Perpetual Foreigner or Perpetual Native?

[originally posted at https://ibelongyoubelong.wordpress.com/2017/03/20/perpetual-foreigner-or-perpetual-native/]

 

I recently went back to the States for a week to surprise my mother for her birthday. Despite the current state of affairs in America, with racial tensions running high, I didn’t expect to experience anything that would make me feel out of place as a person of color. I was going to Southern California after all, where Asian Americans can be found as easily as avocados and aspiring actresses.

But I was wrong.

My mom had invited me to come with her to an English conversation club at a nearby college. It was a new outreach ministry to international students, started by some people from the megachurch she attended. We were the first to arrive in the student lounge, and sat on the hard plastic chairs for a few minutes before an Asian girl came in, asking around about the English club. Her name was Yan Min, from China, and she had just started classes there. We were deep in conversation when several other volunteers from the church arrived—all white. My mother and I briefly introduced ourselves to them and were about to dive back into our conversation with Yan Min when one of the volunteers said, “So… should we each take one?”

I was confused at first, not understanding what he meant. There was only one student who needed a conversation partner. And then it slowly dawned on me that he wasn’t speak to me and my mother, but about us. He had assumed that we were also there to practice our English.

My mom immediately jumped in and explained that we were also volunteers, and that her daughter here had actually graduated from Berkeley and majored in English. I was embarrassed for the man, and embarrassed that my mom felt like she had to list my credentials to prove that we were qualified.

Perpetual Foreigner

This incident would have been amusing if it were isolated; something to brush off and laugh about. But it happens more often than I’d like to admit—the presumption that I am a foreigner simply because I am Asian.

I remember the time I attended my friend’s church in North Carolina. The church was hosting a group of Japanese exchange students that week. When the pastor urged the congregation to greet the foreign guests, my body stiffened as I saw several people home in on me. Assuming that I was an exchange student, they warmly welcomed me before my friend could interrupt them and explain that I was visiting from California, and not from Japan.

I sense it whenever I visit a white church and have to introduce myself. I can see their eyes carefully considering me, their speech deliberately slow and simple while their minds are racing to figure out where I’m from. I can feel the urge within me to speak fluent English, dropping slang or using sesquipedalian vocabulary just to make it obvious that I was born and raised in the States.

It’s curious how these memories I have are all in the context of church.

Outside the church, my experiences are much more confrontational: chants about slanted eyes, threats telling me to go back to where I came from, sing-song gibberish that mock the Chinese language. These racist encounters are so universal among East Asian Americans as to be almost banal in their unoriginality.

Inside the church, I am not told to get out. In fact, I am invited to come in… but as a guest. I am received, but as an outsider. I am welcomed, but still as the perpetual foreigner. It does not occur to them I am home, that I am not a visitor.

The jagged pill of outright racism makes me mad. But this saccharine-sweet “othering” that’s coated with good intentions just makes me sad.

Perpetual Native

And then there’s my experience of living in Asia for the past 14 years. While I am perceived as a perpetual foreigner in America, here, I am the perpetual native.

When I first came to China to teach English in the 90’s, I was on a team with three other ladies: two blondes, a redhead, and me. Whenever we went out together, I was automatically pegged as the translator, even though I could barely get by on what I learned from my one semester of Mandarin in college. I recall one time when we all went out to a park, and a group of school children gathered around my teammates like hungry birds, chirping at my poor friends with their chorus of “Hello! How are you?!” They obviously did not notice me, for I was just another Chinese face in a city of 15 million other Chinese faces. When the kids asked to take a photo with the Americans, I wasn’t in the picture. I was the one behind the camera.

Nowadays, I still get a lot of confused looks when I tell people that I’m from America. “But you look like us!” they say, baffled that I don’t have a big nose and blond curls like the stereotypical image they have in their minds. “Where is your hometown?” they press further, and I dutifully respond by telling them, “Chao Zhou, in Guang Dong province,” even though I have never stepped foot there in my life. Their minds are eased that I am still Chinese, after all. In their imagination, America is a land of white people, and an American person of color is oxymoronic (something that a good portion of America seems to agree with right now).

Here in China, I’m not the foreigner. I’m the local nanny, the translator, the teacher who isn’t white enough to teach English (even though my mom would like to remind everyone that I graduated from Berkeley as an English major).

Sometimes, the assumption that I am part of a group is as toxic as the assumption that I am not. Sometimes, inclusion is as destructive as exclusion.

Both invalidate the complexity of my identity. Both cause shame. Both deny me of agency and true belonging. I am simply who people imagine me to be because of the color of my hair, my skin, my eyes.

But the reality is, I cannot be boxed into the false dichotomy of either foreigner or native.

I am both/and.

Otherness and Likeness

Jesus was the embodiment of this both/and paradox of otherness and likeness.

Wholly divine and fully human.

Son of God and Son of Man.

Alpha and Omega, yet Emmanuel.

He lived in a world that could not seem to reconcile the two. He was too foreign to be considered one of us, and yet too familiar to be considered “The One.” Instead of receiving Jesus in the fullness of all his deity and humanity, the world rejected him for both.

Yet for all the times we treated him as other, he continued to reveal his solidarity with us. He made his dwelling among us. He shared in our humanity and suffering. He laid down his life for us. He loved those who wanted nothing to do with him.

