Silent Politics from My Chinese American Church

CW: eating disorders, depression, mention of anti-Blackness, Islamophobia, and homophobia

This essay is written from my personal but limited experience and subsequent understanding of my Chinese American and Chinese Christian American communities. It will at some points make accusations and demand action. It does not seek to necessarily speak on other Chinese, Chinese American, East Asian, or East Asian American religious or non-religious communities. If there are similarities, however, perhaps there is more to think about than we thought.

I want to acknowledge first the crushing and terrifying parts of my perceived Chinese American identity. I want to tell myself that it’s okay to be and become, discover, turn over, revel, celebrate, and mourn who we are. That it’s okay to acknowledge that in this Chinese American community, mental and emotional health are propped on hot tongs and burned for the sake of achievement. I spent eight years of my life cramped between anorexia, bulimia, and orthorexia, untreated and unknown to most of the people closest to me, including my parents, my sister, the people I dated, and my friends. I want to tell myself that it’s okay to acknowledge that our women are often eroticized, men dehumanized, anything but gender binaries ignored, LGBTQA+ identities cruelly and cowardly rejected. It’s okay to be sick when people ask ignorant and racist questions, like where are we from, or from from, or to go back there. It’s okay to remember yellow peril, the Chinese Exclusion Act, complicated and painful national histories, the impossibility of naturalization, and our own parents’ and grandparents’ immigration narratives. We can fully respect that our ancestors came to this country poor, sometimes illiterate in English, and worked their way from warehouses to offices so that their children would have brighter futures. Yes, for many of us, we have worked hard on ourselves.  Yes, for many of us, it has been to our own expense, so that we are immobilized, laying on the carpet, staring at the ceiling, writhing in pain inside and out, because of a mold we thought was ours: Chinese American identity.

But we can’t look at this list of grievances while ignoring the oppression of other people of color. We are and were oppressed, but more than ever, we are also oppressors. We, my little upper middle class suburb of Chinese Americans and Chinese American Christians, oppress other Asians, especially South, Southeast, and Central Asians. We oppress Brown people. We oppress Black people. We can’t feel sorry for our dating lives without understanding how it dominantly conforms to a binary, cis, white, anti-black privileged schema. This Chinese American community can’t claim our skin color, “yellow”, as a symbol for Asian American or pan-Asian identity, without seeing that it erases any Asian who does not identify with it, that “yellow” is not the same struggle, solidarity, or resistance as “brown” and “black”.

This community created and perpetuates a toxic minority model that imagines ourselves as academically and economically more deserving of our grades and salaries because we have studied and worked harder to earn them. We have continued to representationally project this model on all other Asian Americans, who do not have the same visibility to counter this image. This is the same toxic minority model that elevates our stereotyped image above other POC in Black and Latinx communities. It allows us to see other POC as more “involved in sports”, lazier, more delinquent, more dangerous, just because of our more successful image. This community’s sniveling at our own members’ “failures”, disdain for community college, disgust for pre-marital sex, and dismissal of mental illness, reinforces an even stronger disdain, disgust, and dismissal for other POC who cannot access the same resources and privileges and who therefore also “fail to perform” in our eyes. It accentuates the demonizing of anyone who cannot pay for private universities, who experiences teenage pregnancy, or who must take a leave of absence to overcome their own traumas.  This community’s demand that our leisure is spent in expensive sports, arts, and extracurricular training reinforces the “less well-rounded”,  “less talented”, and “less self-motivated” image of other POC who cannot afford or who are otherwise socially rejected from these same spaces in their leisure. It holds these POC responsible for not doing the same work while barring them from doing it in the first place. It simplifies the issue of class and race to simply that some races are poorer and that some are richer, when in fact the two are deeply intersected and pressed by the wealthier.

