watched those videos.

Or if I were to tell you about the time in sixth grade when my classroom teacher pointed out to the whole class that I couldn’t check the word “Caucasian” in the form we were filling out while everyone else could, and how much shame I felt as the eyes of my classmates peered at me in curiosity, as if I were some sort of circus exhibit…that might help to explain why it is hard to let go of feeling marginalized by the fact that I am of Asian descent, and why it took a long time for me to affirm and appreciate my own ethnic background. Those kinds of early experiences leave deep impressions and are not easily forgotten, yet they can flood your memories when you witness your cultural heritage being flaunted in inappropriate ways.

Or if I were to tell you that my parents have never affirmed my vocational gifts and leanings in the area of writing and publishing because it is not considered as a lucrative or respectable as being a doctor or lawyer, and that most Asian immigrant parents want their children to have the financial security and prestige that they themselves lacked while slaving away at menial jobs after entering this country, then perhaps it’s clearer why there is a dearth of Asian Americans in publishing to help inform editorial and marketing-related decisions, and that young Asian Americans need to be proactively encouraged and mentored (most likely from non-Asian Americans in the industry) in order to consider publishing as a career, since there are so few fellow Asian American role models to lead the way for them.

Or if I tell you that one of the first things I did when we were planning a move to our current neighborhood was to check the demographic breakdown of the local elementary school, to get a sense of whether my son would be the only Asian-American in his class or not; that my heart sank when I saw that despite living in a suburb of Chicagoland, this particular school had very few minorities at all, and that every day I feared t
hat he would get teased or taunted by other children who would label him “different” due to his ethnic background; then perhaps it’s easier to understand that even in this day and age of Obama, race matters, and it makes a difference in my daily, practical life and in the lives of my children.

Incidents such as the Deadly Vipers controversy are important to discuss and understand rather than dismiss, and perhaps these brief tales from my own life help in some small way to explain why Asian Americans reacted as vehemently as they did. Looking towards the future, my hope is that as we share our personal stories and gain a greater understanding of and sensitivity to one another’s cultural contexts, our posture and attitude towards those with different backgrounds from ourselves will be less adversarial and more compassionate. Less “get over it” and more “help me understand.” Hopefully that is something we can all agree on.

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Comments

  1. steph says:

    yes! thank you all so much for introducing this opportunity. my life’s work is in writing and developing asian american student leaders, and many times the first step is for them to come to terms with their ethnic identity (mainly that being of two worlds is no mistake but a tremendous gift) and take their place in God’s kingdom. and i’ll definitely direct them here.

    thank you helen also for sharing. that couldn’t have been easy to relive…

  2. Helen says:

    Thanks for your feedback, Steph. Appreciate the support and the important role you are playing in helping the next generation of Asian Americans to discover and embrace the importance of their ethnic heritage. The church needs more folks like you! =)

    I forgot to mention that Asian American Christians need the support and assistance of majority-culture leaders in the publishing arena especially, to help highlight and broadcast our voices and stories for the broader church body to discover. It’s for this reason I so appreciate InterVarsity Press and its commitment to doing just this…Soong-Chan Rah and Kathy Khang, two of the key Asian American voices in the DV incident, as well as notable minority writers such as Ed Gilbreath (http://edwardg.wordpress.com/) are all IVP authors, in addition to all the Asian Americans who were a part of the Growing Healthy Asian American Churches project. Hoping that Zondervan will similarly embrace the example IVP has demonstrated in affirming and encouraging minority voices and stories.

  3. daniel so says:

    Helen — Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom here on NG.AC. I believe many people will resonate with what you’ve written here.

    Hearing your stories takes me back to what it was like growing up as one of a handful of Asian Americans in the midwest, and what it’s like even today for my daughter growing up here in San Diego. Just this week, she had a group of non-Asian American kids yell “Eww!” at her lunch of rice and kim (dried seaweed). But she’s a trooper, and we’re trying to raise her to be proud of the girl God made her to be — and she’s convinced that these other kids who hurt her feelings are the ones missing out, because they have no idea how delicious her lunch was.

