The challenges of being a strong Asian, Christian, woman and some of the culture and religious issues that arise with that.
I walk each day as an Asian-American Christian woman drifting between four separate worlds (Asian. American. Christian. Woman.). These worlds often have opposing values that affect my mindset and how I respond and make decisions.
I grew up in Boulder, CO one of a handful of Asian-Americans in a graduating class of 650. My dad was a producer and director for the Colorado Shakespeare Festival. When I was nine years old, he directed Romeo and Juliet and I would accompany him to the rehearsals. He mentioned in passing I would never play the lead role of Juliet because I was Chinese. His words confirmed what I already knew as a young girl: because of how I looked, I would be treated differently and there was nothing I could do to change their preconceived ideas about me. I wanted more than anything to fit in. I’d scan the shelves at the toy stores-no Asian Barbies or Disney Princesses, look through pictures in magazines, in textbooks, on TV or in the movies and no one looked like me.
We spoke Chinese at home, my Grandma lived with us and she would fix strange lunches for me. My friends would have ding-dongs and I would have a Chinese shredded ground pork sandwich. We were culturally Buddhist so during certain times of the year we would invite the spirits of dead grandparents I had never met into our home, burn incense, fix elaborate meals for them and bow to them in reverence. My non-Asian friends could not relate to this part of my world. Looking back, there were times I felt embarrassed about being Asian.
The greatest compliment growing up from my friends was, “I don’t even think of you as Asian, you’re just Viv.” That comment meant I was fitting in, but I realize now a big part of me, the Asian part of me, was not acknowledged in their comment.
The Asian-American world is made up of two worlds: eastern and western. Generally the eastern world is group oriented, concerned for keeping face, hierarchy, and has a high view of authority. In the eastern world, what we do reflects on to others. Kim Yu-na, the gold medal skater in the winter Olympics wrote in an essay about the pressures she faces, “If my performance fails, the whole nation may turn their back on me.”
The western world, on the other hand, values individuality, personal achievement, independence and self-actualization.
The Western phrase that sums it all up is the old Army slogan: “be all that you can be.” The Eastern phrase would be: “be all that your family has sacrificed for you to be.”
If you take a peach and cross it with a plum, you get a nectarine. This is what an Asian-American is like. A nectarine is a unique fruit. It is neither peach nor plum but pulls traits from both. I live in tension between the eastern and western worlds, drawing traits from both.
My parents were both born in China, their families fled China during the Japanese invasion, rebuilt their lives in Taiwan, graduated from the top universities and immigrated to the United States via the education route. They met while pursuing their Master’s Degrees, got married and went on to pursue their PhD’s. My mom was just shy of receiving her PhD when she gave birth to me.
While my dad had told me there were certain things I couldn’t do, like play Juliet, both my parents were considered “open-minded.” They encouraged me, especially my mom, to go after anything I wanted. I set my aspirations high and had goals as a young girl to be the first woman on the moon or else the first Asian-American woman President of the United States. I found myself in various leadership positions in clubs and student government. At the age of 12, I labeled myself a feminist. As a panel discussion leader, I had my girlfriends run into the classroom waving their mother’s bras screaming, “Burn your bras, equal rights for women!!” Women, in my mind, were capable, strong leaders and men had better beware because we were on our way to taking over. I believed in my heart and tried to live out in my life the song “Anything you can do, I can do better” when relating with men. My posture and view was one of competition with men and pride. Underlying all of this was a subconscious drive to prove I was even more valuable and could produce more than a man because my Asian culture emphasized the value of boys over girls. The valuing of boys over girls is still true today. Female infanticide (killing of an infant) still takes place around the globe. Confucius teaching stress the three obediences for a woman: when a girl, obey your father; when a wife, obey your husband; when a widow, obey your son.
During high school, God graciously and radically transformed my life and I stepped from darkness into the Kingdom of His Beloved Son. In college, with the influence of certain Christian authors, I swung from my strong feminist beliefs clear to the opposite side.
