Proud to be an American?

Happy Fourth of July to all you Americans out there!

Over the past month in Bangkok, I have thought more about my “American identity” (I put that in quotes because let’s think about what our national identities even mean) than I have in over a year. Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about American identity from different slants and very complicated angles, in light of my personal identity crisis, in light of what I am going to call a current (US) national identity crisis, and in light of various global crises that should prompt us all to think about privilege, power and identity.

Personally, I have wrestled with my American identity for years, as a Chinese-born American who really has no cultural identification with China at all, especially when I go abroad and am hurled into the midst of various ethnic and national stereotypes, judgments, misconceptions, etc. that are different from those that I do not often experience in America. Nationally, I think about what makes us “proud to be American” and what does that mean? Historically, America is plagued by a dark and violent history of hate, segregation and prejudice. Today, racism in its various ugly forms is more real than ever and our nation continues to experience manifestations of socioeconomic inequality, prejudice, intolerance, ignorance, selfishness and just plain evil. Is it American food that sets us apart? Because most of our food is from other places. Our accents, pop culture, sense of fashion … what exactly? Are you proud to be an American? Have you ever had to “prove” or defend your American identity to anyone? If someone questioned it, would you care and why? What part of being mistakenly identified bothers you?

These are questions I’ve lately been wrestling with a lot, as Thai people often doubt that I’m American or may address me in broken Chinese after their Thai is met by my confused grimace. If or when they do address me in Chinese, they often receive an even more severe grimace lol. When I find myself getting frustrated (which is more often than I’d like), I think about an aspect of my invisible “western” privilege – how my worldview and attitudes toward both other Americans and people of other nationalities has been shaped by where I was raised.

Part of being privileged (American, European or “Western” in general) is that many of us have been accepted, tolerated and understood by our society for so much of our lives. As a result, we expect people (both other Americans and the world) to treat us with respect, politeness and even reverence at times. Privilege is so multifaceted and I am becoming more aware of its different features than ever. It is not just wealth and status; it also includes racial and ethnic understanding, tolerance and “admission” or acceptance into the dominant ethnic community as a result. As an Asian girl growing up in a privileged Caucausian family in the US (shoutout to my family; love you guys and am so grateful), I have never not been accepted or welcomed into a community in the States or been denied anything because of my race or ethnicity. It has rarely ever been questioned. That is INCREDIBLE privilege.

Note: This is a complete mind-dump of many of my thoughts from the past month, so feel free to disagree or converse with me about this, I would love your opinions!

When I get offended by various interactions of mistaken identity, I have come to the conclusion that it is partly because of my own pride, selfishness and privilege, because I too am (believe it or not!) American and have this engrained sense of entitlement and privilege that I’ll be respected and understood by others wherever I go. I have to fight an internal struggle to not get offended and defensive when people question my national, cultural and ethnic identity.

Today, our world faces many crises, one of which is a global refugee crisis, where millions of people are finding themselves displaced, stateless and seeking asylum (any national identity issues I possibly have pale in comparison), another of which is severe ethnic and religious violence, and others which underlie them all are racism, prejudice and intolerance. Who or what are we going to identify with? As Americans, how do we define ourselves? Are we going to meet hatred with more hatred and intolerance? Or are we going to work for peace, reconciliation, empathy and love? I know I am pushing back a lot here against this “American identity” and white privilege, but at the same time, I believe part of the “Americanness” that we take pride in is individuality and the freedom to craft our own identity – this has collectively come to define the “American identity.” That freedom, privilege, whatever you want to call it, is truly a gift, and if you have been graciously granted it, you can actually use your privilege for good! Firstly build gratitude and empathy for those whose identities have been snatched and trampled over (look around your neighborhood, city, etc.) and secondly use it creatively and graciously to give to others who are not as privileged.

As we Americans and global citizens celebrate another fourth, I challenge us all to reflect on the identities that we have crafted and to brainstorm how individually, if we each put values of love and empathy before arrogant nationalism or entitlement, our identities can shake and shape the collective American identity.

*image: Manzanar Relocation Center (in distance), Ansel Adams, taken from: When America Interned People Because of Their Race

Reflections on Jan in 上海

I just got back on Monday from a month in Shanghai and wanted to share some thoughts from my time there. Unfortunately, it was really difficult this time to access my VPN on my computer, so I wasn’t able to post blogs or even get on the Internet on my laptop during the month. But I kept a journal, so I want to share some of my thoughts in the moment and then reflect on what I am thinking about in retrospect.

