My slanted eyes

There are very obvious landmark moments in my faith journey that have shaped my trust in Jesus: my baptism (complete with a line by line tribute to Steven Curtis Chapman for his adept water analogies wherein I was preparing to "dive in"), my involvement with InterVarsity in college, and my choice to pursue full-time ministry with their international student ministry department. They are places where I very clearly made commitments to follow Jesus into unknown spaces, believing that He would be sufficient for me.

But there have also been hidden times where I sensed there was an unknown space within myself where typical church frameworks for discipleship did not have vocabulary to follow. When people ask how to begin connecting the dots between their ethnicity, gender, and faith, I wish the tools were accessible and mainstream enough to point to a podcast, conference, or contemporary Christian music artist. The reality is that most of the discipleship around this area is a process of reflecting back and rediscovering moments as crucial as baptisms where Jesus was still so present but the church did not give us words. Sometimes uncovering these moments feels like waking up or reconstructing a more "woke" consciousness. Honestly, it just feels like I'm getting my relationship with Jesus back in a deeper and richer way. Here is a moment that, looking back, shaped me and molded me into a truer disciple:

 My cousin and I are the Chinese ones.

My cousin and I are the Chinese ones.

I went to Botswana for my first short term missions trip when I was 17. I joined a team of 150 teens from around the nation and, with the exception of my cousin, was the only Asian-American woman. At first, I thought it was humorous that people assumed I was adopted and complimented my fluent English. Come on, I grew up in San Francisco- I'd never encountered such delightfully ignorant white people before! Their questions were so quaint and I was so novel! What a world!! And then we stood in a line to unload luggage at the missionary compound and I took my place in our zipper formation to pass along sleeping bags and duffels when the lead missionary shouted out: "We have a chink in the chain!"

And I was the chink.

I remember laughing and I remember the heat of a hundred eyes watching my reaction and joining in with relief.. I was glad my laughter brought them relief. It got worse from there because part of being a Sarah born in the 80's is that you have a lot of friends named Sarah. Luckily, I could be distinguished from the others because of my slanted eyes, apparently. And I remember being singled out by those hundred eyes crudely distorted into tiny slits by hundreds of white pointer fingers. 

And so I let them name me.

There is a double oppression at work when one is not only categorically mistreated because of the color of her skin, but when there is such an overwhelming current of hierarchy and power that she will use her laughter and gentleness to reaffirm the good intentions of the oppressor. I feel it every time someone cuts me in line and I immediately say "sorry" and give them more space. I feel it when I get interrupted in meetings and, when a more aware interrupter flashes me a remorseful glance to acknowledge what they did, I smile in the way all of us have learned to smile. 

To reclaim this experience is to realize that this missions organization simultaneously had a heart to love the nations and lacked the tools, experience, and posture to fully embody a reconciled community itself. They were wrong, their theology was incomplete, and frankly, they maintained a missionary worldview that enabled the laziest form of love. Secondly, my survival instincts were hella on point. Without anyone taking the time to prepare me for ultimate displacement as an Asian American on a white team in Sub-Saharan Africa, 17 years of being Chinese-American in this country had engrained specific intuitions that ultimately preserved white supremacy and left me shattered. For example, I cared more about the missionaries feeling embarrassed if I showed discomfort than realizing and expressing the discomfort I actually felt. Third, I assumed that the narratives of race weren't as important as the mission of the Gospel, meaning that any alienation I felt was rooted in my spiritual blindness rather than a system of injustice.

See, to the evangelical church in America, this missions trip was a pivotal faith moment because of the physical discomfort I'd brave in the "bushes" of Africa. It was pivotal because I would speak salvation to unsaved villages and would sacrifice my time and money to give to the Great Commission.

But looking back, allow me to reclaim my time. Because this trip was where I sacrificed my humanity to give white fragility a foothold. It is where I gave over my name, my eyes, my skin to missionaries who assumed salvation was written inherently in their white bodies. This trip was pivotal because I felt unaccepted, ashamed, and intrinsically flawed in a way I had never felt before. I know the American church loves seeing us move from glory to glory- from revelation to revelation of God's goodness, but I know from that summer in 2004 that the discipleship that has been my lasting foundation has been one where I went from glory to shame. I went from revelation to self-deception.

