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 Economics of Asian American Privilege

Students at Monta Vista High School in Cupertino

[also posted at http://breadbeforerice.blogspot.com/2016/08/the-economics-of-asian-american.html]

 Age group competitive soccer in the San Francisco bay area is essentially comprised of two social classes: the affluent, predominantly white families that at away tournaments eat at nice restaurants and stay at expensive hotels and the non-white predominantly Latino immigrant families that bring their own food and extended family to games. At a recent tournament, I made small talk with one of the dads as we attempted to fit into the first group. He’s a middle-aged Russian immigrant and I asked him what he did for work. It turned out he’s a data scientist who works for a large insurance company. He creates data models that predict things like bay area housing price trends.
He in turn asked if I was a programmer. I told him I was a pastor but it was a good guess. He agreed. After all his algorithm had calculated the probability was high. I love immigrant candor.
This question encapsulates why I live in the bay area. Where else do I get mistaken for a software engineer? In the bay area, I can walk into a nice restaurant wearing outdoor performance gear and because the wait staff will presume I’m a stock option baller who works at Facebook or Google or some start-up company with a clever-sounding name that has a tenuous relationship with the product made, I will be seated pronto. They treat me well because I’m a nerd and in the bay area, nerds rule the world. If I lived in some rural town in the Midwest, people would see me and think “Who are you? Why are you here? Are you bringing me Chinese take-out?”
Asian American privilege, in its highest form, exists in major metro areas with a high rate of professional employment, a prestigious university, and a large immigrant population. In my new church, we have white people moving out of the area to quaint places like Shingle Springs, CA and Bend, OR. Educated Asian Americans don’t move to those areas. We have no privilege there. What kind of work would we do? More importantly, how would we eat? Who is going to seat us immediately when we walk in wearing a Patagonia 100% recycled fleece pullover? Who is going to serve Japanese noodle soup that we wait two hours for and then post pics of on Instagram? Where are Asian women going to dine with their white boyfriends? Where are Asian guys going to congregate? That stuff is important to Asian Americans like me.
My wife’s cousin from Taiwan can tell if someone at first glance is an American, including Asian Americans, not based on their attire but by their body language. There’s a difference in posture. We stand up straighter and we strut. We tend to look down on people rather than look up in submissiveness. We take up more space. If you’re a male, it’s called man-spreading. Our facial expressions are more expressive and we use expansive hand gestures. We are louder in public – not just louder in groups but louder in public as individuals. An American is the only person in the world that can be as loud solo as in a group.
I have British-born Chinese friends in Scotland. Their parents were Chinese immigrants (mainly from the Guangdong area) and came over to open restaurants. I observed their body language. When we were in public, it felt like they crept around the margins – not quite fitting in and feeling sort of invisible. That doesn’t happen very often to me in the bay area. When it does, it’s when the white to non-white ratio is worse than 10:1 like at an Irish pub in Los Gatos. And then I’m only invisible because everyone is taller than me. You’ll never see anything approaching a white:non-white ratio of 10:1 in any high-tech company except perhaps in the sales or HR department.
Therefore, body language is a proxy for the degree of privilege you enjoy. The greater the privilege, the more expansive the body language. That’s another metric for Asian American privilege. You’ll see it in the way bay area Asian Americans move. We strut around like we own the place. Because we often do.
Claire Jean Kim, a political science and Asian American studies professor at UC Irvine, writes:
Asian Americans are not, as they are often labeled, a “model minority” whose cultural endowments have allowed them to outstrip other less equipped minorities. However, like whites, they do enjoy a priceless set of structural privileges and immunities, as evidenced by high educational and residential integration and intermarriage rates with whites.
She doesn’t provide support for the first claim. And her second statement contradicts the claim of the first. I agree with her second statement but the adjective I want to challenge is Kim’s contention that Asian American privilege is “priceless”. That’s inexcusable hyperbole coming from a professor because it is simply not true. Privilege is quantifiable and it is bounded. The price of Asian American privilege in the bay area is between $1.5 – $2M. You can come straight from China with a boatload of cash and your suitcases of money will buy you an older three bedroom, two bathroom house in a predominantly Asian (or significantly affluent immigrant) city like Cupertino or San Jose neighborhood like Almaden. For the money, you will receive social cachet and the privilege for your children to go to school with their Tiger Mom-raised peers. This is where the future software engineers of America will grow up. For the same price, you can buy 5-8 decent homes in rural Missouri but you will be utterly priced out of the social cachet market. That’s why affluent Asian Americans live here. The housing may be ridiculously expensive but at least there’s access to social capital. Asian American privilege absolutely has a price tag. Your dollar can buy you privilege here whereas in other places it gets you pennies on the dollar.
Let’s take the economic perspective even further. Consumer demand theory dictates people consume goods and services in order to to maximize utility. Utility is the abstract amount of satisfaction derived from the consumption of a good or service. Given a scarcity of goods and services, a consumer will spend his money in a way that maximizes utility. Now replace “utility” with “privilege”. Privilege is the social status conferred from the purchase of goods and services – specifically, the house you live in (and its surrounding neighborhood) or your occupation. I’m absolutely arguing that privilege can be bought. So with that in mind, here’s my hypothesis:
A consumer will spend his money to live in an area or pursue an occupation that maximizes the amount of privilege he will receive in return.
This explains why ethnic enclaves (or “ethnoburbs”) exist. Immigrants move to an area/neighborhood, bid up home prices, make the schools more competitive, and once a critical mass is attained, the momentum of privilege will shift in their favor. That is what has happened in cities like Cupertino and neighborhoods like Almaden. The homes are ridiculous expensive but Asian consumers understand the privilege their money is buying. It’s privilege that can’t be bought in Shingle Springs or Bend. It’s the privilege of having your kids grow up in an atmosphere of software engineer aspirations and the accompanying pressure to excel in math and science.
It also explains white flight. The author of this article about white flight from “ethnoburbs” like Cupertino and Johns Creek, a suburb of Atlanta, thinks it’s all about racism. She writes:
Somehow white parents’ liberal politics and progressivism do not inform them that the decision to relocate to avoid Asians is racism. They’ve defined the term so narrowly, their own individual acts of prejudice don’t meet it. I’ve been told, on more than one occasion, that Asians possess a sort of primal urge to self-segregate, that they choose to live in clusters, that these clusters of predominantly Asian neighborhoods make whites feel uncomfortable, so they leave. The so-called “choice” to live together ignores the very real social and economic realities of Asians who immigrate to the U.S.
The half-Indian author presumes racism is the motivation behind white flight and yet somehow when we Asian Americans segregate in ethnic clusters, we aren’t guilty of the same thing because racism. And yet if you view privilege in terms of utility and we’re all consumers making rational choices about maximizing privilege, then it all makes sense. It’s not so much about overcoming or expressing racism but consumers acting in their own self-interest. When white people complain about their kids growing up in an over-competitive (code for Asian) environment, what they’re really saying is “The privilege my money buys in this neighborhood has declined because of the influx of Asians”. Of course they’re going to seek more affordable white privilege. They’re behaving as rational consumers.
Racism means privilege costs more when you’re not white but it doesn’t change the underlying economics. On the price spectrum of minorities, it’s cheapest when you’re Asian and most expensive when you’re black. But when you view the world solely through the lens of race, you’re holding a hammer and everything looks like a nail. There are other possible ways to view segregation. So before we start whacking on all the racist nails sticking out, it might help to put on a more pragmatic lens. It will lead us to an important possibility: it may be more helpful to understand segregation in economic terms rather than solely racial ones. At least that’s what my predictive data model says. You can trust me because even though I’m not a software engineer, at least I look like one.