On January 18th, I wrote this:

It’s a little embarrassing, so bear with me 😉

Today is January 18th, I’ve been back in Shanghai almost two weeks. I’m currently coughing and sneezing like crazy, drowning in a pile of tissues, wondering if it’s worth it to buy a mask for the last couple weeks I’ll be here.

Let me give you a really candid look at my time here as I am feeling about it at this point. My friend Erika, who I was so blessed and lucky to meet and live with last fall when I was here for four months, came back to spend two weeks exploring, catching up, revisiting old favorite places, reminiscing on old memories and making new ones. As always, hanging out with her has been beyond fun and I am so grateful for her humor, silliness, honesty, and loyal friendship. I am here this month on two grants from Colby, one from the Global Studies department and one from the Religious Studies department, doing fieldwork research for my senior honors thesis on identity and community formation within the multicultural international church here. It is an amazing and generous opportunity and I feel honored to have been given the money and trust to come back and research this topic.

However, I have never been more ambivalent and unmotivated in my life, and it’s making everything really difficult. If I can’t even be passionate about my own research, how is anyone else going to be interested or see its value? I’ve been wrestling over the past two weeks with the point of all of this, as my laptop’s VPN completely failed (so no basic Internet or email), I started getting sick, my skin started breaking out, and all I’ve been wanting to do is explore with Erika and have fun trying out new restaurants and bars, seeing new parts of the city.

A week before I left for China, I was at Urbana, the InterVarsity missions conference, which among other things, was a powerful reminder of the truth of the gospel; how can I serve the least of these, how can I be more like Jesus, see people as he sees them, grow closer in my relationship with God, truly commit my past, present & future, finances, education, career, family, everything to God?

Those are huge questions, and then I came to Shanghai to learn about a community of people who are doing those things, expecting to feel energized, excited, impassioned, part of the plan. But I feel the opposite, and if I had to take a guess at why, it would be because it has hit me really hard lately that I cannot expect to live through others living out God’s mission and feel fulfillment for myself. I need to seek that out in my own life and say yes, be obedient and immediate and a servant in my own situations as I discern what He has for me next.

This research is interesting and insightful; I can learn a lot about other peoples’ lives and share it with academia at Colby who don’t understand the value and significance of such a unique Christian community. That’s such a blessing and valuable position to have. But the past couple weeks (and the rest of the month I am sure) have been and will continue to be a reminder that I need to devote myself to what matters in the kingdom of heaven, to what God cares about – and it is not anthropological research like this, or whatever I am doing. That doesn’t mean that you can’t glorify God in whatever capacity your work or school puts you in, but it does mean that when you have the choice, don’t choose something like this and expect that by being around people who are glorifying God, you are doing the same.


Back to the present. I thought that by coming back to China, by seeking out the opportunity to return in a productive way, that God may spark something else in my heart or open a door for me to return to China after graduation, or that somehow it would be easier, that I would enjoy myself and feel more of a connection to people or a pull to come back. But I didn’t experience any of that. I felt like more of an outsider and more conscious of my outsider-ness than ever (among native Chinese, not the expat church community of course) as well as more cynical, less patient and less tolerant than I was last year. I became incredibly aware of my position as a relentless consumer, as I spent so much time consuming – purchasing physical things like food and clothes, drinks, coffee, metro rides, but also intangibly always taking, taking, taking – peoples’ attention and time – and not feeling satisfied, like having so many of the problems I mentioned above and just not feeling like what I was doing was part of anything significant. Everything was so self-centered. Even my prayers and thoughts were so centered around myself, praying for patience and tolerance toward people, for peace about my Chinese identity, peace about the future.

I realized last month that I do not need to search for any part of my significance, identity or community in China, which is what I’ve been doing for a long time. There is very little part of me that ever belonged here – a month of my infancy, nine months in my birthmom, and last year abroad plus this past January. This doesn’t mean that I’ll never come back to China; I do now have a ten year multiple entry tourist visa and friends and family here, so I’m sure I’ll visit again. But it is always going to be super difficult for me and as I look toward the future and pray and think about how I can be a part of kingdom work, I want it to be fun and enjoyable too. Committing my future work and life to Christ will certainly involve personal sacrifice, as he tells us all to take up our crosses, deny ourselves, flee youthful passions & desires and follow him. But life with God should also be beautifully adventurous, joyful, fun, and in a place where we feel loved and valued.

