Category Archives: Asian-American

On Speaking Out Against Starbucks (or “…all I really wanted was some coffee”)

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My bad panaroma picture on the day I was at starbucks

Recently, I was doing some catch up on my yelp reviews and decided to write about a recent experience I had during my visit to Seattle at Starbucks’ cutting edge new coffee shop that showcased modern coffee techniques and rare coffee beans (link). I had experienced a rather unpleasant brush with some racist jokes by a corporate employee there, and thought it’d be good to write about it in my review. It wasn’t a new thing for me- in my years working in North County San Diego, I’ve had many instances of minority micro-aggression, and Yelp had been one of the places where I could express my frustrations at the experiences of prejudice and racism being one of the few Asian-Americans in a military town… And usually, my reviews would get a couple chuckles, but would simply get lost in the cacophony of the cloud. I didn’t think anyone paid attention.

I closed my computer, and proceeded to pack for a spring break camp that I was staffing for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, the organization that I work with. It was out of cell phone range and there was limited wifi there for only official business.

Imagine my surprise when I went online to send a quick time-sensitive work email to see that I had created a medium disturbance in the Asian-American internet world. My yelp review had been shared multiple times on Facebook. I had interview requests from a couple news outlets. I was featured on the Angry Asian Man blog, an extremely respected blog and voice for Asian America (of which I frequently read as well). All of a sudden my review with questionable grammar was being shared and I was a mediocre viral celebrity.

Resonse From Others

I’ve gotten a lot of responses from people about the review. They fall in these categories:

  • Skepticism: “How can we trust you?” Yes, I know- Yelping is not the most reputable platform (chefs publicly rant about entitled yelpers all the time). And no, I don’t have hard data- I have only my experience. This has been an interesting response from a few people- I saw some comments in which the sharer’s friend was convinced I was lying or that the corporate employee was in fact just some guy in a suit who wanted to be racist to me. Although things could very well be proved (I could find the barista, I could find the security tapes…), and I have a very solid reputation as a yelp reviewer (I have been an elite for 4 years), when it is a story of injustice, somehow it’s instilled in us to not trust the story of the victim. It was a small taste of victim-blaming and voice delegitimization that happens in situations of abuse, prejudice and racism. It’s interesting how our society can quickly cover up real injustice by relegating it to the imagination of the victim. It’s also interesting that I felt tempted to fall in line with those accusations. However I will stand by what I said with clear conscience- I did not make this up. My experience was real and not imagined.
  • Shock and Anger: “How could this happen?” Other reactions were reactions of horror. How could this happen in Seattle, one of the most diverse cities in America? How could a corporate employee not know that his comments were not appropriate that his joke insinuating that my friend and I were Chinese spies was not funny but hurtful? How could Starbucks, a company that claims to be so progressive, allow such a bad miss by its corporate representative? “Let’s boycott Starbucks!” “They better repay you… or sue them.” While I am angry with my friends at this situation… it also opens a window into the state of our “post-racial” society. You see- I was angry, but for me, having lived in a community without that many Asian-Americans for 7 years, I had self-destructively bottled up my anger in a state of internal micro-aggression. The shock and anger, on one hand, revealed how hidden the everyday forces of racism were to many of my friends and community. On the other hand, it revealed how, out of my own internalization of anger, I had began to delegitimize my own voice and anger by silencing it in myself.
  • Relief: “Thank you.” But in the midst of all of this, I noticed another sound in the chaotic response to my yelp review- a sigh of relief. I realized I had tapped into a common experience that many Asian Americans and other minorities in America have experienced- and that they, like me, had began to internalize it in resignation to the prejudice and racism that they experience every day. It was a sigh of gratitude that at least something was being paid attention to, in a time in our country where heinous examples of racial injustice are just swept under the rug and kept from trial. And no- the stupid jokes I got are nothing compared to the treatment of my Latin@ friends as second class citizens or the trauma my black brothers and sisters have experienced in this last year with the multiple counts of untried violence against their young men- but we are all disserviced by the false narrative of our postracial society that attempts to put a whitewash over our stories of racial injustice when we decide to ignore our stories of pain, no matter how big or small. A wound won’t heal if you hide it from the doctor… instead, it festers and gets infected. Healing and reconciliation won’t come from a cover-up, but it comes from exposing it so it can be cleaned, dressed and healed. Perhaps the sigh of relief was from seeing that an experience similar to their own was actually paid attention to.

“So… What do you want from this?”

That was the question that a news reporter recently asked me when interviewing me about this. In reality, I hadn’t written the review with any real motive to get anything from Starbucks. It was just a review, one of the many that I write- some better, some worse. Really, I didn’t have a set goal for what I wanted– but after having this whole thing blow up, it’s made me really think about what I want out of this.

Jokingly, a lot of my friends have talked about how much free stuff I’m going to get and to share “shut-up” money if it comes to that. In fact, a customer service representative from Starbucks has already been in conversation with me and has promised a “gift” to me on my starbucks card (which hasn’t shown up…  but eh Edit: $50 appeared in my account last night) as they further investigate what happened at the Starbucks Roastery. And hey- honestly, I’m addicted to coffee, and I’ll take it… but reparation is not what I want.

Some wonder how far I really want to take this. It’s not really an Asian American value to speak up- you don’t want to be the nail that sticks out, because it will be hammered down. We value peace and harmony, not speaking up. But if there’s one conviction I have gained working with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, building and advancing multiethnic witnessing communities- it’s that sweeping things under the rug is not real peace. That fake kind of harmony is nice and pretending it didn’t happen would be a lot less stress… but I won’t settle for that.

The peace that my religious convictions as a Christian speak of are rooted in the Hebrew concept of shalom– a peace that comes from wholeness on every level- physical, emotional, social and spiritual. Shalom is translated as peace, but it is also translated as justice- and justice is something deeper than a surface level image of “diversity”. Shalom hurts because it demands real engagement with pain and systemic injustice. Shalom requires self-sacrifice. The peace talked about in my faith is a peace that was bought by a God who chose to fully engage and immerse Himself in personal and systemic evil head-on by being with us in our brokenness as Jesus and even became a victim of it Himself. It is from this self-sacrifice that He conquered evil and death in order to afford us not just surface level peace and harmony, but deep reconciliation and wholeness.

