Tuesday, June 30, 2015

To My Ethnicity (and some of those that have shaped it)

NOTE: I wrote most of this several years ago now. Don't know why I never published it.

Dear Thai Part of Me,
     Sawadeeka! We've come a long way since grade school and being asked if we know Kung Fu. (Still don't, for anyone wondering.) How desperately we wanted to blend in, not look different, get eye surgery, not be a freak. And how tragic that just when we finally wanted to look different in High School, our eyes rounded and freckles appeared! For so long I wanted to get rid of you, or at least to tame you. And then I wanted to be Thai, whatever that meant, and I chased my own tail as I struggled with issues of faith, family, and ethnicity. (Still do, if anyone's curious.)

     But what a journey to where we are now, to a new level of peace and understanding about who we are and what that means. On the one hand, I have that "exotic look" (meh) that makes perfect strangers ask, "so what is your ethnicity?" as though they expect me to say some alien species they've never heard of before. On the other hand, my Thai language skills are lousy-to-nonexistent, garnering me the familial nickname of "Mem" (foreign woman). Yet somewhere in the chaos we exist--a person who loves tom kha and green curry and grew up putting nom pla (fish sauce!) in just about everything (even spaghetti). Not a Buddhist, but with a genuine desire to honor my family's roots and beliefs, while honoring the one true God that I serve, who calls those from every tribe, tongue, and nation to himself. Neither the honorific "egg" (white on the outside, yellow on the inside), nor entirely the slur "twinkie" (the exact opposite).

     Instead, some sort of easter egg, with a thin yellow shell... that is more pale in spots... and apparently, somewhat dipped in chocolate...

     Yes, the analogy breaks down rather quickly, doesn't it.

     Anyway, to the little girl whose birth certificate says (brace yourselves!)--

     "Race of mother: white"
     "Race of father: yellow"

     (ah, small-town New Mexico in the 70's!)

     --I want to say, you aren't "Asian enough," nor are you "White enough." That is not the point. You are you, and that is a beautiful thing--no matter what the kids on the playground say.

Chan ("me")

Dear Coon Pa,
      Most Honored Birthfather. Sawadee ka! I wish I could have met you, thanked you for the heritage you gave to me, learned more about you. It was amazing meeting my half-sisters, my aunts, uncles, cousins, your mother--my Coon Yah. Seeing so much of me that I never knew is so Thai just because it came from my genetics, from my family! I'm not very good at being calm and I sometimes forget to point with my whole hand or not show my feet, but I think and hope you would have approved of my mai pen rai, my sense of adventure, and my love of all things sanuk. Thank you for my most honorable heritage. I am so proud and grateful.

With love and respect,
Norng Mem

Dear White Part of Me,
     Well, hello there. I'm sorry I haven't treated you well in the past. We've had a rough road, haven't we? It's hard to appreciate the good parts of my WASPy self without getting overwhelmed by the injustices done to those of darker skintone. But I have learned to be respectfully fond of you, oh white bread and mayonnaise. I have even come to terms, grudgingly, with my freckles. I've enjoyed hearing stories about my grandparents and seeing pictures. It's been good to reconnect with my aunt. Most of all, I'm learning to not merely see you, oh European heritage, as a placeholder. Instead, I'm learning to appreciate the unique experiences and privileges I've had as a light-skinned person. I don't still understand it all, but I'm trying. And I thank you for the privilege.


Dear Mom,
     Thanks for raising me to appreciate people of every ethnicity, every socioeconomic status, every walk of life. I am so grateful that I am a pretty open-minded person (although of course I have my prejudices that I'm working on) and that I learned that from you. And thanks for the freckles. I think.

Your Pookie (ugh :)

Dear Black Part of Me,
     What up, yo? I mean, am I allowed to say that? Where does adaptation and contextualization turn into mockery and presumption? I just naturally pick up a particular way of speaking when I'm around all the South Carolina relatives. It's mostly subconscious--clearly, because I actually get more polite to my mother, using "ma'am" often. Sadly, not something I would probably consciously choose. So what does it mean to be black, anyway? President Obama has certainly challenged the stereotypes on both ends: he is neither "ghetto" nor a sell-out. Praise God for that, because it's a tough trail to blaze. But that leads us back to the question, what exactly is the black part of me? I mean, it's not genetic. If we say that being black means a shared struggle, shared injustices, shared experiences, then no, I haven't ever had to use a separate bathroom or been thrown out of a place because I had dark skin. But--and I say this not to trivialize the experiences of African-Americans under systemic prejudices and out-right racism--I have experienced a small bit of what it means to be the "other." To be the "black guy's kid," to look different, to feel the stares at our family when we would go out. I know that I don't have to carry that around with me everywhere, and that from a distance I look "white" and possibly normal. (Although that's still up for judgement.) But I do have black family, and I do identify with them and am grateful that they so totally accept me (and my awesome lumbering white boy of a husband). So it's a good question to ask, again and again--what does it mean to be a part of this black family, and how can I contribute to racial reconciliation and the downfall of racism? And I think it's okay to ponder this while eating greens and fatback (well, maybe not fatback) and slipping into the vernacular a little. After all, if you can't be relaxed around family, who then can you be yourself around?