This is the baptism where I entered into a death the church never prepared me for, but I also discovered a resurrection the church still has no vision for.

Sons

I wrote about the ways male privilege manifests itself in my Asian American community in this blog post, but I have been wanting to reflect on how this system impacts the way I think about my own role as a soon to be mom. Jon and I are expecting our first baby in April and when I bit into my gender reveal burrito in front of the DMV (oh, you didn't have one?), I was absolutely thrilled to taste the black beans that signified we were having a boy! 

There are a lot of things I don't know about raising boys- like what is circumcision, really? Or, how do you pee standing up? And ultimately, my bigger question is how do I prepare to raise a son in a world of Harvey Weinsteins and Brock Turners? I asked Jon what his favorite part of being a boy was and he said that he never felt scared to just be alive, and I immediately thought of every time I clenched a fistful of keys through my fingers, or pretended to wave to someone I didn't know, or locked the doors of my car the moment I rushed inside, and I thought: wow- I will get to raise a son who will not have to see the world that way.

But that is exactly the frame of mind that maintains a world of unhelpful patriarchy and abuse- and I want more for my son than for him to avoid being afraid. I want to raise my son to be brave.

I want him to be brave enough to be last.
If the future is female, I have to be honest and say that I don't know where that leaves people like my baby. For all I've been through, and for all women everywhere have been through, there is still a sliver of me that wants my son to know what it's like to be at the top- to be powerful, to have opportunity, to have the benefit of the doubt.

I hope we are entering a day where daughters are dreaming, achieving, and receiving recognition in unprecedented measures. And in that day, I hope that my son sees his own liberation wrapped up in theirs and that he knows the joy of the second seat. 

I pray that the baby I carry in my belly tonight looks at the world in an upside down way. That he knows the meek will inherit the earth and will choose the margins with a bold and eager abandon.

I want him to be brave enough to listen.
One of the heaviest portions female Asian Americans carry is the ongoing tension of roles upon roles upon roles. It is the unending stream of duty, presence, apology, and demand that seem to shape the consciousness of Asian American women. Which is why I'm so confused when people think we are silent, because the myriad of voices and identities that rage in a given moment are so clamorous that other people must be able to hear them too.

And yet it is what also makes us strong, creative, and resilient. We are shaped not just by our own suffering, but by stories of our parents, our neighbors, and the weights we inherit. It is what forges beautiful things in us, and I wouldn't trade my body for the world. 

I pray that the baby that is nestled in my womb feels these things in me even now, and that when he is old enough to understand, that he will truly listen to the sisters and aunties around him. That he'll trade in tired assumptions of objectification and orientalization for the gold of unique and enduring narratives. I hope he will choose to listen to the women around him because in them he will find a richer sense of self and community.

I want him to be brave enough to speak
My dad is a natural storyteller, and he is moved by stories in his profound empathy and warmth. He tells me that his dad had a thick Chinese accent, that he cursed JESUS CLEIST in his frustration, and that he was too anxious most days to have dinner time conversation. My husband sees stories in places long overlooked, and he points them out to me and invites me into his world. His dad survived Hiroshima and went on to serve as a medical assistant in the US army a few decades later- we find yearbooks and uniforms, but there is a secrecy that muzzles those stories from flooding down to us.

My Japanese and Chinese American son grows from these branches of both silence and voice, in broken inflections and dissonant shame, in striking imagination and liberated perception. I hope he knows how hard we fought for him to have words, and that he will use ordinary conversations and mighty songs to make a way for those around him too. 

I pray that the baby I love so deeply will search for the hidden narratives even I am too afraid to expose, and that he will see the beloved handiwork of God not just in the heroes of his patrilineal heritage, but in every woman he comes to know.

These tired feet

Hello. When I was growing up, I thought MLK Jr. was the son of German reformer Martin Luther. Anyone else think that? Anyone else think that Austria was just shorthand for Australia? Or that China was Asia?! Or that Kill Bill was Saw?! Don't look at me. Look at SF Unified. 

Anyway, I'd like to work through specific places where MLK's theology brings helpful clarity and even hope to the Asian American experience, but I'd like to try to do that without excavating his convictions from the Black framework that he lived in. I think it's important to try, though, because King's vision for economic and racial justice was consistently global while powerfully local, it is what made him an international force and a uniquely Black prophet. 