This is what I want- I want real dialogue about race. I actually admire Starbucks for being a corporate entity that desires to take progressive stands of inclusion. I admire their desire to have the race conversations in their #RaceTogether campaign. But if they really want to engage in subjects like race and inclusion, it’s going to take more than corporate policies and PR campaigns. It needs to start from the deep places where racist tendencies fester because we don’t talk about it. It needs to start from speaking in truth about stories of hurt… and allowing the chance for reconciliation. This is what I want- I want Starbucks to live up to its progressive outside image. As a Christian, I want to see shalom- complete wholeness and reconciliation. I speak up not to complain- yelpers get a lot of bad press for being entitled whiners. I also am not speaking up just to rock the boat just for rocking’s sake, just disturbing everyone around me with rage and frustration. I speak up because I recognize my responsibility as a citizen to offer my story up for the good of society. I speak up out of responsibility as a Christian who has been captured by the dream of not just surface level peace, but of deep shalom and wholeness in relationships, including with this corporate employee who humiliated me… I have compassion on him.

Because really, all I want is a real conversation with that corporate employee, to hear his story, and to maybe offer a glimpse of what that dream of deep shalom and reconciliation could look like in real life outside of a publicity campaign or a company policy- and maybe we could do it over a cup of coffee.

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On the run (i.e., a window into Daniel’s self-therapy)

…left, right, left right…

…breathe in, breathe out…

I woke up this morning with this enormous weight of insecurity and inadequacy. After about an hour of moping, I realized I needed to get out and run.

Just as my physical legs were in need of movement under the cool overcast sky this morning, my mind needed to run itself out of this place.

Transition is hard. There are times I’m running full speed, not feeling… and then I stop and I realize how tired I can get. It’s tiring to navigate expectations. It’s tiring to try to adjust to those expectations. It’s tiring to realize that as I adjust to those expectations, it creates assumptions from others what my true self is… and then in turn causes me to take a double take on what I thought was the true me… I found myself ranting to my spiritual director that I wasn’t sure who I was anymore. The Bay Area is a strange place where, in Meyer’s Brigg’s language, people from high school know me as an INFP, my San Diego friends know me as an ENFJ and I have shown myself as an ENFP to those who work with me… well at least the one solid thing in me is the unpredictable intuitive emotion, and it’s probably what brings me to these places of heavy introspection so often. I find myself in constant culture shock- where the familiar I grew up with is so foreign. I find my cultural identity in flux as I must relearn what it means to indirectly communicate again, yet still engage a diverse spread of people around me who still communicate directly. It’s funny how my struggle in North County was all about feeling in between without a sense of “home”… and it seems that feeling has followed me back home.  It’s tiring to constantly put myself out there, not knowing what the results will be; if people will accept what I offer; if people will love me or hate me, or if I accidentally offended someone or stepped on someone’s toes…

As I turn the corner on the street, I start thinking on the past 2 or 3 years… As is usual when I’m in this mood, I start thinking of my regrets. My heart begins to race as I remember the friends I’ve left… some of the closest friends and intimate relationships I’ve ever had. I start to think about the ways that I must have disappointed people. Insecurity wraps around me  in a choking embrace…

But then that familiar whisper shakes me so violently yet gently… remember.

And I start to remember who I was… and who I am becoming. I am not the person I used to be. I am no longer that scared child. I am no longer that insecure unstable person going from one opinion or emotion to the next. I am a Chinese American man who has exposed every part of my identity on every level to the harsh death of the cross and have experienced the rush of resurrection power in my life. And who I am becoming… is a man who is confident in the cultural identity as a Chinese American that God has given me; a man who passionately pursues the lost; a man who stands as an advocate for those who do not look like me, communicate like me or live like me; a man who empowers women, partners with them and has been blessed to be led by them; a man who prays prophetically with vision no matter how unlikely that vision is; a man who has passionately loved the “long-shots” like the community college and dared to risk feeling the pain when even my best efforts backfire at me. I am a man that is courageous enough to risk bringing everything I have confidently to the table, even when I know there is chance for rejection, pain and loss… because I am not defined by those things but by His love.

…And it was as if I wasn’t breathing this whole time and my lungs forgot how to pump air in and out, all while running full speed ahead… and I finally gasped for the air that my heart needed. I gasped for the only Voice I needed to listen to.

…breathe in, breathe out…

…left, right, left, right…

And as I turned the final corner with my house and broke into a sprint, I was filled with this strange sense… pushing through and throwing off the shame and self-critique I often find myself in and that so easily entangles myself, especially coming from such a self-deprecating culture…

…I realized…

…I’m proud of who I’m becoming.

On Growing Up

I’ve been thinking about growing up lately; what it means to become a man.

Perhaps this has been stirred up by the new job. The learning curve is steep. There are challenges and demands that I had not realized would be so difficult. The stakes are real and Uncle Ben’s words to Spiderman- With great power comes great responsibility- often ring through my head. The pressure to perform is oppressive… (although most of it probably comes from myself).

…But I suppose that’s just on the surface.

Recently, one of my mentors in ministry passed away. It was a sudden and unexpected death, with a sudden complication of pneumonia that left him in the hospital battling complication after complication for a whole year. He went to be with his Heavenly Father just a few weeks ago.

Uncle Ed was the pastor who supervised my first paid job in ministry as an intern at San Jose Christian Alliance Church. Of course, he was much more than just a pastor in my life… his family was extremely close to my family, and some of his children I consider lifelong friends. Our relationship during my time as an intern transformed into that of a father and a son. I considered Uncle Ed to be one of my spiritual fathers. During his memorial, I thought of the hours of meetings we had during that summer. I remember feeling empowered by him. I remember Pastor Ed believing in my potential and calling out the baggage I was too prideful to admit I carried. I remember other times feeling annoyed at his judgment calls… only to find that they were usually right. I remember experiencing the beginnings of caffeine addiction because of all the coffee Uncle Ed offered to me every morning. I remember the many years after that internship, how every time I came home, his office was open and we always made sure to get coffee and catch up.

…and I remembered, as we heard stories about Uncle Ed, as we laughed, as our eyes grew moist… how much I will miss him. And in the midst of missing Uncle Ed, I realized the breadth of his spiritual influence… and heard in the subtext a small divine whisper challenge myself and the whole room of 1000+ friends and family, “He has fought the good fight… now who will rise and continue the fight?

One of my current supervisors recently was talking to me how, anecdotally, the coming of age for Asian American males seems to come at the passing of a parent. I remembered this during the memorial service… and realized, it’s time to grow up.

