Where I’m Coming From – Adrian Pei

My full name is Adrian Su-Chen Pei, and I thought I’d introduce myself by telling you the story behind each part of my name.

My last name “Pei” is about as Chinese as you can get, contrary to what you might think if you’ve ever visited a “Pei Wei” restaurant.  The name itself is pretty uncommon, which in the recent past has made me extra curious about its origins.  My aunt recently traced it back to a village in China, where apparently all Peis originate.  They even have a saying on a big banner, translated as, “all the Peis have only one ancestry.”  So if you share my last name, we might actually be related!  However, I am not related to the famous architect I.M. Pei.

Even having “Pei” as a last name in America reminds me that I’m a little bit different.  Just last week, a nurse asked me, “And may I ask how exactly do you pronounce your last name?”  I get that question often, and I can understand why.  There are two very embarrassing (or funny if you see it that way) ways to mispronounce the name.  Hint: one rhymes with “tie”, and the other rhymes with “tee.”  Every time I make a restaurant reservation, I think about spelling my name as “P-E-Y,” just so they don’t mess it up.  But not as “Pay,” which would be funny for other reasons. ; )

My first name (Adrian) is a surprising choice for such a Chinese last name.  I think it has European roots, and only in the recent past has become more popular as a boy’s name (yes, I still get people who yell, “Yo Adrian!” btw, did you know that Rocky also thanks God in his speech?!).  Considering my parents’ background, though, the choice makes more sense.  My mother grew up in Vietnam, attended a French school, and learned seven languages throughout her life.  She was one of the most active members on the multicultural boards of my schools.  My father grew up in Japan, and was a bridge-builder in his work between the U.S. and Japan.  Despite the fact that he had to teach himself English, he and my mother both adapted to their lives in the States, and brought with them a love and respect for culture.

And that was what shaped me, though I didn’t know it at the time.  Because of my father’s work, I lived on three continents (born in upstate New York, then moved to England for one year, then Japan for three years) before I was five years old.  My parents chose to spend all their pleasure money on family travel, so I got to visit Australia, France, Italy, Greece, and even Micronesia while growing up!  We made good friends with our Iranian, Korean, and Indian neighbors.  And on any given night, my mother would cook anything from shepherd’s pie to sukiyaki to tacos.

But despite all this richness to draw and learn from, I don’t think I knew what to do with it.  In high school, we didn’t talk about our cultural backgrounds and uniqueness.  All we cared about was fitting in, according to what was popular.  And was being Asian American “cool”?  To be honest, that was the furthest thing from my mind, and from what I saw in society.  Most of the time, I found myself wanting to convince my Caucasian friends that I was just like them: that I listened to the same music, played and watched the same sports, and talked and acted like they did.  Though I couldn’t put words to it, I was living the reality of a minority in America, whose very status forces him or her to wrestle with an extra layer of identity issues.  I’m not like everyone I see around me, so is that okay?  Why do I have to work so hard to be known and accepted?  Why do people call me names, look at me strangely, or treat me in special ways?    

What do we do with these questions and feelings?  To some degree, it’s a normal part of growing up.  But part of me looks back on my childhood with a measure of sadness, wishing I had been able to make greater sense of the anger and depression I sometimes experienced.  I wish I had seen all the learning and growth I was missing, in the unique stories of each person around me.  I wish those things had been honored, and platformed.

So now I’m an adult in my thirties, and one of my biggest lessons is that I don’t have to wish, or wait, any longer.  In the landscape of this country and these times, we do have an opportunity to bring awareness to, and fight for the things we care about.  Even more, it’s a responsibility, and an honor!

I believe we’re doing that in my work, as I serve on the Leadership Development team of the Asian American ministry of Cru, specifically heading up the field of Creative Arts and Resources.  At Epic Movement, we are moving towards raising up young leaders who are culturally-aware, emotionally mature, and missionally-minded.  College students are some of the leaders of the next generation, and we are seeing future artists and business-people who don’t feel they have to deny their cultural heritage, but are embracing the unique strength that it brings to their life and mission.  That’s exciting.

