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

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