“Why does your food smell so bad?”
“Have you ever eaten dog?”
“Where are you from? Where are you really from?”
“No offense, but I don’t like being around China-men; they make me nervous.”
Despite being born and raised in Canada, I’ve heard comments like these my whole life. As an Asian male, I’m a “perpetual foreigner,” always braced for stares, glances and “curious” questions.
And the pandemic – which has been difficult for everyone – has had devastating effects on people of colour. The Asian community has felt the divisive effects of racism, not only COVID-induced tension and fear but race-related emotional, verbal and physical assaults. Elderly Asians have suffered attacks. The shooting in Atlanta highlighted the danger for Asian women. This hits home for me: I worry about my elderly parents going for a walk. Will they be mistreated? I worry about my three young adult daughters. How will they be viewed in their workplaces? Are they safe? People avoid eye contact with me when I walk into a store. Are they paranoid around everyone, due to COVID, or is it more?
During these uncertain, fearful times, we need the Christian community to stand up when something is not right. And anti-Asian racism is not right. If we are called by God to be a light in this world, we need to take initiative here and support our Asian brothers and sisters.
The full body of Christ
Talking about racism is difficult. For some, the injustice activates rage, hurt or frustration; for others it can lead to defensiveness or a desire to blame. For me, what shows up is shame. “Why are you making something bigger than it is? Other people have it much harder than you.” As powerful and paralyzing as those voices are, I am realizing that God has given me a story to tell. And I believe we need to share our stories so that we can grow into the body of Christ more fully.
My parents were born and raised in Indonesia. They immigrated to Holland for some schooling and then to Canada. My sister and I were both born and raised in Canada. I attended a Christian Reformed Church (CRC) and Christian elementary and high school. I attended the University of Western Ontario and Calvin College. My wife identifies as Dutch Canadian, and we have three beautiful daughters.
Two kinds of shame
Growing up in a predominantly white, Dutch CRC community, I was usually the only person of colour in the room. Any time I visited a new church or school community, I would look around to see if there were any other visible minorities. Subconsciously, seeing just one other person of colour made me feel safe. This feeling of being different from my surroundings shaped me, making me question my worth, value and love.
The shame I feel is deep and conflicting. Shame that I was different culturally and physically, and especially that others saw this and named it – sometimes out of genuine curiosity, often out of ignorance, and other times with a desire to hurt. “Why does your grandfather look like that?” “Hey Ching Chong.” “I didn’t know chinks knew how to play soccer.” “Are you that skinny because all you do is eat rice?” The comments took their toll.
On the other side of the spectrum, I also feel shame that I was not prouder of my culture, ethnicity and family of origin. I was longing to be called “white-washed” or to hear someone earnestly say, “I don’t see you as different, you’re just like one of us.” It was not until many years later that I realized the danger this comment was to my identity and, worse, as a child of God. I was living for the acceptance of humans.
The words I needed to hear
Fast forward many years. In 2010, my family and I moved to Indonesia to teach for two years at a private Christian school. Some people thought it was so nice that I was “returning home” to connect with my roots. Home is and always will be Canada. Yet I cannot deny that living in Indonesia brought me some comfort in my longing for identity and belonging. Truth be told, I didn’t fully fit in there either because of my western mentality. However, I remember a conversation I had with a native Indonesian teacher who came from the same island as my grandmother. As we were sharing some of our hobbies, he said, “Hey, you are one of us!” Those words triggered an emotional flood in me that is still powerful today. I have been part of many loving and accepting communities in my lifetime, but those words had a profound impact.
I know in my head and heart that my identity comes first and foremost as a child of God, created and redeemed by him. I have great value, purpose and worth. This is much easier for me to believe and live out now that I am 48. But when I look back on my life and see the struggles of trying to fit into the dominant culture, I realize I needed help. I needed people in my community to take interest in my culture. I needed friends who would stick up for me and stop the racial comments and slurs. I needed people to tell me that who God created me to be is beautiful. I needed the courage and vulnerability to tell others that what they said was not okay. To the ones who did step up – thank you. I don’t think I realized how important those allies were for me at the time.
Despite all the challenges I faced as an Asian male in my community, I am grateful to God for who I am today. It would not be fair for me to share the hurts of my past without also sharing the joy, peace and love I have received from so many people in the communities God has placed me. I am blessed beyond all measure, and so deeply appreciative. My desire for my daughters and students is to understand how beloved they are to God. God is making all things good and invites us to bring Shalom by sharing our broken and redeemed stories with one another.