At some point as well, I threw off some of my natural introverted and self-conscious tendencies, and started to simply write.  Writing is a powerful vehicle of expression, when you live on the margins of society.  I began blogging about topics that ate at me, and that I felt needed to be explored.  I collaborated with other ethnic ministries to write an article about how minorities relate to the majority culture.

And of course, there’s this Next Gener.Asian Church blog.  I love that this is a collaboration of different voices, which provides so much more color and dialogue than a lone voice.  There’s something powerful about the communal aspect of Asian American culture, and to know that we are stronger as we put our minds and stories together.  We can disagree and debate passionately, but we have each other’s backs at the end of the day.

I’ve had the chance to meet most of the contributors to this blog in some fashion, and I can say that they aren’t just writers, but they are leaders.  They care deeply about the past, present, and future of Asian American Christianity, and are living out that passion and integrity in their work and lives.  I have great respect for all of them.

Which for lack of a better transition, brings me to my middle name, “Su-Chen.”  Literally translated, it means “honest scholar.”  That’s what I try to live up to.  Whether or not you know me, well or not, I will always strive to be honest and sincere in my words and life.

And for the “scholar” part, I do believe there is something sacred about the written word.  I was talking to David Park about this, and he mentioned how we have a freedom to express ourselves here, that isn’t tied to money or jobs or other motives.  But we also talked about how we have a responsibility, knowing that people are reading and in a way, our dialogue with everyone here is being recorded — even if informally in the pages of Asian American history.  As a reader, you are part of this as you write in.  What will we learn, or stumble upon in the process?  It’s up to us… let’s find out!

Looking forward to connecting with you more here, or getting to know you better on Facebook, Twitter, or e-mail!


Talking Around Each Other

Found the above on YouTube and found it to be a classic example of how Asian Americans and their parents talk in a way that doesn’t fit the definition of communication. And of course, while it is parody, it certainly sounds similar to some of the conversations I’ve had with my own parents. In some ways, it’s not just about our parents learning English, it’s about trying to keep up with this emerging, techno-illogical world that literally has only been blown up in the last two decades. It is the rare parent that can keep up with a serious discussion about the changing nature of work in the digital economy, expectations about the predictive capacity of the SAT for success, and whether or not having a secretary constitutes as a bragging right. Sometimes all they care about are their videos. And we, our YouTube.

When a father's love goes unexpressed

This USA Today commentary by Ray Wong, In death, assumptions about Dad melt away, seems typical of a child’s (or more specifically, a son’s) yearning for the blessing and love of a his Father. And it’s not really limited to Chinese or Asian cultures; it’s a common thing in many (most? all?) cultures for a son to want his father’s approval.

I didn’t think my father cared about me. I left Hong Kong at age 5, when my mother divorced my father in 1968. My father never contacted me. I lived in America. He lived a world away. …
…. After I married my wife, Quyen, in 1998, I visited Hong Kong again to introduce her to my father. When Quyen and I had kids, I heard through my mom that he wanted to see our children. So I invited him to the U.S., told him I would pay for his plane ticket and that he could stay with us. But I never received a response. I didn’t think he cared. So I went about my life.

… my father suffered a stroke and died. … my father’s younger brother brought my father’s possessions to me. … My father had kept every item relating to me and my family. … As I looked upon the pictures of my family with tears in my eyes, I knew I was wrong.

Read the full article.

Love unexpressed and love that doesn’t connect with the “love language” of the person of affection is love lost. What healing and joy there could be when love can freely flows, especially across cultures and generations.

Not Post-Racial Yet Or Are We?

Last night I had a great conversation with my mother-in-law (wow, how many times have you ever heard that in your life?) and we talked about some of the dynamics of racism, poverty, and power. Her assumptions as an Indian immigrant were that poor, uneducated people were simply plagued by a mentality where they simply settled for what they had, didn’t value education, and didn’t want to save money, to push themselves. She reminded me that her husband came to this country with only $6 in his pocket, but my wife and I reminded her that he was in a PhD program. It’s slightly easier to starve today if you know have the intellectual assets and opportunities for a payoff tomorrow.

