I Am Asian, Hear Me Roar!
My friend Soong-Chan Rah’s The Next Evangelicalism (InterVarsity Press, 2009) is a deeply significant book that exposes and calls into account the continuing Western captivity of American evangelicalism. “In February 2005,” Rah reports, “Time magazine profiled the 25 most influential evangelicals in the United States. Only two of those slots were occupied by nonwhites.” This blinding white list, claims Rah, points to the ongoing captivity of the church to a dominant Western worldview. In light of the rapidly diversifying face of evangelicalism, Rah warns that “this…cannot continue if we are to move toward the future of the next evangelicalism.” The significance of this book at this moment in the history of the American church cannot be overstated.
But that didn’t stop us from having a good laugh over it at the Asian North American Consultation on Theology and Ministry a few years ago. One participant had us all in hysterics when he said, with a straight face, “I don’t know why, but the publisher rejected Soong-Chan’s preferred title. He wanted to call it I Am Asian, Hear Me Roar!” A mighty joyous roar in fact erupted in the room. Soong-Chan himself, who was there, laughed along approvingly.
But jokes aside, can I tell you how exhausting it is to be nonwhite in a predominantly white world? Say what? In light of the Obama era, what right does anybody have to wave the racist victim flag? On one level, this would be a totally understandable response. But I mean to wave no such flag, nor to provide social commentary on racism, nor to bash America. I just want to share some personal thoughts on what it’s like to live and work in America as a person of color, more specifically as an Asian.
For one thing—and let me just get this out of the way—I’ve struggled with my appearance through the years, secretly wishing for the impossible: more height, longer nose, less slanty eyes—and where were the Filipinos when God was handing out chest hairs? Of course, such angst about my physical self is no longer as torturous as it was, say, during adolescence; but even as an adult, I still have to fight off feelings of physical inferiority. I’ve had to train my mind to say, as I look in the mirror, “You look fine, despite….” A minor thing, I know. But flexing that mental muscle day after day, albeit subconsciously (and unnecessarily in light of God’s good handiwork), can be tiring.
It goes beyond vanity, however; it’s more than not meeting the Western standard for good looks. My small stature, smooth brown skin, and baby face—basically, my Asian-ness—also do not match the look of someone in leadership or authority. I remember the first day of class as my seminary teaching career was about to begin. I arrived at the assigned classroom 30 minutes ahead of schedule like the eager rookie professor that I was and took my place at the front. As students trickled in, I welcomed them with a smile. One student who arrived was a middle-aged woman who, upon spotting me, stopped in her tracks, put her hands on her hips, and said, “You’re the teacher?” Nervous giggles escaped a few of the students standing there, and fortunately I had the impulse to respond, “You’re a student?” and we all laughed our way out of it. The point is, because I don’t embody the look of leadership—large physical presence (read: tall), white, gray-haired, and whatever else—I often find myself having to prove that I deserve to be standing at the front of the class.
Encounters of this sort occur regularly. For example, despite 12 years of pastoral experience in urban and suburban churches, 10 years of missionary community development experience among the poor in the Philippines, a PhD, a few books under my belt, and the fact that I am now even a grandfather, I am still most often described as a young, up-and-coming, and aspiring minister and/or scholar. And I can’t help but wonder: If I were white and looked more the part, would “young, up-and-coming, and aspiring” be the descriptors? I’ll never know.
There is much more to say about life as a nonwhite person living in America, but space will not allow further reflections on, for example, the feeling of being a perpetual visitor in someone else’s country, or the ongoing identity crisis (I’m a coconut—brown on the outside, white on the inside), or the media stereotypes of Asians (nerdy, geeky, speaking broken English, and running laundromats and donut shops).
I repeat: This essay does not attempt to make any definitive statements about church, culture, and/or race in America; Rah’s book does a fine job of that already. It merely reflects my personal experiences, the sum of which amounts to a psycho-emotional strain that I have simply learned to live with. Such thoughts reside in the subconscious most of time; although it was probably not Rah’s intention, his book caused me to go to neglected places of my being. In this way, sharing my thoughts with you here has been therapeutic. Thanks for listening.
Al Tizon is co-president of ESA and Ronald James Sider associate professor of holistic ministry at Palmer Theological Seminary. He is the co-editor (along with M. Sydney Park and Soong-Chan Rah) of Honoring the Generations: Learning with Asian North American Congregations and the author of Missional Preaching: Engage Embrace Transform (both from Judson Press, 2012), among other books.