Neighborhood Store

Yesterday while walking back hom through my decidedly poor/working class neighborhood from the corner gas station/Subway restaurant, I was struck yet again by the disparity and incongruity of the world’s inhabited by the various people with which I had just interacted.

There were the neighborhood kids; probably pre-teens, playfully walking back from the store and tossing a football around – much like kids everywhere except these kids are due to their race, gender, and economics much more likely to end up as absentee fathers, in jail, on drugs, or generally on the bad side of society.  They weren’t being disrespectful or anything.  Just being normal kids. 

I saw myself in them from a time when I was a young Black inner city kid just hanging out and having fun on a Saturday afternoon.  I remember even then knowing that being of my race, and because of my gender, I was viewed automatically with suspicion in the world, that police were not always on your side, and that people judged me more by my appearance and my address than they did by my excellent marks in school or the fact that we were good church going people with solid values.

There were the owners/proprietors of the store who were, as per usual, not Black, but immigrants (or at least the children of immigrants) making their living by selling overpriced goods and services to a community of people that look nothing like them.  When I was in the store, I wondered internally what they thought of these people from whom they made their living and I suspected that they looked down on them; on us.  After all, I never see them, nor any of the foreign born small business owners that are abundant in Black communities throughout the country, actually living in or even near the people they sell things too. We are people from which to earn a living; not to live among. 

Ironically I found myself also wanting to disassociate myself from “them.”  “I’m not like the other Black people that come in the store,” I wanted to say. “I’m not going to be loud, or buy malt liquor, or make fun of you because of your accent.” It is painful to admit, but even more painful to feel the double consciousness of that moment, multiplied many times over when I encounter the ever present asian small business owner making money selling the things that mostly Black people buy.  Are there really ANY Black hair care stores that are NOT owned by Koreans?

The pain I feel is that of inwardly wanting to distance myself from all that is stereotypically “Black” so as to make myself palatable to those who in most cases are doing all they can to make themselves seem more “American.”  Except that Black people aren’t Americans — at least not when it comes to that.  American means “White” and they are the ones immigrants are trying to impress, not me.  Black people are people to make money from, to be appreciated from a distance because of our music and style, but not to be respected as Americans.  An overgeneralization I’m sure, but one based on my gut reactions.

For our part, Asian’s are a mystery… forever foreigners, non-entities really.  Many Blacks are indifferent towards the people that maintain their beautiful manicures, sell them the products that enable their gorgeous hair, and cook the food that replenishes the ubiquitous Chinese buffets.  They are like vending machines: they can be safely ignored, or even insulted. They are not people.

And then there is me: walking through the neighborhood. An educated Black man, a product of the inner city, but with a basic grasp of world history, economics, culture… a smattering of French and a growing knowledge of Korean.  I attend a Korean church but still like collard greens. I walk home wondering why these people, these worlds that I have somehow become a part of, are so far apart.


Diaspora Musings

Since D Park over at Next GenerAsian Church posted his comments about being diaspora people, it provoked my own thoughts, albeit ones that are much less formed than his own.

He raises the significant question of identity formation within the context of being a diaspora people, and my own comments there reference the Jewish experience of Babylon.

The idea of how our identity, culture and faith intersect is an important one for Christians to grapple with, and I believe that the Jewish people can be our teachers in this regard, particularly the OT narratives about them.  They are essentially defined by 2 events: the Exodus from Egypt when the covenant with God was fully initiated, and the exile in Babylon, which came as a consequence of the breaking of that covenant.

What is interesting to me in the second instance is the way in which they are instructed by their religious leaders (in this case the prophet Jeremiah) to make themselves fully at home in their new land, and to seek the welfare of that place.  At the same time, we read about the so-called Hebrew boys Hannaniah, Azariah, Mishael, and Daniel who resist full assimilation into the Babylonian identity while stil managing to rise high in the bureaucracy of the Babylonian Empire.

What is interesting to me, and instructive I think for us today,  is their determination to both fully engage the culture and adapt to it (after all, Daniel is the only one who is generally known by his Hebrew name), yet at the same time retain a distinct or perhaps even more refined sense of their identity as Hebrews.  Now while the parallels to the immigrant experience is not the same (after all they were resisting the temptation to worship a false god) it is perhaps not as dissimilar as it may at first appear.

They manage to come to a genuine engagement with the society and culture of Babylon so much so that Esther rises to the position of queen in the Persian Empire (a successor to Babylon) and Nehemiah becomes the chief steward of Persia.  Daniel ans his compatriots all rise to positions of prominence within Babylon, learn the Babylonian language and customs, but none of them become “sell outs.”

In some ways Daniel and his peers might be more like first generation immigrants who are uprooted and come to the US.  It makes sense that they would somehow cling to their “home” culture.  It is significant though that they chose this option in a Babylonian society that was highly assimilationist, unlike the Persians who followed them.

What do we make of Nehemiah though?  He most certainly second (or third or fourth) generation, and probably was more fluent in Persian than Hebrew.  Yet he thinks of himself very firmly as a Jew, albeit a very persian-ized one.  When the book bearing his name opens, there is no sense that he is discontent with his identity as a persian-ized Jew, and indeed when he makes the decision to go to Jerusalem, he makes clear plans to return to Susa when he’s done.

Of course as I mentioned the parallel is not perfect, but I cannot help but wonder if part of the witness of their provided by these folks is in their refusal to give up their ethnic/cultural identity and what can be learned from that.  Or put more simply, if immigrants to the US adopt wholesale American Christianity (and more broadly American culture) is the witness to Jesus that could be provided somehow diminished.  After all, if Black people in the US had adopted White Christianity, there would have been no counter to the prevailing winds of White supremacy that blew unhindered through much of the White church and society; there would have been no civil rights movement at all.

So if my Asian (and other) Christian brothers and sisters merely assimilate and ape American Christianity, is their possible prophetic role diminished? It is probably not for me to ask, but I will dare to be cheeky and raise the question of what prophetic insight is being lost to the church when Asian Christians abandon their culture in an effort to assimilate to American norms?