And while something of a “mentality” issue might be there, we had to get the conversation to a point that despite the laws that made us equal, the playing field was not. Furthermore, the people in power haven’t changed much, so poor neighborhoods stay poor, the worse schools stay the worse schools, and the low-paying jobs don’t help people gain useful job skills nor does it allow them to save or invest. In essence, while the system pats itself for being fair and just, it is clear that some people do not have a fair shake or that it is much, much, much harder for certain people based on race and class.

But a huge contingency of people think that these are issues in the past and that the cream of any crop – white, black, or other – are rising to the top. And when the real color is green (as in money), that may well appear to be the case, but categorically speaking, when we assume individualism as the lens for this discussion, we fail to understand how the system as a whole has inequalities in it. To prove the point, my in-laws, while financially secure, do suspect that they never got credit for the amount of work they did, especially when my father-in-law has over two dozen patents to his name. He was passed up for promotions and never got his due. Maybe it was “a mentality” or maybe it was a race thing. It’s hard to tell, isn’t it? We can always rationalize it when there are a few exceptions to the rule, but it really begs the question of whether or not we are post racial.

A great site for all things racial is Racialicious, where I found this post asking the question “How Post Racial Are We?” And it’s clear that while we would like to think that racism is a thing of the past or at least a settled matter, it is clear that it is not. And so the writer, Latoya Peterson finds answers from our society.

Apparently, so post-racial that the Feds just interrupted an assassination plot that would have eventually targeted Barack Obama.

Two white supremacists allegedly plotted to go on a national killing spree, shooting and decapitating black people and ultimately targeting Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, federal authorities said Monday.

In all, the two men whom officials describe as neo-Nazi skinheads planned to kill 88 people — 14 by beheading, according to documents unsealed in U.S. District Court in Jackson, Tenn. The numbers 88 and 14 are symbolic in the white supremacist community.

The spree, which initially targeted an unidentified predominantly African-American school, was to end with the two men driving toward Obama, “shooting at him from the windows,” the court documents show.

“Both individuals stated they would dress in all white tuxedos and wear top hats during the assassination attempt,” the court complaint states. “Both individuals further stated they knew they would and were willing to die during this attempt.”

This follows the attempted assassination plot back in August at the Democratic National Convention.

So post-racial that vandals tore down a memorial sign to Emmitt Till:

A sign marking the site where Emmett Till’s battered body was pulled from a river in 1955 has been ripped down by vandals, authorities said.

The sign posted on a road near the Tallahatchie River was among eight that were erected after the county adopted a resolution last year apologizing to Till’s family because an all-white jury acquitted two white men of murdering Till for whistling at a white woman. […]

“We’re not going to tolerate them tearing down anything that’s marking Emmett Till’s murder,” Board of Supervisors President Jerome G. Little said Monday. “I want to send a message: Every time they take it down, we’re going to put it back up.” […]

This isn’t the first time vandals have targeted Till memorials. Last year, a roadside marker on U.S. 49 in Greenwood in Leflore County was stolen. It was replaced with another sign. And, another sign in Tallahatchie County was damaged earlier this year, commission members said.

So post racial, that we seem to be repeating history:

Jacquline McClelland poses with a photo of her son Brandon McClelland, Friday, Oct. 24, 2008, in Paris, Texas. Brandon, a black man, was on a late-night beer run across state lines to Oklahoma with two white friends last month and ended up dead on a rural Texas road. Authorities say he was run over by a pickup and then dragged as far as 70 feet beneath the truck. Two white men have been charged with murder in the case.

So what do you think?

Race: Much Ado About Nothing? or Let’s move on?