I have so many amazing role models, friends and mentors in my life who are living examples of what it is to commit your life to seeking Christ and his kingdom and I want to thank them, tell them how much I appreciate them, and let them know I’m looking for the same things. Much of this was a personal reflection for me to think through thoughts that came up last month, but if you’re a gracious reader who has made it this far, I want to encourage you as well to think about how what you are doing (your work) and how you identify yourself (culturally, communally, spiritually, etc). is grounded. So that if you are wandering and searching and wavering a little like me, that you can really focus yourself on the most important questions that I was reminded of at Urbana: how can I serve the least of these, how can I be more like Jesus, see people as he sees them, grow closer in my relationship with God, truly commit my past, present & future, finances, education, career, family, everything to God?

Happy Saturday! Thank you for reading & love you all!

Life Together

It’s often funny to realize how long it takes us to appreciate and give thanks for things. I look back on Thanksgiving 2014 during my fall semester in Shanghai, and laugh because it was simultaneously so hilariously beautiful and bleak; I spent the morning making mashed potatoes and undercooked eggplant drowned in soy sauce with my roommate Erika, before rushing to class. After a regular school day, we decided the potatoes and eggplant were a little lame, so we celebrated the holiday with nachos and Coronas at a little gem of a Mexican restaurant downtown. The mashed potatoes were clearly so good that we forgot we had leftovers in the fridge until we pulled out an unrecognizable bowl of pink fuzz about a month later, while cleaning out the fridge at the end of the semester. This was the community I had in Shanghai – Erika, a few friends in the apartment upstairs, and a cell group of other international students that I met through church. It was amazing and beautiful, but so short-lived and fleeting, definitely not always as appreciated as it should have been. All I could think about a year ago was how much I missed Thanksgiving being what I was used to, the delicious array of home-cooked turkey, stuffing, pies, endless feasting, family and friends, a warm fire, my comfortable home.

I have been prompted lately to reflect a lot on fellowship, community, and what life together as followers of Christ means and looks like, in light of a couple things.

One, I am working on a senior thesis this year, tying in abroad experiences from last year as well as themes and thoughts that have ran through my life and my mind for as long as I can remember. Broadly, it’s about international, expatriate Christians in Shanghai; how these people navigate the search for spiritual and cultural identity, home and belonging in such a huge, metropolitan, global city, within such a multicultural, multiethnic, multi-denominational Christian community. How do these people find and create fellowship? What does Christian fellowship mean at its core?

Secondly, as I’ve been back from China for over five months now, I’ve been basking every day at Colby in comfort, fellowship, community, fun and friendship that I thank God for every day. I missed it so much last year.

I’ve also been reading Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, an absolutely beautiful and gripping reflection on how we as Christians are truly given the gift of fellowship because of Christ and how it is founded upon our righteousness through Christ and our identity in Christ. There is a difference between human and spiritual love, human love being relative, “directed to the other person for his own sake,” but spiritual love being “where Christ tells me to maintain fellowship for the sake of love, I will maintain it … because spiritual love does not desire but rather serves, it loves an enemy as a brother” (35).

There are going to be disagreements, strife and misunderstandings between Christians in fellowship, because we are humans with imperfect hearts and selfish desires. When we spend time together in transparency, openness and vulnerability, there is bound to be hurt, pain and arguments in conjunction with deeper understanding and fellowship. But those conflicts cannot and should not ever overpower the spiritual love that binds us in Christ, because then human selfishness and evil desire or whatever is not of God wins. The only love that we should pursue is love of Christ, as Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always hopes, always trusts, always perseveres. Love never fails.”

Because God first loved us enough to sacrifice his son in order to give us life, because of God’s love and this incredible, unfathomable, unimaginable love alone, we as Christ-followers absolutely must love one another, must love the Christian community that we have been gifted with. And the first step is realizing that it truly, truly is a gift. This fellowship will look different at different seasons in our lives. As I’m learning through the lives of Shanghai Christians and as I have experienced personally, cultural, language, ethnic, and social barriers can make it extremely difficult to connect with and love your Christian community. However, loving others is the closest thing we can do as humans to reflect the image of God, both to our brothers and sisters in Christ and to the rest of the world that has yet to know him.