Why 4Pointes is an Asian American church

Recently sat down to have a chat with Pastor Peter Lim about 4Pointes Church, located near Atlanta, Georgia.

4Pointes Church has a particular aspect that makes it different than most others of its kind. 4Pointes describes itself as an Asian-American church.

Most next-generation independent English-speaking churches that are led or planted by Asian American pastors describes themselves as just a church or a multi-ethnic church. Very few of these churches self-identify as Asian American churches, even though its leadership and/or its attendees may be composed of an Asian American majority.

Listen to our conversation about why 4Pointes Church calls itself an Asian-American church rather than a multiethnic church or community church.

(download m4a audio)

4pointes-church

The Anamnesis of Ourselves

We Christians can be a forgetful people. We are perpetually future-oriented. This is fine, of course, because so much of the scriptures point to a future redemption, a not-yet reality where roads are gold, lions chill with lambs, and we hang out with Prince, Michael Jackson, and 2pac. But sometimes we don’t remember to, well, remember. And we forget that it was God who always seemed to preface his Old Testament commands with holy, dangerous reminders, invitations to recall slavery, oppression, and ultimately, redemption.

Indeed, when we celebrate Communion, we are also invited: Do this in remembrance of me. But this is a violent kind of remembering: we recall broken flesh and spilled blood, bodily memories relived and then consumed into our own bodies. It is holy when we remember. It is dangerous when we remember.

