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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Philosophy of Bruce Lee & Yoda

What do Bruce Lee and Yoda have in common where they speak truth into life?  They are two of my favorite celebrities.  Both martial artists.  Both philosophers.  Both hold the same understanding of the difference between well intentions and actualization.  Many of have a number of well intentions, but well intentions alone do not create real changes or events until they are actualized.

Bruce Lee said, “Knowing is not enough, we must apply.  Willing is not enough, we must do.”  Yoda said, “Do or do not; there is no try.”  Knowing, willingness and trying are great starting points for action, but by themselves are not the same as actual happenings or events.  They do not by themselves change circumstances or tangibly contribute to progress until they are applied and acted upon in a definitive way that creates real changes in the conditions of our selves, lives and society.  It is like the difference between potential and realization.  Our society’s extreme emphasis on the psychological optimism of potentials downplays the need for realization of those potentials.  Potentials don’t create real changes.  Realization of those potentials do.  Potentials are simply the possibility of something happening.  Realization requires the commitment, consistency, perseverance, focus and decisive determination to make something actually happen.  Otherwise, potentials that are never exercised or applied never materialize into something tangible nor have any real effect.

Many of us, especially those of us who are artists in this town of Hollywood, have ideas, intentions and dreams.  Where the rubber meets the road, where the child’s play is separated from the adult work, is where those who mature those intentions into actualization.  This principle is true with our dream careers, habits we’re trying to break, relationships we’re trying to mend, health needs we want to meet, and the discipleship we intend to walk.  There’s a vast difference between being just a dreamer and being a creator.  Saying to yourself I really want to do that, I dream of that, or I’ll start that tomorrow doesn’t produce any real effects.

So what is your obstacle?  Mentally, emotionally, circumstantially, physically?  Maybe today is the day that you take the first tangible step to kick that habit, heal from that old wound, practically love that person like you’re meaning to, reconcile that relationship, start that diet, paint the first layer of that painting, write the first paragraph for that story, read the first page of that dusty book, develop the first bar of that song, address that question of life, or take that first step of discipleship in Jesus.  Enough of the mere I know, I want to, and I’m trying to; and let’s apply the decisiveness, belief, commitment, determination, fortitude and perseverance to make it happen.  When we do the good we know to do, we’re not only better for it.  Our world is better for it because we’ve created some tangible measure of good that has a real effect.

Hugo: There Are No Extra Parts

I was pleasantly surprised by the deep philosophy of the Academy Award winning film “Hugo,” which directly applied to life!  It’s a kid’s story after all.  The story addresses the question of how does one deal with the harsh reality of loss and suffering, particularly for a young orphan.  What is a young boy living secretly in a clock tower of a train station with no family or loved ones supposed to do?  When a loved one dies at a premature age, what are you to do?

Hugo’s background as the son of a watchmaker (a trade of his father who apprenticed him) formed his worldview.  His worldview helped him to make sense of a tragic world.  Hugo’s father taught him that the world was like a large machine, perhaps like a watch, where all its parts had a purpose and no parts were extra or useless.  Hugo’s understanding of the world and life reflected the Watchmaker Theory of the 18th century philosopher William Paley.  The Watchmaker Theory explained the world was like a watch or an organism with various purposeful parts, interlocked and inter-worked together as a system to make up the greater whole – all the parts contributed to a greater function.  This conglomeration of purposeful parts reflects design.  The presence of design in the universe means there is a Designer.  That is, according to Paley, if you saw a watch and how all its parts were intelligently arranged to serve an overall function, you assume there was a watchmaker who made the watch.  You would not assume the watch happened by chance.  If the world is as Hugo viewed it, a world of design with purposeful parts, then there must be a Grand Designer.