It’s time for me to grow up.

I recently had the opportunity to lead a Sunday school discussion on Ferguson. This was unexpected, and I was really encouraged at the opportunity. I felt like the man. I felt like I had finally arrived at a place of influence. It felt strangely affirming to have a platform to speak on something that I felt passionate about that I wasn’t sure others were even aware of. It was encouraging to share the ways God had shaped and formed my heart for racial reconciliation over the years, through mistakes and victories, laughter and wounds. I felt invincible.

…how fragile my invincibility was. Of course, Ferguson is a divisive issue at a Chinese church, and not everyone would agree with me… I heard one small negative comment (and I’m not sure it was even directed at me), and I completely imploded. I crashed, and folded into a mess of a victim, feeling like the entire world was against me. My “adulthood” felt squashed and threatened. I retreated in fear.

This morning i was discussing with a planter that I coach about the loneliness of leadership. They say that the higher you go in leadership, the more self-leadership is required of yourself. That self-leadership requires so much strength and courage… to stand up against discouragement in a posture of surrender to God’s grace and to proclaim with tenacity at the situation, that, as Paul said:

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

As we mature, the people who can encourage with those words become less and less… and we have to know it in our own hearts, as the number of people we can call peers shrink.

…but sometimes even a grown man could use some encouragement.

I wallowed in self pity for 2-3 weeks after I heard that negative comment. I felt zombie-like going to church, a little discouraged. But at the end of the service, one of the older members of the church- part of my parents and Uncle Ed’s group who had been part of the church for years- pulled me aside. Our conversation went (paraphrased, by the way), “Daniel, we wanted to tell you in person. Thank you so much for having that discussion a few weeks ago on Ferguson. It’s exactly what we wanted to say… but we are too old now.” I tried to tell them that they weren’t too old, and that it wasn’t too late… but they wouldn’t have it. They interrupted me and said, “Our time is passing. We believe it’s time for the younger generation to stand up, and it will be your generation that can say the things that you have said.”

Here’s what I am learning so far about being a Christian adult; no longer a child, but an adult- a man or woman in the Kingdom of God:

  • An adult stands up for what they know God has laid in their hearts- not for themselves and their own glory or reputation, but because it is what God has laid on their hearts, and they are obedient to that still voice.
  • An adult throws off the victim mentality knowing that they have been set free by God’s love in every level of their being, and do not have to fear failure or disappointment.
  • An adult becomes an adult not by “powering up” or even hard work… an adult becomes an adult by surrendering to God’s grace in the midst of weakness and failure.
  • An adult is someone who has allowed the kingdom narrative of God’s conquering, covenant love to burn in their hearts… and who has ears sensitive enough to hear it from outside themselves when that burning seems absent.

And Hebrews 12 rings in my mind…

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

I’m realizing there are so many things to throw off that entangle me in this life of ministry. My “edgy” jokes just to be “edgy”. My self centeredness. My pride. My ranting at situations instead of directly engaging them. My love for comfort. My love for being the center of attention. I’ve held onto these things because I figured there were those above me that could cover up for my shortcomings… but I’m realizing that they aren’t there anymore to shield me, but the few that are there are cheering me on in the journey… They are pushing me to become the man I was meant to be and to look towards that man- Jesus, whose version of manhood was not about becoming powerful, but was about enduring suffering and shame for the sake of the true glory of knowing and living in the inexhaustible love of being in the presence of God. They are urging me to strive and push forward… not in the way the world tells us to become workaholics, but the hard work of surrender and accepting grace- a surrender that Jean Pierre Caussade describes hyperbolically as a “holy apathy”. A holy apathy towards the immature ways I have faked “ministry” and to set my eyes full of passion towards the goal- to become a child of God.

To become an adult in the kingdom of God is to become a child of God.

To become an adult in the kingdom of God is to look towards the unchanging God and to stand upon Him as the rock of my life…

When I was praying for my decision to enter full-time ministry, I picked up an unusually clean stone from the muddy field after the rain. The Lord reminded me that as I enter full-time ministry, I must stand on Christ the Rock as my foundation (1 Cor 10:4). People and situation may change, but He is unchanging. Christ is our living memorial, yesterday today and forever.

-Pastor Ed Kwong, “Living Memorial”- Words for SJCAC’s 30th Anniversery, 2005.  http://www.sjcac.org/eng/info/articles/ekwong2005.php

…It’s time for me to grow up.

Some interpretation

I usually don’t tell people what my art means… it takes a lot of trust to let somebody into the motivation of some of my art. My art is not necessarily about skill (there are many more talented artists than I… I usually joke that I do modern abstract art because it requires less skill… it’s true.), but about catharsis, release and unburdening. They are prayers that I lay before the Lord. They are psalms in visual format… So it’s a little nerve-wrecking to let people into that space. But in the meantime, I allow people to see the final product, and I’m often interested in how the art affects them. Sometimes it shines new light on my work that I didn’t see before. I’m always fascinated at how interpretation transforms from individual to individual, and how it will affect my own interpretation, even though I myself am the creator of that piece…

…That being said, I have decided I should provide some interpretation to the last piece I painted. Here it is:

Stains on pavement Torn Asunder What will be released? Is there treasure underneath?

Stains on pavement
Torn Asunder
What will be released?
Is there treasure underneath?

The Ferguson decision was made on Monday night. I made this painting on Wednesday night, after realizing how exhausted I was from the constant stream of news, to seeing communities in pain, to figuring out how to talk to my immediate friends and family about it all.

The initial connection to the shooting of Michael Brown is obvious. I used an acrylic gravel medium to make a pavement effect on the canvas. I spread it randomly, imperfectly, brokenly… because that was what I was seeing in the system that had perpetuated this all. I used a tar-gel solution to create the red stain on this broken pavement. This was the stain that was left by Michael Brown’s body on Canfield Dr… But it represents more- it’s the stain on the community that surrounded it. It’s the stain that was there before the bullets penetrated Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant… and many others. It’s the stain of fear. It’s the stain of oppression, of systemic bloodshed that has a 400+ year history. It’s the stain we keep trying to cover up, saying that it ended in the ’60’s with the civil rights movement. It’s the stain that one can hear screaming from the pavement, crying out for justice. It’s a scream that I have heard in the sigh of black students and leaders I have partnered with in ministry. It’s a scream I, as an Asian American, have agreed with but tried to silence because there was no context in my culture for anger and loud protest. It’s a scream, that although intense, I have recognized as an invitation to listen in partnered compassion instead of the comfortable saving face action of silence and ignorance.

