On being invisible

I thought this was just me, just a problem particular to myself—until a Singaporean friend confided to me at seminary, “I’ve never felt so invisible.”

We were in the atrium, the seminary’s hub looking out onto the mostly American crowd of students.

“What do you mean?”

“You know, ignored almost even literally stepped on.  Not seen.”

“You never felt this way in Singapore?  Or when you traveled elsewhere?”

“Never.”

Her answer stopped me in my tracks—I knew this feeling all too well.  All too well, and all this time, I thought it was just me.

I’ve noticed that if I’m not “on,”  people literally do not see me.  And I mean literally.  This has happened all my life.  I literally have had people knock into me in stores, in schools, in hallways.   After the fact, they literally tell me, “Oh, sorry, I did not see you.”   I’ve been in groups as the only Asian—and literally, I have been told, “I just didn’t notice you.”

By “on,” I mean—full of light and presence, weightiness, being all there.  I don’t need to be positively on, I could be brewing a very visible storm cloud—that’s “on” too.  For me, I’m “off”  when I feel blank, when I’ve over-extroverted and I’m tired, when I haven’t had a chance to process or pray, when I’m in a hard situation and I still haven’t figured things out yet.  For me, I’m not “on” when I’m depressed—and there have been long seasons of depression in my life.   I’m also not “on” when I wonder if I belong, when I’m still figuring out my role, or how to interact with people—that advice of “just being you” just doesn’t quite cut it…(again for another post).

It’s only by the grace of Jesus Christ that I’m “on.”  I turned “on” when I first experienced God in college during an large group meeting.   We sang “the nails in your hands, the nails in your feet, they tell me how much you loved me” and things crystalized in my head and heart for the first time.  I cried for the next 20 minutes, so touched.  I turned “on.”   People told me so, people told me they saw God’s love in me.  Years later, I suppose, I was still prone to “on” moments.  I remember being so startled by the black ladies behind the post office counter, “Oh it’s you!  We love when you come in here!   We love when you bring your warm smiling face in here!”

Like most, that initial warm glow of Christ fades, and to my horror, I somehow switch off, to not know when God was going to switch me back on.  It was not a matter of me putting my mind to it—believe me, I tried really hard, over and over.  And I greatly disappointed many by turning “off.”   I still remember my friend chewing me out for not turning on my charm at her Christmas party.  “I’ve seen you do it before.  You’re great at working the room.  What was wrong with you?  How could you do that to me, at my party?”   Then, and perhaps even moments now, it was out of my control.  It was not like I didn’t try.

It’s only by the grace of Jesus Christ that I’ve noticed when I turn “off,” which for many years was my default.  (I don’t know if it is still.)   I was in a difficult season of depression, and another friend had just driven me to yet another Christmas party.  As she parked, she said a mean thing to me, and we both gasped as we watched my demeanor completely shut off.   We gasped because I had just been telling her that “sucking it up” literally doesn’t always work, and that I did not know what caused me to turn on and off.  We gasped because we both knew—that this unfortunately happening (she quickly apologized) was nevertheless overall an act of grace, a gift from God.  Now I knew.  I turn off when someone is overly mean to me, when I am consistently and overtly ignored.

I realize my story is pretty extreme—most Asian Americans aren’t struggling with the level of depression like I was—-and most Asian American Christians don’t turn off.   But they can look un-alive to me.

Last month, I was at a restaurant with my dad on southern Long Island, New York.  He was just back from Asia where he lives, and well, he is 73 and is starting to really look it.   He told me he was going to order oysters, and to my horror, I saw him standing there dead looking.  He was standing in prime position, right in front of the server, for I don’t know how long—because the server kept shucking oysters for the men who were awkwardly to either side of my dad.  My dad never got his turn, because a louder gentleman behind him started ordering—and that’s when I told my dad I’d handle it.  Everyone else around was white, and I started getting very loud.  (My service was fine.)

I don’t think these guys meant to ignore my dad—he was clearly right in front of them, but he was not all there.  He was not speaking up.  He looked dead.

This is at a restaurant—and my expectations at a restaurant are good food and some reasonable level of service (depending on its type.)   At a church, however, among Christians—there are a different set of expectations.

