Thoughts on “The Making of Asian America” & What I Didn’t Learn in School

It’s still May, the month of my people, and I am late to the game with my thoughts after reading Erika Lee’s The Making of Asian America.

If you are Asian American you should read the book. It covers generations of Asian, American history that will teach you what our school textbooks didn’t and what our family stories couldn’t due to gaps in language, culture, information, and access.

If you aren’t Asian American you should read the book. It covers generations of American history that will teach you what our school textbooks didn’t, mainly that Asian Americans have been a part of U.S. history since the 1500s.

For example things I didn’t learn in school:

  1. During the Japanese internment the government enacted a loyalty review program where draft-age males were asked if they would be willing to serve in combat duty with the US armed forces and if they would be willing to “swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America.” (p. 238) Our government incarcerated them and then asks them to prove their loyalty by using them in combat. (Oh, and why weren’t Germans rounded up and incarcerated?)
  2. U.S. Census data confirms Asian Americans are overrepresented on both ends of the educational and socioeconomic spectrum of privilege AND poverty. (p. 376)
  3. Did you learn about the Black Panthers in school? How about I Wor Kuen, the largest revolutionary organization aligned with the Black Panther movement.
  4. African Americans weren’t the only ones who were prohibited from giving testimony in cases involving a white person. Chinese immigrants and Native Americans also could not be believed. (p. 92)
  5. South Asians who had been naturalized citizens were also denaturalized in the 1920s. (p. 172)

I recall learning a little bit about the Korean Conflict, the Japanese Internment, and the Vietnam War. I don’t know about you but those were the units that made me a bit uncomfortable as one of the few if not only Asian American in the classroom when these were being discussed because when you’re one of a few if not the only one in the classroom people look at you like you were the reason America went to war when really America’s best interests were to go to war which included everyone in that room. And it was as if those history units gave the racist classmates permission to say ugly, unAmerican things to me.

The book made me stop to think about what I knew and thought I knew about my family’s immigration story and how that has impacted my understanding of who I am, uniquely and powerfully created in God’s image. It made me consider how I have too often been quick to judge my parents’ generation for a litany of wrongs without fully understanding the context of their journeys both here in the U.S. and “home” in the motherland. It made me think about how their stories and they themselves too are created in God’s image. Lee’s book reminded me that I ought to be quick to listen and slow to speak, especially when it comes to understanding how my parents’ and earlier generations’ stories are also part of God’s story.

The book was also published to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the very piece of legislation that made it possible for me and my family to immigrate to the U.S. in 1971. History I had not learned in school is what made it possible for me to read this book and write this blog in English while still connecting to my Korean roots knowing what it means to be an alien, a stranger in a foreign land even when I am “home.”

Towards the end of the book there were two quotes that comfort and challenge me as one who sits in the tension of privilege as a college-educated upper middle-class, heterosexual, cisgender, married, and documented & naturalized citizen and racism and sexism I experience as a Korean American woman in Christian/evangelical circles.

“Historian Franklin Odo argues that the model minority label ‘encourages Asian Americans to endure contemporary forms of racism without complaint and to provide brave and loyal service above and beyond that required of other Americans.’…

Musician Vijay Iyer goes further: privileged and unquestioning Asian Americans have become ‘complicit’ in their acceptance of ongoing American inequality.” The Making of Asian America, Erika Lee p. 380.

For my dear Asian American readers, what are your stories of enduring, swallowing, dismissing, forgetting racism and how has that impacted the way you engage with contemporary justice movements? Do you see yourself as complicit in the ongoing American inequality? What are the ways in which you question inequality?

For my dear non-Asian American readers, what behaviors and beliefs might you need to reconsider as you learn about Asian American history and the ways in which the United States’ past greatness was built on racism? How might you also be complicit in the the ongoing American inequality? What are the ways in which you question inequality?

And for my readers of all racial and ethnic backgrounds who share the intersection of Christian faith, how does Jesus challenge our understanding of persecution, persecuting, and systemic injustice?

 

 

The Stories We Embody

I knew what I was going to wear before I knew all what I would actually say from the stage. I knew I was going to wear the green dress.

A few weeks ago I asked you, my dear readers, via my FB page to pray and send good, healing thoughts as I lay in bed with a fever and a stomach bug the night before/morning of a speaking engagement. I had thought about posting an update but there was so much swirling in my heart and head. I wanted to breathe a bit, sit down, and then write about that gig.