Tragedy and pain can make life feel random.  It’s these troubling times that often cause us to ask “WHY?”  Because we are by nature purposeful beings, we look for purpose.  Why?  Because purpose communicates order.  We strive for order in our daily lives from how we dress ourselves to how we structure our day’s activities to how we plan our lives.  We are people who are wired for design.  But when sudden tragedy hits and deep, unexpected pain strikes, we feel as though life is not in order because pain feels destructive.  We feel chaos.  So we search for purpose in order to find order.  Hugo’s view reinforces the perspective that God does exist if we do assume the world is made by design.  And we may not be able to answer the question of why certain tragedies happen to us.  But like Hugo, we can find a measure of healing through discovering our purpose as a meaningful part in the grand design of this world.  Hugo found his purpose in being a redemptive agent to an elderly man who lived in a state of tragedy from lost dreams.

There is a difference between merely accepting tragedy, which would be the only thing you could do if you believed the world exists in randomness (and in an absurd reality), and seeking redemption in the midst of tragedy because you believe the world and its parts purposefully exist (and a Designer exists).  Hugo’s robust worldview of intelligent design not only formed the basis of his beliefs about the world but also was the framework for him to find healing and redemption as a part in a purposeful world.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close: Finding the Story that Makes Sense of Our Losses

“What’s your story?”  That was the only question a boy who lost his father in the 911 attack could ask in order to make sense of his father’s tragic death.

What is the sense of flying an airplane into a building to kill thousands of innocent lives?  What is the sense of such brutal hatred?  How would a young boy deal with the death of his beloved father who did nothing wrong to anyone?  Difficult times of loss force us to ask the sometimes dreaded question of why, because if we knew why it would offer us some measure of healing.  People are good at doing life, living out the Monday through Friday, making the money, buying the toys, and drudging through the mundane until something far from mundane happens that shocks our world.  Sudden, tragic losses always shake the orderliness and sensibility of our worlds.  In those times, we stop just doing and ask the crucial question of why.  And honestly, the direct, expository answer that explains reasonably why we went through something isn’t available to us (at least not now).  But we can find meaning to experiences, events and even regrettable choices within our overall story.

I think we look for stories in our lives and in the lives of others not just because they are nice sentiments, but because we find purpose through them.  Stories have a beginning, middle and end.  Stories go somewhere.  They string together the pieces of events in our lives and make sense of what may otherwise strike us as randomness.  The stories provide the overall arch to the happenings we experience.  The sense that there is a story helps us to understand that our successes and tragedies are not meaningless.  A story even gives us a sense that perhaps maybe someone is in control, that in the back of our minds and in the recesses of our souls, whether we subscribe to certain doctrines or not, we want to believe there is an Author.  Something inside of us tells us there must be one.

For this young boy in the film, he craved to hear other people’s stories because he was searching for his own.  What I appreciated about this film was the value it brought to sharing and hearing one another’s stories to be enriched by them and to help us learn our own story.  I think we do need to take more time to hear each other’s stories, to learn from the distinctions and fellowship in the commonalities.  We need more moments of sitting with each other over a cup of hot English tea to listen to the recent chapters we lived.  We need to call up the old friend to catch up on the last few years.  And sometimes we need to have parties where we can go over our table of contents and revisit our entire stories again from childhood because it’s likely we see something now we hadn’t seen before.  And what I loved most from the film was how there is often times a special person who intimately helps us realize our story but we may not notice that person having been there.  We all need that person.

As we celebrate and cry through others’ stories, it helps us to realize our own and to appreciate that every life is a unique story lived.  So don’t just do.  Live out your story.

Iron Man 2: How Does Knowing You’re Dying Lead to Self-Destructive Behaviors?

“What would you do if you knew this was going to be your last birthday?”  That was the profound question Tony Stark asked, which was the riddle that explained his self-destructive behavior in Iron Man 2.

Yes, this movie was criticized for being slower than the first installment, having less action and feeling slightly more boring with an anti-climactic final fight scene.  But as I recently watched this again for the second time and focused more on the character with less expectations for the action, I appreciated the question the story posed: what would you do if you knew you were dying?  For a millionaire playboy with a military grade super suit, he had a lot of options.  But the oxymoronic irony for Stark was that knowing he was dying led to self-destructive behaviors – drunkenness, lack of control, loss of judgment, brawls… and he was potentially harming others around him in the process.  The baffling contradiction is when people desperately attempt to feel more alive when faced with inevitable death through self-destructive activities.  It logically doesn’t make sense.  But when one is trying to grasp for life to escape the inevitability of death, logic is not usually at the forefront of a one’s mind.  It was like what Jack Bauer illustrated in 24, a dying man is a desperate man.

