What is an Asian American?

When I watched “Crazy Rich Asians,” I identified with the majority of the cultural elements portrayed. The movie not only raises awareness about Asian culture, but also about the ongoing enigma of the Asian American identity and experience. I’ll never forget a question that a professor posed in my Asian American Studies class at UC Davis, “What is an Asian American?” For that quarter we set out to answer that question. We read articles and textbooks like, Strangers from a Different Shore, and while we raised more and more questions and came to better appreciate the Asian American experience, we didn’t arrive at a definitive answer as to what is an Asian American.

I am Chinese American, the first in my family to be born in the United States. The story of my family’s migration began with my great-grandfather. He came to the US alone, worked in the States to send money home, and supported his family with the expectation that one day they would join him in the States. But he was separated from his family for decades because of the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Immigration Act of 1924.  It wasn’t until after the changing of the laws in the 1940s was he able to be reunited.  My parents grew up in Hong Kong and eventually migrated to America, dreaming of a better life for themselves, but perhaps more importantly to them, a better life for their future children.

Cantonese was my first language. When I started school, it seemed English gradually became my first language. My parents sent me to Saturday Chinese school in San Francisco’s Chinatown, in order to preserve Chinese culture and identity in me by studying the language. I learned to speak, write, read, and use a brush pen. However, Chinese Americans, who grew up with a structure that nurtures a Chinese identity and an environment that nurtures an American identity, experience a tension. My parents encouraged the value of assimilation – learn English, speak it well without an accent, absorb the American ways, and function well within the American system in order to be academically and vocationally successful. But, I must retain my Chinese identity, values, heritage, and ways. Part of the reason for retaining my Chinese identity was Chinese people have strong ethnic pride and the other was fealty towards my family. If I lose my Chinese ways and become too American, I risked losing my connection to my family, including my ancestors. So functionally, I was to assimilate into the American ways, but ethnically and in identity, I was to vigilantly preserve being Chinese.

Traditions were a big part of forging my Chinese identity, which created a cultural distinction between me and my American friends. My Chinese traditions made me aware that I was different from them. I ate the customary foods, like leaf-wrapped sticky rice and dough balls. I knew the symbolic importance of a sack of oranges, the number 8, and never giving a clock to someone on his/her birthday. I practiced the custom of removing my shoes before entering someone’s home and I expected others to do the same. I celebrated two New Years – American and Chinese. I didn’t wash my hair on Chinese New Year’s Eve to avoid having bad luck that year. I made offerings to my ancestors twice per year at the cemetery. I celebrated the New Moon Festival with moon cakes. While I also observed American traditions, like 4th of July BBQs and fireworks to celebrate America’s independence and freedom, Columbus Day, Thanksgiving, and Valentine’s Day, I simultaneously observed Chinese traditions on an equally robust level. There’s nothing like traditions and customs to shape one’s ethnic identity. It’s how we connect with our heritage and nationality. But I was growing up with two streams of cultural traditions at the same time.

I assimilated the American form of individualism, personal rights, and freedom. I also was acculturated in the Chinese views of family honor, individual identity being grounded in family, and the importance of ancestry. I was brought up with the American values of creativity, out-of-the-box thinking, having a voice, and chasing my dreams. I was also brought up with the Chinese values of complying to a system, keeping quiet and working hard, restricting myself to considering certain types of occupations as worthwhile, and regarding the importance of my parents’ dreams for my life.

One could say this is “great,” because I get the richness of two worlds. Yes, that is true, but it also forged in me a duality. For me, it wasn’t like one set of traditions came before another or that one took precedence over the other. Both were imparted to me at the same time and held concurrent primacy in my life. Both formed who I was culturally. I was neither only Chinese nor only American. I was a hybrid – a Chinese American.

