Oh crap—I just got asked point blank on “how being an ethnic minority makes things different for me” in a room full of white people…
Oh crap. Sure I welcome, the question—I welcome the pondering. In fact, I encourage the pondering.
But oh crap. I still have no clue how to answer it.
I have no ready or pat answer.
It depends on the room, it depends on the person, it depends on the level of relationship.
And can I say, it is a really weird question.
It requires a ton of self-awareness, a level of outsized self-awareness.
[And it requires a ton of knowledge about Asian Americans and in this case, Asian American Christians. And who really knows all that? Because although it is impossible to represent (and sometimes, someone even tells you that you don’t have to represent)—you *still* represent if you are 1 of the handful of Asian Americans that that person knows, or perhaps the only Asian American who has given them a somewhat deep answer on this topic. Anyway—another post—but this is also another complication.]
And in some ways—that makes the question unfair. Who really is that self-aware, that they can explain themselves? It puts the onus on me—to have a ready answer, and I sure look like a dork if I don’t. (And yet, no one ever turns the tables—hey you white people, why do x, y and z and feel a, b, c about being white? If they shrug, no one thinks twice.)
But in some ways, in this particular way tonight—it was sincere. It was a white person who honestly wanted to know, wanted to love, wanted to understand and care.
It still makes me squirm. It exposes the very thing I’m trying get over—that I don’t feel comfortable in the room, and I’m very much trying to get there. In a weird way, it asks for a level of vulnerability from me that I don’t know is fair…are you going to listen? Are you going to talk to me tomorrow? What level of relationship do we have?
I used to have my pat answers—I used to be able to expound a bunch of E Asian essentialist stereotypes. We’re quiet and we don’t rock the boat. I wasn’t trained to look people in the eye. I was trained to obey authority—to speak when spoken to, and not before. I was trained to wait until I get invited into a conversation instead of just jumping in.
Not that I was lying then—I think these E Asian stereotypes in some ways were more true for me when I was younger, when I was first figuring out how to interact with other adults in the workplace. I remember, in my first workplace, I kept bowing to all the adults—and another Asian American friend told me to cut that out. You’re embarrassing us. I didn’t even know I was doing that until she pointed it out.
And then I started to think about why I was doing it—and I realized that that is how my parents told me to relate to all adults. As a kid, I was called into the room, told to say “Hi Uncle” and then I would repeat “Hi Uncle,” give my shy bow, and then was encouraged to leave. I talked to adult teachers too, but I never spoke back at them—I didn’t really try to speak up in class until I lost a letter grade for my lack of participation in a college seminar. I was not used to speaking to adults. I was not used to speaking up in groups. I never quite figured out how to speak up in class in college, either.
As a young adult, working—and I needed to figure out how to speak to other adults my parents age and older and look them in the eye and call them “Joe” or “Mac” or whatever. And I needed to figure out fast. I needed to figure out how to give feedback, my point of view. I needed to figure out how to make small talk—and BOY, WAS IT HARD. If you’re not used to this—it’s hard to start speaking. It’s hard to have a clear point to your speech. I’d map out my thoughts, so I’d make sense—and then I’d adjust when I got complaints to stop reading my notes. It was hard to figure out how to modulate your voice in the right tone (not too mousey, not too loud or aggressive) so it’s just right. And mostly, people were not kind or understanding to my slowness in speech. I think it was bewildering to a lot of people that someone like me was so reticent, so quiet. If I wanted to work with other people—I needed to figure things out fast.
I’m now remembering some of the things helped me:
- I had to imagine this person as a peer. It helped a lot if this person was a friend.
- I literally had to have some level of fellowship with this person, to have enough common ground to feel comfortable enough to talk. The same friend who told me to stop bowing told me this was weird. The more I think about it, I don’t think it is. It makes sense that I felt more secure in Christ when I knew the other party I was speaking to (even if they were titled and older) was a brother and sister in Christ. We had Christ in common; Christ would keep us in check.
- I had to forget myself. By this I mean, I had to lose my self-consciousness, forget where I was, and remember was God’s. If I felt tight with God—I was completely fine. I was secure in Christ. (I only know this, because of all the times I did not feel so especially tight with God—and boy, could I bomb a conversation.)
- I needed time to observe the group dynamics, the group in general. I needed time to figure out what the expectations were, what was acceptable to say, what was not, when others were talking, when other’s were not. Once I figured this out (it’s quicker now, but it used to take months), I then knew how I could interject and relate.
- I needed to consciously catch myself when I was beating myself up for making a cultural/social misstep—and I needed to extend myself grace, and if possible, as quickly as possible—continue talking to that person or group until my shame/face instinct kicked in and got my mind going in that way. I needed to pray and look to God especially if my mind got going in that way.
I worked really hard on this—anyway, it’s been years. I don’t really have this problem so much anymore. So much so, that I’ve been surprised this year. I think of myself as experienced, well exposed to people of all different walks of life. Despite working and living in poor neighborhoods, I’ve interacted with the financially poor in new ways this year—their lives surprise me, and have me feeling as insecure as I did as a young adult fresh out of college. I haven’t felt this way in a while.
In truth, I think, I’m like everyone else. It just took me longer to get there because I wasn’t as used to talking with people of different ages as equals. I’m only nervous with people I have absolutely no framework for. I think this is true for a white or black person talking to an immigrant, or someone out of their usual world.
Anyway—all that to say—I can’t rattle off these E Asian essentialist stereotypes anymore, because I’ve changed. I’ve worked on things, that they are not so true of me anymore.
I’m not saying that there are not ways where I still behave very E Asian—I still have a very hard time saying a very obvious mistake to someone’s face. For example, I could not for the life of me tell someone, “You know what, you think you’re hot stuff, but you’re really not. Your work is bad. You’re not competent.” Even if it was true—it’s the face thing. I don’t want them to lose face, I’d lose face. Now, I can think of plenty of E Asians who CAN say this to someone’s face—and I’ve certainly had my share of E Asian Americans say something that direct to me—but I can’t do it. And I still think it’s an Asian thing.
But I’ve also grown? changed?
How do I answer that question: “what does being an ethnic minority mean to me in a room full of white people?”
How sincere is the inquirer? How interested is inquirer really? What would help the inquirer? You don’t want to give pearls to swine—you want to access where the inquirer is at, and give something that would be of some help.
This particular time—the inquirer was an acquaintance, one I may never see again, or at most once or twice in the next ten years. This person cut me off as I was fumbling my way around looking for words—impatient, and perhaps feeling a little uncomfortable, because I was uncomfortable. If I knew this person better; if perhaps this person didn’t cut me off, I would have said a lot more…
I honestly did not give this person a clear and satisfying answer. I am actually not sure what I said.
D’oh. I haven’t had to answer this question in a long time. Once upon a time, I was in settings that cared about multiethnicity and racial reconciliation where they asked.
I no longer have pat answers. I know also that I cannot and in no way represent other Asian Americans—and boy, would they get pissed at me…
And yet—I know this is the stuff of real relationships with God and others, of really being ourselves, of being our true self, as God calls us to be. I want to be known authentically, I want to be able to be my full self. But the reality is that that this is just not possible with everybody.