I’ve done both—I’m currently doing Asian American ministry, but I’ve spent most of my time doing non-ethnic specific ministry—and while the latter included a lot of white and black and Latino people, it also included a lot of Asian Americans. But it was still different.
I’ve been doing Asian American ministry now for 3 years—and it’s still a bit of culture shock to me at times. This is an incomplete and non-comprehensive list of how it’s different—at least to me.
Asian American ministries…
- It’s more confusing. You kind of need to know how to read people’s minds. I’m not so great at this especially when I go further from my Chinese roots. Koreans, even though I’ve been friends with Koreans since junior high and have gone to their churches—I am starting to think I only pick up 20-30% of what they mean body language-wise. Japanese, perhaps 10%? SE Asian probably less. S Asians? I don’t know. One of my best friends is Mulayalee, and I’ve been exposed to the family enough that they call me family. But I clearly get that I’m not picking up everything… Anyway—there’s a lot more subtext. You need to pay more attention to who is not talking or who stop talking to you, to body posture etc. You also need to figure out the right way/context to ask questions to figure out what’s really going on. You just can’t always ask a direct question: “hey, what did you mean by that?” Often times, they don’t know because they’ve never thought of it before. I’ve annoyed a ton of people by asking them why they do such and such. It’s taken me a lot of time to learn that it’s not completely fair to expect them to know why.
- It brings up more of my insecurities. Because I grew up and was raised in these settings—it literally hits close to home. So all those unattended, open wounds, all those people I had forgotten I was hurt by, or what not—-up to the surface it comes. This is a good thing of course because I want God to be Lord over all my life, and I need to submit these areas to him, and because I want God to redeem these areas, which He is able. This is a hard thing though—because well, who likes feeling insecure, embarrassed, slightly paranoid, hurt, afraid, etc? It’s hard too because to deal with these things with the Lord takes time—and you don’t always know how long. It interferes with life, with how you do your work, with everything. And if you ignore them and don’t go to God with them—you can end up hurting yourself and other people a lot more with your unprocessed hurt.
- Everything takes a lot more time because relationships matter more. I was shocked when I switched from non-ethnic specific ministry to Asian American ministry—by how long my meetings went. I’ve never been great at cutting off a conversation. And I feel funny doing so, especially in a ministry role where it’s literally my vocation to care for people. But in non-ethnic specific settings—my meetings were 45 minutes, 1.5 hours maximum. There was a natural ending, or the other person would cut me off. In Asian American settings—my one-on-one meetings are often 3 hours long. Dinner out with white friends—2 hours max. Perhaps add an hour if you want to tag on dessert or coffee. Hanging out with white friends on a Saturday night—-you meet up at say 7 or 8pm and you call it a night around 11 or 12. If you are hanging out past then—you meet up later at like 9 or 10pm. Hanging out with Asian American friends on a Saturday—you meet up at 6 and then are together until 1 or 2. I suppose this is not a bad thing—since what matters most to God is relationship (with him and others). But it requires me to adjust.
- There are much higher expectations for everything. This is the reason some of my Asian American friends cite as the main difference between Chinese/Korean or Asian American churches and the non-ethnic specific (ie. white) ministry they go to at present. There are high expectationsof you to serve, to always provide snack, to clean up, to lead worship, to etc, etc. etc. The nice thing about this is that, well, if you need something and you’ve been around and serve—people will help you. But I’m just realizing that because of this, on purpose, I give off signals to expect little of me. This is not a good thing—I am just starting to understand how much it’s hurt me.
- Conversations are deeper. This is just my observation—it’s probably the least tested one—so please allow me to say it more tentatively. But conversations seem deeper to me. Perhaps it’s that you spend more time together. Perhaps you naturally have more in common, more common ground to click? But conversations seem deeper to me. This observation, as I said is the least tested (not that I’d put that much weight on the others)—-but allow me to mention 2 things. One of my best friends is Korean American, and he grew up in a mostly white Chicagoland. According to him, he says white people are much simpler. Simpler, in that there’s less complexity, not dumber—but that there’s less complexity. Their thoughts are just what they are—whereas, this is true of some Asian Americans so many more I can think of have very complicated thoughts. (Again, not tested). Second thing: after college, I spent a lot of time with white peers—they were the only people around. After a year or more in this new place, I was frustrated because I felt like I didn’t have 1 deep relationship. I was used to something deeper with all the Asian Americans I met in college. So one night, I hung out for what felt like an interminable time with 2 lovely white people under some taxidermy at a burger joint. In reality, it was 4 hours. It felt interminable to me because it felt like we talked about nothing. But I stuck it out, and asked them questions because I really wanted to have deeper friendships. And sure enough, the next day at work (they were work friends)—it was like I had become one of their closest friends. One of them confided in me that that was their deepest experience of conversation they had, and they now felt very close to me. I was shocked. Now—please don’t misunderstand me—I still treasure these people—-but at the time, what they thought of as “deep” and a “close friendship” was very different from what I thought.
- When I’m in dire straits, I feel more helped. When something bad has happened—a car accident, hospitalization, a death in the family—when I’m shocked and I need help, but I am so shocked that I don’t even know what help to ask for, Asian Americans anticipate my needs and provide for me. I remember when a close family member died—I drove down with 2 white friends to the hospital (one actually from the burger joint) and I was in utter shock, I didn’t know what to do. My white friends loved me and kept offering their services, asking how they could help—but really I didn’t even know what I needed. Many Asian American friends knew, however, without me ever needing to ask. The food kept coming, the phone calls, the bedding, the prayers—people stuck around and were present, which is what I needed. They were present, so when I did have something to ask for, I didn’t need to make a special phone call to ask—I could literally just turn my head and ask. I think my white friends wanted to help just as much—but I’d have to pick up the phone. I don’t know—maybe it was how I was raised, and what I was used to—but in dire straits, I feel more helped by Asian Americans.