This is a guest post from Ian North, who is a new diamond of a friend here in the Atlanta area. You can listen/read his work here and get a glimpse of his life here. When I met Ian a couple of months ago, it soon became apparent that he has a sense of depth for what it means to be American. That is to say, he has a sense of what others think of Americans (and Whites) and a sense of what it means to carry himself in that tension as he devotes his life in a variety of ways to live and work among foreigners, immigrants, and refugees. Perhaps it is because he has spent most of his early life in the Philippines. Perhaps it is because he has been both guest and host in the setting of the church. But either way, I hope you enjoy what he has to share and that you find him as rich and as provocative as I have. Thanks, Ian.
My sister and I stood in a Xerox center in Cagayan De Oro City in the Philippines nearly ten years ago, when we heard a whistle blow. The instrument was squeezed between the lips of another American, who was somewhere between overweight and grotesquely obese. I looked around and saw an armed Filipino guard, a clean-cut young man from the barrio given an AK-47 to guard the store, jump to attention and pull open the glass door.
I don’t remember the American’s name, but let’s call him “Joe,” which is what the Filipino people call us white people, which is a shortened form of “GI Joe,” which is a somewhat uncomfortable association with our military occupation during and since World War II. So Joe came barreling into the shop, preceded by his smell and the lasting ear ring from his whistle. He wore a bandana. I imagine that it’s an American flag now, but it could have been anything. An American flag would have been a garish symbol in a story so obvious that I would have thrown it out had it not actually happened.
But there he was, our fellow American, round, hairy, stinking, and carrying a whistle to alert the natives that he had arrived, was arriving, or was thinking of arriving and wanted everyone ready just in case. And suddenly we were linked in the eyes of the clerk, although we had been speaking in his tongue moments ago, listening to the answers in his terms.
Joe looked straight at us, his booming voice filling the small shop.
My sister stared resolutely at the price list on the counter. “Um…” I replied when I saw that he was looking at us for some sort of reaction. The clerk, with whom we had been conversing in Cebuano, the local language, looked nervously at the invader and inched away.
“What are holy rollers?” I asked.
“JESUS FREAKS. BIBLE THUMPERS. YOU KNOW, HOLY ROLLERS.”
“Yeah, that’s us, I guess,” I replied, then, “how about you?”
He moved to the counter, resting his sweaty bulk on the glass, covering the Please Do Not Lean on Glass sign.
“THE GOSPEL OF JOE,” he said, “THE DEVIL MADE ME DO IT.”
We went back to our transaction, and he went back to his, then whistled his way back out into the street, and thank God we never saw nor heard of him again.
I left that shop deeply troubled. I recall realizing that I was a child not responsible for my presence in Southeast Asia, but there I was regardless, in another man’s land, feeling the weight of all the things my people had done wrong, all the places we had misstepped, and all the miscommunications that flowed freely between us and our host culture.
I’m writing this out now in Maum, a Korean owned and operated café in the outskirts of Atlanta. Across the table from me, my brother Eric and a Liberian refugee named Aziz work on their own projects. When we first entered, I thought this would be strange to Aziz, being the only black person here. Then I realized it should feel just as strange for Eric and me, seeing as how we’re the only white people here.
Then I realized that the only thing that felt strange about it was that I thought it probably looked strange, and I’m sitting here now with a strange sense of comfort that comes from being around people who know what it’s like to be something like what I was, although they have no idea that I know what it’s like to be something like what they are. We are all aliens in a culture that doesn’t understand us and looks at us with, at best, a sense of apprehension, and at worst, derision and condescension.
And what do we do about it? In my opinion, we would do well to find each other and meet at that strange point between being Asian-American and American-Asian. I will stop here and ask you what to do with our odd intersection. Can I offer anything to you? Can you offer anything to me?
Will we find, as our conversation moves forward, that God has put us in this time in this land together for a reason? It’s at least worth a try.