Asian American Christians: No Place to Lay Our Heads

Asian American Christians: No Place to Lay Our Heads

Happy 2014! One of my new year’s resolutions is to better formulate my experiences as an Asian American, particularly as they relate to faith. I am praying that God will raise up Asian American Christian voices who can get us talking about who we are and the God who made us. Consider this an attempt to put language onto our identities. I don’t speak for everyone; I’m just trying to tell my story.

If you know me, I’ve been reflecting on Asian American Christianity for a long time now, but a lot of people don’t even know that Asian American Christianity is a thing. And even for those of us who grew up steeped in its culture, it was just the air we breathed that we never questioned. But as it becomes easier and easier for this generation of Asian Americans to relinquish both our culture and our faith, I believe that to deconstruct and put language to Asian American Christianity might be one of the most important things we can do.

I think humans just understand things better in binaries. Like, if you’re not conservative and you’re not liberal, then just what are you? You can’t be pro-gay marriage and pro-life, can you?? We understand the world in polarities—black and white, good and evil, holy and secular, Norcal and Socal—and anything that falls somewhere in between the poles is just weird to us. Like, who cares about Fresno or Salinas (sorry Sammy)? Enter: Asian Americans.

I think a lot of the frustrations we experience as Asian Americans stem from the fact that we’re such an in-between people; we’re stuck in the Fresno of the racial continuum. The in-between space is always nebulous—we’re not white, though we benefit from white privilege; we’re not black, but we’re still discriminated against… who are we then? At the next level, we’re not as Asian as our parents are, but we’re not as American as the people we see on TV… who are we then? The lack of concrete identity leaves us in a place of confusion, apt to believe lies about who we really are.

Edwin Villafañe calls it the triple consciousness. WEB DuBois first coined the term double consciousness to describe the black American experience where black folks could act one way around other black folks, but had to develop a second consciousness to navigate white society. Villafañe creates a new category, the third consciousness, made up of Asian Americans (for Villafane, Chicanos) who are rejected both by their first generation parents, whose native tongue and overseas values smother their American born kids, and by American society, who does not accept the Asian phenotype as fully American and elevates whiteness as societal norm. We are rejected, then, by both sides, creating a separate, third consciousness: not just Asian, not just American, but distinctly Asian American.

Carrasco takes it a step further by coining the term “quadruple consciousness”: Asian American Christian. This is what we experience in the church. Not Asian enough to vibe with the older congregants (who usually make the decisions) at our home church, but also not dominant culture enough to completely fit in to other more diverse churches, which are usually pastored by leaders who are not Asian American. When we don’t have any place where our identities are affirmed, our identities dissipate. And not only do they dissipate, they deteriorate. We have very few places that tell us that who we are as Asian Americans is good. As a result, one of the biggest spiritual voids Asian American Christians must address is our persistent and violent belief in our own inadequacy. Somewhere along the way, because we never felt like we fit in anywhere, we started to believe that something was in fact wrong with us. Self-hatred, whether we choose to call it that or not, is at the root of so much brokenness in the Asian American church. Without churches that can tell us that who we are is not defective, without songs that affirm our experience, and without theologies that speak to our consciousness, will we ever truly know God in a way that doesn’t shame us into heaven?

I think a lot of it comes from our parents, in the ways they pushed us, challenged us, and were hard on us when we didn’t achieve. I firmly believe that their tough love and belief in high achievement is a good thing. But it seeped into our theology. Our parents, despite their love, indirectly told us: if you want our favor, you must be successful. And, of course, over time, our earthly fathers seemed to become the mouthpiece of our heavenly Father. God became a taskmaster, an Asian dad who simply refused to be proud of us unless we earned our spiritual PhDs. And when we did, all we got was the side hug. And so the Asian American Christian just can’t for the life of him believe in his own worthiness. If this is not a cry for the Gospel of Jesus, I don’t know what is.

First generation parents say that we are not Asian enough. American mainstream says that we are not white enough. Church says we are not righteous enough. God says that we are not spiritual enough. Is there any place that feels like home? Anywhere we are welcomed as human beings without our masks on? Anywhere that, as Psalm 46 says, we can “cease striving” and just be? If church becomes the equivalent of a spiritual Kumon, doesn’t the gospel simply tighten the chains rather than break them? We’ve worked so hard to be something to someone, whether it was God, our parents, or our pastor, but we lost ourselves in the process.

This is why I think Asian American college fellowships are so effective and “successful” (numbers-wise, at least). Finally, a place where Asian Americans can express their faith in a way that is distinctly theirs. No old Chinese or Korean people around to tell us how to run our service; we can sing the songs we want to sing, put up the decorations we want to put up, and make jokes that are funny to us. For Asian Americans growing up in monoethnic churches, college is really the first time we had ownership of how we did our Christianity. AACF, IV, KCCC, Epic, Compass, Koinonia, and all the other 10000000 Korean American college fellowships represent a movement of Asian American Christians reclaiming their faiths in ways that make sense to them. Yeah, they have aspects of our home churches, but sometimes they resemble white megachurches, sometimes multiethnic revival services, and sometimes, they throw in random values like social justice, fighting sex trafficking, and overseas missions. And while I sometimes grew weary of huge masses of Asians getting boba after their large group meetings, it’s actually kinda beautiful. There are no other ethnic groups finding their faiths the way we are on college campuses. It’s never said explicitly of course, and I’m pretty sure no one even really thinks of it this way, but the college campus is the only place where Asian Americans are allowed to worship God as Asian Americans.