I was able to look at each of my cultural identities as one looking in from the outside. I could look at my Chinese culture and comment about it as an American and I could look at my American culture and comment about it as a Chinese. Jokes were a common practice. My friends and I poked fun at Chinese values and vice-versa. Humor was a way for us to deal with the confusing experiences. If I were solely one or the other, I don’t think I would’ve questioned my own culture as readily because it would be like a fish-in-water situation. But because both cultures were part of my identity, I held an outside perspective towards each one while also remaining inside both.

Growing up, I experienced racism from both ends. American people told me to go back to China. They did the typical things of pushing up the ends of their eyes to make them squint upwards and making mocking “Chinese” like sounds at me. Chinese people scolded me, saying, “What is wrong with you? Aren’t you Chinese?” and treated me as a traitor or a degenerate form of Chinese. In practicality, I couldn’t claim a side, except the side that I saw many of my friends and I were forming. It was a new “side,” called Chinese American, which still no one really knew exactly what that meant. Everyone just knew that we weren’t one or the other. We were something else.

Eventually, as I grew up, both cultures in me continued to mature because I embraced both. My Cantonese is fluent and without an accent. A Chinese person who met me through speaking Cantonese always assumed that I was from Hong Kong. An American person who met me through speaking English assumed I was born in the States. I cook mostly Chinese cuisines but I can also cook great American meals.

I’m not judging my experience or identity as being bad or negative. It’s a complex cultural dynamic that still has questions. But like the stories I read in my Asian American Studies class, a film like “Crazy Rich Asians” helps to us to explore who we are by telling a story that looks in depth at the cultural factors and complexities.

The next question is how Asian Americans will raise their children. This is an interesting question for me, especially since my beautiful son is half Mexican, quarter Puerto Rican, and quarter German! Our world is quickly moving to a place where using standard cultural categories to define people will not suffice. Beautiful mixes of people are emerging. As cultural groups spawn, develop, shift, or transform, we are required evermore to have a good, listening ear to understand who people are and where they come from. We need to exercise a higher level of respect for others in order to not superficially judge them and to appreciate their rich cultural complexity.

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Heroism is Rising Above Mediocrity

As many of us are excitedly anticipating the upcoming sequel to The Incredibles, I think of a line from the first movie that easily stuck to audiences.

Bob: They keep creating new ways to celebrate mediocrity.

Bob was never satisfied with living a status quo life with a solid paying job in a suburb. Comfort was his plague. Living in mediocrity was a disease and nothing to be celebrated over. Doing something great, brilliant, and superb that resulted in helping others was the definition of heroism. But the drive to do something super – be super – led him to listening to police scanners to bust up a crime instead of going bowling. Being super means never remaining in the comforts of mediocrity. The problem is mediocrity tends to feel so nice and rising above it is a sacrifice.

A quote from Jim Collins’ Built to Last also stuck with me and I think resonates with Bob, “Staying in the comfort zone does little to stimulate progress.” Progress doesn’t come from comfort. It comes from being uncomfortable, unsettled, and non-complacent. The world didn’t advance from comfort. Human flourishing doesn’t come from a satisfaction with mediocrity. Forward movement and amazing betterment of human civilization comes from those who dream, fantasize, and imagine and from those same individuals who step out to pursue the fantastic. Progress comes from those who dare to change what is wrong, but even more so from those who dare to change what is not wrong. True heroism requires risk, the risk of losing the comfort of mediocrity.

I believe the heroic mentality is how artists tend to think. Artists try to rise above mediocrity, creating wasn’t hasn’t been created before, offering a new perspective, challenging conventions, inspiring audiences to greater heights than could’ve been expected, and communicating vital messages that are difficult to receive.

I think within the spectrum of our current reality between the 20-something school shootings to the way we daily drive and interact with strangers, our world needs more heroes. We need more people who will adopt the mindset of rising above mediocrity, which means a genuine willingness to sacrifice the comfort of conventionality. We need more people who are willing to be not mediocre about love, mercy, kindness, justice, righteousness, truth, and morality. We need people who will be super in these areas. Be radical with love. Be bold with kindness. Be appalling with justice and righteousness. Be inspiring with morality and mercy. Be robust with truth. In so doing, we will stimulate progress – not the progress of science and technology but of humanity. Rise above mediocrity.

