china-gringa, ch. 2

* Note: This is the second post of my new blog series on identity. It is meant as an ongoing reflection rather than a summary of conclusions. In case you missed the previous post: https://sophiahar.wordpress.com/2016/04/28/china-gringa-ch-1

china-gringa || ch. 2, turning dread into opportunity

NO MATTER HOW MANY times I tried to prepare myself for it, I always hesitated when someone asked me, “Where are you from?”

Do I go with my instinct and say the country I grew up in? Or do I tell them what they want to hear: my birthplace, where the people would think twice before saying I’m from there?

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Where do I come from? Them.

I usually went with instinct: “The US.”

Then I would brace myself for the look of confusion or skepticism as they said, “But where are you originally from?” or “But you look Asian or Japanese or something like that.”

So I would tell them where I was born and watch their face light up: mystery solved.

Without a doubt, I love that I was born in Hong Kong. I love being Chinese American. It’s who I am. I’m happy to share parts of my story with both friends and strangers.

What drains me is the follow-up:

“What’s the strangest thing Chinese people eat?”
“Are you related to Jackie Chan?”
“Can you say something in Chinese?”

On their own, each of these questions is legitimate and harmless. The problem is, none of these questions exists in a vacuum. In my current context, these seemingly lighthearted questions ride on a deeper current of prejudices and assumptions.

What I hear and what I interpret:

Question: What’s the strangest thing Chinese people eat?
Meaning: Chinese cuisine is weird. Normal people don’t eat what Chinese people eat. I kind of hope you say “mouse”.

Question: Are you related to Jackie Chan?
Meaning: Jackie Chan’s the only Chinese actor I’ve heard of, thanks to Hollywood, and you’re the only Chinese person I know, and all of you look alike. Therefore this joke is super funny.

QuestionCan you say something in Chinese?
Meaning: “Chinese” is so exotic.

I don’t know the intentions of each person who asks me these questions. I, too, get curious when I see someone who doesn’t appear to be like everyone around me. Most of the time, people just want to strike up friendly conversation. That’s fine.

What raises red flags for me is that the desire for small talk mocks an entire people group. Why not instead ask me to describe my favorite elements of Hong Kong’s cuisine or to teach you a specific phrase in Cantonese?

Growing up in the Midwest, I grew so accustomed to colorblindness that I learned to downplay the cultural dissonances I experienced and went with whatever the White majority was into. Most people didn’t expressed much interest in the fact that I was born in Hong Kong except that they thought it was cool to have lived overseas. As a kid, I was fine with that since I was so removed from the realities of life in Hong Kong anyway.

It wasn’t until my first year out of college that I began to miss this part of my story. I longed to talk about my experiences as a young immigrant. I grieved my loss of fluency in my first language. I wanted somebody, anybody, to ask me what Hong Kong was like.

As I’ve processed my aversion to “Where are you from?” and its follow-up questions, I’ve come to see them as an opportunity. An opportunity to shatter assumptions that everybody who comes from the US is White and that everybody of Chinese descent lives in China. An opportunity to reject notions of “nationality”, as Taiye Selasi does in her brilliant TED Talk. An opportunity to proclaim my own narrative.

About a month ago, a friend asked me about the “Chinese language.” I decided to engage the question and explained that Chinese actually consists of hundreds of local dialects that are distinct from one another. She was intrigued.

A few weeks later, I overheard her saying, “Sophia doesn’t speak chino, she speaks cantonés. There are actually many different dialects in China.”

I was so proud. Not only had I taken the chance to celebrate my cultural heritage, albeit in a small way, but I had also helped someone else to see it in a more meaningful way – and she was passing it along.

This incident will not transform an entire society’s view of Chinese cultures. Equally inconsequential would be any attempt on my part to debate, during a passing conversation, the legitimacy of asking where somebody’s “from”. There’s no easy way to navigate the “in-betweenness” that comes with identifying strongly with more than one culture.

Sometimes the only thing you can do for the moment is to turn a dreaded question into an opportunity for you and those around you to see things differently.

