This is a testimony from Clarence Chan, intern serving with Epic in New York City. It’s his story about being an ABC (American Born Chinese) in New York and his struggles to discover his ethnic identity. Clarence also explains his viewpoint on the difference between Hawaiian, West Coast and East Coast Asian Americans, and how these cultural differences affect differences in how faith is approached.
I was born and bred in New York City, yet I didn’t really identify with being a “New Yorker”.
My Chinese culture also seemed like a blur. I was always around other “yellow people” yet I was labeled as an ABC (American-Born-Chinese). Growing up, I didn’t understand why that label was so significant.
I was also confused when it came to religion. Going to Catholic school, sometimes didn’t feel too different than being at home, where I was reprimanded for being “bad” and I had to do better to please the respective high powers, God and my parents.
I was one confused kid.
Even after asking Jesus’ into my heart during High School and learning more about who he really is, I still had a lot of identity issues of being a Christian Asian-American New Yorker.
Before I explain what I learned about being an AA (Asian American), I want to explain how Hawaiian, West Coast, and East Coast AA’s are different…
During my 2009 Summer Project in Hawaii, I concluded that Hawaiian AA’s tend to be confused like I was. The state of HI is the only state in the country that is majority non-Caucasian, and their AA’s are like our mainland “Caucasians” because Hawaiins are often the 6-7th generation child. Many of them are some “super bred” mix of Asian descent; they could be a 1/8th Chinese, 1/4th Japanese, and etc. This dilution of culture inevitably leaks onto their faith. Hawaiians tend to be very accepting and friendly. Excuse my skepticism, but I think that mindset is only a mask of confusion. I have met many students who believe in Christ as well as Buddha or other “spiritual beings.”
West Coast Asian Americans are very aware of their cross-cultural selves. They recognize that the way they were brought up does affect their behavior and values. I would even call them “ahead” of the game. West Coast Asian Americans see themselves as Asians who tend to be American.
Conversely East coasters, more specifically New Yorkers, see ourselves as Americans who tend be Asian. We are so used to being diverse that our identity as Asian becomes less important. I know this because I felt this way much of my life. In college, I use to challenge why ethnic ministries needed to exist. Aren’t we all the same? Why can’t we be united and have multi-cultural churches. Don’t get me wrong, I still think multi-cultural churches are great. My real intent however, was not that I wanted a big mixing bowl but it was that I wanted to “Americanize” the Asians.
The denial of culture in this urban setting has led many Asian churches in New York to confusion and unbiblical tradition. A Chinese church with two congregations, English and Chinese, will perform acts of service for each other expecting something in return rather than acting out of sacrificial love for each other. This past Christmas, my sister, dad and I, chipped in together to get an iPod touch for my mom. She keep pushing that she give us back the money for it and that she couldn’t accept such a gift. She felt that she was in debt to us and it was hard for her to see that it was a gift. So you can see where our Asian churches get this mindset. I believe that our ethnic culture very much affects our faith culture, for good or for bad.
As I learn about my culture, I know there are many aspects of it, which God calls us to leave behind, but I’ve also learned to embrace it to use it for his kingdom. Having family values is a great thing. Wanting to do well and excel is a great value. It’s when our family’s calling takes priority over God’s calling that brings trouble. In the same way, when we base our identity on how well we do rather than our identity in God that our life leads to despair.
I feel now, it’s starting to make sense of why God chose me to grow up this way. I believe being educated about one’s culture will strengthen one’s understanding of their faith. Learning about my culture has allowed me to reach and share the love of Christ to specific people.
I’ve come to understand my identity much more than I did before. I’m not an Asian American New Yorker. My identity is that I’m a child of God who tends to be an Asian American who tends to live Flushing, New York, who tends to go to a Chinese Church.
1. What are some ways you feel your culture has affected your faith positively or negatively?
2. If you know Asian Americans from Hawaii, the West Coast or the East Coast, what differences do you see in how they live out their cultural identity and/or their faith?
3. What steps can you take to discover more about your own ethnic identity?