Being Asian American in a White Church
“Where are you from?” he asks.
“I’m from Indiana,” I say.
“No, where are you from-from?” he follows up, this time with a sincere hand gesture.
I know what he’s asking, and I can tell he means well. But I’m not going to give it to him, not yet. “I was born in Columbia, Missouri,” I respond.
I can tell from his face that I didn’t give him enough information. What he heard does not match what he sees: black hair and an Asian face. But he’s reluctant to ask more. I let the awkwardness marinate a couple seconds. I’ve had this conversation enough times to know what he wants. So I continue—“but my parents are from Taiwan.”
Ah, the introduction is salvaged and now this kind brother is telling me how much he loves Thai food.
What if I told you this conversation happened at church? Now, I recognize that this individual was making an earnest attempt at understanding who I am, and where I’ve been, and I’m not sure if there is a significantly better way for him to ask about my ethnic background. But the encounter was another reminder of my identity as an Asian-American, where the “American” part inherently comes with distinctions attached to the Asian qualifier.
I should start by stating there is no singular Asian American experience, no more than there is a singular American experience. Opening up a comprehensive discussion on Asian American issues would necessitate a broad array of historical and ethnic contexts. You could ask, “What do you mean by ‘Asian’?” Entire dissertations can be written on the origins of Korean nationalism, or the impacts of Filipino Catholicism. Aren’t the Taiwanese basically Chinese? No, but also yes. Why is it that, in The Clash of Civilizations, Samuel Huntington puts Japan out on its own, not really as Asian or Western or Orthodox, but as its own cultural supergroup? You could also rightfully ask, “What do you mean by Asian-American? The immigrant first generation? The second generation children born to immigrant parents? The 1.5 or 1.75 generation?”
Despite the breadth of experiences, though, one can refer to certain shared cultural values of many Asians, and how they are often distinct from those usually associated with White Americans. Specifically, I want to make a few observations about what those cultural expectations mean for those of us who grew up in this dual-culture environment—and what they mean in the context of the local church where the majority culture is non-Asian.
I am the eldest son of immigrant parents who left their homes in Taiwan to pursue graduate studies and a new life in America. I was raised in the Midwest. My home and church were Chinese/Taiwanese, while every other setting placed me in White America.
AN ASIAN-AMERICAN EXPERIENCE
A few years ago, Wesley Yang wrote an article for New York Magazine titled “Paper Tigers” (May 8, 2011). The title itself was a nod toward Amy Chua’s book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, and in it Yang explores several stereotypes about Asian Americans and several uncomfortable truths often attached to those stereotypes. Yang describes how many Asian immigrants sacrificed much to provide a better life for their children. They wanted the second generation to inherit the American dream, even if the playing field has not been even. So they push their children to excel in academic studies. This approach to success works until these children graduate and leave university, where the real world rewards a skill set and values different than what they were groomed for at home and in the classroom, such as creativity, risk-taking, and self promotion. He talks about how those stereotypes fuel a perception of Asians that are often imposed on individuals regardless of what is true about that individual. Yang’s article, though a bit crude at times, is worth the read. While written from a non-Christian Asian American point of view, he provides insight into some of the issues many Asian Americans face, even in the church.
In Paper Tigers, Yang is primarily concerned with communicating how Asian Americans confront internal and external pressures to satisfy often-competing cultural expectations. For instance, many have been taught to strive for academic success and professional stability as a means of honoring the sacrifices of their immigrant parents. They’ve been taught to not question authority, to avoid asking for help lest they become a burden, and to listen and not speak when in the presence of an elder or superior. But these values are different than what’s valued in the professional spheres of American life. There you should be critical of authority and rules. You do speak up in the meetings and offer your thoughts unprompted. And you do put yourself out in front to be seen.
I can relate. By all accounts, I grew up in a very White environment. Greenwood, Indiana is about as white as it gets. The 2000 census showed a demographic of 96.5 percent white and 1.4 percent Asian. I was in Boy Scouts, played in the marching band, and ran on the track team. I did pretty much everything any normal kid growing up in White Americana did. Yet I have received neither the treatment nor experience of a White American. At work, I began hearing the counsel to “put myself out” in front of leadership more. I didn’t think I needed to since I was performing pretty well. But somehow the perception was that I didn’t engage with leadership. I understand how positioning for visibility in the workplace is a professionally good thing to do, but internally it felt so wrong and arrogant.
Yang’s interest is in the American marketplace, where many Asian Americans confront their cultural duality with various degrees of sensitivities. But there’s something to be said about experiencing such a challenge in a context where it might not be expected – in the local church.
ASIAN AMERICANS IN NON-ASIAN LOCAL CHURCHES
As Asian Americans who identify with both cultures wrestle to harmonize these often-dissonant cultural values, Asian American Christians have the additional burden of sorting through which elements of these two cultures to reject.
