On Being Yellow in a White World

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.

American Asian

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.

Monochromatic Church

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.

Liminal Spaces

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.

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Opening the Fissure

I have the occasional privilege of wrestling with Chris Olshefski over lunch; he calls it dialoguing. Some of our conversations, like his and Caitlin’s blog posts, are unsettling; they force me to hear ideas that are challenging, question my own beliefs, and follow arguments that sometimes have no conclusion (as a scientist, this is hell for me).

Disclaimer: I only disagree with him about 18% of the time on significant issues. I am grateful for this because dialoguing with him exercises the muscles I need for engaging with some in my theologically conservative church (disagreement 45% of the time), my woke progressive friends (34% of the time), and my politically conservative family (97% of the time).

I have been reflecting on what it means to have relationships with those we disagree with on significant issues (possibly up to 97% of the time). Refusing to engage isn’t always a viable option. I could avoid Caitlin, but I work on the same floor as Chris. Maybe I’ll just keep asking him about the state of his faith.

I see two options. First, I could ignore and minimize any differences, but then friendships would lack intimacy – what psychologists describe as inclusion of the other into the self, in which we feel our identities to be known, validated, and cared for. Second, I could deliberately engage with others despite the discomfort they bring. I’ve been trying the latter, which has had a strange effect on me: it has grown my identity to include others. We enter conversations acutely aware of the incompatibilities of our identities; there seems to be little shared basis for communion. In the midst of dialogue, we may not change our positions on any issues, but I find myself knowing, validating, and caring about others in ways I didn’t before.

In this, I have received help from Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. Because I’ve read the book, Chris asked me to share how Volf’s ideas have helped me to embrace the Other.

Keep them out

Volf observes that we are constantly in conflict with Others because of loyalty to our own cultures (based on ethnicity, nationality, or ideology). We regard our identities as ‘pure’ so long as they are not tainted by identities from competing cultures. We do not understand their identities, and fear validating them (lest it be mistaken for endorsing their positions), which allows us to care less if we choose to disassociate from them. This allows us to say with pride that we do not (or no longer) associate with a person or group. Our identities are defined by who we are not. We are not them!

Volf calls this the sin of exclusion: a will to push Others out of our identities and cultural worlds. This can take several forms. First, we might cut off the Other from communion and relationship. This is exclusion by abandonment (e.g. ignoring, excommunicating) or elimination (e.g. genocide). Second, we might forcefully shape or limit the identities of Others to ‘permit’ them space amongst us. This is exclusion by assimilation (e.g. silencing) or domination (e.g. slavery). Exclusion in any form entails violence against the identities of Others.

The sin of exclusion is inescapable; I am either a perpetrator, or a victim of it. When I am excluded, I exclude in kind. Both parties are locked in a mutually-reinforcing dance of exclusion. This dance seems never ending, but Volf outlines a way forward.

Volf writes, “Christians take a distance from their own culture because they give the ultimate allegiance to God and God’s promised future” (p. 51). The Cross serves as the foundation of a new community, allowing us to live with one foot in our cultures and another in God’s new creation where we are reconciled to God and others. Where our identities were previously incompatible with others, in communion we become catholic personalities – enriched and shaped by our relations to others, even those we are prone to exclude. To Volf, this is accomplished by God’s working: “Being born by the Spirit creates a fissure in me through which others can come in” (p. 51).

Let them in

In contrast to human relationships marred by exclusion, Volf uses the metaphor of embrace to describe the healing of human relationships and communities. This willingness to embrace the other precedes any conditions we place upon them. Volf writes, “The will to give ourselves to others and ‘welcome’ them, to readjust our identities to make space for them, is prior to any judgment about others, except that of identifying them in their humanity. The will to embrace precedes any ‘truth’ about others” (p. 29). Volf describes the drama of embrace playing out in four steps, a metaphor that mirrors a literal, physical embrace.