I have been blessed beyond what I deserve or ever could imagine, but I have also been broken and hurt. I understand how hard it is to love those who have hurt and rejected you. But my prayer for all of my brothers and sisters in Christ, at Colby and worldwide, is that we will truly love each other purely in reflection of our gratitude to God, our righteousness through Christ, and our calling and mission as disciples. I pray that we will reconcile and forgive any misunderstandings or disagreements that divide us, and that looking forward, we will only strive to unselfishly serve and reflect Christ in what we do.

We shouldn’t wait until things are good or long after things have passed to thank God. Love and gratitude are really closely intertwined and they need to be like as much a part of us as the food and water that sustain us daily. Thank God right now for your imperfect Christian community.

I’ll end with another quote from Life Together:

How can God entrust great things to one who will not thankfully receive from Him the little things? If we do not give thanks daily for the Christian fellowship in which we have been placed, even where there is no great experience, no discoverable riches, but much weakness, small faith, and difficulty; if  on the contrary, we only keep complaining to God that everything is so paltry and petty, so far from what we expected, then we hinder God from letting our fellowship grow according to the measure and riches which are there for us all in Jesus Christ. (29)

Thank you all for reading! Love and blessings to the fellowship I have been so abundantly, undeservedly blessed with.

Learning to love China again.

It’s been a month since I got home from China. In the past few weeks, I’ve eased smoothly and comfortably back into life in sleepy Pennington, NJ. It’s been such a smooth transition that actually it’s been hard to think back on my time in China. Once the week or so of jetlag passed, it all could’ve been a dream. It’s only when I really force myself to reflect or when I find myself in situations that trigger memories that I am reminded of my time there at all. Like when I’m at Starbucks ordering a vanilla latte of course I’m reminded of my daily afternoons at the Kunming Starbucks on Renmin Zhong Lu, where lattes cost over $5 and the best drink on the menu was probably the Green Tea Latte. It was such a sad waste of money, really not much to miss there.

Last weekend, I spent a little over 24 hours in Boston, where I saw my wonderful friend and partner in adventure from Shanghai, Erika, and my cousins Kathy and Anna. I’m feeling very happy, full and grateful for friendships that transcend countries and can pick up right where they left off. In Boston I thought a lot about China though. Maybe it was the not-quite authentic dim sum that Erika and I chatted over in Chinatown, riding the T around the city like I rode the metro around back in Shanghai, or just the urban atmosphere in general that triggered memories.

Last week, I also started reading a book called Race Matters by Cornel West, written in 1993, but probably one of the most relevant and timely books you could read right now, given the current state of race relations in the US and around the world. I would highly recommend it. It gives light to issues extremely relevant to not only black Americans but people of all other races, by posing really sharp insights and questions into American “democratic” systems, perceptions, power structures, leadership, education, etc.

I think a lot about how much I complained when I was in China. The air, the pushy people, the garbage, cigarette smoke, the spitting – my mantra was endless. In my last few months, especially, I struggled every day with these things and the cultural disconnect I felt from the people. But I come back to America and my heart is broken for the country I grew up in and the nation I call my home, the place I couldn’t wait to return to. Although people may appear more clean-cut and refined, they don’t push you over to get where they need to go (literally I fell over once getting on a bus in Shanghai), they don’t smoke in your face or ask you flat out where you’re from, hatred, intolerance, racism, socioeconomic disparity, loss of hope and purpose, broken people and broken systems – these are worldwide conditions that just like love and friendship, also transcend cultures and places.

I thought a lot about my identity while in China. If people weren’t questioning it for me, I was questioning it for myself. Was I American? Chinese? Both? How did my cultural and spiritual identity align? Why did people care so much about where I was from and how I spoke and why did I care so much that they cared? To be completely transparent, I couldn’t wait to return to a place and be around people who would reinforce my American identity. I didn’t want to have anything to do with any part of whatever little Chinese identity I had. I wasn’t like these people and didn’t want to be. It’s selfish and it takes me back to discussions in a Caribbean Cultures anthropology class that I took during the fall of sophomore year. Some of us, because we are wealthy and privileged, go between cultures and places with an outsider identity; we are never truly a part of them, but instead take the role of a spectator, a tourist, one who will never truly understand the daily plights and struggles of the people we come into contact with as we visit new places. I’ve always had a fear of being that tourist, but I’ve come to realize that part of the glamour of travel (or even studying abroad) is that you are an outsider, you are removed, you get to experience the fun and the excitement of the culture without the monotony or the difficulty. And when that image is taken from you, when you are seen as just another person walking the streets, fighting your way onto the bus, bartering for food, you get that authentic treatment whether you want it or not. Would we travel as a hobby or want to “experience” different cultures if we weren’t seen or treated as a tourist? Hopefully. But the fun and glamour certainly wouldn’t be there.