And the torn canvas…

I was at a prayer vigil in Berkeley the night after the decision was announced not to try the officer in court. It was moving to be part of a community that mourned. At one point of the service, we spent 4 minutes and 32 seconds in silence as an act of reflection and lament for the 4 hours and 32 minutes that Michael Brown’s body was left out in the open on the street. After that, we were each given strips of cloth. As an act of lament at these events, following with the Jewish tradition of tearing your clothes when in mourning, we tore those strips of cloth as an act of lament. At first, it was silence again… but then one tear. Then another. Then the whole room was filled with the shredding of cloth. The sound was echoing off the walls of the church. Black, Asian, Latino, White… the sound was deafening. It reminded me of the prophet Joel’s cry, to “rend your hearts, not your clothing”… unlike Israel, the sound of tearing in that room was not a fake repentance. I heard beneath the shredding of the strips of cloth the sounds of people’s hearts tearing and rending before the Lord. We then, one by one, tied our torn strips to a wire-mesh cross in the front. It was beautiful:

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As an Asian American, we have many positive parts of our culture… but often, the way we are taught to mourn is silence. It was moving to be invited into a more open type of lament. I am learning to openly lament- as an act of solidarity with others and as an act of bringing our sorrows before the Lord, to the cross where He defeated our sorrow.

Later that night, I was reading a post from one of my former students, Jon. In it, he wrote to his fellow black brothers and sisters:

In the midst of all of this I still remain hopeful. Some ask; will this be the event that begins to wake black America up? Others remain less than optimistic. To all of those who remain cynical, who have given in to hopelessness, who feel empty, who can not see an end, I URGE you, once again to examine history. History has shown time and time again that under the most grim circumstances, our people not only rise to the occasion, but create a path, an outline, a blueprint for the rest of us to follow. So instead of looking from a deficit, ask yourself, what will we create this time. #‎ferguson

The hope he had was inspiring- it was a call to face the reality of brokenness in the world around us, and in the midst of lament and mourning, to activate our imagination and creativity and continue to work as a people who declare and make the Kingdom of God a reality, despite the crap we see around us.

As I reflected on this, I remembered that it was not just an old testament practice to tear one’s clothing… it was a new testament thing as well. When Jesus, wrongfully accused by the majority and sentenced to death while innocent, was brutally killed by an oppressive occupying force that had created a system of fear and dominance over his people on a cross and breathed his last breath, it was recorded that the veil in the temple all of a sudden violently tore in two from the top to the bottom. On one level pointed to God Himself rending his garments in grief at the death of His son. We serve a God who also had his son unjustly killed. Other theologians, however, talk about how this simultaneously destroyed the barrier to the holy of holies- that out of this grief, God tore down the very thing that separated people from the presence of God. The greek word in the Mark account for tearing was only used once  before- when the heavens tore open during Jesus’ baptism and a voice declared that this was His son, whom he loved. The tearing of the veil made the same sound as the presence of God tearing into our reality, a symbol of God’s presence released to be accessible for all.

As I tore the canvas of my  painting and reflected on this, I prayed- Lord- make it so. Turn our mourning into a release of Your Spirit. Turn it into new expressions of Your kingdom, breaking through and tearing apart the unjust realities that we live in. Retrieve and reveal the created goodness in this world that has been so long twisted and torn up by both the systemic and personal sins of racism. We need your kingdom to tear into our reality, God. Only You, oh Lord can do this. Lord, have mercy.

Finally, this painting is my feeble attempt at remaining a person who pursues justice. In this transition here to the Bay Area, it’s been really easy to default into “it’s not around me, so I don’t have to care”, especially living in the middle of the Silicon Valley. My old allies and partners in the multiethnic journey are no longer near me, so there hasn’t been anyone to bother me to keep pressing in. The Lord has been repeatedly reminding me in the last several weeks that those excuses are not good enough. All that the Lord had taught me about what it meant to be a cross-cultural Asian American who cared for the issues of people who didn’t look like me during all those years working with my students at MiraCosta- they weren’t just for my first years on staff, but remain my calling as I continue in ministry. As I move into more management positions, I have already felt the temptation to remain distant to the things I once fought for.

This painting was a personal confession before the Lord. The tearing of the fabric was not just for the issues but was me rending my heart to the Lord- my personal expression, my heart, my inner being. It was me saying, “Lord- continue to break my heart for the things that break Your’s.” It was a prayer, asking the Lord to give me courage once again to seek out the cross cultural partnerships that keep me from being comfortable but reveal the full richness of the gospel. It was a prayer to the Lord, confessing my propensity towards using my privilege to hide from the brokenness around me, and to help me once again to be an agent of Kingdom reconciliation and healing that comes in the wake of the power of the Gospel. It’s a prayer, not only for the stains of blood on the pavement and the stains of racism… but for the stains of ignorance and fear on my own heart.

What can wash away our stains?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus…

——-

Yes, I know- many of you don’t agree with me. The challenge of my piece is not to agree with me or the voices in defense of Michael Brown. It is this- sit and listen compassionately, not critically. Before you judge, lament with those who lament; listen to why they lament before you judge, and be open to what it might do to you…

…Still disagree after that? Fair… but please- Sit and listen first.

Ranch 99

I drove into the crowded parking lot. Cars are “parked” (more like strewn about) in strange patterns that generally follow the patterns of the parking lot lines. I see mothers pushing carts laden with food for their families towards their cars.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been here.

I park and walk in. I walk straight to Sam Woo. No, it’s not the best Chinese food… but there’s something homey about the place. I stand in line. As if an act of recognition and welcome, the man behind the counter purposefully skipped the white man in front of me and pointed at me.

I replied, “Cha sieu fan.” The words felt clumsy coming out of my lips. English had been forming the muscles in mouth, and the old forgotten muscles, tones, sounds, and inflections wanted to come out… but it was like running for the first time after a long period of no exercise… painful yet exhilarating.

I walked out, glad that my lack of practice in Cantonese wasn’t tipped off to the rude cashier lady.

But much like after a first run in a long time… I realized I needed more. With the sweet BBQ pork with rice and savory sauce in a plastic bag, I turned around from heading back to my car and walked into the fray.