1. How to be tired

King speaks about the "amazing patience" that the Black community endured throughout the course of American history and there is a sense that suffering produces more than just raging power for the oppressor. For victims of institutionalized racism and violence, endurance was not simply a natural byproduct of passivity, but a hardening possession of strength and of tolerance. The Black experience was not merely acted upon by white supremacy, it was agitated, refined, and pressed together by a precious consciousness that was alive and awake. King's calling to the Black community was not to say that the days of patience were over. Instead, he invited them into a greater level of endurance that only they could survive. He led them not into security or safety, but into struggle.

But there comes a time when people get tired of being trampled by oppression. There comes a time when people get tired of being plunged into the abyss of exploitation and nagging injustice. The story of Montgomery is the story of fifty thousand such Negroes who were willing to substitute tired feet for tired souls, and walk the streets of Montgomery until the walls of segregation were finally battered by the forces of justice.
— Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. / Stride Toward Freedom, A Testament of Hope

King shows me that I have so much to learn about how to struggle. He shows me the bravery of Black men and women who move from an amazing patience to a gracious endurance. And it is not patient or gracious to appease those in power; it is patient and it is gracious because it is formed in the sacred underbelly of suffering. It is familiar with the long journey and daily choice to walk out with tired feet. 

2. How to walk

King tells a story of a pool driver that stopped beside an elderly woman during the Montgomery bus boycotts. The driver sees how hard it is for her to walk, and offers her a ride: "Jump in, grandmother. You don't need to walk." And she waves him on saying, "I'm not walking for myself. I'm walking for my children and my grandchildren."

And she continued toward home on foot.

As a leader, organizer, and activist, King's hopes aren't anchored solely to the national political opinion. He cares as much for the transformative spirit of his community as for the legal victory. He sees, in this grandmother, an arc of empowerment and hope that extends further than his day. 

He shows me that my activism must be big enough for my children and my grandchildren and that my resistance is cultivated not by victory but by trial. The slow, difficult, and prayerful trial.

3. How to combine apparent irreconcilables

MLK day also is becoming call out unhelpful white moderates day. Which is fantastic. At the same time, King regularly facilitated an incredible tension that I rarely see today. I believe the "moderates" stay moderate because they hope for the best of both worlds, and see neutrality as an implicit support of these values. It doesn't work that way. When King was preparing for his speech before the formation of the Montgomery Improvement Association, he talks about finding a moderate balance:

I faced a new and sobering dilemma: How could I make a speech that would be militant enough to keep my people aroused to positive action and yet moderate enough to keep this fervor within controllable and Christian bounds?

I decided that I had to face the challenge head on, and attempt to combine two apparent irreconcilables. I would seek to arouse the group to action by insisting that their self-respect was at stake and that if they accepted such injustices without protesting, they would betray their own sense of dignity and the eternal edicts of God Himself. But I would balance this with a strong affirmation of the Christian doctrine of love.
— Dr. Martin Luther King Jr./ Stride Toward Freedom, A Testament of Hope

King's moderate balance isn't a question of neutrality or political fairness. It isn't about remaining unbiased. In fact, it is a call to be incredibly biased according to the dignity of man, the edicts of God, and the doctrine of love. While he is not unaware of the powerful tendency to lean to each extreme, King strives to lead in a tension that is rooted in what it means to love. The problem with white moderates isn't that they are silent. It is that they have lost the courage to love. 


So here is how I hope to know Dr. King and to press into the ways his faithful leadership and vision impact me in my own context:

- I want to understand the Asian American experience of struggle as a place of formation and cultivation rather than shame and voicelessness.

- I need to come to terms with the reality that this journey is never not tiring. There is still something powerful, however, about the legacy of tired souls, the weathering of tired feet, and the unison of tired voices. 

- I hope to be unafraid of the militant middle, to both fight and extend compassion with the same purpose and urgency. And honestly, my biggest fear isn't that an extreme will win out (I think that might actually feel better?) My biggest fear is that the middle is lonely and misunderstood. 

