American Culture: Part 1

In the midst of the current debate (I use the term loosely, since it is more accurately described as demagoguery) about immigration, illegal and otherwise, one of the issues that has emerged is the need for immigrants to learn English.  There have been ballot proposals, initiatives; etc all advocated that English be the “official” language of this or that place.  I think it is a waste of pen & ink to write such things since most immigrants strive very hard to learn English, and their children most assuredly do – something most Americans fail to do when we travel and live overseas by the way.

 

Which brings me to my larger point.  I am coming to believe that American culture is an “un-culture” much like utopia is a non-place.  Much of what it means to be American is not built on any positive affirmation of this or that thing, ritual, ceremony or tradition, but rather a radical rejection of something else.   To be American is to be non-Korean, non-Scottish, non-Russian, non-something.  We are bound together by our mutual rejection of other cultures.  I believe this radical stripping down is one of the reason why America both always has needed immigrants (and attracted them) and also why it doesn’t want immigrants. 

American culture is opportunistic when it comes to immigrants.  It wants the skills and resources and work habits that immigrants bring, but not the cultures in which those skills, resources, and work habits were formed.  America is the place where all the prior constraint of culture, deference, family, community, etc. are cast off and a new identity can be forged ex-nihilio.   We are a country where seeking your own happiness is enshrined in our founding documents.

That this is true (and I know of course that it is not universally or completely true in all cases) should be no surprise given our origins.  The U.S. was formed as an act of rebellion – not against an oppressive regime as in the case of the USSR or the French Revolution  – but against a mother country of the same kith and kin.  It was a battle about rejecting responsibility to that mother because we didn’t like the constraints that relationship entailed. 

And so it is that from inception, America has been a country all about doing your own thing.  Hence the thrust for westward expansion – it gave people room to do their own thing without having to deal with the restraints of the more “civilized” east coast.  The civil war was essentially about the south wanting to do its own thing as regards slavery.  Most of American foreign policy has been about creating space for American citizens (especially white) to do their own thing without limits.

Even in the church this is apparent, because much of American spirituality is not about responsibility to others (and especially not to tradition, to our elders or to our culture) but is rather about doing your own thing spiritually.  It is always about removing constraints, which is why White people have a hard time often describing what it means to be culturally White.  It is, both literally and figuratively, an absence of something – not the presence of something.  And this is why immigrants often have a hard time because their culture often binds them to a responsibility, an obligation that flies in the face of this cultural rejection.

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First Generation Angst

I am very priviledged to have some dear Korean friends who from time to time allow me into their world.  Recently over lunch, we had a surprising discussion that gave me a small glimpse into the concerns that face them as they navigate life here in the U.S.

The first topic was the college ministry at the church, and their concern about the college students (mostly 2nd gen or 1.5 gen) lack of commitment to the church.  There was anger that the students seemed to lack any appreciation for all the effort put into serving them, and confusion over why.  At first they wanted to include me in the conversation, expressing themselves in English, but the level of frustration was such that only speaking in their mother tongue would suffice.  And so I told them, “Don’t worry… say it in Korean.”  And that is when I knew for sure how angry, how hurt they were.  Emotions translate, even when language doesn’t. 

My friend looked at me, his eyes asking a question I couldn’t answer.  I work with 2nd gen’s; I am a minister; I’m an American – could I help them understand.  I couldn’t although I tried. I could only say what I knew – that the students weren’t Korean only, they were also American and that they thought differently and acted differently.  And when I said those words, “they are not just Korean – they are American,” I saw the pain of hurt and the conversation went to an entirely new level. 

We talked about the 2nd gen students in one of their classes and my friend said, with angst in her eyes, ” When I see them and hear them talk, I think about my daughter.”  I looked down at the table. “My daughter doesn’t understand why I want her to speak Korean at home.”  My friend said so little but her words said so much.

My friends are Korean, and Christian and they make time, lots of time, for church – seeing it as a genuine expression of their devotion to God and not merely a ritual.  They pray for their friends to know God and they study scripture with a desire to obey.  They do not understand students who would fail to devote themselves in the same way.  It seems to them a betrayal and rejection; of the church, of God, and of their Korean-ness.

My friends came to the U.S. to make a better life; to study hard so that their children would succeed.  They knew that moving here would mean different things for their children, but it does not change the pain they feel when their children look at them with shame or view speaking their parents language as a burden and not a gift.  They sacrifice so much to give their children the kind of life that allows them to reject their parents – it is not what they signed up for.

I think we who live and serve among the second generation must be careful.  I feel privileged to hear the hurt and pain of the 1st generation that to their children must often comes out as unreasonable demands & anger.  But simply because it goes unexpressed doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter and doesn’t mean that it is unimportant.  It is easy for us (I include myself as a child and beneficiary of the civil rights struggle) to critique our parents and the choices they make about church and life while failing to realize that we have the privilege of critique because of their sacrifices.  It is easy to overlook their pain and disregard their hurt and even to cast them aside as having nothing to teach us.  In so doing we run afoul of the scriptural command to honor our parents.

To honor our parents goes beyond simple obedience.  To honor means to esteem and appreciate.  We cannot appreciate when we will not take the time to hear.

Anger

I do not often watch “Black” films.  I also avoid Asian movies if there are any white men in them.  Why you ask?  Well Black films are often chock full of stereotyped Black characters (the trickster, the buffoon, the mammy, the jezebel) and the Asian films, well the white men are always the heroes and always get the girl.

Beyond this, however, is a more substantial reason.  When I watch these things, I get angry. Or I should say I am reminded of the anger that steams below the surface of my heart.   I don’t like feeling this anger because, well, there is no real relief for it.  There is a level of powerlessness I experience in the face of the anger, but even more in the face of the cause of the anger.

I can’t get away from the racialization in this society, I can’t get away from the history; I cannot escape the active and passive racism that has consequences for me and will have consequences for my children. 

“In your anger, do not sin,” scripture admonishes us.  That is a hard saying, because it is so much easier to simply not be angry, and indeed that is what many Christians advocate.  “Just get over it, it was a long time ago.” “We should move on.”  All of those things that people say, well intentioned though they may be, are simply wrong. 

Jesus does not command us to never be angry, nor does he model it.  He in fact acknowledges that anger is an appropriate response to injustice.  So then anger is okay, but to not sin in the midst of feeling these very real emotions is much harder. 

What are the proper responses then to anger?  Many of my Black students alternate between venting their anger and suppressing it (for the sake of survival).  Black anger has been used sinfully as a power tool in relationships and in politics.  Many of my AA students simply don’t actively deal with their anger (as far as I can tell).  It is merely internalized into additional self-blame/shame and as fuel to work harder & smarter than the dominant culture while all the while seeking assimilation and accomodation as quickly as possible.  This response is similar to that of Black people in the pre-civil rights era. At least that’s my humble observation.

Both of these responses are sinful; neither confronts the injustices of the system and neither honors Christ. If we are to be people of authentic reonciliation, we must learn to live in the tension of being angry and not sinning.