The speaking opportunity was a first for me – to speak in front of 250-ish colleagues of mine at our triennial Asian American Ministries staff conference. I’ve been with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship for almost 20 years, many of those were part-time on paper years as my husband and I made choices about childcare and careers. My career trajectory has been a slow and steady one, though based on recent years on social media it might look like I’ve “suddenly appeared” to receive invitations to speak and write. Well, I was here long before the internet. Seriously. I was a newspaper reporter before I was a blogger so writing has always been a part of who I am and what I do, long before blogging, FB, and Twitter. I am THAT old. Which is why this chance to speak in front of my colleagues was special. It was a first.

My talk was on extending our influence as Asian American women and men, beyond the student leaders we develop, beyond the campuses or spaces we work within. And as I spent time preparing and praying for that talk I kept coming back to what my presence would communicate as much as, and in conjunction with, my words. What would my physical body communicate and how does that connect with what my words would be?

If you are a woman of color, you may already have a sense of where I was going with this. There are so few positive images of us in the world, even fewer in certain spaces within the evangelical world I sit within. We are often the token, the one or two people of color featured alongside a slate of white speakers. One or two of us is usually enough, which can make it feel like a competition. I’m just being real. It can get hard to cheer one another on when it feels like there are so few opportunities for people of color, fewer for women of color.

So I kept thinking about what it meant to be the one asked to speak on extending our influence, and I kept thinking about my parents and the expectations, hopes, and dreams of success and stability they had/have for their now adult daughters. I thought about how it’s easy for me to slam their hopes for stability and The American Dream as a defense mechanism for adopting the privileges while condemning their motives. I thought about how it is easy for me and my generation to talk about the impact of white supremacy and the empire and assimilation to distance ourselves from the privilege we live in and embody.

And I thought of my mother’s green dress. She had the dress made from fabric she received as a wedding gift. She had different pieces made in anticipation of moving to America, party clothes for the life of milk and honey promised in America. The green dress and matching jacket sat in a silver trunk in my mom’s closet for years untouched. I never saw her wear it, and there are no photos of her wearing the party dress. America, it turns out, isn’t a party.

I took the green dress and have worn it over the years to the parties my parents’ sacrifices and “selling out” to the American Dream afforded me. I’ve worn it to friends’ weddings and to my swearing-in as a citizen of the United States.

I knew I was going to wear the green dress before I knew all of the words I would speak that night. I knew the story of the dress and my wearing the dress would do what words alone could not. Extending my influence never started with me. It started with the dreams and hopes my parents and ancestors carried and passed on, imperfectly but with love, to me. I knew wearing the dress meant expressing my femininity in a way that was completely authentic to who I am as an immigrant Korean woman. I knew wearing the dress would allow me to embody past generations, an opportunity to allow my mother’s story to extend beyond my memories. I knew wearing the dress gave me an opportunity to remind the men in the audience even invitations to speak are still designed for men because where in the world does a woman wearing a dress hide the mic pack?

Words are important, sisters, but so are the ways we embody those words.

thanks to Greg Hsu for the photo

It’s Easy to Forget Privilege When It’s Always Been Yours

I’m tired of reading blogs from my White Christian brothers about why they are choosing to vote. There. I said it.

I’m all for being a part of the democratic process, but it seems a bit odd to me that so many of these bloggers are coming from a position of power and privilege they themselves have always had. It seems a bit arrogant to choose something that was always theirs.

The way I see it, they had better vote. The vote of the White male is what finally allowed people like me – a woman, an immigrant, a non-native English speaker – to have the right to vote. I didn’t have a voice. I didn’t matter. Neither did my ancestors, who immigrated here under quota systems developed by people in power for the benefit of the country and the powers-that-be.

And there still are people who have no voice, who have no right to vote, but they are directly impacted by the politicians, referenda, judges, and local officials as well as the “agendas and policies”. As a Christian who is new to the process, its a privilege and responsibility I don’t take lightly because it isn’t a given. I’m not American born. We are not post-racial America, and the fact of the matter is the church isn’t either. We are working on it, but we aren’t there.

Did you know that in 1882 Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act denying citizenship and voting rights to Chinese Americans? Yup, they can build the railroads but they can’t vote.

