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This is the first in our occasional series called, “Then and Now” in which we’ll feature interesting past Asian American Christian works, and ask the authors to reflect on how things are different now. Below is DJ Chuang’s 2003 piece describing Asian American Christians. Tomorrow, we’ll post our interview on his present-day reflections.
BY DJ CHUANG
Originally published in 2003, Phuture Magazine; archived at archive.org. Re-posted with permission from DJ Chuang.
Asian Americans. Asian / Pacific Islanders. Asian Pacific Americans. Pan-Asian. AA. API. APA.
These terms describe a similar grouping of racial or ethnic groups residing in the United States of America. It shows up on the Census as a checkbox. Some 12 million people checked this box. Only 4.3% of the total U.S. population, yet the fastest growing minority grouping. Let’s deconstruct it.
It’s a whole mix of different ethnicities and cultures from vastly different Asian countries. Chinese. Filipino. Asian Indian. Korean. Vietnamese. Japanese. Cambodian. Pakistani. Laotian. Hmong. Thai. Taiwanese. Indonesian. Bangladeshi. Polynesian. Malay. Singaporean. Pacific Islander.
It’s a sordid mix of American history (which you probably don’t hear much about). Gold Rush. Transcontinental Railroad. Coolies. Laundry shops. Restaurants. Exclusion Act of 1882. Gardeners. Internment camps. Grocery stores. 1965 Immigration Act. Korean War. Vietnam War. International students. Refugees. Family reunification. Adoption. Motels. Intermarriage. More waves of immigration. Hate crimes.
It’s a hybrid mix of American multicultural-ish subcultures. Martial arts. Political advocacy groups. Asian American studies. Asian Pop. Hip hop. Deejay. Karaoke. Import cars. Dragon boat races. Alternative medicines. Alternate lifestyles. Literary groups. Film Festivals. Buddhists. Hindus. Campus ministries. Church goers. Gangs. Professionals. Professional sports.
And you thought postmodernism was complicated.
50% of Asian American (AAs) live on the West Coast. Most live in metropolitan areas, probably more suburban than urban. Being all over the map and across the country, it’s too big a mix of people that one label isn’t big enough to contain. No wonder we’re hard to know. There’s too much to know. I sure don’t know the whole mix. And I’m in the mix!
We don’t like to be clumped together. Not in the politically correct pan-Asian way. But we like clumping together. Cliques. Close friends. Labels aren’t big, but you know when you’re in, or not. AA’s communal nature makes for building long-term friendships, loyal to a fault, and then there’s the extended family; good at taking care of our own. Relationships with AAs take more time to build, but they do last a long time, if you can get in.
Add to that a crazy mix of inferiority and superiority complexes. But we won’t talk about that subconscious psyche stuff. Many of us have this nuanced thing about indirect communication, conflict aversive, respect people with age, with titles, with formalities. Saving face and keeping harmony is a big deal. Many are fiercely proud of our hard work, sacrifices, accomplishments, heritage, traditions. Change comes slowly for most, and can’t happen fast enough for others.
Having an Asian American face and sharing their stories, I thought I’d be accepted and feel like I’m one of my people, and have that warm fuzzy sense of belonging. But, no. Here I am on the outside looking in. And not only because I’m on the East Coast. “Why do we do that?” “Can’t we try something different?” I want to know and understand and explore, but they won’t talk to me about it.
AAs are survivors. They’re mostly pragmatic and practical. They put our nose down and work hard in school and work hard at their careers or family business. AA families aspire for their children to become doctors, lawyers, and engineers, at prestigious brand name colleges no less: Harvard, Yale, MIT, Stanford, Berkeley. The paradox tears apart the AA soul: tethered by family aspirations and obligations of Asian tradition, and also attracted to the freedom and innovation and creativity of Western culture. You know which side most of them wind up.
Not so much into theories and ideas, much less talk about them. What dialogue? That’s the reaction I hear when I introduce the latest and greatest thing of postmodern dialogue. “Post-what?” AAs don’t even talk to each other. AAs are disconnected, and are hesitant to connect. “Do I know you?” “Too much trouble.” “Who are you?” “Such a hassle.” “It’s not my business.” Or, more likely, no words. (But isn’t there something about “loving your neighbor”, especially those who are different?)
There are exceptions. Some do want to dialogue about life and faith. I want to talk, and I love ideas. I love the conversations and dialogue opened up in the postmodern emerging culture (whatever it’s called), but it looks like I don’t belong there either. Where are my people?
AAs know how to suffer and sacrifice, but they need to learn how to celebrate and share. That’s what I love about the Latino, Hispanic, and African communities. They’ve suffered their lot too, but they seem to know something more about life. We need to talk.
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