Being here in Hollywood at night-time, I see people lining up the clubs, coming out of limos, and screaming down the streets as they cheer and party.  Then, I also see young men in blazers urinating in open parking lots, young adults puking on the sidewalks, grown men fighting in the streets, and young girls in tight dresses urinating in our church driveway.  And that’s just what I see from the outside.

Stark reminded me of a young man who walked into our church service one morning after partying all night, was fully intoxicated and was ditched by his supposed-friends.  After the service, I spoke with him and he said with bloodshot eyes, “It had been years since I walked into a church.  I told myself I never would.”  I asked him, “What brought you in here today.”  He said, “Brokenness.”  There was a silence between us.  Then he said, “Brokenness brought me in today.  All this stuff that I do – clubbing, partying, drinking – it’s just stuff, you know, to cover up the brokenness.”

I believe the character of Tony Stark in Iron Man 2 posed a profound philosophical question of humanity that is relevant to so many today: How do you live when you are dying?  It is an age-old question.  I think there are thousands of people in the world trying desperately to live it up – wanting to feel alive – because they sense the inevitable death within them everyday and they honestly don’t know what to do about it.  Unless we can resolve death, we are desperate people grasping for ways to feel alive but the measures we undertake are self-destructive ones.  These measures are self-destructive because they are not solutions to dying but are exaggerations of living, that is, extreme lifestyles to help us not feel like we’re dying.  When in reality, we know that with each passing birthday, we get one birthday closer to the last one.  The solution?  Stop trying to live it up and discover what it really means to have life.  Find the solution to death so that you never have a last birthday.

Every religion offers an answer for death but not all of the answers are the same, which is one of the reasons why it is superficial and folly to say all religions are the same. Assuming that there is an answer out there, it is crucial to do due diligence in investigating the religions for what they are.  Feeling alive won’t stop death.  Actually finding life stops death.  John 14:6.

“REAL STEEL” Echoes the Cry of Every Heart

This film was expectantly enjoyable and surprisingly moving.  It’s a film that has gotten mixed reviews.  I found it had a good story and a real substance to the film that echoes what we all cry for.  Here’s my experience and take away from it, and I’ll warn you before I get to talking about any spoilers.  The story was built in the context of a robot-fighting world.  It reflected the current day MMA fighting, reaffirmed the age-old desire of people to see two combatants duke it out as a sport and carried a Rocky sort of feel.  It echoes human society’s plight to fight, to press on and to overcome.  But in the end, it wasn’t so much about robot-fighting.  It was something deeper.  There was a humanity we can identify with imbedded in the robot-fighting.  Here’s a bit of the spoiler.

The key line in the film, I found, was when the son said to his father, “Fight for me.  That’s all I ever wanted.”  At the heart of the story was about a father and son relationship that was estranged, antagonistic and fractured.  It was about how a father and son can be father-and-son when so much had fallen apart and so much animosity had set in.  The answer was if they wanted this relationship to work, they would have to fight for it.  Like most of our significant relationships, we want to know that the other is willing to fight for us as much as we would want to know deep down in ourselves that we would equally and sincerely fight for the other person as well.  I think the human cry is this: we are all in some shape, some form, like that little boy wanting someone to fight for us.  That’s all we ever wanted.  When we begin to tell ourselves that no one will fight for us and that we have to look out for number one, we dehumanize ourselves by becoming a person who has to develop an arrogant self-centeredness living in a dog-eat-dog only world.  But at our core, we want to know that someone will fight for us – whether it’s our mothers or fathers when we were children, the boyfriend or girlfriend that didn’t work out, the bestfriend whose loyalty you hoped you could count on when everyone else deserts you, or the husband or wife whom you’d like to believe will do whatever it takes to make the marriage work and will win your love over and over again for the rest of your days.  You know why we want to be fought for?  It’s because we want to know that we are loved.  It is the most basic and yet foundational need of our souls – to know that someone out there in the world loves us deeply that much to fight for us.  It’s about having that someone in the world who makes us believe that we are worth fighting for, especially in times when we feel like we aren’t.  We only fight for what we value most.  We want to know that we matter that much to someone.

