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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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.

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.

Uniquely You

I don’t know the statistics on how many people wish they had someone else’s life, but I’m guessing many have felt this. How many of us have wanted someone else’s circumstances? How often have we thought she’s so lucky for having something in contrast to ourselves or I wish I have what he has. We want their position and privileges. We wish we had someone else’s success. We want to be the next so-and-so. We want another’s lifestyle and living conditions. We desire our friend’s social and leisurely life. Maybe we’d rather have a different past. What if we were born to different parents? We may regret choices we made that committed us to certain circumstances. Maybe we second guess choosing the person we married or regret having had children too early and wonder what life would be like if we chose differently. What if we chose a different career? If only certain factors of our lives were different, our lives might be closer to what we perceive as the ideal. We compare our lives to others’. If only we could do life over… There’s always someone else’s life, or some aspect of it, that looks better than ours. Envy is a non-satiating hunger that leads to starvation.

An important point about your life is that this is your story. Someone else’s life is not your story. But why is it that I’m still not married while my peers are? Why can’t I have children, like the majority of normal people in society? Why was my past so painful and why couldn’t I have been born into better conditions? One of the greatest realities in life is of the billions of people in human history you’re the only you. The fact that there is not another you in this world presently or in all of history past or ever will be in the future is a miracle. You are a genuinely unique design. You didn’t come from a clone, off a production line, or a generic mould. You’re an unrepeated person. Making a unique person every time is inefficient, but it is original. This outrageous uniqueness means that you are a creature infused with love. It means a lot of care, inspirational thought, and wonder was poured into the making of you. Since there is only one of you, you are the only one who can live your story. Nobody else can live it for you and you can’t live somebody else’s. From the moment you were formed in the womb, your story began – the time period and economic status you were born into, who your parents are, what ethnicity you are, your genetic make-up, your temperament, and all the baggage and blessings of your circumstances (Psalm 139). Your story is both your privileged right and your sacred responsibility. You have the wonderful opportunity to live your story well. The trials, tragedies, and triumphs are part of a powerful story. What are you called to be and do in life? What is your specific place in the world? How can you turn your tragedies into triumphs as part of the beauty of your story? When you entered the world, you didn’t replace someone else, and when you’re gone, no one will replace you. Your story will not be repeated. Your story is not just handed to you; you must own it. Your story is your inherent opportunity. It is part of your dignity as a human being. So we might bemoan aspects of our lives and wished our conditions were like somebody else’s. We might despise the cards we were dealt. And all the while, miss out on the story you were meant to live. Your journey involves exploration of beliefs, discovery of truths, finding beauty in the midst of ashes, healing from hurts, resurrecting from your deaths, and crossing from one chapter to next. Through the chapters of our lives, a wonder we’re meant to discover is that there is a loving Author who desires to orchestrate the good for those who love him, bringing about a glorious ending to conclude a uniquely wonderful story (Romans 8:28).

The greatest defeat is not the inability to achieve someone else’s life. It’s not living yours.

Stand Against Meanness

My wife, foster son, and I were spending time with some old friends at Downtown Disney, when towards the end of the visit they were having a very hard parenting moment in a public space. Something which we can sympathize with. After we said goodbye and parted ways, we passed two women – one who appeared to be in her 50’s and her daughter who appeared to be in her late 20’s. My wife and I overheard them laughing at our friends and making fun of them. The older woman said laughingly she wanted to videotape them and post them on YouTube. I looked at them with appall. My wife said to them, “No, you will not videotape them. That’s not nice.” Older woman: “What do you care?” My wife: “They’re our friends.” I said, “They are having a hard time. Leave them alone,” trying to draw out some compassion from her. The older woman said, “You should mind your own business.” My wife: “You should mind your own business and leave them alone.” Older woman: “I was talking to her [referring to her daughter], so you shut up!” Me: “We will NOT shut up. You should mind your own business and not talk about to videotaping people to post on YouTube when they are having a hard time.” The daughter had the better sense by calling to her mom to basically stop. We walked away as the older woman said some more unkind things to us and disappeared into a store.

As my wife, our sleeping foster son, and I were leaving the park area on the tram, I processed over the audacity of that incident, being awakened to the very reality of meanness. I know meanness exists. I hear about mean incidences. I see meanness. And then I collide into outright meanness, and it brings that reality to the forefront of my mind that there really are mean people in our world. While on that tram I started to think that some people I’ve encountered are mean because they live under the universal premise that this is a dog-eat-dog world and so you have to be mean to get anywhere. Otherwise, you’ll be trampled on. Meanness for them became a mechanism for survival, at least in their minds. Any kind of meanness is not okay, but then I realized the meanness I encountered was something else. There are people who find it funny that you’re struggling or hurting, and they will make fun of you for it. They are amused by your suffering and will think to embarrass you for it because it’s humorous to them. They’re bullies. They laugh at others who are having a hard time and tease and demean them publicly, if they could. All of this is enjoyable to them. And I realized there’s another word for this kind of meanness: evil. It’s pure evil to take pleasure in others’ pain or suffering, no matter what. You may disagree, you may have different points of view, or you may have different beliefs and philosophies on things, but no one should ever take pleasure in other people’s pains. It’s not okay. It’s evil. That woman was evil.

I felt the need to write this blog, because we need to take a stand against meanness and evil. Against bullies. Against people who take pleasure in others’ pains. I want as many people as possible to read this. There’s a need to speak out against the injustice of laughing at others or making fun of others for having a hard time in life. The stand against injustice is not out of hate towards those who are unjust, but out of compassion and care for those who are targeted. The prime motivation must be the latter. If it’s the former, then we ourselves run the risk of becoming mean like those we stand against. That doesn’t help the world. I wish I said more to the woman. I’m a slow processor by nature, which at times works to my disadvantage. At the same time, I’m glad I didn’t say all that I would’ve said that occurred in my mind later to not become like her. A mature, responsible, compassionate, and just stance for others is needed. I invite your thoughts and feedback on this subject.