(I’m not necessarily saying college fellowships are worshipping how Asian Americans ought to worship. Lord knows there are deficiencies and blind spots in every campus fellowship. I also think that most Asian American fellowships don’t know how to affirm Asian American identity in a way that redeems identity. I only mean that college fellowships are the first time we have ownership as Asian Americans, but it’s not a distinctly Asian American kind of ownership, if that makes sense. I believe that a more redemptive model for ministry to Asian Americans must be able to speak explicitly about what it means to be Asian American, to understand God through an Asian American lens, and to develop an Asian American voice that is redemptive in the way that it speaks to power.)

However, all of this also means that when Asian Americans leave the college campus, we often find ourselves in a lonely place. Some of us begrudgingly head back to our home churches, others of us go to trendier, more diverse churches, and a few of us find churches that function more like our college ministries did. There are very few multigenerational Asian churches who can affirm Asian Americans as Asian Americans; we feel marginalized in our own home churches, so many of us leave. We wander into white or multiethnic churches that lightweight resemble our college fellowships, where people are young, hip, educated, and who watch Breaking Bad, because I would rather worship next to someone who watches Breaking Bad than an old Chinese dude with the hairy mole. But even if the white-led multiethnic church has people who watch the same TV shows as me or who do Bible study in a way I’m comfortable with, they still don’t have the tools or the time to affirm my identity as an Asian American. There is a difference between multiethnic and racially reconciled. Most multiethnic churches can say, “We’re diverse. This is a reflection of the Kingdom of God.” And I would agree completely, but if that diversity doesn’t ask, “What makes an Asian American Christian different than a white (or black or Latino or Native or biracial) American Christian?” then it’s superficial; everyone is treated like a white Christian. If it doesn’t acknowledge that race is inherently tied to power and privilege, and does not address the political and soft power dynamics built into the American church (and society), then it is only brochure diversity and it is not redemptive. In fact, that kind of diversity may do more harm than good, because it gives us a fake veneer of Kingdom diversity without any of the hard work needed to redeem racial identity.

And as many of us (understandably so) move from Asian home churches to multiethnic churches, it becomes even more important that we ask hard questions about who we are. I have to ask myself: am I ready to enter effectively into multiethnic faith spaces? Do I know what I bring to the table? Like, I don’t want to show up to a multiethnic potluck with orange chicken from Panda Express. Fool, that ain’t Chinese food! That’s some bastardized overly salty form of your culture that you’re pushing as the real deal! First, learn to really cook some Chinese food, then come correct. So it is with the multiethnic church: before we can enter effectively into the multiethnic space, we must truly know who we are, what we offer, and what our histories, voices, and faces mean to those around us. Until we learn to cook, until we’ve tried multiple recipes and messed with the real deal from our grandmas, then there’s a lot of work to be done in the kitchen.

But this hard work is something we must choose to commit to. No one is going to hand us Asian American identity on a plate. If we don’t anchor ourselves in who we are and how God made us, we inevitably drift to one side of the black/white binary, co-opting someone else’s story and putting another mask on our God-shaped faces. I know so few Asian Americans who are fighting to hold on to their racial identities. And I don’t blame them. When it has been professionally beneficial for us to forget who we are, why would we care about racial identity? But this is how God made us. And whether we acknowledge it or not, it shapes how we understand the world and the God who sets it in motion. My Christian identity might be most important, but my cultural identity came first. I was Chinese before I was Christian. It was the lens through which I perceived God, the scriptures, and every song written by every white man. If I don’t deconstruct that lens, my understanding of God is simply a product of culture. This is how God becomes just another finger wagging Asian parent. I resent the idea that ethnic identity isn’t important because of Jesus. No, because of Jesus it is important. Because of his death and resurrection, our cultural brokenness, the lies we have bought into, can in fact be redeemed and our true selves can be resurrected.

My identity is indeed in Christ alone, but Christ affirms my culture. He came to earth in particularity too. He came as a Jewish man, as a member of an ethnic minority who found themselves in exile under an empire that told them to become something they weren’t. Jesus did not emulate Rome so that he could have influence in the Western world. He was a Jewish man who associated most closely with Jews and he died because he would not capitulate to the voices that tried to shape him. Jesus pissed off Jews too, don’t get me wrong. Jesus transcended Jewish culture; but he transcended it because he first submitted himself to it. He understood it, unearthed it, reoriented it, and therefore brought it to its fullness; he redeemed what it meant to be Jewish.

In 2014, I hope we all find that voice buried deep somewhere inside of us. It’s been buried by so many people, people with good intentions who just wanted us to be successful and close to God, but who slowly put dirt on the places we came from. And hey, I guess it worked, because we (east) Asians are some of the most successful people on the planet. But what good is it to gain the whole world but forfeit your soul? At what cost has success come? We’ve done a really good job at catering to the professional world, and for a long time we did a good job catering to our elders, our pastors, and those who kept telling us (often implicitly) that our racial identity just didn’t matter. My firm belief is that we all have something extremely valuable to say as Asian Americans. But we’ve been taught to believe that those voices don’t matter, our identities don’t matter, and our histories don’t matter. In 2014, let us stand against those voices. Yes, let us transcend Asian American identity, let us move past it, let us become something way bigger than that category could ever contain. But before we build something new, we have to deconstruct the lies. We have to dig deep, fish-hooking out of our guts the things we are most afraid of. We have to read books on our history, sit down with our parents and hear their stories, we have to do our research, and we have to do the hard, lifelong work of peeling back the masks and tending to the wounds beneath them. God willing, we will transcend Asian American culture. But first we must understand it, unearth it, and reorient it. With the Holy Spirit as our guide, let us redeem what it means to be Asian American Christians.