It wasn’t until 1920 that the Nineteenth Amendment is ratified giving women the right to vote, but in 1922 the Supreme Court rules that a person of Japanese origin is barred from naturalization, effectively shutting Japanese men and women out from the democratic process. The same happens in 1923 to Indian immigrants.

In 1941, U.S. citizens of Japanese descent are rounded up and interned in 10 concentration camps here in America under executive order 9066. It isn’t until 1952 that first generation Japanese Americans have the right to become citizens.

In 1943 The Chinese Exclusion Act is repealed, giving Chinese immigrants the right to citizenship and the right to vote, and in the same year Koreans in the U.S. are declassified as enemy aliens.

In 1946 Filipinos are granted the right to become U.S. citizens.

And all of these important moments in history did not include the voting rights of people like me. It’s easy to talk about whether or not you are going to vote when the privilege has always been yours without question.

So vote. Do your homework. Check out the ballot. Find out what your state or local bar association has to say about the judges who want to stay on those benches. Read the annoying brochures and check out what the entire article the candidate quoted actually said.  There are more than two names on the ballot for president, btw.

Yes, the political ads are annoying. The robo-calls are a nuisance. Turn off the tv. Turn down your ringer or shut the phone off for awhile. Ask your kids what they think of the process; I learned a lot by listening to what my three kids were hearing in the hallways!

I haven’t answered any of the phone calls from unknown phone numbers, but I did appreciate the one and only message left for our household. She was a community organizer getting out the vote for her candidate. She reminded me about Election Day and about the importance of voting as U.S. citizens – all in my native tongue.

How perfectly American indeed.

 

Chicken Feet Taste Better Than My Own: Random Thoughts on The Social Network, Immigration & Imago Dei

I haven’t had the energy to sit down in awhile to blog. Somewhere between the multiple google calendars and multiple modes of communication life over-shared with me.

But fortunately I have had several opportunities to put my foot in my mouth, regret the way I communicated my thoughts and feelings, and ask for and receive forgiveness for a recent misstep, which has made me want to slow down again and write. Writing, it seems, is one of the disciplines I need to keep in my life. Writing compels me to pause, reflect on my day-to-days and interact with Jesus and  in helpful ways. The optimist in me hopes that it all translates eventually into fewer moments of foot-in-mouth.

A few weeks ago I convinced a group of friends to entrust my daughter with all of our children so that as adults we could go out and enjoy dinner and a movie without kid menus. We went to see “The Social Network” having gotten wind of all the rave reviews.

I must confess that I was enjoying the movie quite a bit until I saw Brenda Song. Ah, the Asian sidekick reappears. Her character is a sexy groupie who morphs into a crazy, jealous girlfriend. I was saddened to see that once again a “young, female star” lands a more “grown-up” role, which simply means she shows some cleavage and leg and then does not have sexual relations with one of the lead male characters. We wonder why girls want to grow up too quickly and wear makeup, low-rise pants and thongs? Because we show them that growing up is just that.

But then I got angry. Every Asian woman was a sidekick or a waitress. And then every woman, with the exception of Rooney Mara’s character, was really just a body to drink with, sleep with, get high with, stare at, etc.

The word “misogyny” came to mind. And then versions of the word escaped from my thought bubble into the conversation. I don’t regret bringing up my opinions. I do regret how and when and even my tone and posture in the delivery of my opinions. Sometimes, it’s OK to leave a movie a movie until later. It really is.

And then it happened again at staff meetings when the issue of immigration came up.

Immigration reform is highly politicized and misunderstood by all sides, but it is one that as a Christian who lives in America and is now finally an American by documentation I continue to wrestle with. What do I say to a student who wants to go to a conference but can’t fly because he is undocumented? What do I tell staff to do when a student confides she is undocumented and can’t consider certain job opportunities? What is my role in the conversation as someone who has had access to and the ability to navigate a rather complex system, which included paying hundreds of dollars, having my fingerprints entered into a national database before I’ve committed any legally punishable crime, and being essentially asked “DO YOU SPEAK ENGLISH?” ?

But how do you say that without putting your foot in your mouth? I don’t know because my first attempt was this rant that seem a bit disconnected from my update, and as soon as I sat down I had that pit in my stomach which is the result of pedi-indigestion. I enjoy well-prepared chicken feet and pig feet. The last time I enjoyed sucking on my own feet was in my baby days.