Foster Dad 20: You Don’t Have to Be Here

The child attorney told us, “You don’t have to be here,” a statement that echoed what all the other attorneys, FFA social workers, and DCFS social workers told us, that we don’t need to be present at the court hearings regarding our foster child. Our current DCFS social worker repeatedly reiterated to us that foster parents don’t attend court hearings, trying to tell us that we don’t have to attend and it is unusual that we do. I don’t know how true that is, but it’s what she tells us.

I think the attorneys and workers perceive that it’s troublesome for us to attend the hearings. Today, after waiting for 4 hours for our case to be called, the court broke for lunch and had to resume in an hour. I told the child attorney, “Okay, we’ll go get lunch and come back.” That’s when she stated to us, “You don’t have to be here.” I replied to her, “This is important. We want to be present.”

There’s not much as foster parents that we can offer to the legal proceedings of our foster child. As foster parents, we are service providers in the system without rights, authority, or voice. Besides one update form we can fill out before each hearing, there are no other documentations we can submit to the court. When we enter the courtroom we’re told to sit on the backbench against the wall; we’re not even on the other side of the barrier which marks the inside area of the courtroom. We sit in the spectator section, not actually a part of the case. When we’re there, we don’t get to speak on behalf of the child. We sit quietly in the back for the duration of the hearing, which lasts anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes, and then we leave. We can spend our entire day in the waiting area for our case to be called, and sometimes, it gets called last. But we have been at every single court hearing. So why do we attend the court hearings?

Because there is something significant we can offer at every proceeding: our presence. Although we don’t have any legal standing to contribute to the hearing, any rights or authority to defend the child, or legal position to advocate for and fight on behalf of our foster child, our consistent presence is powerful. Our silent presence communicates volumes to the court that we are serious about the well-being of our foster child and we are committed to caring for him. After changing judges four times, the child’s attorney three times, and the DCFS attorney twice, we are present. Sometimes the DCFS social worker is there and sometimes the biological parent(s) is there and sometimes they’re not, but we are present. At one time it’s one courtroom. At another time it’s another. We are still present. We are the one constant in the ever-changing, twisting, and fluctuating nature of the case for our foster son.

The fourth and regular judge eventually recognized our enduring presence in the courtroom. I remember the day when she invited us to enter beyond the barrier and take a seat at the table in the inner courtroom. That physical crossing of the threshold signified to us that we had become someone significant in the eyes of the court. We still had no rights, authority, or voice in the actual case, but we were no longer on the outside looking in. Our presence was recognized. The judge has asked us if we have questions, thanked us, and, for certain matters, even apologized to us. We have no say in the case, but we sure have a presence on behalf of our foster son.

I know sometimes we face situations where we ask ourselves, “What can we do?” or “What can we say?” and the reality is that we may have very little control over the juggernaut of obstacles or trials before us. But one of the most powerful things I believe we can do is be present for the things that are important to us. Our presence has the power to convey our commitment, care, and love. It communicates that we’re involved and invested. We’re not removed, indifferent, or aloof. Others may come and go, conditions may go up and down, situations may twist and turn, and time may be drawn out to where others don’t stay, but our presence remains. Presence means in the simplest and profoundest way, I am here. And to the most fragile things in life in the most trying or complicated of times, I am here can mean the world.

Why a Birthday is Important

As I am in between celebratory events, between the family picnic at the LA zoo and the dinner with friends at Universal City Walk, I decided to share my thoughts about the significance of a birthday. It’s true for most of us that there comes a point when we don’t see our birthdays the same way anymore. At first they’re about parties with hats, pizza, presents, and friends coming over to play with us. Then somewhere down the line it became about aging. With each birthday, it marks us getting older – greyer, wrinklier, maybe saggier, and for many sadder. I know aging is tough because it gets us closer to our last day on earth, we don’t look the same, and parts of us start to creak.

But a birthday is celebrating the day of our birth. The day we had no choice in the matter, but was a miracle that it happened. It was the day we came into the world. The day we took our first breaths. A birthday celebrates the beginning, not the ending. It celebrates when our journeys began. Because of that day, I am here. Because Someone loved me enough to form me, I am here and I am on this journey. Our birthdays celebrate the miracle of life. When we’re young, we think we’re invincible. As we get older, the fragileness of life and, therefore, the miracle of life becomes more apparent. My birthday celebrates the 20,000 breaths I take a day and the 100,000 times my heart beats a day. I can’t even count that high without losing track, but somehow my body is capable of doing it and I’m certain it does it with God’s help. My birthday celebrates the miracle of my life. On this birthday, it means that I’m still here and my heart will beat at least one more time and I’ll take at least one more breath. I celebrate the opportunity for my soul to take in God’s goodness on this earth, and I accept the charge to enact redemption where I can in a flawed world. My birthday celebrates being able to love my wife, be a father to my foster son, and serve my God on this earth.

I didn’t always have this view. But as I approach the dawn of 40, this view has encompassed me. I approach 40 with peace and excitement, because I celebrate the faithfulness of God in carrying me these past four decades through the heartaches and heartbreaks and yet my heart still beats 100,000 times a day. I celebrate the goodness of God in being the great I AM of my life, in whom I find my source of strength and being. And because I can celebrate this day, today, I can for sure face tomorrow.

Thank you, God, for my birthday – for all our birthdays. As the apostle Paul quoted a great poet, “In Him we live and move and have our being,” so it is that we are here. (Acts 17:28)