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Finding A Voice

So I’ve recently been thinking through what it means to be Asian American, angry, and Christian. People have said or implied to me that they don’t really feel like I’m entitled to being angry because as an Asian American, I’m a beneficiary of what America has to offer and as a Christian, I should forgive and be joyful anyway.

Quite a conundrum. And I’ve been taking this to heart. I don’t want to make my ethnic identity or culture an idol, rather I feel that my recent questions about ethnicity and the distinctiveness that comes along with it to be simply a matter of good stewardship – after all, what good is salt if it has lost its saltiness? James Choung pointed out to me that people wouldn’t bat an eye if I said that I was trying to ask what it means to be a good Christian. Nor would they feel as though I’d stepped out on a limb if I said I wanted to ask what it is to be a good Christian man. But when I add the dimension of ethnicity, what does it mean for me to be a good Asian American Christian man? that’s when it seems to draw looks and comments of bewilderment.

What is it about ethnicity that seems to throw a wrinkle in this process of discipleship? And what is it that draws the annoyance of people?

A book that has been sitting on my bookshelf for a while, but recently recommended again by Eugene Cho (what’s with all the name dropping today? gyah~tacky) in a recent online conversation is “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” by Beverly Daniel Tatum, Ph.D. In it, there are a few paragraphs that really clarified something that I had sensed…

Another dimension of the “model minority” stereotype is the notion that Asian Pacific Americans are quiet and content with the status quo. Mitsuye Yamada challenges that stereotype in her classic essay, “Invisibility Is an Unnatural Disaster: Reflections of an Asian American Woman.” She recounts her experience teaching the Asian segment of an ethnic American literature course, discovering that her White students were offended by the angry tone of the Asian American writers. Yamada was puzzled by this response, since her students had not been offended by the Black, Chicano, or Native American writings. When she pressed them for an explanation, they said they understood the anger of Blacks and Chicanos and empathized with the frustrations and sorrows of the American Indians. But the anger of the Asian Americans took the by surprise. Said one student, “It made me angry. Their anger made me angry, because I didn’t even know the Asian Americans felt oppressed. I didn’t expect their anger.”

Dr. Tatum goes on to quote David Mura from his book Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei:

Many white Americans don’t want to deal with these questions and, through much of their lives, have not had to deal with them. In contrast, my memoir explores how, up until my late twenties, I mainly attempted to avoid dealing with my sansei identity, and tended to think of myself as a middle-class white person. The result of such an identification, as my memoir makes clear, was self-hatred and self-abuse, a long string of depression, promiscuity, and failed relationships. If I had not become self-conscious about my identity, I might have destroyed myself. What appears to certain white readers as either negligible or a flaw in the book is actually its very lifeline.

But anger is not synonymous with hate. I don’t hate the dominant majority. I think I hate the fact that I sold my ethnic heritage so quickly. Unlike my Black brothers and sisters who perhaps had their freedom and identity taken from them, I’m disappointed that I gave mine away. I sold my inheritance for a bowl of soup. I’m angry that no one told me that who I am is valuable, where I came from is beautiful and proud, and that I have something to offer even before my grades come back or resume is read or my paycheck stub is necessary. And if it’s true that God created race and wants to bring the glory of the nations into heaven, I want to know that race matters and that I’m fighting a good and worthy fight so that my child will have a sense of who they are to go along with the content of their character and the color of their skin. Because you cannot have a healthy sense of character when you hate the color of your own skin. And just because we are beginning to take steps to define ourselves rather than be defined by the majority doesn’t mean that we are less Christian or less American, in fact it may lead to more of both.


About David Park

Christian 2nd-generation Korean American; Atlanta Georgia; more details to come.

8 responses to “Finding A Voice

  1. elderj

    Good musings though I must object to your failure to drop my name into the discussion (jk).

    I think you’re onto something in that perhaps people believe that it is simply wrong for AA to be angry or upset or have any sort of issue along the lines of ethnicity — and that goes for folks inside and outside of Asian America. Because most minority cultures have had their sense of identity forged from a place of oppression and economic insecurity, there seems to be a lack of language or understanding for those who, comparatively speaking in economic and educational terms, are not at all bad off. That complicates things immensely and adds the guilt of ones own privilege within a racialized hierarchy without providing the accompanying status and sense of well being that such privilege would ordinarily afford.

  2. daniel so

    David — As someone who has walked and struggled along a very similar path, I am so grateful to hear you speak with such honesty, clarity and grace. Reading your struggle with self-hatred is like looking into a mirror, or reading a record of my own thoughts (if I could communicate more clearly, that is). First, it was the self-hatred at being Asian in this Western culture. Then, it was being angry at myself for what you describe so perfectly: “I sold my inheritance for a bowl of soup.”

    As Asian American followers of Christ, we must recover and reclaim our identity as people made in the image of God. The cycle of shame, self-hatred and rootlessness must be broken. I think it is right to be angry with the destruction that has been wrought on so many Asian Americans’ sense of being; not to dwell in anger or become angry people, but to deal honestly with what’s in front of us, call it what it is and, by the grace of God, move forward into redemption and reconciliation.

    If we haven’t heard that we are valuable, beautiful and proud from previous generations, then it is our sacred calling to pass along this deep sense of identity to our own kids.

    The Tatum book you mention was crucial for me in developing my sense of identity as an Asian American. I definitely recommend it as well.

  3. elderj, i’ve given you more props on this blog than anyone else! but only because you’re so brilliant. thanks for being such a helpful voice in this journey.

    daniel, thanks again for seeing this for what it is, as a process, and not as a statement of doctrine. but james choung told me that you don’t look like your avatar picture and that my impression of you being this stoic, on-the-edge kind of guy was totally off! i don’t mean to throw him under the bus, but he said you’re jovial and a big teddy bear! is this true? man, i had you all different in my head. wow~ πŸ™‚ can’t wait to meet you now. as for james, he looks exactly like his blog pic…tan and smiley.

  4. daniel so

    David — Oh man, my secret is out! Yes, I think I really shocked James when we first met. To him, somehow, I was this serious little guy — but, really, I’m just a big ol’ nerd πŸ™‚ And James’ photo definitely captures him perfectly! “Tan and smiley” should be the new tagline on his blog!!

  5. elderj

    Tan & smiley…. lol… I’m afraid for what would be on my blog if it had to be based on picture. btw, I’m not really brilliant, though my Dad thinks I am. I’m really just saying what I see and calling it as I see it.

  6. And here’s my obligatory smiley-face. =)

  7. tan and smiley face, that is.

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