Why Churches Split: A Family Systems Explanation

Most Korean Americans I know have experienced or witnessed a church split in their lives. At least one. And by the time they’re adults just kind of shrug it off as if they are inevitable, because in their minds and experiences, it is. Even pastors will say, oh, it’s that whole depravity thing. We’re sinful creatures, blah blah blah, drivel drivel drivel. As though that is an acceptable posture to project in front of a world that is mocking churches these days. Shame on us, judgment on us, and boo for us. A church splitting is absurdly normal for Korean communities. And between church splits and new church plants, Koreans are prolific, sometimes embarrassingly so, but rarely profound.

One of the things I realized while serving a church that had been decimated by the associate pastor bolting for another local church was that the circumstances which created the dysfunction were still in place, which to me was troubling. Most of the time, when a church does split, it is viewed by the “faithful remnant” that finally there will be peace because the troublemakers have all left. But in many cases that is not true. And it’s not an individual thing, it’s a systemic thing. That is to say, you can purify each bucket you draw up all you want, the well is poisoned.

So when I read this in my Family Systems for Ministry class, I was floored. This really helps to articulate the dangers present in the Korean immigrant church.

From the book, “Creating a Healthier Church” by Ronald W. Richardson (which I highly, highly, highly recommend for pastors- and did I mention, highly?), he discusses four functional styles of congregational life. In one of those styles, he outlines the “Enmeshed” format. Here I offer some clips and edits (I apologize for the rather long reading, but really, it’s good stuff). Enjoy!

[Enmeshed is when] In the extreme, when individuals, families, and congregations…have trouble knowing where one person’s boundaries stop and those of others start….

The fear of abandonment, of being left alone in the world, would be the most powerful motivating force for people when operating in this quadrant, and they would do everything they could, including giving up major parts of self, to avoid this outcome. They have a deep-seated need to be loved, accepted, approved, of, and guided by others; or, conversely, to provide this for others. Their emotional life soars when they are praised, and crashes when they are criticized….

Here are some characteristics…

  1. We are on guard for any sign of interpersonal threat, always watching for any minor slight as well as overt attacks.
  2. We tend to think others are responsible for our experience, and/or we are responsible for theirs.
  3. We have a sensitivity to criticism, which creates a sense of feeling damaged or harmed by it, so we tailor our lives to avoid criticism, and we resent or fear those who give it.
  4. We seek approval and praise, perhaps believing we need this to be happy, and like an addict feel miserable if we don’t get it.
  5. We may work hard to please others, getting our feelings of okay-ness from pleasing them.
  6. We become overly concerned about our position in the hierarchy and whether we are receiving our due recognition or about whether our authority is being respected.
  7. We may have a reaction to the difficult circumstances of others that leads us to be overly sympathetic by trying to make things better for them, rescuing them, when they actually have to do the job for themselves.
  8. Conversely, we may think that others should be doing more for us, even when we are actually capable of doing for ourselves. (We see others as responsible for our happiness)….

The development of our own personal faith is difficult….The reaction of others to our beliefs will have a powerful modifying impact, so we play down or do not voice all our beliefs. We might even change our beliefs in order to fit in with the prevailing beliefs of the emotional system of or some subsystem within the larger system, or with the beliefs of the leadership of the system whose approval we want….

Walter Lippmann once said, “When all think alike, no one thinks very much.” That is a good description of some enmeshed church systems. There will be a low level of tolerance for differences in thinking, feeling, and doing. The leadership will tend toward authoritarian, autocratic, rigid, legalistic, and dogmatic stances. They will not allow any questioning of the principles of faith or of the authority of the leadership….

Even in spite of the appearance that they are “gifted” in many ways and appear to be “successful” by many standards, the emotional morass of their communal life will ultimately defeat their ability to maintain a unified and effective way of working together. So much energy will go into the internal life of the group…and the turmoil centered on this, that the group will ultimately be unable to accomplish its goals.

This kind of church eventually develops a major symptom of some sort–a “church split” is one of the most common.

It was like reading a church fortune cookie–unbelievably accurate from where I sit. So the million-dollar question (and I’m still reading the book) is how do you get un-enmeshed? Let me finish the book and I’ll keep you posted. 🙂

But back me up here, does this family systems theory description of an enmeshed congregation resonate with your experience?