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)