The produce section was filled with people touching and testing the veggies. It brought me back to times at the dinner table when my mom had to negotiate with me to finish eating my veggies, to at least get one down my throat. Ironically, as I walked past the fruits and towards these vegetables, I missed the gai lan, the bok choy, the luk dao…

I strolled towards the meat section. There were cuts of meat that I was so familiar with and missed. There was that familiar smell… the smell of wet markets in China where you weren’t sure if you were smelling fresh meat or rotting meat. There were people haggling in different dialects of Chinese and other various languages over fish and pork… Ah yes. The fish. This was my favorite part of the market as a child. I loved seeing the live seafood swimming around. I would always try to convince my mom to buy a cat fish, my favorite fish to eat as a child. I remember the wonder and excitement I would have as the worker would grab the net, capture a big catfish and then take it to the back and clean it for us. I remember the grumbling of my stomach as I smelled the catfish steaming on the stove, with green onions and ginger; finished off at the end with a mixture of sweet seafood soy sauce and hot oil with crisped up ginger or garlic. I loved how the skin tastes… Recently I went to buy some salmon fillets at an American market. I asked the butcher to scale it for me. He looked back at me confused- “Oh, so you want me to take off the skin?” “No. Scale it.” “Skin it?” “No. I like the skin, please just scrape off the scales!” The butcher sighed in confusion and attempted to scale the filets… he left half the scales on and I had to finish the job for him at home.

I periodically become painfully aware of how in between I am. All of this here has so much nostalgia that pulls me back to my roots of where I came from… but I’m no longer there. My cantonese wants to spill out of my mouth in a smooth torrent of communicative lyricism, but comes out in dilapidated dry chunks of clumsy sound waves. My heart is caught in a state of homelessness.

I don’t always feel safe sharing my culture where I’m at. I have a tired rage within me at times. I’m tired of explaining how I communicate. I’m tired of people looking at me like I’m crazy for talking about how things happen for an Asian. I’m tired of people asking me about the missions field in China when they don’t realize that they themselves are my mission field at the moment, not China. I’m tired of explaining why I don’t like Jackie Chan or being called a ninja. I get tired of having to confront directly every single time at such a great intensity and having to train myself to look directly into the aggressor’s eyes… and I’m tired of having to remind myself that their directness does not mean that they hate me, they are probably just trying to understand.

But at the same time, I am not where I used to be. It’s not just the language I’m no longer as fluent in. I’ve lost my sensitivity to face. I tell people more directly than I used to that they are wrong because I’ve just gotten impatient. I don’t fight for bills too often anymore. I forget that sometimes just the words “thank you” once don’t really mean “thank you” until you’ve said it 5 million times (same thing with “sorry”).  I’ve stopped waiting to be invited into leadership all the time, I’ve had to learn how to fight and stand up for myself instead of worrying about the shame and pride of an entire group, family, community or culture.

But I must keep trying to remind myself- where I was is not home. Where I am at is not home. Where I will be in the next season is not home. These spatial-temporal loci we call seasons have formed the lenses from which I view the journey and look for home, but they are definitely not home. Home is much more fluid than I want it to be- It hasn’t come yet, but it is with me. It’s not a place but a posture towards a Presence. Heaven is my home. I chuckle to myself as I wrestle with how hard it is to follow the very advice I usually give my students, “Don’t fear the tension or lack of answers and run away. Face it. Wrestle with it. Sit in it. Embrace it. You might even find God there.”

In this season, every time I have complained about feeling out of place anywhere I am at, no matter if the people look like me or not, I have felt the strong response of that Presence remind me that the only place I will ever be at home is in YHWH’s “hesed”- covenantal love. A promise is a promise, and He doesn’t back down from a promise.

And as I turn the corner towards the hot food and the bakery, I realize it’s time for me to leave the familiar sights and smells that I grew up with.

I let out my melancholy in a sigh. I miss these things.

But I’m reminded that I haven’t left it all behind.  I still take my heritage with me to where I am called, it’s not something God requires I leave behind, but is something He redeems for others.

The smell of cha sieu fan slowly fills my car as the Highway 5 takes me north- back to Oceanside.

An Addendum

I was told a couple of times I made some pretty hard hits on white church in my last entry. I wanted to make a few comments along those lines. It’s a little different from what I usually write, but I think these things should be said.

1. Was it too heavy handed? It may have been. But these are real thoughts that bounce around in any person’s head in cross cultural interactions (they call it red-lining in InterVarsity missions training, read about it here). What I was trying to capture was my “red-line” posture, in which I approach differences negatively. Now, just because it is common or “real” doesn’t make my rant very right. I should have put in a clear disclaimer that my posture was not a good one (And I do write later how God had to change my posture), and perhaps didn’t need to put all the details of my thoughts there. But this is the type of “red-lining” that I have to guard my heart against each day when I’m in North County- a culture that is not my own, but God has called me to make my own. That’s a huge part of missions- making the decision not to approach differences badly and to see and call out the created beauty within the culture we are called to. When we stop seeing the beauty, we fail the mission of missions.

2. Was I making too many generalities about cultures? Yes and no. Yes in that culture is full of generality- in fact, it’s not about the individual, but the collectivized and generalized actions of many individuals. But culture is slippery. It’s hard to pin down what is Asian culture, white culture, black culture, Latino culture, etc… The descriptions of white culture and Asian culture I had were synthesized from my own personal experiences that constructed specific schema for me to operate out of and assume out of. See, that’s the thing- culture is not only the actions and ideas of the group, but the perceptions of the observing individual. And then let’s not forget the unique and anomalous decisions of individuals which will always aberrate from the constructed assumptions (from within and outside) of that culture. Actually the point of the previous entry was to point out that things are easy to hate and be annoyed at (or on the flip-side have a very ignorant type of paternalistic love for) when we refuse to see the nuanced individual aberrations from culture and just pure surprises when we actually take time to get to know the individuals of a different culture.

3. So are white people evil? There is a long history of oppression by white westerners towards the rest of the world. As individualist as a white person wants to be and say that they are separate from their history, it simply is not true. We are all part of our histories, and our histories are what have put us in our specific present places (geographically, socially, etc.). Subsequently, a lot of the expressions of white culture (even when expressed healthily!) are tainted with that history from a minority’s point of view. So yes, white people are evil… but not anymore evil than any other group of people. NT Wright writes that good and evil is not a line between good and evil people, but a line that runs down the center of every single human heart. Every single person or people group has the same potential towards sin, and we all share a common history in sin with Adam and Eve. The oppressed can so easily become the oppressor. The question isn’t really if white people are evil… because the same stain of evil and sin is deep within every culture.

