Are Asians Sell-outs?

On the heels of the rapidly subsiding waves of controversy caused by the “SPLASH” of the Deadly Vipers controversy (read more: here, here, here, and here), I find myself  puzzling anew over the whole issue of how Asian-American identity is constructed, what is the relationship between ethnic identity and faith, how and whether to speak up and at what cost, and even how to bring others along on the journey without only being angry.

It strikes me that one of the basic underlying struggles is rooted in the question of what it means to be an authentically ethnic and Christian person when one either is or is immediately descended from people who intentionally forsook their ethno-cultural matrix in order to make a home in North America.  Or in other words, maybe it isn’t just the Francis Chan’s of the world who are sell outs.  Of course no one is actually calling the man a sell-out, it’s just making a point and raising a question about how much one’s ethnicity ought to be in play in an intentional kind of way, especially as a Christian.

But there is a larger and more problematically complex issue at stake here.  The racial history of the United States has created an oddly distorted racialized system that has been a double-edged sword for Asian Americans.  East Asian immigrants particularly enjoy quite remarkable economic and educational success in the United States and Canada.  And the reality of immigration is such that those who chose to leave their home countries came generally (though not always) with quite significant economic, educational, or entrepreneurial drive that made their ability to climb the ladder of economic opportunity much more likely than those left behind in their native lands .

This has been true of most immigrant groups who generally outpace natives in economic achievement after the first generation, however the racialized nature of American society has meant that such economic advancement has rebounded to create a sort of idealized image of Asian Americans that is the foundation stone of the “model minority” myth; a myth alternately decried and embraced by Asian Americans since it provides needed distance from association with non-model minority — Black AmericansSo the image of the hard-working, compliant, family focused and theologically orthodox Asian American who is educated at the finest evangelical seminaries is set against the decidedly lazy, angry, irresponsible and theologically liberal Black who is feared rather than loved. (not to mention Latinos and Hispanics!!) This of course ignores intentionally the many many lazy, non-hard working, irresponsible, dysfunctional Asians both here and abroad.  It is quite easy to have  a picture of relative success when you leave all the unsuccessful relatives back at home.

Of course this is the unintended consequence of the wholesale purchase of the American dream that has been sanctified via the dual cultures of Asian educational idolatry and American materialist pursuit.  A consequence that is further illustrated by the uncertain sound of the trumpet blast of justice against biases and stereotypes such as those employed during the Deadly Vipers controversy.  It is a bit challenging to sound the alarm against the system abusing, misrepresenting, and dishonoring Asian culture when ones own success and acceptance within America has been predicated upon the abandonment of that same culture or at least those parts of culture which are inconvenient and represent impediments to achieving the American dream.  It is a bit hypocritical to condemn the exploitation of ones culture by others when you unwilling to pay the price of defending it.  Certainly it is no virtue to continue to enjoy the privileges associated with being the “model minority” while wanting to avoid the quite high costs of being like that problematic other minority group that’s always complaining about something, i.e. Black people.

I say it with love and respect and those who know me can attest to my bonafides in terms of deep and abiding compassion (in the original sense of “suffering with”) Asian Americans, that AA have long enjoyed the fruits of the labors of others, notably Blacks and to a lesser extent Latinos, in plowing up the very hard ground of racism and racialization in the society.  We have often been (and I speak here of Black Americans) on the “point” of major issues, speaking out, expressing anger, demanding redress and in so doing have taken many hits while others have slipped in on the backs of our misfortune and in the bloody footsteps of our sacrifice.  It has been worth it.   Deadly Vipers would never have been done with an African theme; the writers wouldn’t have written it thus and Zondervan would never have dared to publish it.  However it has come at a cost, a high one.  Are you willing to pay it?

A sell-out is one who bargains away his own identity or people in exchange for acceptance and benefits afforded by those in power.  Asian Americans cannot continue sell out their cultural inheritance and then expect others to honor it.  They (I started to write “we”) cannot ask others to pay the full cost of understanding and appreciating the nuances of Asian culture while failing to be educated and deeply appreciating what it is all about.  They cannot continue embracing unthinkingly the theological and culture paradigms of White American evangelicalism which took root in a very different cultural soil while demanding a theology that influences and is influenced by the nuances of Asian American identity and understanding.  Asian Americans cannot decry the maladaptive use of their cultural symbols, language, and ideas by others while maintaining a steadfast refusal in their churches to demonstrate the redemptive reuse and re-adaptation of those same symbols, language and ideas to the glory of God.   It cannot be enough to say, “we are not your stereotypes” and remain unwilling to engage in the creative process of culture making, of dethroning Euro-American cultural idols of how church is to be done, and of creating an authentic Asian-American Christianity that is more than a bad system poorly imitated.

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10 thoughts on “Are Asians Sell-outs?

  1. thanks josh for that. It’s a fresh voice. I personally am from a majority asian context now working as a minority in north County San Diego community colleges- i’m currently discerning what it means to correct my students when they make bad asian jokes, while at the same time realizing that i give them permission with my own self-depricating humor.

    anyways, you hit a nerve, and in a good way. Asian American Christianity needs to be aware of how our history is built on us trying to reject our culture. We need God to redeem that part of our history, because it has been that attitude that has given permission to majority culture to perpetuate these stereotypes. In trying to blend in with white majority culture, we join the mockers, trying to pretend that the people we mock are people distant from ourselves, when really, we are the ones being mocked.

