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Beginnings of Consciousness: Asian American Christians share how they started connecting race and culture to their faith.
As Fred Mok shares with us his father’s change in demeanor and heart, he reminds us that the Gospel can really change lives and impact generations. Fred is the Pastor of the English Congregation at Chinese Church in Christ (CCIC)-South Valley in San Jose, California. He and his wife Judy have four kids. Fred blogs at Bread before Rice.
Thanks for sharing with us your story. What was your family like before?
Fred: My dad is from Hong Kong; my mom is from Taiwan. My dad is unusual in that he grew up without a father, [so] the way he parented us was the way he operated as a professional. At IBM, he had performance reviews. [So,] at the beginning of the year, they set up performance objectives and then a review at the end, and that’s the way he parented us.
I remember when I was about 8 years old, he sat us down and said, “You have to read this many books, you have to get these grades and if you perform at that level, then you get a Nintendo game.” I remember one of mine was not making my brother cry, he laid this list of objectives out and expected us to achieve them. That was kind of his style, and he had no idea that that was a little bit unusual to do with an 8 year old kid (and my brother who was 7). That was his parenting style that he learned through management.
And that’s the way I grew up. [My dad] was introverted, emotionally distant, the only expression we saw from him was when he was angry. He was kind of prone to outbursts, and he would withdraw when my mom and dad would fight. He wasn’t very good at talking to us. He was pretty physically affectionate with us [though].
And one of the most unique things about us was that our family became Christians when I was about 13. We [moved] to Georgia and my parents began going to church because my family was looking for a place where we could meet other Chinese people. We weren’t Christians at that time, but there wasn’t any other place that we knew of but the Chinese church. And that’s where we became Christians.
We moved back [to San Jose] a year later and started attending a church. A couple years later, South Valley [Chinese Church in Christ] was started and that’s how we met Tom Chow.
How did things change?
Fred: My parents were part of the leadership of this new church [started by Tom Chow]. And so through Tom and through the David Eckman teachings my life began to change. This was at the end of high school.
The founding pastor of my church, his mentor David Eckman had a cassette tape series called the “Acceptance Seminar.” It was about the emotional life of the Trinity and how each member of the Godhead is emotionally invested in us. David Eckman actually worked with a lot of Chinese churches, and Tom really bought into it. Throughout college, I wasn’t exposed as much to the teaching, but Tom asked me to come back to our church after I graduated, and I began learning more and more about the grace and unconditional love of God.
[I learned] that we tend[ed] towards legalism, [which was] especially prevalent in Asian culture because it’s so easy to be performance oriented. Many of the Chinese that are in the Bay Area—that wave of immigration was all in high tech areas—are overachieving so it was easy to buy into that as a way Christianity works. You are a good person, you work hard, you achieve, you make it. So it’s almost like the story of being Christian paralleled the immigrant experience. You do the best you can, you try hard, you get a good education, you make it. And that’s kind of like what it means to be a Christian also.
I think it was after my senior year of high school, we were on vacation in the Canadian Rockies, [and] we were listening to these tapes on the drive. I began to realize that Christianity was much deeper and more powerful than I had realized. It was more than “Jesus loves you”—there’s a richness and a complexity. Eckman uses a lot of different psychological categories too to talk about how God cares about us and how God the Father wants to re-parent us. And so there’s some really neat things there.
I would say it didn’t really hit me until my parents began to change. And I got to witness throughout college that my dad….my dad’s change was probably the most dramatic. Actually both my parents. My mom always very moody and temperamental, and I witnessed how she really got control of her temper, became much more gentle. And my dad was even more dramatic. He became more emotionally involved with us, he became less judgmental and critical. He was more accepting; he would even give us encouragement; he would say positive things about us, and we had never experienced that.
My earliest recollection of my dad being shaming to me ( I shared about it in my blog) [was after] a basketball game—I think I was 10. Afterwards my dad said to me “you ran around like a chicken with its head cut off.” That was kind of a scarring experience for me. I knew I was bad, but I didn’t know I was that bad. It kind of made me not wanna play basketball anymore. It was stuff like that he would say. He was extremely critical.
How does being Asian-American fit into this?
Fred: I think at a young age, it wasn’t so much negative, it was more just insecurity and a sense of inadequacy. So in Georgia, being Asian American, I felt different and embarrassed. In California, it was different because there’s more Asian Americans around, but I still felt kind of this sense of inadequacy or insecurity.
There’s also some pride mixed in because my exposure had been all these overachieving Asians. There was a time, I think in 7th grade, where I had decided that Chinese people were the smartest people in the world, because all the Chinese people around me were really intelligent. Based on my small sample size I thought: “We’re the smartest in the world.” So there’s some pride and also insecurity in that experience.
When I look at my white friends and the way their parents decorated their houses, the way the inside of their houses looked, I was always kind of embarrassed. Because most immigrant families—-the way we keep a home is just different. There’s garbage and clutter everywhere. And so there’s some insecurity about being Asian American. That was the beginning of high school.
I began to realize [also that in some] Asian families, the environment is pretty toxic where the parents, both moms and dads, are extremely critical of their kids. [They’re] very demanding. And even when parents try to encourage their children it’s a backhanded compliment: “How come you couldn’t have done better?” or “Only an A-?” You know, stuff like that. I began to realize there’s something kind of perverse about Asian culture.