BUT THE GOOD NEWS: We were created by a good God, who originally saw creation and saw it good. Culture is part of that good creation. I serve a God that not only had good original intentions, but is constantly redeeming the fallen parts of our beings and cultures through the power of the cross and the resurrection. We, by ourselves, are suspended within a sinful system and are infected deep within with sin. He is the only one that can redeem us from being suspended within the endless cycles of oppression and sin.

Because I feel that white people get a lot of flack for how much they suck, I thought it would be good to put out a list of admirable things I have observed about white culture in these last several years. It is the created beauty that seems to shine out a lot in white american culture (again, refer to #2, these are generalizations, this is not all white americans, and many non-white people have these traits as well). In no particular order:

  1. Hard work and honesty- They value good hard work. It’s one of their core values. And yes, this value has been manipulated to work against others, but I think at its core, this is a good thing.
  2. Individualism- We love to hate individualism. But really, it’s something that that white American culture offers to us, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. I come from a culture of heavy communalism. In its best, we know how to be family and how to have hospitality towards the stranger. We know that we have to stand up for each other and protect each other. We know that we are all connected, and that no individual’s action is done in isolation. But at its worst, it’s easy to just go with the masses and make peace instead of actually standing up for what’s right, or just my own personality. Individualism helps me to make my faith my own, instead of just what everyone else is doing. Individualism helps me know that God has created me uniquely, not for selfish purposes, but to bless others around me. However, I (and everyone else) lose that blessing if I think that I have to be like everyone else. No, God has created us uniquely to be blessings to creation.
  3. Confrontation and truth- Similar to individualism, this is also one that people steer away from. I remember always wincing at the comfortability that some of my white friends and their families had with conflict. But coming from a culture in which our (good) peace keeping tendencies can easily turn to hiding the truth, not speaking up and just being plain silent when injustice is occuring… the expression of dissatisfaction is refreshing. White people have taught me how to be a brave prophet and speak truth, even if it will offend people. In its better form, confrontation helps us speak truth so that we can love even deeper and make even stronger peace.
  4. Indie music. Coffee. Homebrewing. haha i guess hipster culture in general (I always poke fun at it, but it’s really because I admire it).
  5. Engaging the mind. This is something I notice in white worship services. The worship leader gives just as much if not more theology than the pastor that is preaching the sermon! One of my students aptly observed- white people’s services are like a college lecture. It’s not about inspiration but learning. While I am a big fan of honoring God with the emotions (I’m really emotional, in case you didn’t know), what I get from my white friends is an act of worship by offering God their minds.

There’s more. But it’s getting late, and I’m tired. Perhaps you should add. We know how white culture and history has badly affected the world… but what if we did some excavation and looked for what God’s original intention (and is still there) in white American culture? I’ve seen too many white brothers and sisters either ashamed of their culture or unaware that they have one. That shame and/or unawareness only leads to more sin. Shouldn’t we (and especially myself) be calling out the good in our white brothers and sisters, so as to empower and challenge them to also be blessings to the rest of us in the fullness of their cultural identities?

Welcome.

I’ve been out of town fundraising for the last 2 weeks fundraising.

I love fundraising back in the bay, because… I have friends.

…Let me rephrase (because I definitely have friends near me haha). I have friends that I’ve grown up with my whole life, who know me, whom I don’t need to over-explain… and well, let’s face it. They’re asian. What I love most about my Asian cultural background is the sense of family, of instant belonging. I’ve showed up as a stranger at Asian American churches, and felt an instant welcoming. Like clockwork, even if it was the most awkward and unfriendly Asian American church, I’ll get offered some sort of meal at the end.

You see, I love meals, especially Sunday after-church meals, but for more reasons than me loving eating (which I do). I miss the feeling of getting approached and invited to lunch. I miss the laborious process of standing in the circle, debating what to eat and nobody deciding, until somebody just gets tired of it and decides. I miss sitting around 3-4 combined tables at a pho restaurant, exchanging jokes, talking about the sermon. I miss the bonding that happens during these meals. I miss… the community.

And in this process of being cross-cultural and learning how to love white culture, the one thing I haven’t quite adapted to is the individualist culture of white America… the awkwardness of just getting people together to eat after church. During my 2-year church search process in North County, I observed a certain process: people file out quickly and leave, until I find I’m the only one left talking to perhaps one person, who is a 25% chance of being a lunch buddy. I’ve just kind of folded into it all and joined the individualist masses in leaving quickly. Sunday afternoons are for you to chill out alone and watch TV or something. Community’s supposed to happen somewhere… but perhaps with the family or (I say it sarcastically) for singles, yourself.

So upon my return, I had really low expectations remembering my 2 year search for a church that was welcoming. I was a little embittered from the last 4 years of trying to make attempts at friendship in North County in the midst of my own busy ministry schedule, and then coming immediately from the Bay Area, where I had perhaps just one meal that I ate by myself. I was ready to face the impending isolation. Even worse, church that sunday had a father’s day theme. I really dislike being at those services away from my family, it always seems to serve as a reminder that I am far from home and far from familiarity. It reminds me of how hard it is to be cross cultural, no matter how heroic it sounds.

I love my pastor, and what he did was not wrong, just really hard for myself- He had all the dads stand up, and then all their families stand next to them so that the dads could pray for their families, because that’s what real dad’s should do (which is actually a really cool thought). Unfortunately, I was left alone without a family there, and I could almost feel that sense of isolation creep up on me…

But God has a way of melting the most bitter and cynical heart (of which I’m pretty sure I’m near the top of that list).

As I began to go down the dark vortex of sulkage, I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was the Jenkinsons. They were signaling for me to get into their family huddle. And I got up and joined their huddle… As I was there surrounded in the huddle of my adopted family and heard Mr. Jenkinson whisper his prayers over his family, I heard in between those whispers, the whispers of my Heavenly Father, reminding me that His embrace, fatherhood and friendship are immutable and immovable, ever so constant.

