I recently crossed paths with a man who, minutes after we met, looked me squarely in the face and asked, “What’s your nationality?”
“American,” I replied uncomfortably, not understanding how that information was any of his business or relevant to the context, and dreading that I was about to have that conversation yet again.
“American?” he said. “You can’t be. I mean, where are you from?”
It seemed likely he was conflating nationality and ethnicity, but I opined that trying to explain the distinction would hurl us further into a quagmire.
“I was born here,” I responded, “and my dad was born in Los Angeles too. And I actually have a grandmother who was born in San Francisco.”
He expressed obvious frustration. “You can’t be American. You look too Chinese,” he told me. “But,” he concluded with a shrug, “whatever you say.”
This was certainly not the first time I’ve experienced discrimination or microaggressions because of my phenotype or race (perceived or actual). But it disheartened me because never before have I been so bluntly otherized—told that I am a foreigner, despite the fact that people from three generations of my family have exited the womb on U.S. soil—and that I do not (and in at least one person’s opinion, cannot possibly) belong.
It was not a new revelation by any means, but rather, external corroboration of an unsettling feeling that I’ve spent much of my life trying to bury.
Many Asian Americans, myself included, wrestle with a constant, nagging sense of unbelonging when it comes to the Asian versus American tension that is part of our cultural identity. For me it is a subtle, ever-present awareness that I will never be completely accepted—never exactly fit in—in either America or (in my case) China.
Instead, we exist in a no man’s land. We are adrift somewhere along the spectrum that has American culture on one end and the culture of our ancestors’ country or countries on the other end, and an expanse of relatively uncharted territory in between.
I will never feel fully Chinese. I don’t know the language; I only took one summer of Chinese school, and I’m pretty sure I failed (it’s hard to know for certain since I couldn’t understand anything the teacher said). To be honest, the picky eater in me is weirded out by many Chinese foods. I’m unfamiliar with Chinese holidays and customs. And I have never been particularly enthused about other aspects of Chinese culture and history, such as gendercide against girls or heavy state censorship.
At the same time, I will never feel fully American. I will never stop hearing questions such as “Where are you from? No, really?” “Do you know kung fu?” or “Did your relatives eat dogs?” I will never stop receiving comments such as “You must be good at math” or “Your English is so good!” And in the media, in politics and in other positions of authority and public prominence, I see few people who look like me. Simply put, when most people envision an American, their mind’s eye doesn’t picture me.
I don’t belong in either of those worlds. I am somewhere in between. I am American in some ways and Asian in others, but the data points are unceasingly in flux. This is not to say that the cultural blend isn’t interesting and beautiful in its own way, just that it can be murky and confusing at times.
The cultural merger affects my faith as well. There are tenants of both cultures that are consistent with the teachings and example of Jesus, and some that are not. For instance, generally speaking, Asian cultures tend to brush conflict under the rug, whereas the Bible encourages honest confrontation, which is arguably more aligned with American norms. As another example, the Bible has a lot to say about honoring and respecting our parents, something prominent in Asian cultures but stressed less in American society.
At the end of the day, what I come back to is that though I may feel pulled in different directions by my Chinese heritage and American upbringing, neither of those defines me. While race, ethnic background and culture play important roles in our identity, they will always be insufficient, unable to perfectly capture or fully give meaning to our personhood.
Instead, Jesus defines me—by his love, his death and his resurrection. I may never have a complete sense of belonging to a country or culture, but in him I have an eternal, unshakable heritage as his daughter. That identity transcends all social constructs, including national boundaries and culture.
Moreover, working out my cultural identity is a more meaningful and more effective process when I do it through the goggles of his truth. Rather than pitting Asian against American, I can bring it all to him and ask, What is true? What is right? What is God-pleasing? to determine which facets of each culture to adopt or forsake. It is not about which culture is superior, but rather, viewing all cultures through the lens of the gospel, realizing where cultural blind spots may be hindering us from growing in Christ, and capitalizing on the biblical strengths of each culture in our ongoing pursuit of Jesus.