NOTE: I wrote the note below before Dad passed away. I miss him. I hope he knew that I'm grateful for the heritage he passed on to me.

Dear Dad,
     Thanks for feeding me enough years that people actually say I look like you! I love that. Thanks for being the "black sheep" in the family, for being willing to be the "other" in our small town. Thanks for teaching me about potted chicken and Motown, as well as how to ride a bike and change a tire. Thanks for being so much my dad that I forget we don't share blood and sometimes accidentally list your health history on forms. Thank you for raising me!

Your Kid

Dear Sundee,
     Thank you so much for your book! For sharing your experiences and helping me to really start my own journey into better understanding--and praising God for--my ethnicity. Thank you for helping me to be grateful, for the first time, of my mixed heritage, and not merely tolerant at best. Thank you for inviting me to walk this path with you.

Checking All That Apply,

Dear HR,
     I'm glad we finally sorted out the ethnicity thing. I'm sorry my ethnicity messed with your system. Thanks for adding a "check all that apply" option instead of making me choose. And thanks for all you do to keep me hired and supported!

That crazy staff that is 50% Asian, 50% White, 50% Black, 50% New Mexican, 50% Atlantan, 50% Mississippian... and 100% InterVarsity (but 0% mathematician!)

Dear IVP,
     Why oh why is Check All That Apply out of print?!? Thank you for printing it in the first place... can we please, please, please get another edition out there? I've bought up most of the copies I can find floating around the internet, and I'm running out of copies to give away to people!

Love and Spell-check,

Dear Redeemer Church,
     A place I belong. Finally. Where there are so many families and people who are multi-ethnic, appreciate diversity, and are willing to share privilege/become the "other." While certainly not a perfect place, a place of healing and worship and challenge for me. What a precious gift, here in the Deep South, of all places! What a joy to be part of this local body of Christ.

Chandra & Co.

Dear Kennan,
     You love me for who I am and are so great about navigating multi-ethnic waters with me. All the families love you--Thai, white and black--for who you are. Thank you for being adventurous, for loving to go new places, try new foods, meet new people. I am so glad Annabel (and now, Emmaline) is half you and half me, which makes her an odd duck but a good one. She has inherited a wonderful history of ethnicities and nationalities and experiences from all sides of the family, and I so enjoy watching that play out as she grows.

Your Ch

Dear Future Children,
     Well, we're done with "belly babies," so if, God willing, we get to adopt more precious little ones, your ethnicities will be unique and possibly very different from mine. I hope you find joy and acceptance in our family. I pray we'll do a good job of honoring your stories, your ethnicities and birth families. I know your ethnic stories will be extra tricky to navigate as adopted children. All your Dad and I can do is rely on the Lord (as we already must do for your sisters!) and strive to honor all parts of you as we entrust you to him. I hope the racial reconciliation that you will need to find within yourselves will be an act of worship and fueled by grace. Already we love you. Already we praise God for you and dream of cuddling your little selves and marveling in your wee toes and enjoying all the colors that you will be.


Dear Chandra Louise Vitwadee Ampawasiri Mem Wood Garrett Crane,
     Never a dull moment, eh? Thanks for being you.

Much love,

Dear King Jesus,
     Sometimes it's hard to believe that you know what you're doing and especially that I (with all my muddled-up ethnicity) was carefully planned, and for a reason. I hope my life is glorifying to you. Thank you for helping me to grow in my ethnic personhood, in my understanding of what diversity is and should be, and for helping me to repent of the ways that I am prejudiced, wounded, and in desperate need of grace. Thank you for being the ultimate person of mixed ethnicity, who took on flesh and dwelt among us, embodying both the saving God and mankind in such desperate need of a savior. Be glorified in the life of your body, Lord. Thank you for calling us from out of every tribe, tongue, and nation.

