Last week I had the pleasure of leading worship for Urbana- InterVarsity’s triennial missions conference. It was a fantastic experience. One of the highlights was a session where we led gospel worship and heard from local leader and activist Michelle Higgins. You can read a bunch of other posts about the ripples of that night. But at one point in the night, I asked people to respond to Michelle’s talk by being more open to listening to what people are saying through Black Lives Matter.
A few days later I was texting with my friend Christine, who is Chinese American. Here is the exchange.
This texting exchange felt significant, it put something to words that I had felt below the surface. In my last post I talked some about why Asian Americans are uncomfortable with disruption and protest. For those of us who had parents that came over after The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, there is a shared experience. Many of our parents generation experienced great suffering in their homelands. My mother grew up on the tail end of the Korean war and ever so often I get small glimpses into the poverty and the pain. She’ll say things like
- Your uncle doesn’t eat bean sprouts, because that’s all we ate when we were poor.
- I had a teacher who paid for me to go to school. But then he could not help me anymore and I had to drop out of middle school and work in a factory.
- I went to my brother to ask for a blanket, during the winter. Because winter is very cold in Korea. But he said he could not help me. And it hurt him so much.
- When I came to this country people yelled at me to go back to Vietnam.
These moments are dropped in passing in the midst of other conversations. Sometimes with tears. But it seems like the pain is never really processed. And because so many others have a similar pain, it is dismissed.
And then the next generation has its own dance with stories of pain. I remember about 12 years ago, InterVarsity Los Angeles was focusing on issues of racial reconciliation. And there were some painful moments. But my friend Yii-Shyun and I had a hilarious and bizarre conversation comparing our suffering to that of our parents and grandparents. Statements like- “Grandma I know it was hard when you had to hide in a cave during the winter during the Cultural Revolution but.. I’ve suffered too… sometimes my staff partner doesn’t understand my culture.”
“Oh mom- I know it was hard when you barely had food and had to eat grass pounded with old rice and had no blanket for winter- but sometimes my organization doesn’t understand my biracial identity.”
Through humor and tears we were acknowledging that we carry the last generations pain with us- and it is not resolved. And it dwarfs our suffering. But we feel dissonance in our own life experience as well.Working on those organizational dynamics are important, but I want to focus on the unresolved suffering in our history.
There is a cultural value for absorbing and swallowing pain.
There is shame in revealing suffering or poverty.
There are very few acceptable cultural ways to ask about these past experiences. And even fewer ways to show compassion. ( Aziz Anzari actually does a pretty sweet job of tackling some of this in his show Master of None- episode 2)
Many first generation immigrants have painful stories locked inside. But some of the limits of our own culture lock those stories away and the pain is never healed. I truly believe that there is healing in telling your story and being heard with compassion, empathy, and kindness.
It’s not just stories from the motherland that are locked away. Many have misunderstood how painful the Japanese internment camps were to our Japanese American brothers and sisters, because so little of that pain was put to words.
But it was painful. It was humiliating and awful.
So we have very strong cultural factors that lock stories of pain inside. And the broader culture has interpreted this as meaning that we don’t feel pain and suffering as deeply as other people. I would suggest that part of why Asian Americans have a hard time hearing and showing compassion towards the story of black people in the US- is because they have shown very little compassion to their own stories. We have unaddressed pain and it makes it difficult to engage with another community’s pain.
This is where we need cross cultural community. Because an all Asian community will reinforce this cultural approach to narrative and pain. But sometimes another context, an outside voice, a different way can be introduced by an outsider.
As Asian Americans we need to find a way to present our pain and our stories to Jesus and to each other. I think our parents need room to share, lament, cry ( that really awkward painful cry of older Asian folks) and then actually process and receive healing.
And the grace we have received could become be the grace we extend.
Perhaps as we watch the black community seek compassion, dignity, and justice for its community. We can begin to do that for ourselves as well. And we can stand together with them. And hopefully they will stand with us. Since this is what is means to be Christian community.