Epic staff Jason Poon is Chinese American, and serves alongside his Caucasian wife, TJ Poon in Texas. In this honest testimony, Jason shares about his own pain dealing with racism, the pressure “to be white” instead of embracing his cultural identity, and his hopes for his bicultural daughter as she grows up in the world. Consider using this powerful story as a starting point for a team, small group, or large group discussion on your campus!
Before my daughter Eden was born, I looked TJ in the eyes and told her in all seriousness that I hoped our daughter would look white because her life would be easier. Her response will always be with me. There was no shock. No laughter. Just sadness in her eyes because she knew. She knew I was serious and she knew that my comment came from a place of suffering and past experience.
Fast forward a year and wouldn’t you know it, my daughter is indeed very white-looking. I am both amused and shocked by how much she resembles me and that she reflects a completely different ethnicity too. But despite her appearance fulfilling a wish of mine, I’m not oblivious to the fact that she’ll still face some hardships over her ethnicity.
Back in college, when I was dating my former girlfriend, her father directed a comment about me that I’ll never forget. We were both 20, still a few years off from graduating and marriage wasn’t even a remote possibility. He sat his daughter down and told her his concerns about any future children we might have. How they’ll be half. How they’ll grow up with identity issues because of it. When we broke up, she relayed that information to me but I was too young and naive to realize what had really happened.
When my friends heard about it, they were immediately outraged, horrified and even stunned by what he had said about me for they saw what I couldn’t see. I cannot even imagine how my parents felt when I told them what happened and their sense of confusion when I wasn’t angry about it.
My parents met in England, spending over a decade of their lives away from Hong Kong, trying to make a better living out there. I recently learned that they moved back to Hong Kong before I was born because my father’s career as a doctor had reached a dead end. He had been passed over for several jobs. Jobs which he was well-qualified for, but wasn’t even considered because he was Chinese. The jobs all went to Caucasians, most of them didn’t even have the proper credentials. The final straw was when he was filling in for a friend and a patient refused his service because of his “black hair”.
Being a parent myself, I can imagine the horrible feeling of hearing my child face a racist situation. Recent incidents of cultural insensitivity in the news have surfaced for me all the times I have been called a “Chink.” I can recall the many times I had someone reference my “squinty” eyes, even though my eyes are actually pretty round. The one that hurt the most was when someone in a mocking accent tried to converse with me with “Ching Chong Ling Long Ting Tong”. The act of making fun of my language wasn’t entirely that hurtful, but that it mostly happened in the company of people and nobody would come to my defense. Nobody would say anything.
The most recent episode occurred when I had dinner at a friend’s house. Even after conversing with his family for over two hours at this point, my friend’s elementary age stepbrother blurted out “Wait, what’s your name again? Ching Chong Wong Wang?” My friend stepped in as much as he could, but his parents just sat there, silent and slowly kept eating.
The message from these stories is clear to me: it’s better to be white. You get the job even if you didn’t work for it. You are marriage material. You don’t get called names. So when I told TJ my hope for our daughter’s appearance, I was wishing she wouldn’t experience the same pains I did growing up.
Eden is unique. She comes from two cultures and two worlds. It has started to become more and more evident as I begin to show pictures of her deceased grandparents and teach her how to address them in Cantonese. Eden is not half. She is fully Chinese and she is fully American. But despite her outward appearance, she will not have that “easy” life that I wish for, partly because I won’t allow it.
Eden cannot grow up in this world turning a cold shoulder to my… no, her story. To the best of my abilities, I will raise her to know her Chinese heritage and her American heritage too. She will know of the plight towards her people as immigrants in this country. As TJ put it, we cannot allow her to grow up with apathy. Because she is both Chinese and American, she has a unique opportunity in bridging two worlds together bringing forth healing, reconciliation and understanding. But to do that, she needs to have empathy for both cultures and that cannot happen without some pain and suffering in her life.
It pains me to say that, and while my role as a father is to protect her, I cannot shelter Eden from certain experiences in life, even if it means it’ll hurt her. My natural instinct is to keep her from harm, but I would rob her of far more if I did.
Note: If you’re interested, TJ wrote a follow-up post here.
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