FAMILIAR FOREIGNERS: ASIAN-AMERICANS AND WHITE MAJORITY CULTURE CHURCHES
Young-Sam Won | SEPTEMBER 7, 2018 | 12 MIN READ
This article was originally published at djchuang.com. It has been republished with the author’s permission.
Recent discussions of racial justice and racial reconciliation have led to an increased interest in the relationship between people of color and majority culture churches and institutions. Many Asian-Americans (AsAms) who have been a part of majority culture churches are experiencing a renewed interest in returning to ethnic minority churches. After a period of integration into diverse majority culture congregations why would many AsAms be looking to return to less diverse ethnic minority churches? Recently, I have been asked about this question, as well as the question of how majority culture churches can better serve AsAm members in their congregations. In light of the current interest in these questions, I thought I would share some background and perspective that can be helpful to majority culture churches serving AsAm members.
Before delving in, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out how indebted AsAms are to the many impactful voices in African-American, Latinx, and Native American contexts who have written and spoken at length about the complex dynamics involving majority culture Christians and people of color. Many of the cross-cultural and racial dynamics surfaced by these voices apply to the relationship between AsAms and majority culture Christians. However, the unique history of Asians in America and particular characteristics of AsAm communities warrant a more nuanced look at the relationship between AsAm believers and majority culture churches.
“Asian-Americans” and The Model Minority Myth
I’d like to set the stage by touching on two aspects of Asian-American history that set our communities apart from other people of color. First, there is the term, “Asian-American,” which both simplifies and clouds the way majority culture views Asian immigrants. Asian immigrants actually represent a very broad spectrum of Asian nations and cultures. Asians-Americans consist of people from East Asian nations, such as China, Japan, Korea, Mongolia, and Taiwan. Asian-Americans also hail from Southeast Asian nations, such as Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, Brunei, and East Timor. However, some do not readily recognize that Asian-Americans also include people from South Asian nations, such as Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Asian-Americans are far from a mono-cultural, mono-ethnic demographic. In fact, many individual Asian nations and people groups share complex and even difficult histories. For example, Japan has a painful history with China, Korea, and other Asian nations due to its period of imperial ambition. India and Pakistan have long had a contentious relationship along their common border. In addition, various periods of European colonialism and imperialism have led to complex and difficult socio-political dynamics throughout Asia. It is important for majority culture folks to understand that Asian-Americans are an incredibly diverse group of people of unique ethnicities and cultures.
The term “Asian-American” was coined in the 1960s to help forge a pan-Asian community that would foster inter-ethnic solidarity, greater representation, cultural presence, and socio-political power. In a sense, people who may have shared little solidarity in Asia grew to see a pan-Asian identity as helpful in America where they were now in the minority (strength in numbers). Thus, there is a complex relationship between Asians of various ethnic backgrounds. On the one hand, old world socio-political and cultural dynamics still hold sway, especially for older immigrants, but minority status also evokes a new world sense of solidarity based on common Asian roots in a sea of whiteness.
The second historical point of note is that the Model Minority Myth has led to a unique cross-cultural dynamic involving Asian-Americans and the majority culture. There is extensive literature and discussion regarding the many difficulties of the Model Minority Myth, but the most germane aspect to this discussion relates to the high degree of Asian immigrant acceptance by white majority culture. The Model Minority Myth has contributed to the perception that AsAms have achieved a higher level of success and acculturation into American life. Unfortunately, the Model Minority Myth has been used to differentiate AsAms from other people of color (PoC), often using the success of some Asian immigrants as a means of denigrating other minority groups. This perceived success and acculturation has also been attributed to the supposed Asian cultural values of conformity and submission, which led to the perception of AsAms as a “safe” minority group. In addition, the subjective perception that people of Asian descent are closer in physical appearance (i.e., skin color) to people of European descent has further eased the acceptance of AsAms into majority culture contexts. In sum, AsAms have found the path to white majority culture acceptance relatively easy in comparison to the tragic history of black, brown, and Native American PoC in America.
“I don’t see you as Korean…”
Growing up in Dallas, TX, I lived a largely ordinary “American” childhood. I was the only Asian in my circle of friends and took part in just about all the regular activities of kids in my community. I often heard friends tell me that they didn’t see me as Korean because I was pretty much just like them. In some ways, I took this as a compliment and took comfort in the fact that I was accepted and not ostracized on the basis of my ethnicity. However, I also attended a Korean church and found that my time with my Korean friends energized me in ways my non-Korean friends could not understand. I didn’t know how to articulate it at the time, but I was learning that God had created me to enjoy and embrace my ethnicity and my adopted nationality. Acceptance at school was satisfying on one level, but I could not experience the fulness of who I was created to be without my Korean community. Acceptance of any person of color without embracing their unique culture is essentially the erasure of a significant part of who they are.
In light of the history of Asian immigrants in America, it makes sense that many AsAms are quite comfortable in majority cultural contexts. Racism has certainly been part of the experience for Asian immigrants, but many have also achieved great cultural fluency and ready acceptance by “white America.” While this is largely a positive cross-cultural dynamic, it is not without difficulties. The perception of AsAms as culturally “safe” and acceptable can contribute to the erasure or minimization of ethnic and cultural identity. Many Asians growing up in America find that a desire to be accepted by the majority culture leads identity struggles. Some Asians pursue an erasure of ethnic identity in an attempt to become “white,” while others struggle to rediscover or be defined by ethnic and cultural distinctives. From the perspective of the majority culture, the net effect is AsAm invisibility. AsAms do not garner the same attention in majority spaces as other minorities, blending in easily and effectively becoming invisible.
