I’m an external processor so sometimes I don’t realize something until I say it out loud. While debriefing the semester with my staff team today I reflected on what brings me joy in ministry… “I love that I can bring my whole self to this ministry with international students!” I exclaimed, “I feel like I get to be all of who I am culturally–a white American who grew up in Asia.”
During this year of adjusting to a new life of living in Hawaii and starting an outreach ministry to international students, I’ve enjoyed drawing on my cross-cultural upbringing–7 years in Hong Kong and 10 years in Taiwan. My East Asian international students don’t expect me to be a cultural insider, but they appreciate that I have points of reference with their cultures and an interest to learn more. I can embrace being a white American seeking to host them well in this foreign land while also engaging with them in the context of their culture’s language, foods, and mores.
I contrast this with my last stint working with American students (mostly white) in northern California. I don’t mean San Francisco or Sacramento, I mean NORTHERN…like cozying-up-to-the-Oregon-boarder northern… a sweet little place called Redding. Besides small communities from the Hmong and Mien peoples of South East Asia and some Mexican migrant workers, the Redding community is predominantly white. Since I am a white chic, you might not imagine that I would feel awkward in this environment, but for the first few years especially, I felt VERY AWKWARD. I felt like I really STOOD OUT. Kinda weird, yes, but let me illustrate…
Growing up, my “normal” experience was being in a crowd of black hair and brown eyes with my contrasting blonde hair, blue eyes, and tall stature. I would often get interrupted by someone asking if I would teach them English or wanting to take a photo with me. Once, I was even approached by two high school students who were visiting a science museum. Either the exhibit was boring or my blonde tresses stood out in comparison for they shyly made their way over to me to ask if they could have a piece of my “gold” hair. (Fortunately in Mandarin Chinese, my blonde hair is made even more valuable as “blonde” is translated as “gold”.) With a bit of a surprised chuckle, I plucked out a strand and handed it to them and they quickly shuffled away. An exhibit or two later, they found me again, but this time came bearing a gift from the museum book store which they said was in exchange for my hair! I’ll never forget that day… didn’t even need the magic of Rumpelstiltskin to turn my hair into gold–my hair was gold!
So, after 18 years of “normal” experiences like this, it felt very strange to be surrounded by people who looked like me. It may have appeared that I was surrounded by cousins, but heart was stranded on a separate continent. My worldview, values, and tastes were quite different from those around me. It was as if my visible similarity accentuated my internal dissimilarity and produced acute discomfort. I usually found away to make those around me aware of the fact that I grew up in Asia. Somehow inviting them to see me as different from them helped me feel more comfortable.
As went to college in Redding, and later served in ministry there (a total of 10 years in white country), I learned to embrace and operate in my white-American-ness. As this became my daily routine, my Asian-ness fell asleep and began to hybernate. It would temporarily re-awaken when I made trips back to my “homeland” of Taiwan to visit my parents and multi-national friends, but upon my return, that Asian part would return to it’s sleepy cave. That part of me wasn’t really needed, in fact, it seemed it would just get in the way if it stayed conscious, so it climbed beneath the covers.
Now that I’m in the warm tropical climate of Hawaii, again surrounded by hair and eyes unlike mine, my Asian-ness had re-awakened! I love dusting off my Mandarin, trying out phrases in Japanese, listening to stories from the Hong Kong students as they rattle off names of places that are filled with memories and meaning somewhere in the recesses of my childhood archives. And here in the middle of the Pacific Ocean as I straddle the home of my childhood–Asia–and the home of my adulthood–USA–I get to be my whole self…and I love it!