Adoptive Dad 26: Step Towards Independence but Not Aloneness

Last night on Nov 13 was a big step for my 4-year-old boy. He slept by himself in his own bed, in his own room for the very first time. This morning when I saw him, I asked him, “Did you sleep in your own bed last night?” He beamed with a big smile and was so proud of himself, raising his hands in the air to celebrate and saying, “Yes, I did! Yayee! And I wasn’t lonely!” I gave him a high-ten and told him I was so proud of him. It was such a huge step for him in his process of growing up. I know there are a lot of various theories about co-sleeping, whether should or should not and until what age. Having our son sleep in our bed was a judgment call we made because sleeping in company for him helped him to rest much more than if he were by himself. And repeated good night’s rests were essential to the healing of his body.

Leading up to this significant night were many conversations about how sleeping in your own bed and in your own room was part of growing up, that there was nothing to be afraid of and his bed and room were especially for him. There were several attempts by him to sleep on his own but they were not fulfilled. He found himself back in our bed. We didn’t forced or pressure him. We gave him the choice if he wanted to sleep that night in our bed he could or if he wanted to try sleeping in his own bed he could. My wife would read to him his night time story, say his nightly prayers with him and sleep in his bed with him until he fell asleep.  But many times, he would get up and come back to our bed. We knew he would do it when he was ready for it. We talked it over with him many times before he finally did it. But as we were coaching him, he asked a question that stumped me: “So growing up means being alone?” “Well, no, that’s not it,” I said, fumbling over my words because I knew what the physical action of no longer sleeping with mommy and daddy as a family symbolically looked like – what sleeping in his own bed alone looked like. Of course this made me think about the importance of growing up as an individual and progressively developing one’s independence as not equating to being alone. And yet, I’ve wondered how much our culture promotes that exact message, that our highly valued form of individualism actually creates more aloneness.   And, what would it essentially mean to communicate to a child that you’re growing up into your own person which means some separation from mom and dad as life progresses and yet you’re never really alone or detached from mom and dad on a meaningful, practical level? I said to him that, “You’re not alone. Mommy and Daddy are always here for you.” Those are the words. But as something physical has been removed from him (a physical thing that meant a lot to him in these early years of his life), I feel the importance of emphasizing something else that’s physical, tangible that conveys to him that he is not alone – that familial community is still essentially a part of his life and to the development of his identity. I want to convey to him in a felt way that increasing levels of independence and individualism doesn’t mean finding yourself in a vacuum. I believe a strong, loving and healthy family (as healthy as any family can actually be) and being deeply connected to that family is insurmountably vital to a person, especially to a young soul that’s growing up.  I don’t want him to think that independence means aloneness.  The two don’t have to be equated.

Well, you may think that perhaps him sleeping in his own bed for the first time is more of a significant step for me than it is for him!  Yeah, it is.

Pride and Desire

A lot happened while I was on my family vacation in England, including the Weinstein scandal that sparked a worldwide reaction. I was watching British news stations report morning after morning about Weinstein. As I tried to understand how a man could carry on such acts, a truth was apparent to me. What I found incredible as testimonies surfaced and the story unfolded was how a person with illicit desires can see himself with the means and right to fulfill those desires because of his position and perception of power. Arrogant pride and wrongful desire is a toxic combination with destructive effects. Arrogant pride is seeing yourself as having the greatest authority and breeds a I-can-do-whatever-I-want mentality because I am that great. Wrongful desire is seeing what you want is the highest justification for obtaining something even if what you want is morally wrong. Both aspects center on self – I want it even if it’s wrong and I have the power to get it. I believe we saw this possible corrupt mindset in Weinstein, a successful producer who had the leverage to make or break people’s careers/dreams and a man with strong, sexual desires for many women.

