I was driving the old maroon Previa up the peninsula on I-280, a trip I had taken so many times in my years as a Bay Area resident, but remains fresh every time I am on that road. The rains had just fallen and it just so happened that the hills that are usually brown, burnt by the sun, were glowing with a vibrant green. The oaks were barren but gleamed with a lime green from the sun reflecting off of the lichen that bore heavy on the trees. On the left, we could see the fog from Half Moon Bay slowly crawling over the evergreen-covered coastal mountains. The conversation I was having with my friend in the passenger seat stilled as we reflected on the peaceful joy that emerges from scenes such as this.
Peaceful joy. hm.
This past week, I was in the San Francisco Bay Area for the Asian American Staff Conference for InterVarsity. I had been expecting it to be a place of peace and joy. It had been at this conference where I was invited to attend as a student guest, that I first started really got serious about considering that InterVarsity Staff was going to be God’s call into ministry for me. And after spending so much time in a ministry context so devoid of Asian Americans (but still several there, you just have to look hard), being at this conference in the Bay Area, where I grew up, should have felt like returning home. Perhaps that was why I didn’t feel peace and joy.
Yes, I walked into that conference- a place where 3 years ago I would have felt complete comfort in…- totally uncomfortable. I felt tension. I felt lonely even though everyone else around me looked so similar to me! I had grown up all my life in situations like this! This place that should have been the epitome of my feeling of “home”… resulted only in my own disorientation.
And not just in conferences… As I sat there uncomfortable in the back of the room during the first session, my memories wandered back to a few weeks prior as I sat in my grandparent’s house in San Diego’s City Heights, trying futilely to help them out as they labored to prepare Chinese New Year’s dinner for me. This was the same house they had moved into when they first immigrated to the States in the 70’s as a cook and a laundromat worker. The age of the house showed with grease stains on the kitchen walls and the carpet worn where my grandparents had grown accustomed to walking on. Usually I try not to help my grandparents prepare food. They get mad because for them, service, hospitality and food are how they show love to me, and they don’t want to be stolen that opportunity because they don’t usually have much to give in a red envelope to me. This time though, my grandma’s blood sugar had gotten low and she was sweating so much she had to change clothes, and my grandpa’s leg was undergoing some sort of pain that made walking almost impossible if it weren’t for his old aged pride used as a mask in an attempt to hide his inadequacy that night. As I attempted to offer help, I tried to ask them what I could do in cantonese… and what once flowed out of me so naturally felt like I was coughing out clumsy bricks of words, stripped of the intricate 7-9 tones that makes the cantonese so warm and alive to me.
It’s created this nagging and haunting thought… in the attempt of being incarnational and missional to a community of whites, blacks, latinos, philippinos and samoans, am I losing my own Chinese identity? In theory, being missional and being a blessing to those outside of our own communities should not steal from our identity but actually should help us discover what it really means to be whoever we are… because that’s what we were created for. It’s so beautiful in theory…
…but it’s so hard in reality. When I get endless jokes about me being a kung fu master, a ninja, a panda, jackie chan, etc… I feel cornered into two options that I don’t like- either directly get really angry and frustrated at people and have nobody understand why I’m so angry at them or passive-aggressively swallow it in a slow simmering resentment against my own Chinese identity.
And so I find my own identity dissolving, fracturing and decentralizing in ways that horrify me but am powerless to stop. Joy and peace… is something that I realize i’ve gotten used to not having when it comes to my identity.
But then as I write those words, Alexi Murdoch’s song “orange sky” comes up on the shuffle, with that simple repeating refrain I could listen to endlessly, “…in your love, my salvation lies, in your love, my salvation lies, in your love, in your love…” I remember John 15, the verse we dwelled on several weeks ago during our retreat of silence- and the majestic whisper that kept beckoning me, “Remain in my love.” I remember marvelling that God prunes the branches that bear fruit… so they could bear more fruit. Not as punishment, and not so that they would bear less fruit.
Could it really be true that God is pruning my identity? That He is pruning my identity as a Chinese-American so that I could be even more fruitful in my identity as a Chinese-American? Could there really be fruitfulness as a result of this sense of identity-barrenness?
True joy and peace in the midst of this journey of identity formation cannot be in the flux of my identity, but in the hope built upon His unchanging, unswerving and unrelenting love which is the very force that has taken me on this journey in the first place. A hope that this journey does not lead me to a place of identity sublimation, but to a place where my identity no longer stands in the way of me being a blessing to others… but on the contrary becomes the very means in which i can be a blessing to everyone I meet in this multicultural world.
In the midst of this tension and reverse culture shock, I choose to remain.
…in Your love, my salvation lies…