Here’s an example: Let’s say the pastors of a large and majority-White church regularly teach the members to fold their lives into the life of the church, in part, by making themselves known to an elder or elders. An Asian American member will feel convicted that the humble and faithful thing to do will be to approach his pastors and initiate conversations. But this will also feel very arrogant and uncomfortable. He would rather be summoned by a leader than initiate engagement. Is his discomfort a product of his cultural values? Or is it the product of his sin? It’s probably a mixture of both, but how much of which? Ultimately, how he acts will require him to examine his heart. Now consider that his dual/mixed cultural baseline is not assumed, but is largely misunderstood by his church. He’ll have to do this mental calculus in nearly all other areas of his church life, like leadership, serving, discipling relationships, and so forth.
To the majority white, and even non-Asian minorities in a church, you should try to understand certain things about Asian Americans when you see us. The discrimination Asian Americans face is often subtle and unrecognized. It’s not characterized by violence or shown on TV. It’s not frequently discussed on the radio or in most reconciliation dialogues. It can involve typecasting (“All Asians are quiet”), but often it’s a subtle overlooking or forgetting of anything that makes us distinct. So Hollywood made a movie about a Hawaiian Asian American, and they cast a Caucasian actress for the character. The assumption that the majority culture makes is that Asian Americans are pretty much of the same culture as the majority white culture.
For years, Asians in America had been touted as the “model minority,” unobtrusive to the majority, prioritizing education and employment, largely characterized by these stereotypes, and not much else. It’s a falsely positive label that is deeply racist toward Asian Americans and all other minorities. However, you likely won’t hear much protest from Asian Americans because many of us have been conditioned to not vocalize our grievances. We don’t ask for help because this could imply shameful inadequacies. We don’t speak up to authority figures because that would be disrespectful. We don’t volunteer ourselves for leadership because doing so is a prideful demonstration of arrogance. The truth is, Asian Americans, like everyone else, come from a multifaceted cultural experience. The difference is, to non-Asian Americans, it’s difficult to understand all the other dimensions that make up the Asian American experience beyond what’s captured by “model minority.” It’s difficult because it’s different.
I do not believe that an elder board must be a 1:1 reflection of a church’s demographic. That requirement is not found in 1 Timothy 3 or Titus 1. Biblical qualifications for church office are colorblind. But if our churches are healthy, faithfully feeding and discipling all its members, wouldn’t we expect to eventually see elders raised up that closely reflect the demographic of the church? Are the elders cultivating brothers who show potential to be recognized as future elders, and doing so with men who are like-minded in doctrine but also different in culture? You might do this analysis and conclude that your church’s elder recognition-practice is fine, and if that’s the case, then great! But you might also find that you are overlooking men who are already eldering in your church without a title because they’re not like you.
TOWARD A GOSPEL CULTURE
An ah-ha moment came for me shortly after college. Like I mentioned earlier, I grew up in a very white community. But once I stepped foot onto that large state university, I discovered that there were literally thousands of other Asian Americans who could identify with the same dual-culture experience that I had. Soon, I was involved with the Asian American Club, joined a Gospel-preaching Asian American church, and found myself aggregating with other Asian Americans on a campus environment that facilitated and encouraged such aggregating. It was just easier and more comfortable that way. Several years later when I joined a decidedly non-Asian church, it meant checking many cultural preferences at the door. I bet that’s the same for all members of a minority culture. But I also hope that is the case for those of the majority culture. We desire to see congregations built of believers identifying so strongly with who they are in Christ that it is the gospel that aggregates us together, not shared cultural experiences however strong they may be. We should all be checking preferences at the door to better love and serve our brothers and sisters in Christ.
You know how it’s easy to hang out with people who share the same interests as you? But what do we do when we are called to share our burdens and sorrows with one another—and some burdens and sorrows seem odder than others? We all want to be understood, and it’s just easier to understand people who are similar to you. If you take an inventory of your discipleship relationships and accountability conversations and find that they all appear to deal with the same kinds of problems as you, then perhaps you’re avoiding people who are different. Learning to understand someone else’s challenges that seem incomprehensible is a lot of work, and often frustrating, and many people selfishly would rather not deal with it. But it’s part of a gospel outlook and a healthy church.
Gospel culture should be the dominant culture of our churches, regardless of ethnic or cultural makeup. We see that one day, the church will realize this perfect unity. In chapter 5 of Revelation, we see every tribe and nation worshiping Christ without cultural barriers or divisions. In fact, these passages tell us that ultimately there is no cultural barrier too great or too strained for God to reach through and save. So we shouldn’t be surprised that on this side of eternity, we’ll merely glimpse this ultimate unity in our local churches. But let us seek to display it better and better, even if imperfectly, to a watching world.