But when I think about this and evaluate the nature of people, I also wonder how many people’s true natures would surface if they were given power. Power can reveal a lot about a person. Many people may not be found guilty of wrongs because they don’t have the power to act on what they want. What would we do if we were given power? What kind of character would emerge? Would we live according to a higher principle greater than ourselves, or would our desires be our greatest standard? I know there are many who have power and act justly and righteously, so I’m not saying that every person with power turns evil. I am saying that it is a self-evaluation worth considering – what kind of a person would emerge if you were given power? The classic hubris of I’m-not-like-him is a dangerous one, one in which I caution myself against. It is a hubris that allows us to be judgmental of others while excusing ourselves from critical self-evaluation.

Where one does not have the power of status, one can still appreciate the power of voice, especially a collective voice. Voice generates visibility. Certain ills only have genuine power in secrecy, hidden in the shadows from public knowledge or judgment. Things kept in secrecy can elude accountability. But when wrongs and injustices are brought into the light, they become disempowered on many crucial levels. Leverage and control are dissolved because they are susceptible to public scrutiny. Accountability is established. A Bible passage comes to mind. “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light.” (Ephesians 5:11-14a). What courage many have shown to arise out of places of shame, embarrassment and fear to expose wrongs that primarily found its power in secrecy.

Much restoration of our world requires bringing things into the light. If this is so, then this is about truth – objective truth. Relativity cannot survive under the notion of bringing things into the light for accountability. This is not a mere matter of perspective but a matter of whether something happened or not; it is yes or no; it is true or false; it is either right or wrong regardless of anyone’s personal, subjective opinion. Accountability has no real existence in relativity. Accountability only means something when there is a perception of objectivity, such as recognizing that sexual assault is objectively, morally wrong. Truth is not a relative, social convention that is allowed to vary from one society to the next. Without objective truth, it is difficult and meaningless to call social injustices morally wrong. Sexual assault, harassment and exploitation are objectively wrong, because there are objective truths about human beings. There is a law that exists that applies to all people. It is a law that transcends personal preference. If I am sexually assaulted, it is not a relative matter of my personal preference to not be treated that way. A law that applies objectively to all human beings is violated, making that violation to be both a personal offense and a transgression against a higher, universal law. This is why bringing ills into the light is necessary and powerful.

Why We Need Beauty: Ideal

Beauty has value because people will pay for it, and yet beauty in our culture is generally perceived to be superficial and insignificant. Within this oxymoron, we’ve seen how beauty evokes substantial responses from people with the attention people give to beauty, the esteem people attach to it, and the price people pay for it. There seems to be a contradiction in claiming beauty to be superficial with the kinds of responses our society gives toward it. Perhaps our responses toward superficial beauty are really symbolic of us grasping for a substantial beauty we sincerely long for. Beauty is an essential quality of reality the human soul needs. Without beauty, the soul dissolves into despair.

Can you imagine a world without beauty? There are places that have been ravaged and abandoned, characterized by devastation, destitution, and pollution. There are conditions of lives where very little beauty is seen because of the atrocities rendered on people. The absence of beauty on a substantial level is real in some parts of the world and in some people’s lives. But imagine beauty infiltrating such places and people, from the beauty of smiles on faces and songs sung in communities to the beauty of art, architecture and arboretums. How would beauty affect societies and souls? I’ve seen how painting three large murals at a low-income, inner-city school enlivens the spirits of the children who attend it. I’ve seen how brand, new textbooks touch children’s hearts. Beauty nurtures the human soul.

