Liberty New York

The Asian Diaspora identity in the US brings with it much angst and alienation; does it have redemptive value in God’s kingdom?

Amy Tan opens her “The Joy Luck Club” with a mini-story about a Chinese woman who leaves her homeland for the US, full of hope for her daughter who will grow up fully American, speaking “only perfectly American English.” In the new land, unlike herself back in China, the daughter “will always be too full to swallow any sorrow.” The woman got her wish—but it wasn’t what she had expected. Her daughter “grew up speaking only English and swallowing more Coca-Cola than sorrow.” The woman, now old, was still waiting for the day when she could tell her daughter about all her hopes and dreams for her, “in perfect American English.”

Tan’s novel touches the heart of the immigrant experience in the US, marked by all its hopes that brought the immigrants to its shores in the first place and its alienations that emerge between generations and the dominant culture. The children of immigrants are often caught in the no man’s land between the old country and the new homeland, at home in neither place, and strangers to first generation and other Americans alike. Even though the US is the only home you have known, you are still an outsider based on your appearance or the accent of your English. But among the first generation, you remain an Other based on the same—to them, you are an American, unable to speak the native language or to fully embrace the culture of the old country.

In the case of Asian Americans, bearing the label “model minority” has become more of a curse than a blessing. You bear the often unrealistic expectations of success in the US (both from parents and the dominant culture), but even when you do succeed, you still find yourself left out of the good ol’ boys’ club. On the other hand, you often find yourself the target of other minorities’ resentments and prejudices for your perceived success. Wherever you turn in the US, you are still an Other — exotic, strange, and not “one of us” — even though you numbered 17.3 million in 2010.

This continuing sense of alienation partly explains the persistence of immigrant churches among the second generation long after they have come of age and the language barrier has fallen away. The larger evangelical church still seems to have trouble thinking of Asians without resorting to insulting stereotypes or punch-lines. At other times, churches are welcoming, but only superficially. The dominant culture isn’t necessarily welcoming a deeper change due to your presence; you are more likely expected to fall in line with what has already been going on, according to terms defined by Western traditions and thought. You are still not home. The traditional response has been to practice the homogeneous unit principle by default, not necessarily by design. After all, Korea was known as the “Hermit Kingdom” for much of its history.

Not to say that this response has worked out very well. Many English-speaking Ministries (EMs) struggle with a lack of diversity—not only ethnically, but also generationally. They miss the life experience and the rich spiritual tradition of their parents and their generation. Families with small children, which make up the leadership of these churches, are often far too busy; and they often seem to be stuck in doing college ministries—which is not necessarily a bad thing, but can such churches keep going during the holidays, summer vacations, and after graduations?

So, not surprisingly, many second generation Asian Christians are asking: What’s next for Asian churches and Christians?

I suspect that the answer has something to do with embracing their Other-ness.

This needs some defining, so let me try to say first what it’s not. It’s not neo-nationalism, regaining pride in the old country’s culture and asserting your immigrant identity as a socio-political force, for instance. I once heard a preacher proclaiming that Koreans are the chosen people, since Korea’s old name is Joseon (which sounds like Chosen). This isn’t what I have in mind. Nor is it a call for a retreat into isolationism and separatism, all over again, in the mold of Christian fundamentalism in the US. Nor, finally, is it taking on the mantle of victimhood, which in our litigious society has come to signify a position of power but ends up robbing you of dignity.

Embracing your Other-ness means resisting the consuming desire to become an Insider, a status that holds forth promises of power and privilege in this world if you will join the world and its clamoring rush upward and inward (to be a “successful ministry,” to work towards a celebrity status, to wield worldly power); and instead joining the lonely Christ who took the downward path of identification with the marginalized and the excluded. It means to follow him as he travels outside the city gates to be crucified, rejected and humiliated, for the sake of all those who have been rejected and humiliated in this world, but who put their trust in him to be embraced and restored in his kingdom. Laying aside his glory (his Insider status), Jesus became the ultimate Other, the ultimate Outsider, to seek and save the lost.

An immigrant knows something about being an Other. Many immigrants have worked hard at gaining entrance to the inside—if not for themselves, then for their children—and there has been some measure of success, but the alienations persist, and the Other identity continues to cling. Perhaps it is time to see it as a glory. After all, unwanted though it is, being the Other also means you know something about the glory of the Redeemer. You know something of sharing in his sufferings.

The glory of being an Other also has to do with its capacity for compassion for, and identification with, those who also find themselves as Outsiders in this world—those who have been trapped in places of poverty for generations through a long history of systemic injustice. New immigrant groups who have arrived in this confusing new land with hope and trepidation are unable to shake off their accents, and those who face exclusion, prejudice, and rejection as an Other even find they are cut off from opportunities. The glory of being an Other has to do with hungering for and seeking a different world than the present order, dissatisfied and disillusioned with the world as we have it today. For children of immigrants, the sorrow and the hope of struggling towards a better future in a strange land—the glory of the future kingdom—is not far removed from them, if they would claim it for themselves.

According to Hebrews 11, this long pilgrimage towards the coming kingdom and welcoming God’s city from a distance comprise those who are living by faith. As a Third Culture Kid from Korea, I found much comfort in knowing that while I found not many places I could call home in this world, I nevertheless belonged as a citizen in God’s city, and I was numbered among those pilgrims moving towards it through the ages. So I join the faithful in the ongoing petition that God’s kingdom come, even as we live like strangers in a foreign country.

Perhaps the immigrant identity was given for such a time as this. The ethnic makeup of the US church is changing at a much more rapid pace than the general populace, and the demographic makeup of those who are seeking theological training has already become thoroughly multiethnic, with no majority race. The Other can and must provide the kind of spiritual leadership to the whole church that only the Other can, especially in this time of ferment and change, with new opportunities for the church to invite “the poor, the crippled, the blind, the lame” that Jesus came to seek.

About the Author

Kyuboem Lee

Dr. Kyuboem Lee

Dr. Kyuboem Lee serves as Adjunct Faculty at Biblical Seminary. He is the founding pastor of Germantown Hope Community Church in Philadelphia, and the General Editor for the Journal of Urban Mission

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