We who are Asian American also have violent memories of broken families and spilled tears, poured out for the sake of a different kind of salvation. And now we, the children of immigrants, live, study, work, and start families in remembrance of their sacrifice. But this is a silent kind of remembrance, one we are more apt to carry in our bodies than share with our lips. So we carry Korea, China, the Philippines, Cambodia. Which is another way of saying that trauma is incarnational and generational, which is another way of saying that we are a PTSD people. The great temptation, then, of diaspora, of exile, is amnesia. No one was supposed to be torn from the land like that and now, strangers in a strange land, we are faced with an exilic choice. But our forgetfulness stood not only to facilitate our survival but our thriving—the decision was easy. So we forget willingly: ditch the language, the customs, the clothes, and the traditions, all of which made us less attractive and less marketable. But when we forgot we also became less human. We who are the children of the exile must now put the pieces back together, or at the very least sweep the ground for breadcrumbs that can lead us home, whatever that is.

Unfortunately, our participation in the Christian faith only cemented our forgetting. Jesus became the agent by which our stories were often wiped away. At best, they were used as testimonies explaining the evil we escaped. At worst, our histories became tales of the demonic, stories that had nothing to do with God and with which God wanting nothing to do. The future took priority over the past; everything ahead was filled with light and rainbows, everything behind with shadows and abandoned buildings.

Even those of us who wanted to remember have found the language we possess for our forgetting and remembering rather clumsy. Phrases like “cultural and spiritual amnesia” don’t quite capture the complexity here. They imply that, at some point, what we have forgotten will simply return to us once our hippocampuses realize what’s going on. Within this framework, we also assume that there is a clear object of our forgetting, like keys we’ve misplaced or a face we’ve forgotten. But is it possible to remember something that we’ve never experienced? What kind of remembrance can take into account things that may not yet exist in our consciousness, the memories that lie dormant in veins and bones, soil and trees? What is the remembrance that makes us whole?

Robert Farrar Capon describes the theological term, anamnesis, this way:

Anamnesis [is] renewed knowledge, a re-membering, a re-cognition by the grace that raises those whom death has absolved…. He remembers our evil in grace as the only real thing it ever could have been. He takes away the flaming sword between us and our self-knowledge and brings us home to ourselves…. By the grace of [God’s] unaltered knowledge, see even the disasters of your history as the inexorable desire for the highest Good [he] always knew them to be. Nothing, therefore, is lost. Not a scrap of history.

In anamnesis, we are invited to re-member things as they truly are, as they exist in their reconciled state. We are invited to re-cognize the past with God’s hands in it, even if it seems that he was nowhere to be found. In anamnesis, we re-member our broken past, piecing it back together to imagine a more whole, just, honest now, a now that cannot change the past, but one that is inseparable from it, shaped by it, wounded and empowered by it.

Anamnesis captures my family’s history, its brokenness and beauty, and reminds me that God has been there all along. God was there when my great-grandparents escaped to the hills to run from soldiers during the Cultural Revolution, God was with them in the village, on the boat, at Angel Island, in Chinatown, and God is with my grandparents now as they nurse the traumatic wounds of the immigrant experience. And God was with my family when we learned to forsake that history for a chance at survival.

The immigrant experience has always, without exception, meant death. Often it is not a literal death (though sometimes it is), but to tear oneself from the fabric of home is a kind of death. Displacement is a form of death. The loss of culture and language, whether in America or Babel, is a form of death. Anamnesis, unlike our cheap ways of remembering, does not overlook this pain. It does not rush to solutions or forgiveness or celebration. It isn’t afraid to run its hands over the wounds or to trace the path made by scars. At the same time, though, we, the people of Resurrection, have not capitulated to death. Instead, in the anamnesis of our stories, we dip our hands into it without fear, touching the wounds as excruciating, elegant reminders that redemption is real:

Jesus’ Glorious Wounds are the perpetual sacrament of the remembrance, of re-cognition of evil as good. They are the Cross and the Passion as the Resurrection holds them.

Though the Asian American experience is not uniform, as our friend Fred Mok is quick to point out, all of our families have a story, and the road is always paved with grace. So when I say that we need a kind of remembrance for things that we aren’t even aware of, I mean that anamnesis is an invitation to dig, to ask our parents and grandparents what home looks like, what growing up felt like, what their hopes and dreams were when they were torn from the land. It’s also an invitation to study Asian American history and discover that there is language for all this beauty and brokenness, and that good folks along the way have put up signposts in the wilderness. Ultimately, anamnesis is an invitation to see our Asian American histories and identities as wonderfully, reverently, unapologetically beautiful. It is an invitation to see Jesus in the mirror and to believe, against everything the world has told you thus far, that he calls you good.

