culture

Stuck in the Middle: An East Asian’s Perspective on a White and Black World

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Racial tension is palpable in America. The need for reconciliation and forgiveness is real. However, much of the discussion about racial tension and diversity in America focuses on whites and blacks, which is appropriate given past and current injustices. But lost in the middle of this conversation is the East Asian or Chinese minority, of which I closely identify.

East Asians in America (like me) fall into one of two categories: native and “American Born Chinese” (ABC). A native is an Asian person who grew up in an Asian country and eventually moved to the United States. A native probably speaks limited to decent English with a strong native accent. Though living in America, a native still tightly holds to traditional cultural practices and tends to spend a significant amount of time with others from their country rather than learning to assimilate fully into their new culture.

On the other hand, there are an increasing number of ABCs in America, those born in America from immigrant parents. An ABC is an American citizen who finds himself in a strange balance between his home life and nonhome life. At home, the ABC’s house and family may be traditional in the food they eat, the language they speak or the holidays they celebrate. Outside the home, ABCs generally speak with little to no accent, have friends from all races and try to learn about American culture. Additionally, ABCs generally face tremendous pressure from their parents to excel in their school work, so religion becomes a lower priority. ABCs live with this tension of parents who desire for them to appreciate Asian traditions and their personal attempts to live within the American culture.

As the racial conversations continue, East Asian people are lost somewhere in the middle because they are neither white nor black. They are unable to relate to the oppression and mistreatment of black suffering. They also cannot fully relate to the white population that makes up a majority of the population. Thus, East Asian people, both native and ABC, can experience three responses to this disconnect. Yet the church can step up and provide a place for East Asian people to feel included.

The church can step up and provide a place for East Asian people to feel included.

East Asian people can feel left out.

The current cultural conversation is focused primarily on white and black racial reconciliation. Unfortunately, since East Asian people fit neither category, East Asians can feel left out and ignored. While the conversation rages on about white and black racial reconciliation, East Asians feel like they are not included.

Many East Asian people are quiet and reserved, though this is certainly not true for all East Asians. So, when the racial conversations are raging around them, East Asian people will feel like they are being largely ignored and isolated from the larger society. Imagine that you are with a group of friends and they are passionately discussing a critical topic, but you are left out of the conversation. Instead of feeling like a valued member of your group, you instead feel like your opinions are unimportant. East Asian people feel this when the cultural conversations, both inside and outside the church, are focused on topics that East Asian people cannot relate to.

What can the church do to help these concerns? Here are some initial steps to take.

  1. Introduce yourself to East Asian people you meet. If they are native Asians, then they likely have had little contact with Americans, so a friendly and loving demeanor can begin to break down the initial cultural barriers.
  2. Don’t be afraid to ask about their culture. Asian people are happy to share about their fascinating and diverse culture.
  3. Be willing to include them. It can be intimidating for people of different races and cultures to make the first move, so taking the initiative can help to alleviate fears.

East Asian people don’t feel culturally connected in America.

East Asian people can feel culturally disconnected from American culture. Native Asians acutely feel this disconnect, and ABCs feel this due to the tension between their parents’ culture and the American culture around them. Additionally, the culture surrounding them pays little attention to the Asian culture. For example, can you think of any prominent Asian holidays that are celebrated in America? When the primary culture pays little attention, Asian people can feel disconnected from the culture around them.

In particular, Asian Christians in America feel this cultural disconnect when they struggle with how to properly address certain issues they are facing. For example, Asian Christians may wonder how to properly think through celebrating Chinese New Year or other prominent Asian holidays that may have unchristian values or origins. Few voices address these important cultural issues because attention is focused on different conversations.

Instead of trying to fit into American culture, many East Asians will instead choose to connect with other Asians or with those of their specific people group. This connection allows them to remain around people who better understand and celebrate their cultural backgrounds. However, this also means that East Asian people can isolate themselves, which deepens their feelings of disconnect.

Although anyone can help East Asian people feel culturally connected, the church should take the lead in this matter. The church speaks passionately about the gospel reaching the nations. So when the nations come to their cities and neighborhoods, the church should be just as passionate about reaching them. By being involved in the lives of East Asian people in America, the church can help native Asians feel at home in a foreign land, and they can help bridge the cultural tension for ABCs by providing a place where they can see how God’s kingdom consists of all nations.

East Asian people lack Christian leaders who relate to them.

Once East Asians enter a church or Christian context, the work does not end. The Christian message and lifestyle can seem strange and unusual for people of Asian background. The Christian gospel of grace contradicts the Asian mindset of hard work for future success. Additionally, many East Asians view Christianity or religion as a separate thing that is good as long as it does not disgrace or dishonor one’s family.

Despite these cultural difficulties, many East Asian people do come to faith in Christ. However, too often Christian leaders fail to follow up and disciple these East Asian believers. Part of the poor follow-up can be attributed to leaders who have troubles relating to the struggles of a different culture. There are not many East Asian Christian leaders in America, and the few that there are do not receive much publicity. So, from the perspective of an East Asian person, no leaders truly understand their cultural tension.

What are some ways to resolve this dilemma? Addressing these cultural tensions may seem daunting. But the East Asian person needs to first feel included in a church setting. An invitation to a meal or to hang out can have a profound effect in helping them feel more at home. Plus, you can work to locate East Asian Christians who have shown the potential for leadership and then truly invest in their lives. East Asian people are often overlooked by the majority culture. Potential East Asian leaders attend our seminaries and churches, but developing these leaders will require intentionality, time and work. But, if the intentionality, time, and work is put in then there could be much fruit in the next several years for East Asian leadership.

I love my East Asian people. Although we may differ from each other in our background and native language, I still feel a bond with those who grew up similar to myself. The diversity conversations are needed now more than ever but they should not exclude a group of people who feel overlooked in the larger Christian community. East Asian people need the gospel and have much to offer. Perhaps, you can help them feel like they are truly a vital part of the Kingdom of God.

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  • culture
  • diversity
  • ministry
  • race
Eddy Wu

Eddy Wu is a Ph.D. student in Christian Apologetics and Culture at Southeastern Seminary, where he works as the IT Operations Manager. He loves technology and is interested in the problem of evil. He and his wife Erica live in Wake Forest with their 2 kids.

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