Who Am I? And What Do I Want?

Trout Island, MI

Years ago, I was a graduate student at Wheaton College, taking a class in Interpersonal Communication that was famously known as “The Island Course.” The professor would personally fly the class, two by two, in his twin-engine propellor plane to Trout Island in the northern part of Lake Michigan, which his family owned. As islands go, it was tiny, but still roomy enough for one grassy airstrip and one casual summer home with enough beds for our entire class of 9 students, plus our professor. Think of it like ten days of “Survivor”, without the risk (or blessing!) of being voted off.

It was during this course that I was introduced to the “Who Am I? What Do I Want?” exercise, in which you would pair up with another person and ask them these two questions, then switch, then keep going for as long as you desired. What we found is that as we kept answering the same questions over and over again, in time we would reveal layer upon layer of information, much of which we had never revealed before. Most of the pairs conversed for hours and found themselves in tears before the end of their time, my duo included.

And while I cannot replicate the experience here, my hope is that as we use this blog to share both who we are and what we want to see happen or change in the world, we will be able to do so deeply and openly, with grace, compassion, and understanding, and that this would become a safe place for us all to reveal ourselves and get to know one another–contributors and commenters alike.

“Who am I?” I am currently calling myself a “writer,” although writing is just one of my many wide and varied interests. I have finally written one Jeremy Lin-related post; authored one book (The Missional Mom) and co-authored another with a group of amazing Asian American leaders and pastors with whom I was deeply honored to work (Growing Healthy Asian American Churches). If all goes well I’ll be at work on another book this spring and summer. In my previous journalistic life, I worked at Christianity Today and re:generation quarterly. But I have secret dreams to 1) write an Academy-award winning screenplay someday, 2) start a business again someday (I have an MBA in entrepreneurship and once launched my own dot-com business that is no more…that is a story for another day!), or 3) finally declare victory over the daily beast that plagues me (otherwise known as “laundry”).

The Lee Family at Moody Bible Institute

But for now, my daily life now is largely consumed by mothering and homeschooling my three boys (4th grader, 1st grader, preschooler). I’m a second-generation Korean-American, married to a second-generation Korean-Canadian (the Korean-CANADIAN distinction is very important to my husband, and as I have learned over the years, we are definitely in a cross-cultural marriage!) Hubby Brian Lee is a classical pianist and professor music at Moody Bible Institute. Our family attends a largely Asian-American church in Chicagoland which Brian and I helped to plant 16 years ago. I am a huge supporter of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, as it was through this ministry that my faith grew by leaps and bounds while I was in college, and it was also through meeting Asian American IVCF staff workers (Peter Cha, Jeanette Yep, Jonathan Wu, Greg Jao, Henry Lee, to name a few) that I finally understood my ethnicity as a Korean-American was not a curse, but a gift to be cherished.

“What Do I Want?” At this stage of my life as a 40-something middle-aged adult (yikes, it’s scary to type that out!), I’m less concerned about understanding my own ethnicity and identity, and more interested to see the broader Christian culture demonstrate greater awareness and inclusion of the Asian American voice. I also want to challenge Asian American Christians to let go of cultural influences in their lives (both from Western and Asian culture) that are not God-honoring, and that encourage a particular definition of success and accomplishment that is more culturally- rather than biblically-defined. I’m excited and hopeful that this blog can be one vehicle to see these “wants” lived out, and honored to be a part of this group of contributors!

Please find me on Facebook, follow me on Twitter, or visit my website! I look forward to getting to know you better.

What Are You?

“What are you?”
“Don’t you mean who?”
“No! What are you?”

This is the question I get asked most often when meeting someone new. Some are bold enough to just come out and ask while others are a bit more circuitous, not unlike the “So where are you really from?” question. But as grammatically incorrect as “What are you?” is, theologically it is the right question. As a noun I am a Christian. As an adjective, now that’s a little more complicated. Here is what makes up my who.

I am Daniel (Dan, Danny) Sung Un (Spirit Grace) Pyon. As was true in the days of old, my name defines me in many respects. Due to circumstances surrounding my birth, my father prayed that if God would save me he would give me back to Him as a pastor, thus my name. Such a decision would cause him to go from riches to rags. When I was 5, my parents decided to leave S. Korea and we (me and my 3 older sisters) moved to the US (NY). I grew up in the suburbs of NY where we were one of the few minorities in our neighborhood. My best friends were all white and I recalled spending most of my summers sleeping over and even attending their family reunions. But I never really felt out of place. On the weekends I would see other Koreans at church, but we had to drive over an hour to get there.