    Perhaps we truly have sold out… but I believe that God can restore us, so that we are no longer hiding our faces (not even saving them), and we can walk with confidence in who God has created us to be and the inheritance and history He has placed us in… and from there, create a culture where we can bless others, instead of a culture that we try to sweep under the rug. And perhaps we too can pave the way for future people and cultures, much as the African American civil rights movement paved the way for us- for our heritage is not just immigrants from China, but also those that have fought for our families to even live and work here.

    in short- thanks. And I’m praying that Asian American Christians will live in thankfulness instead of shame.

  2. I’m having a little trouble understanding this, so I’m just gonna paraphrase/summarize what I read and hope that you’ll clarify:

    1) Black people had to do all the work so that we (Asian Americans) could become accepted within American culture.

    2) Asian Americans sold out on their culture and heritage so that they could pursue the “American Dream.”

    3) By selling out on their culture and not properly representing it, Asian Americans aren’t allowed to get mad at people who “get it wrong.”

    1. VY, thanks for taking the time to read and respond. Not a small gift in this age of busyness.

      It is hard to convey tone and inflection through the internet, so I know it is probably difficult to hear my “voice” as it were coming through in the post, and certainly I want to respond to your summary paraphrase as best I can. I think on the whole that you’ve missed my point, which is likely my failure to communicate well.

      1) In the American racial paradigm the so-called model minority is juxtaposed against the unnamed but obviously non-model minority Blacks in no small measure because Asian immigrants and their descendants have no only been economically successful, they have been comparatively quiescent and non-complaining, benefiting from the noise made by others without having to pay the price of storming the barricades themselves. This simply is true. I do not mean to suggest some ill intent or to provoke a one-upmanship of grievance which is both foolish and un-Christian.

      2) Pretty much yes, though not quite as cut and dried as that. It is much more nuanced.

      3) No, no, and no again. A thousand times NO! Simply that Asian American (Christians especially)cannot expect others to honor what they themselves dishonor, so the bar is raised not lowered. AA must be the first to take the lead in demonstrating the redemptive employment of their own culture and demand it be respected.

      1. Thanks for taking the time to clarify what you meant. And for the record, I do agree with most of what you’re saying (I only say “most” because some of this is still hazy to me). It’s become too easy to exploit Asian cultures because we’ve more or less allowed it to be turned into a fad or trend.

        However, in light of the Deadly Viper controversy, I think there’s a really fine line between claiming racial consciousness and taking one’s racial identity too seriously. Even though the United States claims to be a “melting pot,” there is an overarching culture here that many residents are forced to conform to (to a certain degree) in order to “succeed” (which is a relative term). Because some people have to let go of some of their roots, does that really mean that they’ve “sold out” on their racial identity and no longer have any right to defend it?

      2. A follow-up comment to what I wrote last:

        If anyone who has sold out on the “inconvenient” aspects of their culture is not allowed to defend their heritage, then I really don’t think any of us are allowed to get angry/indignant whenever someone misrepresents or disrespects our cultural heritage.

  3. Some comments via facebook:

    Charles Hong
    A bit more profound than I can fathom. Personally, I don’t care for the so-called Evangelical circle any more than I care for the country music. It’s a perfectly good amusement for someone, but I can’t stand either. However, I’d like to hear more about this in person. May I post your comments on my Facebook to see what kinds of comments it … See Moremight elicit? As you know, being a minority in a so-called melting pot is a double edged sword. A racial minority is a foreigner in your own country even as European tourists blend right in. But it is also a blessing. For example, we can see through the hypocracy and injustice that pervades our society. US is a nation shape by a “narrative.” Compelling, but largely fictional nonetheless. US Evangelicals often mix up this “American fiction” for the real thing, which is the Gospel they should hold dear. I cringe when Asian Americans buy into this myth lock stock and barrel also.

    Paul Lim
    The Deadly Vipers are off the shelves; Ninja Assassin is a box office hit! Folks of Asian America, this is precisely where we live: damned if we do, damned if don’t. The simple logic is this: if you were opposed to DV, then you – to stay consistent to your conscience – perhaps shouldn’t go watch NA, either, for doing so will implicate you in this… See More commercializing and commodifying of Asian / Asian American male stereotypes: that we are relatively quiet and subdued until we rip off our shirts and start doing roundhouse kicks in someone else’s face or keyster! This race and religion thing, as it pertains to Asian Americans is a lot more complicated than people make it out to be…. Good work.

    Charles Hong
    Frankly, I’ve never even heard of Deadly Vipers and Ninja Assassins until this. It must be “Christian Underground” thing started by Zondevaan. I once knew a Korean American man who wanted to be a serious Shakespearian actor. I thought to myself “good luck. And you better learn some kung fu!”

  4. I agree, Elder J. The cost is a high one and there are times when I am far more willing to take a pass. I will bang on this drum again. As an Asian American woman, I often feel like I’m the one always complaining. The energy to engage in culture making and creating an authentic Asian-American Christianity requires me and my sisters to fight and defend multiple fronts. Sometimes it’s just easier to watch others, and here I really mean “men”, throw around theological and sociological arguments.

    You’ve got me thinking…

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