I was born in Malaysia. My mother’s grandparents emigrated there from China in the early 20th century. My father’s ancestors arrived much earlier, possibly in the mid 19th century. Race is salient in Malaysia, especially for the Chinese who are an ethnic minority, many of whom feel marginalized in a society dominated by the Malay majority. Chinese Malaysians raise their kids to work hard, to leave for greener pastures (if possible), and to never forget their Chinese heritage.
I grew up not giving a damn about any of that. I was raised Christian by parents who are the products of British colonial rule, and was shaped primarily by Western pop-culture and ideas (scientific, philosophical, and theological). If you asked me what culture I came from, I would answer “post-enlightenment protestant”. I had the privilege of growing up that way because I am part of an educated, English-speaking middle class. I made it overseas not because my parents pressured me, but because I wanted to complete a PhD. My privilege shielded me from the kinds of marginalization that most Chinese feel.
Lent and Chinese New Year coincide this year. In past years, that would never have mattered to me. As a Christian, I observe Lent. But I’m a banana (yellow on the outside, white on the inside), so while I would go along with my family celebrations, I really didn’t care much for them.
For the last five years, I have lived, loved, worked, and worshipped in the United States. Mostly, American culture has been easy for me to flourish in. In some ways, I feel a deeper sense of belonging here than I ever did in Malaysia. But at the same time, the experience of living here has made me feel “Chinese” and “Malaysian” in a way I never have before.
It appears my being a “post-enlightenment protestant” is usually not enough. In many contexts, I am a perpetual “other”. I’m constantly asked where I learned to speak English, and I often have to listen to plenty of ignorant-speak about immigration issues affecting people like me. I have been spoken down to, and am expected to listen like the good “model minority” that I am. The treatment of some from the majority culture reveals to me how I may never be a full participant of the dominant culture (ironically, these are the people who most expect immigrants to assimilate).
Even in conversations about race, Asian voices are often lost in the mix as the conversations mostly center on black-white relations. Those conversations are important, but it’s hard to know what my place is as a participant.
When ethnic minorities find themselves on the margins of a culture, there are two main responses. First, we can strive even harder to assimilate, trying to achieve and attain enough to earn full acceptance. Unfortunately, even the most meritocratic parts of society are not free from racial prejudice. Second, we can embrace our minority identity even more fully, appropriating the “American dream” for our own communities and carving out small spaces we can call home.
For the first time in my life, I have come to understand the need for times when I can retreat and just be with “my own people”. I used to pride myself on being able to engage with people on an intellectual level that could transcend barriers of race and culture. But after so many interactions in which I have to bear the burden of explaining and interpreting aspects of my culture, it’s comforting to be with people you don’t need to explain things to. There are things that other immigrants, people of color, and minorities seem to just “get” about each other’s experience without any explanation.
Surely the church is the one place where I can feel at home and not have to retreat. I believe in the holy catholic church. I believe that my identity as a Christian enables communion with others across barriers of race, culture, and nationality. For the marginalized “other” the church should be a place of belonging.
I have been blessed by so many life-giving relationships with my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. I believe our shared communion in Christ enables us to know and love each other in our cultural and racial otherness (though as far as Asian immigrants go, it probably helps that I’m pretty acculturated and a native English-speaker).
My good friends don’t treat me any different because of my race. My best friends manage that while also embracing the parts of my identity that are most foreign. With these friends, I can be comfortably myself; an alien at home in a foreign land, the way God probably expected Israel to welcome the foreigner (see Leviticus 19:34).
Unfortunately, I also meet those in the church who (without malice) make me feel the need to hide my otherness. These are the people who claim to be “colorblind”, who emphasize that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile”. These people expect a unified “Christian way” of viewing the world, but are blind to the fact that their conception of the “Christian way” is more accurately a “conservative white Evangelical way”. These are the people who speak of the transcendence of the Christian faith, but downplay the diverse ways it is embodied in different cultures.
Such talk can feel like violence to those who are not a part of the dominant culture, because those on the margins are also those most vulnerable to injustice. It seems all-too-easy to silence people on the margins 1) for the sake of “unity”, and 2) by dismissing their concerns as secondary to the gospel. I believe this is what happened with Lecrae “leaving white evangelicalism”. In his case, he found that the concerns he felt for marginalized and oppressed people were dismissed by the dominant group of white evangelicalism, pushing him to the margins of black Christianity. I feel a similar tension when I read of the marginalization of immigrant communities and attempt to communicate my own experiences of this.
The “other” who experiences injustice but believes the Gospel calls the church to fight it is pressured to assimilate in spaces dominated by “colorblind” Christians. We are presented with false dichotomies; we are warned against the “social gospel”, as if advocating for the marginalized and oppressed means we do not acknowledge the reality of sin and our need for Jesus. As if it might distract us from salvation.
In those moments, I have felt that I have had to choose between an “abstracted” and Westernized Christian identity, and my racial/national/cultural identity that marks me out as someone on the margins. The former allows me to easily assimilate, the latter means I am never at home in the dominant culture.
As an Asian immigrant in the US, I am never fully home. I have one foot in the culture here, and one foot in my home culture. This places me in what Asian-American theologian Sang Hyun Lee calls a liminal space. People in liminal spaces are open to the new (we are not beholden to a single cultural center), to community (those at the margins share experiences and intimacy sometimes by necessity), and are able to take prophetic stances against the dominant culture (because we see it without being beholden to the status quo).
I have come to know and love my Chinese Malaysian heritage because 1) God made me to be that and I cannot change it, and 2) because that identity forces me into liminal spaces and gives me a deeper experience of the love of God. I would be less Christian if I denied my racial and cultural heritage, because there would be less of me.
I am not nearly as marginalized as many other people, but the marginalization I may experience is a window into the spaces where I believe God is most present. In the Incarnation, God moved towards those without social or cultural capital. In the Gospels, it is explicitly reported that Jesus moved towards those who were racial outcasts. If God is in liminal spaces, following Jesus requires that we inhabit those spaces.
If we are blessed when we suffer for being Christian, I believe we are also potentially blessed in sufferings that come from being members of a particular race/nationality/class. I weep for those who by being “colorblind” shut themselves off from standing with the oppressed at the margins, for they shall know little of the beauty of God’s care for the outsider. The margins are where we glimpse what God does for the oppressed, and it is where we can work for God’s justice in anticipation of the New Creation, when God’s justice on earth will be as it is in heaven.
I spent years trying to assimilate into the dominant culture. After all, I was told that in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Gentile”. But I am learning that my Chinese Malaysian identity is both a cross and a blessing that is essential to my Christian identity: it places me on the margins, but it gives me an ever deepening knowledge of the God who is there to meet me in liminal spaces.
This year, I look forward to Lent. For the first time, I am also able to proudly say 新年快乐, trusting that God will meet me there, too.