Does My Lunch Tell My Story?

Recently, I’ve spent more time than usual considering Asian American identity. The great comments on my recent post about the upcoming San Diego Asian American leadership gathering and its ethos and my daughter’s time in her predominantly white preschool have propelled much of this thinking.

Kathy, over at More Than Serving Tea, shares a great family story about her kids bringing Rice & Seaweed in the Thermos to school for lunch and the stress & worry that created for her. My daughter usually eats lunch at home, but she recently began to attend a “lunch bunch” program at her church. It crushed me to hear her say that she didn’t want to bring chicken and rice to school because she didn’t want the other kids to think she wasn’t “English.” It reminded me of my utter dismay at having my Caucasian friends discover the crazy varieties of kimchi my mom had bottled up around the house.

In Between Two Worlds

We have always done our best to help our daughter understand that she is Asian and American, and that is exactly how God created her to be. We have tried to foster in her heart a confidence in God and in her God-given identity. Since she’s growing up as an American girl, we work hard to show her the benefits of being Asian as well — that it is part of what makes her unique and fun, and that she doesn’t have to blend in with the crowd. Both my wife and I struggled with our sense of belonging and worth during our formative years and we want our daughter to enjoy being herself. We want to walk beside her, lead her, and listen to what’s happening in her heart — in ways that our parents, though they wanted to, could not have.

Two Kinds of Hatred

From what I’ve seen and experienced, the Asian American struggle with identity often breaks down into two kinds of hatred: hatred of Asian culture, and hatred of self. While these two struggles certainly interact and feed into one another, I believe we can approach them in slightly different ways.

Elderj wrote a great piece about Self Hatred & the Gospel in which he identifies the self-hatred that lies just beneath the surface of the critiques Korean Americans have against their churches and their culture. Although I always enforced the “take off your shoes before entering my house” rule among my non-Asian friends growing up (oh, the controversy!), I often struggled with the mysterious rules & regulations of my Asian heritage. So what if I was the oldest son of the oldest son in his family? Why did my parents think my friends were rude for not identifying themselves on the phone before asking for me? Even for my AA friends who grew up with more detailed explanations of their Asian heritage and among more Asian people, there was still a profound disconnect — even disdain — for many of their Asian customs & practices.

On a deeper level, I knew many AA friends who simply hated who they were. In what would have been humorous in another context, I learned the word “loathe” in fifth grade when an older friend explained how he “loathed” being Korean — I was confused, because it sounded like he “loved” being Korean, when I knew full well that he felt quite the opposite. He explained to me that it was more than hatred, but that he was disgusted with his Korean-ness. Whether it is the overt acts of racism against them or the undercurrent of being a permanent outsider, many Asian Americans turn their hurt, sorrow and frustration against themselves.

The Image of God

Dealing with the hatred of Asian culture is a relatively straightforward proposition. It might be as simple as pointing out the many positive aspects of our cultures — the awesome eats, greater sense of connectedness, commitment to family, sweet Samsung flat screen TVs (you know, the really important stuff). This struggle might create the opportunity to talk about what it means to be unique, to see how different cultures shape and inform who we are (for better and for worse) — hopefully, to live in the best of both worlds.

The hatred of self is a much deeper issue. Ultimately, I believe this is a profoundly theological question — not just one of sin and death and salvation, but of redemption. Our churches do a pretty good job of driving home the point that we are wretched sinners, desperately in need of mercy — worms incapable of any good thing. I’m being hyperbolic, but not by much. Just last week, a recent college grad at our church shared about how his “discipleship” program in college consisted mostly of his “discipler” condemning and guilt-tripping him. It’s not too hard to convince people who already hate themselves that they are awful, disgusting sinners.

Please hear me: we are all guilty. Sin has left the world, and our souls, utterly broken. But Jesus tells a story of rescue and redemption. Perhaps in our desperation for orthodoxy, we neglect to tell the story of the imago dei — that we are all made in the image of God. That this imago dei story was first and that Christ’s victory over sin and death creates the possibility of restoration. Perhaps a more robust theology will allow us to see that God purposefully and joyfully created us as Asian Americans. Instead of holding up “whiteness” as the standard and ultimate goal, perhaps theology can actually be useful to help us break free from this captivity.

I love that, when Jesus finally greets us on that day, He doesn’t demand that we give up our heritage. In fact, the scenes of worship and adoration in Revelation become even more glorious when we begin to hear the distinct languages and see the unique faces of all of those gathered around the Lamb.

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