Boys

 My dad is one with the prominent forehead on the left. This photo features Joyce and Morris along with their children, Betty, Wilson, Nixon, Newton, and David (L-R)

My dad is one with the prominent forehead on the left. This photo features Joyce and Morris along with their children, Betty, Wilson, Nixon, Newton, and David (L-R)

My Auntie Betty is the oldest of five siblings, specifically, four brothers. We were driving home from a memorial banquet when she blurted out an observation from the middle row seat of my Honda Odyssey. "You know how the Chinese are; boys, boys, boys."

And then she fell asleep.

This sabbatical, I'm tracing the faith development that happens in immigrant communities between mothers and daughters. I have so much to write about what my mom has taught me, the recipes my grandmother cooked, and the legacy of Chinese women in my church community. I have so much to write because I know that so much of my story is shaped by strong, brave, faithful women. At the same time, I know that each generation is not left unaffected by a socio-cultural framework that is molded by systems of patriarchy and oppression. "Boys, boys, boys" is something my sister, mom, and I still mutter to each other when we are confronted with small reminders that we are living in a system made for our husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons. 

Here are some examples from just the past six months:
- When Jon and I found out we were having a baby boy, multiple people said that our parents must be so glad. Like in that way where daughters are fun, but sons make sense.
- When I think about where to live in the next 5-10 years, I calculate what kind of health my parents and in-laws will have because a daughter knows someone always needs to be near home.
- My mom continues to daily care for her aging sister because a daughter knows that even after her parents are gone, she is still a daughter.
- There is an expectation that women in my family will always be present to facilitate and engage in group settings, while similar participation from male relatives is excessively applauded.

Apart from family life, I've observed from both ministry and seminary that Asian American males also have more permission, opportunity, and mentorship. In fact, while many have been largely shaped by Asian American women (as Sunday School teachers, colleagues, or supervisors), they can be quick to take credit for the sake of advancing the general Asian American voice. Articles like Nate's that give honor to influential Christian women are rare among Asian American writers. 

This is where I'm torn. I long for my Chinese American brothers to thrive. I know that I am just as shaped by my grandmother's dumplings (hah! literally!) as my grandfather's egg foo young. I know that the sacrifice of my grandmothers who worked in sewing factories is paralleled by my grandfathers that worked tirelessly in school cafeterias and liquor stores. Chinese American men in my life are strong, passionate, and creative. I also know that there is a unique burden for Asian American men who are repeatedly emasculated and written off. And so I am working out how to lead as a Chinese-American woman alongside the painful struggles and unjust privileges of my Chinese-American brothers.

I am searching for a new way forward. Despite living in a "boys, boys, boys" world, somehow my Chinese American community functions in a largely matrilineal way. That is, despite the overwhelming ways males receive preference (i.e. bearing generational family names, receiving inheritance and communal approval, largely avoiding family obligations that daughters often bear), most families revolve around the oldest grandmother or great-grandmother. 

 Illustrated by  Emiko Sawanobori  via  Schema Magazine

Illustrated by Emiko Sawanobori via Schema Magazine

I have theories! This comic actually makes me wonder if Asian women gain power within the community once they become frumpy, permed, turnips. No really, it is possible that the Asian community reserves a special place in their hierarchy for women who wear brown velour track suits and fleece beanies. Essentially, there is an expectation that Asian women will carry simultaneous duties as daughters, sisters, mothers, employees, etc. for the first 60-ish years of life. After that, she earns her Popo badge- she is seen as a family sage: wise and generous. My hope is that this generation of Asian American men might see their sisters for who they truly are today, even if they are still imperfect, ovulating, and have great skin. I long to see Asian women understood as leaders and dreamers. To be accepted when they express disappointment and limits. To be able to be as multi-faceted as we hope we can urge our Asian brothers to be. Imagine the kind of Popos we will be when our wisdom and generosity is shaped not by decades of silence, obligation, and disdain, but formed by mutual empowerment and trust.  

Here's to the dreams we can offer our sons and daughters- to be known and held, celebrated and welcomed, to jointly carry on heritages of bravery and generational hope. 

She's a Chinatown pretty

On Sunday, my mom and I joined her sisters, Rose and Susie to sort through my Popo's clothes. I've been known to have quite the grandmotherly fashion (sometimes erring on the side of grandfatherly, I've been told!) I also just wanted to spend time with things that reminded me of her, and that day taught me much about who she was. 