Ironically, after all my complaining of the lack of meals with people after church at all the white churches I’ve visited, there was a church bbq. I sat down with the Olaguibels and said “ah, mi familia!” and they welcomed me to pull a chair and sit with them. As I sat there in our church’s lawn exchanging jokes with the Olaguibels, I thought- really, this is family.  I remember (now that I think about it) that I decided to stay at Las Flores Church because they were the first white church to remember my name. They even sent me a handwritten letter thanking me for coming a second time. The men’s group I had been going to at Las Flores this last semester has been one of the most convicting and faith building groups I’ve been a part of that was not comprised of just peers. And Pastor Dwayne, he remembers you. He notices and emails you when he notices you haven’t been at church one weekend. So I guess white people can do community if they try :P.

And no, this white church isn’t perfect… but really, when has an Asian church ever been perfect? God is reminding me that He provides, beyond whatever culture, whatever place… true family, home and community are in Him, and He’s a good dad that provides for all our needs. All I need to do is to remember to trust in that, as I forge further ahead in this place of ministry that not many others are in- that He is a God that brings streams in the desert, manna from the sky.

Peaceful Joy

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.

I did this piece during a retreat of silence as a reflection on my Chinese identity in the light of John 15

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…

Live to be Forgotten.

I was uncomfortable. No, it wasn’t the crowd of 17,000 people at Urbana all in the stadium. It wasn’t the sudden change from shivering cold to stuffy heat of the 17,000 people. It wasn’t the cold plastic of the stadium chair I was in. It wasn’t the flashing lights. It was intimidation. The intimidation I was feeling was not from what most people are intimidated from. It wasn’t a machine of war. It was not an ominous building. It was not a roaring unstoppable train. It was not a vicious wild beast with hunger in its eyes.

It was the frail, older Chinese man who spoke from the stage. Though I’ve had so much healing and redemption from my interactions with the older generations, it still sometimes gives me a rush of anxiety. I have memories of feeling squashed and silenced by elders. Perhaps I misunderstood them when I was younger, and they were probably silencing my immaturity, but the intimidation was there nonetheless. Would this older O.B.C (overseas born chinese) be able to speak with any relevancy to my generation… or even just understand us?

I cringed even more at the title of his new book, “Live to be forgotten”. That phrase stirred up memories, hard memories. Memories of realizing how deep invisibility, saving face, and false humility have left our culture crippled. I am proud to be Asian-American, and I believe that God has specific purposes for creating me as an Asian-American, with giftedness and blessing that can bless others. But our propensity to hiding and not being known to the point of sinfulness was something I had lived under for far too long and had discovered freedom from. I was tired of how that facet of my cultural context had led me into bitterness and fearfulness of confrontation. There is blessing in our culture, but there is baggage. And my immediate gut reaction was that this man was glorifying our baggage.

But God can redeem our baggage.

This man spoke of his struggle to follow God’s call, even when his parents thought it was foolishness. In the face of pressure from his elders, he chose to follow God. He looked like the abstract personification of years of broken assumptions about the older generation in my mind and even sounded like them with the broken English. But he spoke as one who had experienced God’s freedom and was caught up in His movement.

And the image that inspired the title of his book left me dumbfounded. The thought of it still bothers and challenges me as I write about it a week later. He spoke of walking into a huge warehouse in London which was an archive of all of the people who had responded to God’s call to go to China during the great missions movement of which people like Hudson Taylor were a part of. Of course, there were well known names there… but they were lost in the shelves and shelves of files and writings of people who had been part of that movement. Hundreds, thousands, maybe tens of thousands of people whom we don’t even remember anymore, who decided to respond to God’s call even if they were not remembered. I remember listening to Patrick Fung speak of this, and realizing that their individual legacies were forgotten, but that Christians of Chinese descent held such a huge debt to these forgotten heroes. If they had not dared to be forgotten, would I be following Christ today? The sacrifice of their individual legacies were the building blocks of a roaring, vibrant legacy of God’s pursuit of my people.

And for an Asian-American that has wrestled so long to even let myself be recognized… it’s a sobering reminder that recognition is not the ends. My biggest fear 2.5 years ago when God called me to North County to minister at a community college called MiraCosta of which almost nobody had heard about was that I myself would be forgotten. It’s ironic. And no, I haven’t been forgotten. In fact, God has elevated me to levels of leadership I had never dreamed of getting to so quickly. God has surrounded me with community and students… I have not been forgotten at all. In fact, He’s using me as a voice for the forgotten, that God’s heart burns for every single one of these students. So many of my students feel like they’ve been forgotten and left behind by society, and that there’s no way for them to get out. No, they are not forgotten. My God knows each and every one of them, He meticulously created each of them as the expression of His unswerving love. The world forgets, the Lord never forgets.

Will I dare to live forgotten by the world in order that God’s children are able to see that their God will never forget them? As I follow the call of God on my life, will I be confident that the very fact that my calling is from God is a symbol of his ever-attentiveness, and that HE will not abandon me, no matter how abandoned I feel by the world around me?

And I realized… Our God redeems our baggage. Somebody who was supposed to represent all the broken assumptions and perceptions I had of older authority from my culture was now a shining light of humility and redemption. No longer was it false humility and submission to oppression, but a vibrant, earth shattering humility that was stemmed in the confidence that the Lord remembers every one of His servants that follow His call. And though they be forgotten by the world, He will never fail to bring to fruition the forgotten dreams of thousands who had sacrificed and suffered for the sake of His Kingdom and love breaking into this world. The world may forget those that choose to respond to the call (as my students may even forget who I am within a few years), but when God meets this world, everything changes and those changes can be denied, but cannot be forgotten.

I sat there no longer intimidated by this older Chinese man. I could see he was not against me, and was not silencing me… but he was blessing me. He was showing me that there was a redeemed side of the cultural baggage of which I had tried so hard to run away from. I was humbled at the revelation of my own discrimination and assumptions of the older generation. And yes, in this moment, I’m reminded that Patrick Fung is not the first of many of the older generation that represent God’s redemption in their lives, and that I have been blessed by many of them (some of you who are reading this now). As God strips off my old assumptions and brokenness, I hope my eyes are opened more to see how God has worked and is still working in the lives of the generations before me in the Chinese diaspora.

And I was left with a sense of awe… in the forgotten shadow of those that had gone before me so that I could be following Christ today. Whether it was a white missionary, a house church leader, the first pastors of immigrant churches, my own parents and grand parents… they are the cloud of witnesses that urges me to go forward and not to fear being forgotten by the world in order that His children remember that they will never be forgotten by the One who created them and is ever pursuing them.