After graduating and entering my first years as Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ) staff I found myself sharing with the men on my staff team that I had a “conviction” about women not initiating and therefore would never call them on the phone and would only return calls–even ministry related business calls. My thoughts at that point centered on the idea of needing to turn down and even turn off at times my gifts of leadership in order to not threaten any potential male from taking their rightful place of leading.
I gravitated towards and found security in a high structure and rules oriented Christianity. I developed a mentality that Christianity could only be expressed in a certain cookie cutter way and if other’s did not fit my black and white viewpoint they were wrong. This time my posture was one of inferiority as a woman and conforming to a certain Christian culture which also fit my Asian cultural grid of the value of men over women. And honestly, as I looked around, just like I couldn’t find Asian Barbie’s, I couldn’t find Asian-American Christian women in leadership to model after. I scanned the book shelves in Christian book stores and looked through conference brochures, but didn’t find anyone who looked like me. Underlying this was a desire to fit in and be defined not by who I was, but by high structure which provided for me a false sense of security.
I met and married Darrin when I was 25 and brought into our marriage the same rigid view of Christianity into our marriage relationship. I had difficulty representing myself and giving him feedback. I had mistakenly played the “submission/respect card” and understood it to mean if I respected him I would not question his ideas or thoughts. Instead of being a true helpmate, I sought to manipulate and control his emotions by heading off any potential conflict by not speaking up about my concerns and perspective. He would comment that when he came home I would emotionally shut down and no longer give input, direction and would take on the “cruise director” role of making everyone happy. I still struggle with this dynamic. I also somehow came to believe that in order for my husband to lead, he had to be better and stronger than me in all areas. In no way did he share this view; in fact he was often bewildered I actually thought these things. I felt frustrated and dead inside. My posture was one of passivity and confusion.
As I entered my mid to late 30’s I was exposed to a wider pool of believers and life no longer fit my previously held “cookie cutter” paradigm. I met godly women who were walking through divorce, recovering from addiction, had teenagers who turned away from the Lord, were dealing with depression, were the breadwinners for the family, to name a few. My picture of what it looked like to be a woman following God fully expanded. I found myself evaluating my views on various issues. Rather than adopting a stance based on a subculture, I decided to investigate for myself to seek to understand why God created women and how culture fit into what I saw in the Word. I started reading books and articles written by people outside my paradigm, I joined a 12 step group, and each step of the way the Lord brought along people to encourage me in the journey.
I was introduced to the books written by Carolyn Custis James as I entered my forties. The portrait of women that she presented was liberating and resonated deeply within me. For the first time I was encouraged to not shrink back from who God created me to be–especially in the area of leadership. But what stood out was the portrayal and high view of men and the importance of a posture of respect and honor given to men. Rather than compete or disappear, I moved toward linking arms with men. God was best represented when both men and women worked together for the furthering of His Kingdom. I began to experience a new level of freedom that opened the door to taking on new ministry responsibilities as well apply for seminary.
As a mom of two sons and a daughter my values and views shape my hopes of who I want them to become. Darkness and injustice fills our broken world. I want my sons to lead out into the darkness with strength, integrity and humility. I want them to welcome and respect the input and viewpoint of women. I want my daughter to not hold back who God has made her in all her gifting. I want her to bring her voice and strength with humility and conviction. I believe it takes a secure man not to be threatened by the strength of a woman. It also believe it takes a secure woman to not always have to be in control.
I believe our picture of God is made fuller when we include the voice and viewpoint of both women and men. In the same way, our understanding of who God is deepens through racial diversity and racial reconciliation. Our cultural differences offer a broader, richer view of the infinite and creative God we serve.
I am still on a journey discovering who God is and who and how He has created me, but now I am more aware of how my worlds influence who I am and how I lead. In God’s economy nothing is wasted. I continue to read, study and dialog with men and women over the issues of leadership, culture, and Scripture. I am grateful to look back and see areas of growth in my life. I am grateful for my husband, and other good men like him, who have sought to hear my voice. I am grateful for God’s commitment to walk with me as I shift through life, culture, the Scriptures and the way I view who He is and how to live to honor Him.
-Vivian Mabuni, Epic Staff