The woman loved her turtlenecks

Now that I think about it, I never saw my grandmother's neck! I literally cannot imagine it. As I picked through piles of pink and purple sweaters, I found that most had a neck hole about the size of large apple pear. Auntie Rose said it was because she had a surgery around her neck and was self-conscious about her scar- a fear that feels so oddly intimate for someone no longer alive. Touching each turtleneck helped me hold some of the insecurities she carried and introduced me to things I never knew about her. 

The first generation & their last suitcases

IMG_3221.JPG

When my grandmother was 19, she arrived in San Francisco with an infant and these suitcases. I held them gingerly, respecting their age and wear, but much like my Popo, they were not as fragile as they appeared. 

I've also held the luggages Jon's grandfather brought with him from Japan and it makes me wish I knew what came in them. How do you decide what you bring from a home you may never return to? What keepsakes and what lingering smells prepare you for the heartache of homesickness and the dizzying anticipation of a new life unfolding? My grandmother has stated: "I didn't know how to be scared." So, well that's that.

It is strange to think that at some point you put away these luggages and you know that you won't need them again, and the person you were when you first packed them is not who you are any longer. 

Wishing she could see us now

We spent hours going through her different closets and drawers- first her Chinatown sweaters, next her jackets, then the piles of turtlenecks and scar-veiling wraps, then her traditional dresses- her cheung-sams. My mom and aunts gasped with each one, recalling the wedding or photograph she wore them in, pointing to the signature seams of her masterpieces. And, as we picked through piles and hangers, we tried on her shirts, and sweaters, and dresses and each one of us looked so different in the many outfits she owned. We giggled and groaned through ill-fitting skirts and suffocating neck lines. It is rare to sit together like this, among her things, but without her. 

At one point I stood alone before a mirror, wearing a blue cheung-sam she had made by hand. I felt more beautiful than a bride. And it fit perfectly, (in the asphyxiating way these dresses do), and my mom joined me with a silence of sadness and affection. And she said, "Popo had such stylish taste", and I felt like this dress was made for me. Though, removing the dress required that I hold onto my undergarments while my mom strained to wriggle it free. 

These garments felt cold without her and yet that day they came alive again, with each unfolded and refolded blouse, every button we snapped or zipper we pulled, they moved again. And we laughed so. hard. These are the moments I see her eyes the brightest, it is when I can most clearly hear her laugh. It is when I hear her muttering under her breath, "Wow, so beautiful. Ho liang."

 

The songs we are left with

I wonder what it feels like to make a home in a land where the words you dream in are never recognized in the waking world around you. When the tones and inflections that have evolved for centuries- passed along on mothers' tongues as far back as the continent itself are cut off abruptly.  Much like setting off for a road trip and the radio suddenly switches to a new station, unrecognizable but sufficient.

From where I stand, my monolingual reality is pretty simple. I'm third generation, I often explain to others, so my parents barely speak Chinese themselves (though, to be fair, my mom's is like a million times better than my dad's. no offense dad) (ack, to be fair again, my mom once translated the apostle paul to pineapple bun for our bilingual service) Again, my parents barely speak Chinese themselves. And I have often put myself in my grandparent's shoes to consider this reality- that it was preferable or even necessary to effectively erase the Toisan from my family in order for them to be American enough, assimilate-able enough, White enough. This reality meant that for the 18 years I lived with my grandmother, our chit chats were to fix remote controls and to wear warm jackets. It was the insistent cry that American progress could not have 5 distinct tones, just long and short vowels.   This linguistic ultimatum leaves me without words these days. 

I'm grateful, in a lamenting way, for the deep and sacrificial love that sustained my grandparents as their children dropped out of Chinese school one by one. They had no actual choice, really, and they knew that every generation gives up something. But it trickles down to me and now my feelings are changing because can I just say that that's not okay? Because for every family that tried to pass down their native language, their children were placed in ESL classes and were never expected to perform as well as those who had chosen to forget. For every time my parents felt shamefully desperate to draw the line between themselves and the immigrants,  owning their American-Born-ness and holding at arms length their Fresh-Off-the-Boat-ness. And because I was so proud, so ignorantly pleased, with my white washed words until I realized they left me and my future children indefinitely deprived of tones, the 5 distinct tones that meant the most to me. 