And when we believed him to be just like us, he continued to reveal his distinctiveness. He offended those who couldn’t see him as anything other than the hometown boy. He didn’t play by the social or cultural rules. He commended outsiders over his own ethnic community. He challenged the expectations of those who wanted to use him as a poster boy for their own causes.

Like Jesus, I want to embrace the paradox of my likeness and otherness, instead of feeling like I must choose one or the other.

I want to expose the exclusion that shames and distances, and call out the inclusion that enmeshes and limits.

I want to engage the world in loving but uncomfortable ways; not writing off those who would reduce and reject me, but inviting them to accept me with all my similarities and singularities.

Because at the end of day, I’m not the only one who is both perpetual native and perpetual foreigner. We are all native to one another in the shared humanity that makes us connected and compassionate. We are all foreign to one another in the diversity that makes us intriguing and beautiful.

We are all alike and we are all other.

We are all both/and.

 

The Deafening Silence of the Asian Immigrant Church

[originally posted at https://ibelongyoubelong.wordpress.com/2016/09/27/the-deafening-silence-of-the-asian-immigrant-church/]

 

Alton Sterling.

Philando Castile.

Terence Crutcher.

These are just three of the 165 African American men who have been shot by police in 2016 alone, according to the Washington Post.

Protests and riots against this epidemic have reached a fever pitch.

Out on the streets, I hear wails of pain, shouts against injustice, and cries for a response.

Within the Church, I hear weeping together, rallying together, dialoguing together.

But it’s been amazingly quiet in one corner.

My corner.

The Asian immigrant church in America has been silent.

And the silence is deafening.

 *  *  *

In William Barber II’s New York Times piece about the Charlotte protests, the African American minister writes,

“Charlotte’s protests are not black people versus white people. They are not black people versus the police. The protesters are black, white and brown people, crying out against police brutality and systemic violence.”

There is no mention of Asians.

Not only at this particular demonstration, but within the general movement towards racial reconciliation and social justice, we are—more often than not—conspicuously absent.

I have been in Chinese immigrant churches all my life, and never—not one single time—have I ever heard a pastor addressing issues of racism from the pulpit.

I cannot recall one single Sunday service where there was a time of communal lament for a tragedy that did not directly affect our ethnic community.

On social media, I hear very little from my Asian American community about the injustices that we see happening around us all the time.

And I have some suspicions about why.

Culturally, we are taught not to rock the boat.

Relationally, we value non-confrontational communication.

Emotionally, we are trained to subdue and suppress.

Socially, we are insular and content to play the part of “model minority”.

Regardless of the reasons for our silence in the past, something needs to change. The Asian immigrant church must “learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause” (Isaiah 1:17). If ever there was a group that has been oppressed, widowed, and made fatherless, the black community is it.

But before we start trying to correct this oppression, we must deal with the plank in our own eye. We must confront our own prejudice. There cannot be any denying that we have been handed down deep-seated biases and preconceptions about other people of color. The immigrant generation before us came from countries that were mostly mono-cultural, and the attitudes they had towards those outside their culture reflected that. My generation has inevitability inherited and internalized some of that xenophobia, so we must become aware of it and own it so that we can bring it to the light.

We also must acknowledge our own apathy towards the suffering of other people of color. We Asian Americans have generally done pretty well for ourselves. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center article, Asian men and women both have higher hourly earnings than their respective white counterparts.  We also lead in educational attainment, being the demographic that has the highest percentage with a bachelor’s degree or more. This wealth and education affords many of us a life that distances us from the plight of other minorities. We can’t seem to relate to the overt discrimination, the closed doors, and the disgruntled protests because we have studied at top tier schools, have well-paid jobs, and live in affluent neighborhoods.

Yet as Christians who follow a Jesus who seeks out the marginalized and notices the forgotten, I think we must seriously examine what it means to identify with the hurting instead of disassociating from them. We must question our quest for greater success and privilege and consider what it might look like to stand in solidarity with those oppressed by systemic injustice.

Because the reality is, there is no us and them.

We are one.

The reality is that not too long ago:

  • Asians were depicted as apes and primitives, a threat to the American way of life.
  • Asians experienced prejudice and earned the lowest, not the highest, wages as railway workers and gold miners.
  • Asians were not allowed to become American citizens, let alone study at its universities.
  • Asians were prohibited by law from owning land, much less reside in middle-upper class communities.

The reality is that we are not so different after all.

But like in the story of Moses, perhaps we have been sheltered from the suffering of our own people. Perhaps we’ve lived among wealth and education and privilege too long, and we identify more with the dominant culture than the oppressed communities we originally came from. Maybe we feel like we’ve overcome our own obstacles and seek to simply live a quiet life away from all the turmoil and injustice.

But I hear God saying,

              I have indeed seen the misery of my people…

              I have heard them crying out…

              I am concerned about their suffering…

And regardless of our race, God is inviting all of us into his compassionate heart, redemptive work, and vision of liberation. God is calling us all to speak up and take action.

Now we as the Asian immigrant church can choose whether to remain in our place of relative peace, or to enter the pain and the fray.

As for me, I’m jumping in.

I’m going to declare alongside my black brothers and sisters,

               Let my people go!

I’m going to show up. I’m going to listen. I’m going to use my voice to plead the cause of the oppressed.

For I am fully convinced that by replacing our disengagement and silence with solidarity and protest, we end up reflecting more of God—

A God who shares in our humanity,

sympathizes with us,

advocates for us,

and stands in solidarity with us.