 

 

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china-gringa, ch. 1

* Note: Considering the complexity of my questions and thoughts on the following topics, I’ve decided to make this post the first of a series. I wish to clarify that most, if not all, of the people I’ve met in Colombia have had only good intentions, or at least no harmful intentions, towards me. In sharing my reflections, I seek to be honest, to create space for dialogue (I really welcome feedback), and to deepen my understanding.

china-gringa || chapter 1: questions

MY NEW FRIENDS AND I were walking down the street when they bump into some friends, an older couple. I was in the middle of shaking their hands when they said, “Hola, mi japonesita.”

Even though I’d been in Colombia for only a month at the time, I was ready to retire from this game.

“Soy china.” It was getting close to my bedtime, and I was too tired to keep the edge out of my voice.

Caught off guard for a second, they quickly sought to ease the tension.

“Oh, it’s the same thing,” they said.

Hampered by a lack of language proficiency, I could only reply with a cold stare.

Afterwards, I heard my friends joking about the incident. Though they were laughing, I started to worry. Did I respond too strongly? I hope I didn’t make a fool of myself. Could I have acted more lovingly, whatever that means? Am I too sensitive?

This internal dialogue continues to accompany me as I live in Colombia.

Why is my ethnicity a topic of such fascination for strangers, acquaintances, and friends alike?

Why don’t they know, or care to know, that Japan is not the same as China?

What am I supposed to say when asked to describe a “strange dish” in “Asian cuisine”?

How did both the model minority myth and the perpetual foreigner phenomenon become instilled in mainstream Colombian society?

My emotions fluctuate between shock, indignation, shame, sorrow, apathy, annoyance, and anger – sometimes all in one day – as I regularly face ignorance and offensive attitudes and gestures toward my race and ethnicity.

Most of all I am confused.

One of my coworkers, whom I trust and respect, told me that Colombians don’t talk much about race. Rather, he said, they talk about ethnicity. Race isn’t as relevant, apparently because most Colombians are mix-raced (having indigenous, African, and/or European roots). This mestizaje identity evokes pride for many Colombians.

I can see where he’s coming from. Race is a social construction, after all, and diversity should be celebrated.

Besides, Colombia and the US are different countries, with different histories, different norms, different perceptions on race and ethnicity. And as a guest of this culture, I know I’m missing a lot of context. The last thing I want to do is jump to conclusions, impose my paradigms, or say something disrespectful or arrogant.

But beneath my open-mindedness lurks the question: How can race not be a thing here?

Didn’t both Colombia and the US have indigenous nations living in the land for centuries before White European colonizers invaded and claimed the land for the sake of God, the gospel, power, freedom, what have you?

Don’t both countries have histories shaped by state- and church-sanctioned violence and domination? The enslavement and mistreatment of women, men, and children of African descent. The extermination of indigenous communities and livelihoods. The exploitation of natural riches in exchange for cold metallic coins.

And these histories have evolved into iteration after iteration of oppressive systems in both the US and Colombia.

What’s more, if race is irrelevant here, how come every person I meet wants to know where I was born?

I started this post over two months ago, and I wish I could say my confusion has decreased. It has – when I choose to ignore it. Which is to say, when I live falsely.

So I’m picking my shovel back up. I’m digging holes into what I always thought was unmovable, and I’m gonna see the lies and truths that lie beneath.

the remnant

Cycle 30

Say hello to Cycle 30, the 30th class of interns at Sojourners: an eclectic mix of cultures, personalities and Meyers-Briggs profiles.

One month has passed since I was thrown into community with these nine young women and men. We live together, eat together, play together, work together… and laugh, A LOT, together. Even our next-door neighbor can hear our laughter through the walls at 7 in the morning. From the outset I have been surprised at how easily we get along, at least considering how different we  are from one another.

During our first week together, our director told us:

You are the remnant.

Translation: “You, Cycle 30, are the remnant, the legacy of the Sojourners community that served as the foundation of the organization’s work when it first formed in 1971.” Talk about an ego booster. =)

The Bible speaks of “the remnant” in various places. Isaiah, amidst his proclamations of judgment, tells of God preserving “the remnant of Israel,” who will return to the Lord and experience His favor (7:3; 10:20-23). Micah declares that God will “gather the remnant of Israel” even as they are in exile (2:12). Paul refers to the believing Jews in his day as “a remnant” (Rom 11:5). In each of these instances, the remnant exists when it shouldn’t have. Under normal circumstances the remnant would have been crushed, scattered and diminished alongside the others.