My personal calling to ministry was confirmed early on and since 14 I have been doing urban and youth ministry. I experienced my first ministry burnout at 17 giving you an indication of the level of commitment. From early on I have had the privilege of being mentored by some of the top thinkers and practitioners in the areas of urban and youth ministry.

So what makes people ask, “what are you?” Well, I guess it’s because I am a Twinkie from the suburbs of NY who ministers to both the suburbs and the ghettos, whites, blacks and everything in between, have a number of degrees: BA from Brandeis University (MA) (majoring in African American Studies, History, and Sociology), a M.Div. from Westminster Theological Seminary (PA), and a D.Min (Urban Missions) specializing in Glocalizing Urban Youth Culture from WTS (PA), consultant for academic institutions, churches, and NPO yet still love doing youth ministry. I think you get the idea.

Currently I run a ministry called OURS where much of our work is in the area of consulting. Michael Mata (former director of urban development and corporate engagement for World Vision) and I provide consulting for churches, universities, and NPOs in the areas of community, urban, and youth engagement.

My top 5 strengths are Ideation, Achiever, Strategic, Activator, and Input. But simply, I hope to convey my heart as a pastor, my mind as an academic, and my hands and feet as a Christian trying to best live out the high calling of loving God and loving others.

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!


Where are you from? DJ Chuang

As we start a new season here at Next GenerAsian Church, our team of contributors have reconnected and been reinvigorated to continue this team blog as a place for stories and conversations about faith and culture. Even though this blog had been dormant for quite some time, its appearance in the Top 200 Church Blogs list signaled significant interest in this blog’s topics.

To launch this new season, we’ll have a round of introductions from each of the contributors. By sharing our back stories, we hope this humanizes and personalizes our voices as we drill-down into issues regarding faith and culture.

Most of us Asian Americans have been asked the question, “Where are you from?” And that’s sometimes followed by “Where are you really from?” when wanting to find out someone’s ethnic identity. This can be annoying or offensive for some.

Let’s re-frame that question. I’ll share where I’m from, and where I’m coming from.

My name is DJ Chuang and I’m from Orange County, California. Moved here 4 years ago from metro Washington DC. I came to America when I was 8 years old; my family immigrated from Taiwan; I’m the oldest of 3 boys. My parents are Chinese, so our family was fairly traditional and not religious. Our family ran a motel business in a humble small Virginia town. Life was practical, routine and mundane, and I thought that’s all there was to life: you go to school, graduate, get a job, get married, have children, lather, rinse and repeat. A very predictable narrative. Intuitively, I yearned for something more in life.

I discovered this as I learned about the Christian faith during my college years. After working as an engineer for a few years, I sensed a disconnect between my (English-speaking) Asian American friends and the typical church — be it the ethnic Asian church or mainstream mostly-Caucasian church.

Thus began my life journey to see if God might use me to make a difference. I took a leap of faith and went to seminary. I pastored for 5 years — 2 years in an ethnic Chinese church and 3 years in a multi-Asian/multi-ethnic church plant. I started blogging. I worked with a private family foundation to develop Asian American leadership.

Now I’m well into my 40s, and the same issues keep recurring about the bicultural tensions of being Asian and American, both at the same time. The mainstreaming of Asian America hasn’t resolved this dilemma (cf. 20-something freddiew describing the sigh from his Asian parents).

Supposedly, there is a surge of Asian American participation in college ministries and American churches, but you wouldn’t be able to tell from looking at Christian media and books and conferences. I’d like to think that being Asian American can be much more than just being Asian or just being American.

I believe how we live out our Christian faith is much more than prayer and Bible study and church attending and serving. There is a whole cultural and relational layer that’s has to be contextualized and incarnationalized into our lived theology. That is, an Asian American Christian marriage and an Asian American Christian family will look different in its practical theology because of its cultural and relational context.

More specifically, 2 issues I’m particularly passionate about (or, burdened for) are: 1stly, how we relate to one another. How can Asian American Christians better demonstrate reconciliation, conflict resolution, forgiveness, and restoring relationships? And, 2ndly, how we can accept and value the average Asian American person and the broken-hearted too. There’s an ugly side of Asian cultures that devalues those who don’t get the top grades, have superb performance, and/or attaining social status, not to mention those who are struggling with life, be it mental illness, addictions, hurts, and hangups. In Christ, we have nothing to prove and no one to impress. That’s good news! And we have a long ways to live that out as Asians and Asian Americans.

I’m glad there’s a place online like Next Gener.Asian Church to have these vital conversations to flesh out our faith in a richer and more fully-textured manner. There’s much to talk about — let’s get on with it!