I mentioned in past posts that it’s been awhile since I felt as invisible as I did at the Mosaix multiethnic conference.  I don’t want to put down Mosaix.  I know I started this blog because I was that infuriated; but I don’t want to put down Mosaix.  This will be my last mention of “Mosaix” from here on out.

Multiethnicity in the church is super, super hard.  I kept waiting to hear more acknowledgement of this—but it was only cursory.  Multiethnicity and reconciliation at the levels that Jesus desires will not come at the pace that Mosaix wants.  The pace that Mosaix desires makes a farce of reconciliation, of brokenness, of real relationship, of Jesus’ work on the cross.

When you go to a multi-ethnic conference that purports to champion every ethnicity, you expect every ethnicity to be seen, you expect a desire for every ethnicity to be known.  You expect a conference that is going to be much more relational than Mosaix.   By relational, I don’t mean “networking”—people collecting contacts for pulpit supply later, or to speak at conferences and retreats later etc.  I don’t mean tweeting “humble brags” that you saw this person live.   By relational, I mean you expect this crowd of people to be one that values everyone in the image of God far more than the marketplace, work, whatever “homogeneous” church and even your family.  You expect them to get that this is it—this is core of the multiethnic church—that everyone was made in the image of God, and that everyone is of great tremendous value.  Because of this, everyone is worth knowing, worth acknowledging, even if say, they look dead.

And well, my honest assessment—the Asian Americans in the audience looked less than lively.  I can’t blame them—there were no Asian Americans on the podium (other than Eugene Lee—who was the best talk that morning).  And the 3 mentions I heard of Asian Americans—one was from Ed Stelzer, this white guy who was once years ago the English Pastor of a Chinese church, two, his weird presentation of the Lifeway apology, and three, when Mark DeYmaz shared the story of how the Asians at his church are always the people who come earliest!   (Uh, the church must have made an announcement that they wanted people to get their on time—and the Asians were the only people who listened.  This is the only explanation I can think of, as we can be perpetually late, late people.  “Asian Standard Time” is not talked about for no reason.)  Basically—why would Asian Americans get excited at this thing?  Even in our great moment (Lifeway apology), we weren’t even on stage!

But if you talked to them, like I did at break time—they came alive.

This was not a conference that valued people—but their Big Names and Big Numbers and whatever Marketing Prowess.   This—to me, is not the stuff of the Kingdom.

If I can go back to my first story, my Singaporean friend who told me she had never felt so ignored.  I told her at the time I thought it was because of the Americans and she shrugged off my answer.  I wonder if there is something about American culture that can’t handle, doesn’t know what to do with dead or unalive or blank looking people.  I don’t know what it is.  Is it the individualism?  Is it that you need so much to be somebody, or interesting or whatever, that this lack of well, anything, is just not acceptable.   Perhaps we just don’t know what to do with that person, or how to interact?    I don’t know.   Not to paint too broad of a stroke, but in the Asian circles I know—-and this is not true of all Asians, but I wonder if chances are higher that we would just fold that person in.   We would invite them to come hang out with us anyway.

But for my friend, this feeling of invisibility pointed to something much bigger.   She was suffering—suffering what many in our seminary suffered, but more alone.  Faced with a more rigorous understanding of the Gospel, many students learned to die to themselves for the first time in their lives.  “You are more broken than you know,”  one professor would admonish us over and over.  I very much agree with this statement.  We are more broken and more in need of God than we even realize, and while his grace is so much more—we cannot always jump to that grace.  Sometimes it’s appropriate to sit in what is hard, and, like Job, wait for God to come.

My Singaporean friend was going through just this, but I could not help but wonder if it was harder for her, harder as she faced this brokenness in a culture that could not interpret or even see her cries for help, in a culture that at the same time touted “community” and “loving one another.”  In truth, people did try to love her, but it was hard to know where she was coming from.  I wonder if  being among Christians just left her even more unseen and unloved, and  more and more depressed, and well, more dependent on Jesus.   What to make of this?  I don’t know.

Multiethnicity, real multiethnic Christ centered relationships—are really, really hard.  Do not discount what you do not see or know.

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