I always bring things back to God because that’s my worldview – God’s love is at the center of my reality.  After I heard the son say that line, the truth of us wanting to be fought for struck me.  And then I immediately thought, God has fought for me.  When he sent his Son Jesus to die for us, it was no Sunday picnic in the park.  It was the Son of the Most High relinquishing all the rights of heaven and being born in a cruel world to fight for us who couldn’t save ourselves from ourselves by dying a brutal death upon the cross in order to nullify the consequences of sin, conquer death, defeat Satan and overpower the gates of hell.  He came as a liberator to set captives free and I was one of them.  It makes me proud to say that my God fought for me, and he said this was the definition of love (1 Jn 4:10).

I know many of us, perhaps most of us, are looking for someone to fight for us.  We want to know that we are loved and not just loved as in someone will remember my birthday on FB but loved as in someone would be willing to go through sweat and pain to fight for me – someone who would be willing to take a bullet for me.  I know many of us fear that we can’t think of someone being willing to fight for us – it’s a frightfully, lonely thought.  Some of us are the single mothers doing all the fighting for their children.  Some are the hardworking employees in a cut-throat business.  Others are husbands and wives in a non-fairytale marriage.  And still many who are simply lonely in a sea of people simply wanting one good friend who’d say,  “Don’t worry.  I’ll stand by you and fight for you.”  I think REAL STEEL tells us our cries are heard, and me writing this is also saying, your cry is heard.  Perhaps by understanding this cry, we can begin to look for new friendships and nurture current relationships that include people who will be fighters for us even as we would commit to fight for them.  Perhaps sometimes our mistake is we make the wrong friends.  We have fun friends but not fighters.  Perhaps in our current relationships that keep hitting dead ends, we haven’t yet communicated to the other person out of tears and desperation, “Fight for me.  That’s all I ever wanted.”  But most importantly, recognizing our own cries for this may allow us to hear God say to us on a daily basis, “I fought for you, child, and am still fighting for you everyday whether you see it or not.”  Wherever we are in our relationships, we are loved beyond measure because we’ve been fought for at any measure.

Warrior: Why We Fight

In the popular hype of MMA fighting, crowds cheering and roaring over the cage fights in an octagon echo the days of the gladiatorial fights in the sand arenas. The craze of seeing two people battle it out has not waned over the centuries. But what are the combatants fighting for? Beyond the brutality and violence, what is the ultimate triumph the fighters are aiming for? The trophy? The money? Fame? Personal accomplishment? I think what men fight for in the octagon is a metaphor of what we fight for in society. Why we fight says a lot about who we are. What do we fight for?

One of the films I enjoyed most last year was “Warrior,” a film that didn’t get a whole lot of attention but had a deep, moving story with incredible acting. It depicts a crucial dynamic of relationships in our society that stems from the condition of our souls. Why do we fight? If we can uncover the answer to this question, it illuminates much of why relationships are the way they are and what our souls are really searching for. I think the film illustrated the important factor that what people are fighting for is not always apparent. Sometimes the fighters don’t even realize what they’re really fighting for. But they fight. And we fight.

Here comes the slight bit of spoiler, just to warn you in case you want to stop reading here. The story showed that what we are often fighting for is forgiveness. In all our hard bouts with people, self and society, forgiveness is the unseen prize that we’re trying to get to and often times don’t realize that is what we’re actually fighting for.  In the surprising and revealing twist of the film, we find that the end of the fight is about achieving reconciliation that can only come by forgiveness and letting go of the anger.  But forgiveness rarely ever comes easy for anyone.  And that’s why we have to fight to forgive.  The deeper the hurt and anger, the tougher the fight.  The external fights we face in life represents the internal fights in our souls. We’re fighting to be free from our anger, hate and grudges. We’re fighting our way to forgiveness that manifests in reconciliation. The true and genuine Warrior then is the one who gets to a place where he or she no longer needs to keep fighting. When forgiveness is achieved, the fight is done. The Warrior has won.