The most striking quality of our oppression of others, to me, is that it is silent. We occupy few major entertainment stages, political seats, and governing bodies. This Chinese American voice is quiet, does not discuss controversial topics, and does not criticize the structures and institutions that supports it. In a sense, we shut up, stay out of trouble, and climb the ladder. This is how we can manage to place that ladder on the heads and shoulders of other POC, dig fiercely into their skin, and arrive at the top feeling very good about that difficult journey. We silently accept and grab for our privilege under the guise of self-protection, cultural preservation, happiness for our futures and our families. But actually, we have ignorantly elevated ourselves, blindly anti-Black, anti-Brown, so that appropriating Black hip-hop, protesting affirmative action, and moving closer to whiteness became more normalized, more acceptable, and more praised. We have made occupying positions of economic and social wealth, while using the labor of black and brown folk, an achievement, not a monstrosity. This is how we oppress POC.

My experience with the degradation of other POC reminds me of the Chinese Christian church that I used to attend before college. I hated church. It was constantly alienating, exclusive, and self-important. But I wanted to go – I needed to go, because my Chinese American community understood and created parts of itself through that space. It made me feel like shit, but the people who looked and acted like me were happy there. But why? It took me five years to understand. The church and youth worship culture that I experienced worked perfectly with the Chinese American privilege to disengage with politics at will. Neither our religious nor ethnic identity loses when “God has control” over the circumstances of the poorer world around us that we do not want to claim.

Church, I saw, allows people to fall back on excuses of divinity instead of taking responsibility. It allows communities to form and feel good because they’re working for a “good” and “eternal” cause while not performing useful actions in the present world. It allows them to take pictures with black and brown children, “exorcise” and “purify” the homeless, and “disciple broken people” while all of their missions are funded by their trade firm and banking salaries, so that this one-weekend “God’s calling” overseas simultaneously rests on the people they have systematically exploited at home, in their own communities. It allows them to see black and brown people as lesser and poorer unless they turn to Jesus Christ. It allows them to speak to Muslims in an emotionally violent way, as if the space they occupy was dirtier and part of “Satan’s work”. For them, Christians can pray for Muslims, but Muslims should never pray over Christians, because one prays by the Holy Spirit and one prays by “demons”. It allows hatred and conversion therapy, under the deceiving request, “May I pray for you?”

As for me, my eating disorders and depression were attributed to sin. When I felt my body clench in sweat, poison rushing up and down my throat and stomach, I could see the pastor smiling at the podium, talking about looking past our suffering. After I tried dry heaving in the toilet, I sat down with my small group leader and read Isaiah, and then she prayed for me. I confessed how guilty I felt at one retreat; then two people prayed for me. I almost OD’d twice afterwards. To this day, attending church is highly triggering. No one has tried to understand. You only tried to fix me until I was your crooked version of a Christian. I can’t imagine how you would pray if I wasn’t your relatable, female-presenting, top 10 Chinese student. 

This is violence and oppression that I see a community performing so that they don’t have to be critical about their privilege. This is no different than the conquistadors who slaughtered Native Americans and erected cathedrals on top of their bodies. This is no different from the policing of black and brown people for the sake of “public trust” and “self-defense”. This is no different from the deportation of undocumented immigrants “to promote homeland security and public safety.” All of these oppressors serve a state; one is the bullshit American allegiance, one is the bullshit honor of God. The conquest of “the Kingdom” has been co-opted into imperialism at its worst. And oh, it’s so subtle, slipped between clauses like “freedom of religion”. It is just like our Chinese American silence, quietly, silently, oppressing.

The thing is, I liked Christianity. I liked the Lord’s prayer because it asks God to reveal a “straight path” while giving us the responsibility to take it. I liked that we were confronted with free will, despite God’s sovereignty, so that we must still create ourselves. The strength that I wanted from God wasn’t physical or emotional strength; it was only the spiritual knowledge that we were created as free agents with a pass to Heaven. I thought it was noble to ask believers to then autonomously take this pass and turn it into physical and emotional power, so that they can serve the people and communities that they care about. I thought the concept of God was beautiful because it forced people to care about people. It didn’t matter why there was suffering in the first place – it matters that it was here and that we could fight it. Even if we understood why evil and suffering exist as abstract concepts in the first place, Christianity still asked us to devote ourselves to working against it. We didn’t need Christianity to have this obligation, but it could have been used as a lens and a big, long metaphor, to help understand it. This is how I understood Christianity – a hope controlled by its people.