I Make Asian-Americans Cry

I used to write on Asian American identity a lot (refer to one of my old blogs, for example). However, with my move to North County, it’s taken a backseat. I have just been absent from the arena of Asian-American Christianity in North County SD. Not to say that I haven’t had to think about my own ethnic identity and its interplay with faith. In fact, I’ve told people that I feel more Chinese than I ever had since I started working with students that are not Chinese. I’ve seen the strengths and baggage of my culture more explicitly than ever. I just haven’t written it… because perhaps I haven’t had to talk to my students about their ethnic identity as much. On the most part, they are much higher identity than your average Asian-American Christian (it still bothers me a lot how much Asian-American Christians hate their own culture), so I don’t really have to talk about ethnicity as much during my time on campus. Thus, I haven’t really written much about it, seeing that I usually rant on blogs about things that I encounter in life… and lecturing Asian-American Christians on their identity is just something I haven’t had the arena to do so.

I’ve been fine with this, but I had a coworker and friend (alan) encourage me that I should keep myself practiced in talking about Asian-Americans and Christianity.

It was an interesting conversation. I had been telling Alan during one of our spiritual formation retreats that although I felt the most Chinese serving those who were not Chinese, I simultaneously now feel disconnected with other Asian-Americans when I hang out with them.

Yeah. My own people have become a… “them”. I should be feeling comfort with such familiarity! Why do I feel such a huge anxiety every time I’m with large groups of Asian-Americans now?

Well it’s quite simple. I offend or make them cry now.

Yeah, that’s quite the thing to say. But really. Ever since I’ve been on staff at MiraCosta, during my rare opportunities to communicate with Asian-Americans, I’ve made 2 girls cry and pissed off at least one guy (the rest of them are probably stewing it inside afraid to tell me). It’s been a highly disturbing self-observation.

I have noticed that my communication style has changed since working with a Latina team leader and ministering to Latinos, Whites and African-Americans. My Asian-American strength of indirect communication has been a strength in my context… but then at the same time, I’ve learned that indirect communication is good for making friends, but is limited in the context of leadership in a multicultural context. It is good for earning trust, but when leading cross-culturally, we need some good ol’ directness.

I’ve realized that Asian-Americans generally (not all) are great at earning trust, but fall short when it comes to using that trust cross culturally. We don’t tell people when we’re offended. We don’t tell people when we’re in love with them. We don’t tell people when they’ve taken the last piece of chicken that we actually wanted. But in the process, we become such “nice” people. Everyone loves us, but we are just a stewing cauldron of silence and face. A true leader should be able to gain trust like an Asian American, but shouldn’t be afraid to challenge at the expense of losing face.

So I realize that was bashing Asian-Americans more than you may be used to. But that’s exactly what’s happened to me. I’ve realized that I need to be able to say these things directly, and not dance around them. There are things in our culture which are strengths. But there are some things that we can’t just accept. Being indirect only helps to a certain extent when your student is doing drugs- at some point you have to just say it’s wrong and that he/she needs to stop.

Of course, the direct challenges and engagement need to be built on a strong foundation of trust. But it’s so saddening to see how many Asian-Americans have been building a foundation of trust and have not built anything on top of it. Instead of challenge, we let bitterness and resentment eat away at the trust we build with people until we become direct too late in an explosion of pent up anger and frustration.

So suffice to say that I’ve become a little more direct. Not that much actually- it’s actually still one of my growth edges. I still find myself keeping resentment, not being direct, and hiding emotions a little too much. I find myself afraid to tell people that I think they are wrong. And I know there’s much more to grow in being graceful with my directness when it finally comes out. But I do know that I don’t have to stay in that indirectness.

I don’t lose my Asian-American identity from being direct. It feels weird saying that, but I think that’s been something on my mind- that working on communicating more direct is not killing my identity. At the same time, I don’t think that indirect communication is necessarily a cultural curse. When used in the right contexts, it is an extremely powerful asset to leadership. I have had so many students approach me because they knew I was not there to just lecture them, but would actually listen to them. This in turn makes them want to listen to me. The question though, for Asian-Americans, though is… when we finally get listened to, will we actually have something to say?

Our indirectness is our strength and weakness. It comes from our history as immigrants and model minorities who are expected to (over)achieve the majority culture’s standards of success. We defer away from ourselves in favor of the standards of others. It can be humility and tact to a certain point… until it crosses that fine line and becomes self-hatred and lying.

When we talk about cultural identity formation in the light of Christ, there seem to be two major extremes- cultural suicide and cultural idolatry. We either think our culture is completely not of Christ and try to destroy every ounce of it (and in the process we embrace a white Jesus… heh. that’s another post) or we embrace our identity so much that it actually becomes the way we define God… which, if you didn’t know, is somewhat heresy. Pursuing cultural identity healthily comes when we follow what theologians call the “unidirectional anological predicate.” This means that instead of letting the world around us referentially define who God is to us, we allow God to become the reference and allow Him to be the definer of the world around us. It’s like calling a square a rectangle, but being careful not to call all rectangles squares.

That’s all to say… while our culture is not our God, God does have something to say about our culture. And not all of our culture is in conformity to God’s heart, but there’s plenty in there that He’s created that gives Him joy. When we engage our culture with God, we have to be ready for Him to affirm what is of Him… and also to transform what has been bent out of shape. But I believe it’s just bent out of shape… although the depravity of our culture is pervasive, the pervasiveness of the Father’s love overshadows the depravity. The quest of Christian cultural identity formation is not the decimation or idolatry of our culture, but the discovery of the Creator’s loving breath into our human social constructs that we call… culture. In the mean time, we must simultaneously engage the cross-cultural calling of Christianity and in the process find the loving breath of the Creator in those cultures as well.

Wow. I’ve blogged longer than I intended. It was supposed to be short, and then I’d give ideas for future blogposts. well… i better put those ideas down.

  • Immigrant culture vs. “mother” culture (ABC vs. OBC)
  • Asian American Worship
  • The simultaneous fear and embrace of cross-cultural relations in A.A.’s
  • Missional Identity Formation- The merging of Cultural identity formation and Multiculturalism
  • The Asian-American Call to Social Justice
  • Cultural Curses and Cultural Blessings
  • So just how do we keep those Asian American Christians that disappear from churches?
  • Asian Americans: More than missionaries to themselves
  • Asian American Community College Students- The silent majority

Hopefully this will all be good for me. And please give me feedback.