Anamnesis is also deeply communal; our re-membering is not just to piece together our identities within ourselves but to participate in the reconciliation that Jesus brings between communities. In this respect, it isn’t just about my history, but it’s also an invitation into the re-membering and rejoining of histories that are, at first glance, not mine. Because we know that before the Lamb, in the re-cognition of history, all of our divisions, all the ways we have harmed one another under the assumption that some people just weren’t as valuable as others, will be revealed as the lies they have always been. Anamnesis compels me to re-member my relationship with the Other, recognizing that it is impossible to inhabit my full humanity until my brothers and sisters inhabit theirs. More specifically, I mean that Asian American flourishing cannot be separated from Black and Brown liberation. And our stories are inextricably linked in the anamnesis of American history. And it is this re-membering of communities that stands as a threat to the systems that continue to oppress, the Empire that profits from our forgetting, the currents of white supremacy that sweep our stories away beneath its heavy undertow.

__________________________________________

My church was founded in 1880. Just a few months ago I discovered that in the same year, California passed its Anti-Miscegenation Laws that outlawed interracial marriages between a white person (woman) and any “Negro, Mulatto, or Mongolian.” This law mirrored many others around the country that prevented marriages between whites and blacks but California’s had the specific goal of cutting off its Chinese American population. Of course, two years after that, America passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, letting us know, just in case there was any confusion, that we definitively did not belong here. No one has ever mentioned this at church. No one has ever connected the dots for us or said, hey, this was the social context in which our church was birthed, the soil from which we sprouted forth. Perhaps this was for our survival. Perhaps it was just easier this way. But 136 years later, we are deeply, desperately in need of anamnesis, the kind of remembrance that brings healing to the ways in which our church has been wounded by systemic racism, the kind of remembrance that reunites us with black and brown communities as we fight for this city. We need the Holy Spirit to help us piece back together our stories of resilience, power, and survival in the face of evil.

So every Sunday when we meet, we have an opportunity to perform the subversive act of telling the Truth of our Story, the story of an exilic people and a God who has never left or forsaken. Every Sunday is the Great Reminder: Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Keep it dangerous. Set it apart as a day of Truth in a thunderstorm of lies. Jesus also invites us, “Do this in my anamnesis…” because this kind of re-membering came at a high cost. A broken body, a pool of blood, a traumatized people. Every Sunday we stand at the foot of the cross where scattered pieces are strewn across the ground and we are invited to remember, to kneel down and mourn, pick up each piece one by one, and begin.

Face Palming The Force Awakens’ Identity Politics

daisy-ridley-and-john-boyega-as-rey-and-finn-in-star-wars-the-force-awakensSpoiler alert. I’ve read many film reviews of latest Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens, but my friend Jonathan’s critique is brilliantly written but funny and incisive especially in regards to the farcical nature of its diversity politics:

The lack of Asian characters in the first Star Wars films didn’t prevent me and my brother from enjoying the story, admiring the characters, collecting the toys, and re-enacting the epic lightsaber battles in our living room when we were young children. It was always the story of Luke, Han, and Leia that captured our attention. No amount of “diverse casting” can fix horrific writing and bad story-telling. I don’t see any Japanese crying that they can’t relate to Naruto because he looks more Danish than Japanese. And I certainly don’t hear any African-American men complaining that Dragon Ball Z’s overabundance of Asian-looking characters is a hindrance to their aspirations of one day achieving Super Saiyan-level strength. In the West, it seems “diversity” has now just become another item to check off on an every-growing list of criteria for socially acceptable media. But realistically, who among us is really so pedantic about such things like the proportion of races in each film such that we desire “equitable representation” over actual substance? Again, how is this anything other than making slaves of ourselves to a ridiculous idea?

Diversity for the sake of diversity is not the gospel. We do not find worth in having a contrived role in a polyester world. Jesus, whom we would now regard as a white man, died on our behalf as a perfect representative of all humanity. The disciples were also twelve white men. Jesus’ breakthrough on behalf of women and Gentiles came in the context of actual alienation, oppression, and marginalization. Skin color matters not because it brings out the full range of the visible spectrum but because there is an embedded history of injustice that accompanies our heritage. Fighting injustice certainly isn’t about asserting the superiority of woman over man in the manner Rey disparages Finn and how she is able to perfectly wield light saber the instant she picks it up. Likewise, Finn is the prototypical bumbling male who needs to be rescued by the female heroine.

I celebrate the ascent Jeremy Lin because he is a real person. He, by his own admission, is not a perfect basketball player. I identify with him as a Christian Asian-American man who is flawed and faces adversity like the rest of us but has managed, through the providential grace of God, to enjoy worldly success that most of us will never achieve. His story is real. But when I watch Star Wars, the storytelling is hampered by the CGI diversity in the same way a Michael Bay blockbuster attempts to distract us from the absence of plot with loud and vivid explosions.