At seminary, I took a class with Roy Low, and I read a book by Ken Fong called Pursuing the Pearl, and I read Paul Tokunaga, the IV guy’s leadership book [Invitation to Lead]. And that class at Western [Seminary with Roy Low] was very helpful to begin to think about issues of my ethnicity being Asian American and think positive[ly] about it. It was getting involved with Tim Tseng and attending the Asian American preaching [workshop] and meeting other pastors that I began to realize there’s commonalit[ies] we have. There’s some strength about Asian culture and about this harvest field that we’re part of…and those things are good, those are things that we can affirm in our community and the way that we associate together and the way that we worship God. There’s good things.
Insecurity, inadequacy to realizing there are good things about being Asian American—how are you integrating this in your ministry now?
Fred: One of the things that both Eckman and John Eldridge talk about is the cry of a man’s heart. Talking about men in particular, the cry of a man’s heart is to be affirmed in his manhood by another man. The cry of a man’s heart is to have his father affirm that he’s a man, and traditionally there’s always been some kind of ritual that ushered in manhood, like the Jews have a bar mitzvah to inaugurate a boy becoming a man. I think there’s a certain sense of loss, both in contemporary culture, but even in Asian culture where it doesn’t feel like there’s that sense of what it means to be a man. That’s been something that I’ve thought a lot about.
Last year, I led a fatherhood workshop for the entire church, both the Chinese-speaking congregation and our English side. About 20 dads showed up, and I talked about the traditional view of male and female roles. The role of the father as head of the household and his responsibility to raise his kids. And my dad was there. My dad’s an elder in our church, he was there.
And he said, “You know, the biggest mistake I made as a dad,”—and I’d never heard him say this before—“the biggest mistake I made as a dad was I did not understand emotional intelligence, I did not have a clue what that meant.”
And that kind of hit me, because that wouldn’t be the first thing, the greatest deficiency that I would point out. But I realized a lot of things that I was unhappy with him about were related to how he handled my emotions. Like for instance, after the basketball game, and I knew I hadn’t performed well, but if he had been in touch with how I had been feeling after the game, that it was a very sensitive, vulnerable moment for me, then he would have responded differently.
And so I began to realize: wow, a lot of dads, it’s not like they’re trying to be jerks to their kids. They just have no clue how they’re feeling and how they’re supposed to respond. They think by telling their kid objectively what they did wrong [that] that’s helpful to them, and the most important thing when you’re having a discussion with someone is to correct whether they have the facts right. But what’s far more important when you’re talking to someone, especially if they’re emotional, is the emotional state that that person’s in. And most guys, we just have absolutely no clue. And I think that’s true for guys in general, but I think for Asian American guys in particular [it’s] because our family of origin was so screwed up. We [are] such poor models as fathers. We had such poor role models in our own fathers.
So we’re going to have a follow up workshop this month actually where we’re going to talk about how to talk to your kids. We just want to let dads know that there’s a different way of responding to your kids. And that the purpose of talking to your kids isn’t to get them to behave or to perform or to get better grades or whatnot. But the purpose of communicating with your kids is to build a relationship with them. The by-product of communicating with your kids is that you will get some of those things you want. You have a better chance of having your kids behave if you build a relationship with them, but the relationship has to be primary. That’s the whole point of emotional intelligence. You’re figuring out how to love your kids and listening to them and getting to know them.
We’ve extended beyond that, to not just dads, but marriage, how husbands can have a better relationship with their wives. If [we] are more in touch and more empathetic and learn how to listen and recognize that the most important thing your wife may be telling you is not the words coming out of their mouths but the emotion that she feels. [We don’t need to] try to solve her problem.
And for single guys it’s a matter of having social skills, and being able to start conversations with people and get over a fear of rejection, to have confidence and boldness and courage in their interactions with people.
So this is my last question, but you mentioned your dad was at your fatherhood workshop? What did he think?
Fred: Oh, he thought it was good. My dad is neat because he is working to do similar things that I want to do. So, he’s got a group of men that he meets with on a weekly basis and they study the Bible together, and he’ll meet individually with other men in our church. If we’re not on the same page, we’re pretty close as far as how men need to recover manhood and learn how to communicate with their wives and children. So he definitely sees and understands this need and he’s working on it too.
He’s radically changed, and it’s encouraging. He said something to me when I was 20 that was kind of my rite of passage. I apologized and said something like, “You know, I was such a jerk to you guys, I can’t believe how rotten my attitude was, I was extremely disrespectful to you guys, and I realize that now and I’m so sorry.”
And my dad looked at me and he said “You know Fred, today you’ve become a man.”
And those words meant a lot. You know what I said before, another man, a father figure, is the only person that can affirm another man.
Tagged with: Acceptance Seminar • California • childhood • Chinese • Chinese Church in Christ • David Eckman • fatherhood • Georgia • Invitation to Lead • John Eldridge • Ken Fong • manhood • parents • partnering with parents • Paul Tokunaga • Pursuing the Pearl • Roy Low • San Francisco Bay Area • second generation • Silicon Valley • Tim Tseng • Tom Chow • Western Seminary
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