And it trickles into our worship. Along the way, when did we make a choice to buy into a form of evangelicalism that required we prove we were American enough, assimilate-able enough, White enough? See, we arrived at a time when our survival required our forgetfulness and our silence. We carried no freedom songs, no gospel hums, no familiar instruments. And as we took the stage, our hymnals, projector transparencies, and CCLI Power Points could not specifically express the work of God in our stories, but embodied our ernest desire to play like, sound like, worship like Americans. The familiarity of songs like Shout to the Lord, Power of Your Love, and Not Be Shaken* are, in many ways, the Asian American worship voice- they represent a simultaneous desire to be known by God and by our country. Without articulating our own voice, these songs represent the sickness of a model minority curse as it has found its way into our pews.

That being said, I get it- this is where I am now- a monolingual Chinese American who can author this blog post in a language I'll teach to my daughters some day. I just want to remember, before I continue a legacy of forced forgetfulness, that there was a moment in my family's story where we held both languages together and in it was wrapped the stories and promises for a coming day. And after exclusion acts, and yellow peril, and oriental fetishes and ching chong cho, these were the songs we were left with.

 

*Russell Jeung// Faithful Generations: Race and New Asian American Churches

 My auntie Susie, Popo, and Auntie Rose in front of Francisco Middle School. Wow I don't think I have ever or will ever look as fly as my grandmother. 

My auntie Susie, Popo, and Auntie Rose in front of Francisco Middle School. Wow I don't think I have ever or will ever look as fly as my grandmother. 

A theology hidden in the alleys

 My home church is the San Francisco Chinese Church of the Nazarene. My maternal grandmother started attending in 1957, my parents fell in love there (weird) and I spent way too many Sundays playing mediocre piano pieces during offering.

My home church is the San Francisco Chinese Church of the Nazarene. My maternal grandmother started attending in 1957, my parents fell in love there (weird) and I spent way too many Sundays playing mediocre piano pieces during offering.

I spent yesterday with an incredible team of Asian American women planning InterVarsity's Chinatown Program. This week long immersion for Chinese and Taiwanese American college students attempts to introduce an intergenerational theology that is embodied in family narratives and revealed in San Francisco Chinatown's history. There is an implicit discipleship of sacrifice, resilience, and gratitude woven in the Chinese American immigration experience and this program aims to cultivate a theology from within this lens. 

My experience in a multi-generational immigrant church felt awkward and separate from the wider evangelical network around me. My Sundays were off key hymns and bilingual sermons. There was an ongoing frustration about church that was often masked in language about family, surrender, and obedience. I think I get it now, though. Many of the Chinatown churches that served in the 1950's received little to no support from mainline denominations*- and certainly not contextualized resources for the Chinese and Chinese American congregations they were building. Almost in exact parallel to the hostility Chinese Americans faced throughout the nation, the notion that "we can survive because we are family" and "they can't take away what we have if we work hard enough to keep it" permeated monthly potluck sign ups and vacant Sunday School teacher roles. I am beginning to have a greater appreciation for the gift of resilience in Chinatown churches- that despite a world waiting for them to give up, they model the intensity and love that moves grandparents to learn Hillsong tunes and insists that the Christmas program must carry on. These churches look to the ones who came before them and those who come after them with a deep faith that these things are not in vain. This is, after all, a God who led Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 

This is the story I hope Chinatown uncovers for students: the untold stories of struggling communities that grasped the light of the Gospel in a city that knew them only as strangers. I want to carve out space in my theology for the moments that Jesus made His name magnified when remodeled garages became sanctuaries. 

 

*Timothy Tseng// Protestantism in Twentieth-Century Chinese America: The Impact of Transnationalism on the Chinese Diaspora
The Journal of American-East Asian Relations
Vol. 13, Special Volume− Christianity as an Issue in the History of U.S.-China Relations (2004-2006)

Time to make content

My sabbatical is supposedly beginning in 105 days, so instead of watching my third episode of Law and Order or eating more ice cream, I will start this website. Here it goes?

Things that might end up on this blog:
1. Things I am loving about my new home in Santa Cruz, CA
2. Travel journals that document the places I have visited
3. Reflections on Chinese-American theology and its embodiment in people, places, and stories
4. Questions I would like to ask Ice-T/ Detective Tutuola
5. Observations about my mysterious spouse, Jon

For now, this blog is a secret space and that's good for my Enneagram 2-ness.