One reason for why we need beauty is it expresses an ideal – an ideal hair, skin tone, voice, life, artwork, or character quality. In some cases, sociologically, the perceived ideal can be oppressive, making people feel as though they live in substandard means and need to be like others with more money, wealth, power, and fame. Aside from socially twisted standards that belittle people, ideals can convey noble tenets under a healthy definition of beauty, giving people a vision of something truly great to look towards and strive for. The ideal portrays perfection and pulls people out of complacency and stimulates change. The ideal stirs in people an appetite to be more than what they are presently, to recognize flaws and ugliness that should be recognized and to grasp for greater wholeness. While we hold in the one hand a healthy acceptance of ourselves, meaning we exercise self-forgiveness, self-love and not self-flagellation for not meeting a standard, we also maintain a proper view of the ideal that sets us in motion to better our lives, better ourselves, and better our world. Acceptance alone is flawed if it is a settling for brokenness that should be healed and transcended. The ideal calls for change to the good.

I know it may seem fleeting, because can the ideal ever be attained? Theologically, on this side of heaven, the answer is no. But we’d be moving in the right direction, rather than the wrong direction or no direction at all. We’d be on God’s redemptive, re-creative plan to fulfill his vision of beauty for the world. If we make progress towards the perfect although never arriving, we will still be better than we were before. In the absence of beauty and a view of the ideal, there would be no appetite, no striving, and no movement.

However, considering the ideal brings us back to the question of definition. A person’s definition of beauty defines the ideal in that person’s eyes. Most accept the implied definition of beauty formed by ever-changing currents of commercialism and consumerism. Commercialism and consumerism is influenced by the masses and largely steered by those in power. Those who have more means, resources, social status, and access to prominent figures have also greater ability to influence people’s perception of what is beautiful. Our definition of beauty defines our ideal, which influences what we have an appetite for and determines the direction we move in. But what if beauty, and the ideal, were not socially constructed?

What is objectively real began in creation when God conceived it and manifested it. In creation, God intentionally created the universe to contain beauty, as we can see from His repeated declaration of “it was good” in Genesis 1. So, beauty and an ideal was formulated from the mind of God to be an actual part of our reality. God’s creation and definition of beauty stems from his own character and nature. Everything he created is in harmony with who he is. The universe is ordered because God is ordered and not chaotic. The universe is whole because God is harmonious and complete in his character and nature. The universe is a sensible place, where 2+2 always equals 4, because God is a being of reason. The universe is largely a good, loving, and just place, because God is good, loving and just. The Fall has thrown some of these aspects off balance, but we can still see the universe as largely being good. In fact, the effects of the Fall prods us to strive for beauty because we know that this is not the way things are supposed to be. The world God made is still lovely but we are also far from the ideal. Beauty reminds us that we cannot stay where we are. Since an objective definition of beauty and the ideal is based in God, the journey of discovering beauty is discovering the wonder of God. The quest in becoming more beautiful is a quest in becoming more like God. The appetite for beauty then is a holy appetite, a genuine yearning of our souls. As we wade through various social perceptions of beauty, the ideal beauty we strive for is God’s intended beauty for people and the world.

Human Dignity is Core to Our Humanity

Respect – why is it a necessary social value and what does it have to do with creativity? We especially recognize how essential respect is when someone treats us disrespectfully. Consider how fundamental respect is. Someone can’t say he/she loves you and yet treats you disrespectfully. While love and respect are not the same things, respect qualifies the authenticity of love. Can you imagine someone telling you he/she loves you but belittles or demeans you, making you feel like you are not worth much? Disrespect makes love suspect. On the other hand, you can still respect someone you don’t love or like. You can rightly say, “I don’t like you, but I respect you.” Opponents can disagree and dislike each other but still respect each other. This illustrates respect is a core social value. Respect is a core value because it is rooted in a core property of our humanness – dignity.