But when does God ever act “normal”? He brews wine out of water. He doodles in the sand in front of a bunch of Pharisees. He speaks from a burning bush, in a low whisper and out of an ass (literally). Materialism, oppression and legalism seek to suffocate, but grace breaks through with an unexpected breath of fresh air. By His grace the remnant lives on.

 

You are the remnant.

I think of the remnant of Israel in the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Returning to Jerusalem as exiles and strangers, these Israelites faced a perplexing question: “How do you make yourself at home when you’re not even sure you belong there?” Day after day their enemies reinforced their remnant status with mockery, lies and even death threats.

But the Israelites themselves perpetuated their existential crisis: they took advantage of the poorer individuals in their midst, and even after rebuilding the Temple and the walls of Jerusalem, the tasks to which God had called them, they conducted business on the Sabbath and intermarried with peoples who didn’t follow Yahweh, undermining the very structures that were meant to sustain their identity as God’s beloved.

Perhaps the Israelites were forgetful. Perhaps they didn’t understand the significance of the Law or the implications of their decisions. Perhaps they just wanted to have fun. After all, living-in-community-in-distinction-from-mainstream-values-while-seeking-to-make-a-positive-impact-in-society is, well, daunting. The life of the remnant is, in a word, inconvenient. Whatever motivations the Israelites had for disobeying, it’s obvious they’d had enough of the remnant life.

And how often have I, too, arrived at this place?

 

You are the remnant.

I look at the photo above. A bunch of wide-eyed 20-somethings. How is it that we get to be here? How is it that we have entered an organization, a community, a legacy of women and men who have challenged the injustices of this world for over four decades? We can’t even agree on how to spend our food budget, let alone move people to care about the environment, immigration reform and SNAP. What are we doing here?

In the middle of the chaos and awkwardness
the Lord speaks:”You are My people. You have received mercy” (Hos 1:8).

The remnant exists because of grace. We get to be here because of grace. To be the remnant is to embrace everything that comes with it: friendship, responsibility, conflict, inconvenience… and grace. Because grace feels much more real when you have to weigh 10 different opinions for one decision. Because grace is what you give when dishes are left in the sink again, and grace is what you get when you take your stress out on the wrong person.

By His grace the remnant lives on.

lopsided

I eat only mushy foods. I sense a small pinch in my gums every time I swallow. My smile is lopsided. I feel undesirable.

In the course of 3 days, I have been swept off my usually cheery disposition and dropped into a ditch of despair. All because of a minor toothache and swelling in the left side of my mouth. And also a cavity. How does a small malfunction in my body undermine my confidence in such a significant way?

I usually avoid vocalizing discontent with my physical appearance, but every day I have experienced this inconvenient swelling, I’ve mentioned it within the first 2 minutes of almost every conversation I’ve had. Just so they won’t be staring at my face (although most people didn’t notice until I said something). I see myself shrinking away from ambition as anxiety about my body and insurance fees consumes me. Everything within me cries out against my affliction:

I’ve always been healthy! Why must my schedule now be dictated by the pills I take?

I wish to return to my extroverted, energetic, adventurous self. I wish this irritation would disappear. I wish to eat a burger.

Yet with every exasperated sigh and angry tear, I realize more and more the depth of my superficiality and brokenness. My idea of perfection is unattainable by human standards. I have imposed my desire for flawlessness onto myself and others. Now I don’t have an excuse to appear perfect.

Living with a swollen cheek has knocked me off my pedestal. It’s reminding me of the immense suffering that countless others endure on daily basis. If such a small area of my body affects my emotional and physical well-being in such a noticeable way…

what is it like to be a parent battling cancer? a child playing soccer on crutches in a refugee camp? a young woman forced to sell sex to provide for her family? a single, teenage mother trying to feed her kids on her own?

Maybe this physical affliction is my form of awakening: a little nuisance to remind me that my life (and my time and capability) is a fragile gift and that BEAUTY sometimes looks lopsided.