Relying on your mercy,
Your child

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

To My Fellow Americans (Part 1)

Dear Friends, Americans, and Countrymen,

     I know I'm late to the game regarding the entire Coke "America the Beautiful" scandal, but that whole thing has been percolating in my thoughts for the past week, along with some other timely tweets, posts and happenings.  It's been a lot to think about.  And I tend to think a lot. (NOTE: this is an old post from early 2014.  I'm finally finishing it now.)

     Though I often don't think enough before I speak/type, with an issue as sensitive as race/ethnicity/identity, I'm actually measuring my words carefully on this one.  I had a number of reactions to the Coke ad drama, in quick succession: anger, confusion, exasperation, guilt, shame, sadness, judgement.  With a side of craving sugary Coke thrown in, for good measure.

     So I guess what I want to tell you, my fellow Americans (and please pardon me in my delusions of Presidential grandeur), is this: when you judge someone, you may be (unwittingly) judging me.

     I know it's easy to judge someone, especially a stereotype of someone.  I judge the Yankee, the Republican, the mega-church attender, the vegan, the home-schooler, the Georgia fan, the other.  All the things that (I like to think) I am not.  I see someone who displays traits that I don't like or I don't understand, and I make assumptions.  I assume my preference is normatively right.  I assume I am not like him or her.  I assume that I am seeing that person for who they truly are, and thus I am allowed to judge.  I assume we have nothing in common.

     And that is such a lie.

     Because I hope you notice that list above is a peculiar one.  It is not people who are all alike, who fit the same stereotype.  As a loyal Georgia Tech fan, I don't like Georgia fans (or at least the part of Southern culture they seem to represent), but I don't like Yankees, either.  I am certainly not a vegan, but I do enjoy more than just meat and potatoes.  I support public schools, but I have many good friends who home-school, and I recognize that I have the privilege of being in an excellent public school system.  Etcetera, etcetera.

     I like to think I'm the middle ground, the sensible one, the one with all the answers.  And that is also a lie.  Yet it is true that no person, no personality, is really just one thing.  We are not monolithic creatures (though we may present ourselves as such).  Even when we align ourselves to a certain religion, political party, or any number of shared interests, we are walking contradictions.  Even those who portray themselves as one distinct thing are so much more.  Many people self-identify with one main ideology, religion, or interest.  Yet if you find yourself agreeing with absolutely everything that everyone around you says, every time, it might be time to wonder if you're in a cult.  Or at least need to branch out a little.  There are many good Southern folks who embrace different cultures, who support immigrants, who chose to surround themselves with diversity.  There are many folks from the North who don't have a diversity of friendships and who aren't hospitable.  And the majority of folks from all over the country fall somewhere along a spectrum, in every category imaginable.

     So when you rail against Liberals, or immigrants, you in part are railing against me.
So also when you judge those with "traditional values," or Southerners in general, you are judging me.  Some might say that makes me confused, or inconsistent, or just plain weird.  But I think that's the point I'm trying to make.  When we examine ourselves, truly and honestly, we find things that don't make sense.  We find things in ourselves that don't toe the party line.  We find ways that we are different, even from our own norms.  And if you really really can't get past some of my beliefs or habits that seem incompatible to you, let's talk.  Because the whole point of this is to understand one another better, not to further entrench our own stereotypes.  Because I need to push myself, too.  I need to grow in my understanding of other people, not group them into "folks that I agree with" and "folks that I don't."

     I know not many Americans will actually read this.  But I hope that of the tiny percentage that do, you will be encouraged in two ways:

1. Try to see past the immediate issue/stereotype/image at hand.  Dig deeper into someone.  Find something that you actually agree with that person on, and strive to see others as less "other."  Push yourself to see someone in a different light than what has been presented, and assume that there is more to their story.

2. Don't be afraid to show more sides of who you are.  Redefine stereotypes by being more than one interest, political stance, or idea.  Look at the conflicting sides of who you are and figure out how that makes you uniquely you.

     Yes, we are a land of immigrants and natives, a land of whites and blacks (and every color in-between), a land of little and of plenty.  We truly are America the Beautiful, not despite our differences, but because of them.  Even those who hated that commercial have more to their story than merely one opinion, and I am trying to remember that truth.  When we let things polarize us, the chance for real community only decreases.  When we force ourselves to know, understand, and even love those who seem so very different from ourselves, we find out how very much we all have in common.