    I’m looking forward to collaborating on developing platforms for us to tell our stories. Your eloquent conclusion, “Less “get over it” and more “help me understand.” Hopefully that is something we can all agree on” reminds me of Dave Gibbons’ third culture work, that our pain can lead us to a place of empathy & understanding for those who are not like us.

  4. Hi Helen,

    Thanks for sharing some difficult memories. I appreciate your honesty and I suspect that many of us have similar stories we can all share.

    You’re right– “Help me understand” would be a much more constructive and honoring attitude to have. And our job, not just as Asian-Americans, but ambassadors for Christ, is to help them understand in a loving and gracious way. Thanks again for posting.

  5. gar says:

    Thank you for writing this, Helen. I don’t know you personally, but the minute you mentioned your school memories, I could instantly relate, having grown up in a suburb that was predominantly white and with very few Asians. I cringe all the more at the story of your teacher, since I now find myself working in that very position. I do my best to be sensitive to my students’ differences, while challenging them to learn both about themselves and others.

    As for “sharing our stories”, I look forward to whatever project gets that ball moving. Maybe it could be a future resource for Christians of every background to educate themselves, eh?

  6. Ed Gilbreath says:

    Beautifully stated, Helen. Thank you for sharing from your heart and for helping me get a better understanding of what you and so many others have been feeling.

    And thanks, David, for giving Helen this premium space.

  7. Wonderfully put Helen! Thank you for sharing this. The whole episode has helped me immensely and even thought the themes of the events around the DV conversation are not new to me, I am growing in my appreciation for my Asian brothers and sisters. Your patience is grace to me.

  8. Helen says:

    Thanks, everyone, for the encouraging comments. I look forward to hearing more of your stories and seeing them on this website in the future!

    Ed: this means a GREAT deal coming from you! When I think of the people who wrote on this issue that I respect and admire, your name is at the top of the list. =)

    And absolutely, huge “ditto” in thanking David for being willing to post the piece. I really had no plans to post this anywhere public other than my Facebook page. Your willingness to put in on your blog was a blessing and an encouragement. Love it when the Asian American men go out of their way to affirm and boost up their AA sisters. Can’t wait to work more on the website project with you. =)

  9. Judy says:

    Thank you Helen! I think your perspective puts a human face on this issue. It makes it personal. I have read some of the eloquent perspectives that you speak about, and I think yours brings it down to a personal level better than the rest. I think we can all relate to being made fun of in school and how we remember to this day as adults being made to feel alone at a young age.

  10. Melody Hanson says:

    Thank you Helen. Stories always bring us together. I look forward to “sitting” with others and listening and learning. My heart’s heavy as I listen but I know that that it is the only way for me as a white person to expand my understanding of your experiences. Thank you for risking, by telling just a few of your stories.

  11. Hannah says:

    “Just this week, she had a group of non-Asian American kids yell “Eww!” at her lunch of rice and kim (dried seaweed). But she’s a trooper, and we’re trying to raise her to be proud of the girl God made her to be — and she’s convinced that these other kids who hurt her feelings are the ones missing out, because they have no idea how delicious her lunch was.”

    Love that. You go, papa! Hehe, same thing happened to me growing up, but I was lucky to have some more curious friends too. By the time we were in junior high, people were ASKING me for some geem ever since they found out how “cool” and adult-like eating sushi was becoming! Hahaha…I am so encouraged by all of these developments.

    I hope we can encourage people of many different backgrounds to participate, as we often fail to realize that when we say Asian American, we really mean East Asian ;) I’ve found in my own experience that there’s a beautiful API community out there just waiting to be heard!

Trackbacks

  1. [...] both about A&F and DV that evoked a deeply emotional response from the folks involved. Reading this response to DV reminded me of a response by a prof at Wellesley that was circulated during the A&F thing where [...]

  2. [...] Helen Lee: “we can never really know what another person ’s life experience is or has been. That, however, does not mean that we shouldn’t strive to understand.” [...]

  3. [...] of controversy caused by the “SPLASH” of the Deadly Vipers controversy (read more: here, here, here, and here), I find myself  puzzling anew over the whole issue of how Asian-American [...]

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