I left church because I saw this control turn into power, then a granted privilege, which was used to perform self-important, savior-inspired ableist, anti-queer, anti-black sermons, seminars, and prayers. It attributes mental and behavioral illness to sinful nature. It uses a pursuit for harmony, peace, and the “glory of God” as an excuse to be “color blind”. It attributes racial prejudice to a lack of biblical foundations in already segregated churches. It attributes any progress society makes to “God”, while ignoring and devaluing the labor that writers, artists, performers, and activists of color have done, the stories they have exposed, and the trauma that they have relived. It turns a manual about humanity into a manual about just sex and power.

My church, my community. I did my work. I went to Chinese school, read all the folk tales, and memorized the classic poems. I absorbed all the history I could, researched and wrote about the Cultural Revolution, and translated interviews about gentrification in Chinatowns. I spent 18 years among my almost exclusively Chinese American friend-circle in a mad grab for the next accomplishment, the next drama, the next failure to do so, to gossip about. I’ve read your books, from both testaments of the Bible to Billy Graham to Rick Warren, from The Case for Christ to The Orientation of Love. I’ve listened to your sermons, from Francis Chan to our own several pastors to UIUC’s Covenant Fellowship Church archives. I’ve debated with pastors for hours, interrogated the apologetics, understood the science and pop science. I sat in small group for years and annotated devotionals. I’ve been prayed over in tongues and watched my grandmother shake and faint from miracles. I fucking learned Arabic and Hebrew, hoping to catch a glimpse of where this all went wrong. I did all of this work, performed this emotional labor, prayed and sang through tears, because I wanted to love you. But I’ve realized that I don’t want your love back unless you can support it with the same real work.

Asian/Pacific Youth Conference poster, Chinese American Museum, Los Angeles

Resources:
Resources for non-Black Asians on Anti-Blackness, crowd-sourced links and articles

APAA at Cornell (Asian Pacific American for Action) Facebook page
Letters for Black Lives, translation project for relevant literature
Chinatowns Across the Country Face Off with Gentrification on NPR

Stories:
Breathin’: The Eddy Zheng Story on America ReFramed

American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs, a documentary

Thank you to all of the people who read and commented on this before it was published here, including the Sad & Asian Facebook group, my sister, Ellynna, Steph, Chelly, Edy, and Omar.

Later note:
This piece received a lot of support but also fair criticism that it doesn’t adequately acknowledge how these communities did a lot of good for us. I want briefly add a word about that here:

This piece wasn’t meant to be self-hating. I’m proud of many of “my people”, well-versed in what I think is the best cuisine in the world, and pseudo-fluent in one of the hardest languages to learn. I’m grateful to my parents who were tirelessly caring, materially providing, and invested in me more than I was in myself at times. I respect the culture of loud potlucks and the spirit of brute forcing through problems. Uncles, aunties, moms, and dads might have been emotionally distant, but they gave weird compliments and performed acts of service to show their love. It was foreign and often miscommunicated to us, but it was still love. Immigration was love. Food was love. Education was love. If I was ever a mom, I would want to be like my mom in many, many ways.

These are good things, and for some of us, these made us better people than we would have been.  It’s just that we cannot hide behind the good things anymore. The kindness we receive has more implications. “Culture” is still informed by oppressive structures around us. We can’t ignore that. It isn’t the first generation’s fault (or at least its not useful to try changing those politics), but it sure as hell is ours if we don’t see it.

 

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4 thoughts on “Silent Politics from My Chinese American Church”

  1. I once felt like I missed out on not being part of that Chinese American circle growing up in that town…

    …now I’m not so sure.

    Like

  2. Hi there – thanks for the read. I get this toxicity, and I feel your pain.

    As a queer API person who didn’t grow up in the church but became a Christian later in life, I’d like to extend an invitation to you to a Facebook group of progressive Asian (American) Christians. It’s been a therapeutic place for lots of folks who’ve found their way there. If you’re not interested, no need to reply at all.

    Like

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