Humans were designed to have inherent dignity as image-bearers. In the practice of making things, made-objects will by the least bear the skills of its maker. On another level, made-objects will bear the thoughts, ideas, and visions of its maker to varying degrees. On the most personal level, if an object is made to be a direct reflection of its maker, like a self-portrait, it bears a unique honor by possessing characteristics of the maker and representing the personhood of the maker. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). God chose humans to be his self-representation. Using himself as the model and paradigm for our design, he poured himself into humans to bear resemblances of his attributes, being a representation of his character and glory. Our dignity is connected to the personhood of God. People weren’t just made with skill and vision. People were made in the image of God. We, therefore, have an image-based dignity, not a dignity based on merits, credits or societal comments. Image-based dignity is grounded not on our achievements but in God himself. That makes our human dignity sacred, and it should not be violated. Since our human dignity is founded in our design, our dignity is inherent. We are born with dignity. Human dignity should be assumed in every person, from the chief operating officer to the homeless person. A person passing me on the street does not have to earn a base level of respect from me. A person deserves my respect simply for being human, because we are both image-bearers of God. Respect is a core social value because our human dignity is inherent.

Who likes being disrespected? When we’re disrespected, we sense a property that is true and precious in the core of our being has been denied. Extreme disrespect becomes more clearly an act of dehumanization. To see my human dignity as something less than yours is to make me sub-human. To deny my dignity is to deny my humanity. Racism denies human dignity. Slavery denies human dignity. Abuse denies human dignity. These injustices attack our image-based dignity, attacking the image of God we possess. Human dignity is a reason for social justice.

On the positive side, when respect, honor, praise, courtesy, and regard are given to one another, we edify each other’s beauty, worth and importance. A wonder of our humanity is in God’s original creativity we were forged in his image to bear dignity.

To dig deeper into the theme of “Human Dignity,” visit Creativity Catalyst at http://www.creativitycatalyst.la

This is Day ONE (2017)

This is Day One, the first step onto a new course, the first page of a new chapter. Beginnings allow us to have closure with the former and breathe in the freshness of starting again. The first step bears such weight that it ought to be matched with an artful approach of both confident excitement and reverent trepidation. Without the first step, a course does not happen. Day One sets a course in motion. A new beginning tells us that things don’t have to be as they once were, that positive change and new productivity can be pursued. It is a moment for empowerment to say, “I can move forward from the former mistakes and mishaps of the previous chapter and enter into a new era of development and opportunities.” A new beginning is also the marker of continuation, because it tells us that the end has not yet come, and, therefore, we must not give up or lose hope, because there’s still more of life to be lived. We need to richly harvest the lessons of our mistakes and mishaps of the past to fill our vat of wisdom in order to not reinvent the same chapter we had just lived. We must propel ourselves from Day One with fierce intentionality, clear and open eyes, and focused resolve to vigorously begin a new course. But we also should feel the gravity of this first step and embrace it with healthy fear and trepidation, for out of this fear burgeons a respect for the course. Like experiencing the wonder and warmth of a blazing fire, a healthy fear teaches us to respect something so grand. Like a hiker standing at the trailhead of a journey into the mountains, we need both a certitude that we will conquer this mountain and a deep reverence for the mountain, or else we will not be ready to meet it. Without a healthy fear for the grandness of the path before us, we run the risk of underestimating what the journey will require of us, repeating former flaws without change that comes with decisive effort, and trivializing the course with a mundane attitude as though this will be just another year. Excitement and confidence coupled with humbleness and respect for what’s ahead is how we should stand on Day One as we push forward from this step into a new adventure. Let us trek this year with fervency to know the triumph of productivity, progress, and development. Let us seek the greater glory that is more than what’s about ourselves. Let us create more goodness in the world and re-create more beauty out of brokenness with insight and care. Let depression not consume us. Let despair not overtake us. Through the highest heights and lowest points, let us know greatly the reality of promise. Even if we traverse through the darkest valleys, let us be led by the light of hope. Let us listen better to God, who woos us daily and speaks tenderly to us in the depths of our souls where nobody hears. Let us think more intelligently, love more sacrificially, accept love more humbly, care more genuinely, heal more bravely, and wonder more child-likely. I have a feeling this course will be a brilliant one, full of drama no doubt but also beauty and wonder await to be uncovered. Here we stand on Day One.