     I'm not saying let's sing Kumbaya and all just get along.  I'm saying, let's not assume the worst of each other, not settle for thinking that because we disagree on one distinct issue that means we can write each other off and move on.  My good friend Anthony told me that "the one you think is weird was made by the same, supreme One who made you.  Can't say you have nothing in common."  Oh, the grace we can extend to each other if we'll remember that truth.

From Sea to Shining Sea,
A Fellow Citizen

Friday, June 19, 2015

To My Fellow Americans (Part 2),

Dear Friends and Countrymen,

I've started many blog posts over the past couple of years.  Including a "To My Fellow Americans (Part 1)" that I still haven't published.  Perhaps I will soon.  But I am determined to write this out, to get it down and then hit publish TODAY, even if the wording doesn't feel quite right, even if I want to edit it further.  I need to write this out, for my own processing and grieving; but also I want to publish this to encourage others in their own grieving processes.  And perhaps even to help someone understand a little better.

Over the past year, racial events in the country (and the world) at large have come to a boiling point.  Several times.  Over the past year or so, my personal experiences regarding race and multi-ethnicity have also been very poignant, and very formative.  I've tweeted a lot ("micro-blogged," if you will) but never managed to finish a longer blog post.  In the wake of the Charleston massacre, things have better come into focus for me.  And what I want to say is this:

We live in a fractured house.  A home that is full of violence, of bloodshed, of brokenness.  A dwelling place taken forcibly from the original owners, all in the name of progress.  In March I listened, with tears running down my face, to a Native American coworker who said that Native folks are like the old woman in a house who built it originally but has been shoved to a back room and left there to rot. Her beautiful home has been taken over, and violence has begat violence.  Bloodshed has led to more bloodshed.  And while the early sins of slavery and the modern sins of systemic poverty are true and heartbreaking, no one remembers the people who first were brutally displaced to make way for a foundling country.  "See us!" my coworker cried out.  "Please just see us." 

I remember (more tears!) as an African American coworker apologized, on behalf of the Black Campus Ministries portion of my organization, for being so (understandably) caught up in the events of Ferguson, New York, etc. that he had failed to see, as he put it, that although black staff had thought they were on the bottom rung of the ladder, when they finally looked down, they realized that they were stepping on the hands of Native American brothers and sisters clinging desperately below them.  

One thing especially stuck out to me in Jon Stewart's monologue on Charleston: the phrase "racial wallpaper."  Racial wallpaper.  Stained, peeling wallpaper that some people don't even notice anymore.  In some rooms it's been painted over.  In others, enough gilded pictures have been hung on top of the racial wallpaper that it's easy to pretend it's no longer there.  A black President!  Diverse celebrities!  Shiny, pretty pictures of "Post-Racial America!"  It's not that those pictures are entirely fake, but that they don't tell the whole story.  I see the racism plastered everywhere around us, and am reminded that it always has been there.  This house, this country, was built on--and is still steeped in-- racism, classism, favoritism.  The hallways reek of it.

Am I suggesting we level the house, or even just move out?  Beyond the fact that I've taken this analogy far past reason, obviously starting from scratch or literally moving elsewhere isn't an option.  And it need not be.  There are truly reasons to rejoice.  There are wonderful things about our country.  I'm both grateful and proud (most of the time) to be an American.  There are ways in which things are better than they were in 1864, in 1963, in 2008.  But there are ways in which things are no better.  And to ignore them makes it even worse.  

Our house--our country--is broken, friends.  We need to see this.  We need to see each other.  To weep with each other, to lament together, to speak truth about the good and the bad.  Will things ever be perfect?  Will our country ever be truly healed?  The Emanuel AME victims waited--with Christian brothers and sisters the world over--for the triumphant return of Christ when all things will be made truly well and completely new.  Yet we start to see the Kingdom come now by weeping, praying, and worshiping together.  By refusing to turn a blind eye to what is going on all around us.  This house--our country, and indeed our entire broken world--belongs to him.  To the God who welcomed those beautiful souls home and who is breaking down barriers and boundaries and sin, all in the death of his own body.  This is the reality of where we live, friends.  The poor we will always have among us.  Yet do we notice?  We must see our brothers and sisters who are shoved to the back rooms, to the crawlspaces, to the basement.  In this act of seeing--and then through acts of mercy and justice that flow from truly seeing each other--is God glorified.  Clean our house O Lord, and make our hearts your home.  That is our one hope. 

From one broken person to another,
A half-Asian, adopted-half-black, half white, from New Mexico, but full American Christian