Anybody share in my pain? I’ve been told that I can be indirect. I’ve also been told that my bluntness can be liberating but off-putting. I don’t reject those observations. I want to learn from them because as someone called to teach and preach and lead and learn for the sake of the gospel I have to communicate well. It does nothing if it’s clear as day in my head but clear as mud coming out of my mouth. Worse if it’s mud slung out of my mouth.

So I continue to struggle to develop this “voice” because at the end of the day  I don’t want to be the angry religious Asian American woman who can’t just enjoy a movie or let something slide until there is a better time. Perhaps the woman doth protest too much, but I really don’t take life so seriously all of the time. I have a lot of fun, and I often think I am fun…or funny. Ask my kids.

But seeing women portrayed as sexual objects grieves me not because I think Hollywood should know better or that movie critics don’t know what they are talking about but because we women are created in God’s image – imago Dei. Seeing God’s image bearers portrayed as objects, valued for their bodies giving pleasure to others angers me. This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.

Wanting to create space in meetings to talk about the tougher things isn’t about being politically correct but about understanding how our theology shapes our interactions with people and our engagement in policy-making and policy-changing. I may be documented but that isn’t the image I bear. I’ve been told that my ethnicity and gender isn’t what defines me, but I need to know how to respond when documentation determines and defines how we speak about others. A person may be undocumented but she is equally created in God’s image and how we as Christians interact with her matters.

So I keep thinking, talking and keeping my feet clean for those foot-in-mouth moments. Thank goodness for pedicures and grace.

 

 

Reasonable Suspicion

My college girlfriends and I had considered Arizona as a spot for a 40th bday bash, but I’m not sure we’d pass muster. We’ve all been questioned before. We’ve all been told one way or another that for some reason that surely has absolutely nothing to do with race, color or national origin that we just don’t look like we belong.

It usually goes something like this…

Someone trying to make conversation with me: “Where are you from?”

Me: Oh, I’m from (fill in the blank  – Chicago, Seattle, Columbus, Portland, Phoenix, Flagstaff).

Same Someone: No, I mean where are you REALLY from.

Me: Huh?

Still that Same Someone: You know. Where are you FROM?

The only place I knew as “home”, as the place I was from, was Chicago. Why wasn’t that answer enough? Because I don’t look or sound like a Chicagoan? Just ask me to say “hot dog” and “beer”. I’ve got Chicaaahgo.

Being told in so many words in so many ways that you don’t belong, that you couldn’t possibly be from where you say you are actually from can make you reasonably suspicious of people who ask the “where are you from” question.

But now the “where are you from” question takes on an entirely different level of fear, intimidation and distinction. Will all American citizens living in Arizona or traveling through/in Arizona, as a precautionary measure and to be in full compliance will the law, carry proof of their immigration status? You’re not an immigrant so you don’t need to carry identification? Prove it.

One of the provisions in the Arizona law “requires police officers to ‘make a reasonable attempt’ to determine the immigration status of a person if there is a ‘reasonable suspicion’ that he or she is an illegal immigrant. Race, color or national origin may not be the only things considered in implementation. Exceptions can be made if the attempt would hinder an investigation.”

Help me understand what are the other things to consider in implementation? If the person speaks with an accent or can’t speak proper English, is that enough to raise reasonable suspicion? Jeez, I know plenty of folks who had better laminate their birth certificates or carry their passports if they are going to be in Arizona. How can you tell national origin by looking at someone, listening to someone?

I’ve been following the reactions to the new law, and the responses that confuse me the most are the ones that argue the only ones who are worried or angry or concerned about this law are probably illegal and already undocumented. Obviously, citizens who are here legally should have nothing to be worried about. But doesn’t the law apply to everyone? Anyone’s immigration status could come into question, but it’s not really “anyone” we’re talking about here. Not just “anyone” is going to have their immigration status questioned because not just “anyone” gets asked “where are you from?” more than once. Not just “anyone” gets pulled over in certain neighborhoods and communities. Not just “anyone” gets followed in certain stores. Not just “anyone”. Just those who raise reasonable suspicion. Right?

I am trying to make a reasonable attempt at understanding how this law will be implemented but I’m reasonably suspicious.