Some Pastoral Food for Thought
Though I have touched on some broad AsAm cross-cultural issues, my primary perspective is that of a pastor. As a fellow pastor, I would like to offer some helpful perspectives for those in majority culture churches that serve AsAm members. The acceptance of AsAms and the relative invisibility of Asians as PoC often causes majority culture to lose sight of the fact that AsAms are still dual-culture minorities. In fact, many AsAms would even fit the broad definition of “third culture kids,” i.e., children raised in a country other than the parents’ native country. This cultural complexity is often minimized. Though AsAms often move well in majority culture circles, they do engage in code switching and still have an entire cultural identity native to their ethnicity. Therefore, there will inevitably be unique needs from a pastoral care perspective. As a pastor, what might be helpful for white Americans may not be ideal for AsAms.
Some pastoral care tools, techniques, and principles are more centered in white majority culture than we may realize. The struggle in identifying such culturally-centered elements is that white majority culture is largely invisible to most white Americans, since it is the normative context that determines how other cultures are viewed. This is true in churches and is also true in Western theological education where pastors and ministry leaders are trained. Too few majority culture leaders recognize that Asian Christianity has a rich history featuring developed schools of theological thought and robust church traditions. As a result, most AsAm Christians and ministry leaders end up submitting to dominant Western theological structures and institutions out of necessity. Unfortunately, this means majority churches often teach and preach in ways that don’t engage AsAms in adequately sophisticated ways. In effect, what you often find in majority culture churches is AsAms being taught and trained as de facto members of the majority culture. Unfortunately, this is far too simplistic a view of AsAms and neglects the unique ethnic and cultural aspects of their person and identity.
This is one of the main reasons why many AsAms are now leaving diverse majority culture churches and rediscovering or exploring for the first time the ethnic minority churches of various Asian communities. They are finding that a Korean church with an English-speaking ministry can provide much of the same level of biblical teaching, preaching, and worship while also providing the added nourishment of fellowship in a familiar ethnic community. Many are finding that not having to code switch and being able to embrace the entirety of who they are as Chinese-American, Vietnamese-American, Indian-American, etc., is life-giving.
To be clear, when AsAms try a white church and then hunger to return to a minority church, it is not racism toward white people or an inadequate respect for the Gospel. It is likely weariness over cultural negotiations that were one-sided for too long. AsAms in white churches engage, worship, serve, and learn as white people. What this leads to is a church experience that leaves our Asian cultural selves undernourished. It is very rare to find a majority culture church that can provide the kind of cultural community that a minority church can. This is not due to some insufficiency in the Gospel or in biblical teaching. This is a fellowship issue where our imago Dei as Asians is not being honored and cultivated by our majority culture brothers and sisters.
So, what are some things we miss in a majority culture church even though we speak English fluently and live in the majority culture seamlessly? Some examples include the following: understanding the struggle of learning a second language, the related struggle of losing the ability to communicate with your parents and family as you adopt a new language, a cultural disconnect with our own parents, understanding the feeling of being third culture people marginalized by both our adopted country and our native land, the struggle to find acceptance as peers when it comes to dating/marriage, cultural invisibility, breaking free of common stereotypes (e.g., studious, quiet, not athletic, submissive), finding that Bible studies and sermons present Jesus as one who doesn’t always seem to speak to us as Asian people, and finding that the unique social needs of Asian communities are not of concern to the church’s leadership and members.
Some majority churches recognize this disconnect and hire AsAm staff to try and provide culturally-informed pastoral care. This is a helpful and appreciated step but one or two staff does not make up for the congregation’s prevailing culture. The majority culture church often fails to realize that the congregation’s dominant cultural attitudes and perspectives largely determine how a minority person feels in that setting. Even if the leadership says the right things about cross-cultural relationships and outreach, it is ultimately the people of the church who will determine how a person of color feels. Sadly, many churches have good mission statements and doctrinal statements, but fail to “live up to the paper” at the level of the congregation’s prevailing culture. As long as AsAms feel like perpetual foreigners, no AsAm staff or welcoming mission statement will meaningfully nurture AsAm members.
I have attempted to identify and shed light on issues and perspectives that majority culture churches may not understand when it comes to serving Asian-American believers. Though I have attempted to provide some helpful ideas, I don’t have definitive answers or solutions. Each church is unique and so is each AsAm individual. I have attempted to provide a general portrait of an AsAm Christian, but I am aware that each AsAm is an individual who processes her cultural identity in different ways. I do hope that this discussion has helped to show that AsAms are very different from majority culture Americans, no matter how culturally and linguistically fluent they may be.
In closing, I will suggest two steps as a good starting point. First, the majority culture must not be threatened by or uncomfortable with our cultural and ethnic differences. Scripture clearly reveals that God intended for the Body of Christ to be beautiful in its diversity. As a Korean-American believer who has grown up in America and grown up as a Christian in American Christianity, I would welcome any attempt to lean across the table and cross over culturally so that we’re not the only ones leaning over to cross cultural divides.
Finally, I believe most AsAm believers would welcome the chance to share our faith perspectives and theological ideas as equals, rather than as perpetual foreigners and learners in need of the final word provided by Western theological traditions. Having our white Christian brothers and sisters approach us as learners would open many doors to fruitful cross-cultural conversations. Sometimes majority culture churches do not know how best to serve their AsAm members because they simply never thought to ask how. We are united by something much greater than our differences and that is the precious blood of Jesus Christ. The power of the Gospel means that we no longer have to fear our differences. We can freely embrace one another fully celebrating our cultural and ethnic distinctives as God’s good work.
Young-Sam (Sam) Won is a pastor, former missionary to Russia (Cru), and a day-tripping oncology pharmacist (UMich, ’94) in the Dallas area. He is married over twenty years to Hanna and has three wonderfully goofy kids. He recently completed his PhD in Biblical Studies with an OT emphasis at Dallas Theological Seminary and serves at The Bridge Church in Carrollton, TX.