Living in the Hyphen – Shame

Is there anything “good” about growing up in a shame-based culture? What are gifts of our Asian culture that we bring into our Asian-American culture? And how is Asian American culture (with or without the hyphen) different than simply a mix of what is the “best” of Asian and American culture?

Those were just some of the questions that we weren’t able to fully answer but left me with a vague restlessness after a focus group on Asian American identity at the More Than Serving Tea conference at Seattle Pacific University a few weeks ago. (To those of you who attended, thank you for making the day such a wonderful experience!) There has been a great deal of study done on ethnic or racial identity formation, but our time wasn’t designed to be a seminar but more of a conversation. So we talked. Some were more quick to identify our bicultural experiences as blessings while others were still wondering.

We often look at developing a sense of bicultural identity as taking the best of both cultures and shedding the negative, but one woman pointed out that some of what can be considered as “negative” cultural values can also be a gift. Her example:  growing up in a shame-based culture keeps her attentive to her conscience.

Through the years of ministering to college students I have spent a great deal of time walking young adults through the weight of shame – feeling not “I made a bad mistake” but “I am bad”. When you feel guilty, you might choose to apologize for the wrong, but when you are shamed there is little to do to save face. Most of our energies have been pored into shedding the shame and embracing God’s forgiveness.

So I was a bit taken aback by the suggestion that shame could be redeemed and be a blessing, but isn’t that what God does? Doesn’t God take my junk and redeem it? Isn’t it possible that the same shame that can paralyze me can be a gentle reminder that there are consequences to sin, to the “bad” choices we make, and that sometimes the consequences are far-reaching?

Shame and I are good friends. For the past two years, I’ve spent a good portion of time wrestling with a sense of failure as a daughter-in-law, wife, mother and daughter as Peter and I have become part of the sandwich generation (caring for both young children and aging parents). When we invited my father-in-law to live with us after my mother-in-law’s death, it was out of a strong sense of duty, honor and love. But during his stay with us I constantly struggled with a sense of failure and shame that the level of care I was providing to everyone in the household fell miserably short.

When the decision was made to move my father-in-law to live with my sister-in-law and then later into an assisted care facility, there was still no relief from the sense of failure and shame. (I grew up hearing, “We (meaning Asians, and specifically Koreans) do not put our elderly into nursing homes like Americans. We take care of our elders.”)

Some of you won’t believe this, but there is a sense that people in the Korean American community here talk about us in hushed tones. “Oh, yes, I heard. They made their father/father-in-law go to a nursing home because they didn’t want to take care of him.”  Others of you know exactly what I’m talking about.

So where in all of that was a sense of shame a gift? I’m still thinking about that one…Thank God I’m still learning…

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