I. Opening the arms

This signals to the other your own will and desire to embrace. This requires a recognition that our own identities require others for enrichment and healing. Volf writes, “Open arms are a sign that I have created space in myself for the other to come in and that I have made a movement out of myself so as to enter the space created by the other” (p. 141). We may have a desire to embrace someone, but have we signaled it to them in a way they can perceive?

II. Waiting

Open arms extend to – but stop short of enveloping – the other. Embrace must be entered freely; to embrace someone without waiting for them to enter our open arms is to do violence against them, to invade their identities with ours. Volf speaks of waiting as a modality of love: postponing our will and desire to embrace because we place the needs of the other before ours. Am I impatient with others, demanding embrace on my terms and according to my timing?

III. Closing the arms

Once the other accepts the invitation and approaches, there is reciprocity: a gentle closing of the arms by both parties; two independent identities now stand as a single entity. I must not close my arms too tightly and suffocate or assimilate the other, and I must resist any assimilation of myself. In embrace, “the identity of the self is both preserved and transformed” (p. 143). In embrace, a lack of understanding may emerge (as when we notice the strange smells and contours of another in close proximity), but there is more knowing when we see past our caricatures of the other. There is a certain amount of mystery to how one self includes another. Am I comfortable allowing that mystery to shape me?

IV. Opening the arms

A single embrace does not last forever, just as two identities cannot become one. Embrace is a habit that we return to, a dance that gets repeated over and over. Each time, we release the other and retreat to ourselves having been changed and enriched by the other’s presence.

Practicing embrace

Dammit. This means that to embrace those with whom I disagree, I might (to my horror) have to change – my identity has to make space for them. But what if they don’t make space for me? That might in fact be the case, but I still feel we would be better off putting Volf’s ideas into practice, resting in God when faced with the uncomfortable tension.

I think about Volf’s ideas every time I observe ideological and theological disagreements in the Church. Many of us (especially American Evangelicals) have the habit of diagnosing the theological positions of others, to determine where their identities stand in relation to ours. Would anyone trust me to teach in a church context, or do people worry about my views on the creation account and gender? Are Chris and Caitlin in the fellowship, or are they people I’m supposed to ‘reach out to’?

The habit of diagnosing others’ positions usually comes from a good place – a sort of spiritual triage where a stronger sister tries to determine if a weaker brother is in need of correction. The unintended effect, as I’ve observed and felt, is that a contingency is placed on the relationship. Dialogue can easily become an attempt to convince, and without intending to, carries an implicit threat of exclusion (should the convincing fail).

What if instead of trying to identify whose views needed correction, I took a dialogic stance towards them? What if I had a will to embrace that preceded my judgments about others and their beliefs? We might hear each others’ voices and perspectives in a fresh way, and regardless of whether there is any agreement, our identities would be enriched by inclusion of the other. This does not mean we cannot make judgments about what is true or reject untruths, but it means recognizing that truthful and loving judgments can only be made by identities willing to hear the voices of others and be shaped by them.

I wish we in the Church embraced embrace as a practice more. Perhaps we could all share in the meal that Jesus shared with us. Presently, we fence our tables, to ensure that those we break bread with believe the right things about the meal before partaking. While beliefs about communion are not unimportant, this seems akin to emailing my family ahead of Thanksgiving, insisting we work out all conflicts before we’re allowed to share a meal.

In the real world, families work out conflicts over meals – we share meals not because we have managed to come to some ideological agreement, but because our identities include each other. In fact, there may be little agreement. My racist uncle might end up sitting next to me at the table. I’m supposed to embrace him simply because he’s my uncle, even as I reject his views.

Perhaps it would heal us to break bread with those whose beliefs are unsettling to us, recognizing our shared communion as the basis for dialogue and fellowship. Can we embrace others and include their identities in our own? I know that when I don’t, I grow increasingly narrow in my perspective, not realizing that it has covered the fissure in me, leaving no room for anyone to enter.