One of the hardest things about being in China was that I was often seen and treated as an insider but didn’t have any more of a grasp or understanding of the culture and social norms than any other tourist. So I learned quickly that if you’re in a place where other people are going to determine your social identity, take hold of what other parts of your identity you can control and work with those! Your faith, who you truly, truly are in the eyes of the One who created you and the people who love you, those things cannot be changed by the way a society or anyone else sees you. Seeing so much hatred and racism and hopelessness seeping throughout American society in just the past few months makes it more clear to me than ever that an epidemic of hatred, racism, hopelessness, ignorance, brokenness, and more deeply, a crisis of identity, really plagues our society. Find the beauty instead of ugliness in difference, combat hatred and racism and intolerance with love and truth, remind yourself every day who you are and what is important!

I am trying to make this connection between personal identity and social change because I think my daily identity struggle in China and the way that I dealt with it really cultivated within me more of a love and appreciation for humanity as a whole and for peoples’ differences. I know this may be too idealistic, to think that thinking about personal identity differently can change people and a society. I might look back on this later and roll my eyes and wonder what I was thinking. But for now, I am an idealist, and I truly believe that if you work on your own identity, thoughts, beliefs and values, then you will be able to love others different from you more deeply. Race really is a social construct; we can really work toward lasting social change; we can truly love people who are different from us; we can find a common humanity before resorting to hatred or violence should ever cross our minds.

So, a month back from China, I am replacing my mantra of complaints toward China with a mantra of love for China. It’s still in progress. Because I had (and still have) a lot of hatred and scorn toward rude and judgmental people I met on the streets. And the way that individual ignorance can create a culture of ignorance. It’s not like working on your own identity is easy, especially when everyone around you is making it really difficult for you. But, removed a few thousand miles from the situation, I am able to remind myself who I am and because of that, I can develop a renewed love for the Chinese people. It’s because firstly, I am a child of God, and a follower of Jesus, so my actions, thoughts and words must be compelled by love, not hatred, not a defense of my cultural identity, not my own selfish pride.

China is still the most populous country in the world, Mandarin is still by far the most widely spoken language, the Chinese government still restricts and persecutes Christians, socioeconomic and racial disparities are still harsh as ever and urban poverty is an epidemic. More people live in Shanghai than like the top five most populated US cities combined. Lots of Chinese people I met were incredibly kind and gracious to me, and I will miss my friends there. The culture and lifestyle of China’s megacities intrigued and excited me. I will also never forget the humility and beauty of China’s rural villages. I may never live there again, but a part of who I am will always be Chinese. So I don’t really think my personal Chinese/American identity crisis and whatever hard feelings toward Chinese people I met really have a place anymore. It’s not like I’m in a place right now to really change these incredibly huge social and spiritual issues plaguing our world today. But I continue to believe that anyone can be an agent of change no matter where you are or what situation you’re in. There’s always hope.

So I hope that this little piece of my story enlightens and empowers you and that you in turn use your own influence to love others, love yourself, and create change. Even if it’s just changing the way you think about your own identity or those who are different from you. Reaching out to some different people. Trying something new, going to a new place, reading Race Matters. Or acting differently as a tourist on your vacations. It’s all important stuff.

My two mommas

Happy Mother’s Day! Firstly, I’d like to wish all the moms I know a wonderful and blessed day. You’re all really amazing and have made the world such a better place in so many ways. Secondly, I could go on and on for pages about my mom back in Jersey and everything she’s taught me and all the ways she’s supported me and comforted me and how much I love and miss her. It’s all so true! Let’s love on and bless our moms today (as we should every day) and give thanks for the life and opportunities that they’ve given us.

On top of all of the love and gratitude I feel for my mom, today, for really the first time, I’ve been thinking about Mother’s Day in a bit of a new light. I think it’s because I’m in China, probably closer to my birth mom in distance than I’ve ever been, but of course, unfathomably far from her in all other respects, since I’ve never met her and even after living here for a few months, I know I will continue to be eternally perplexed by her language and culture. But I have two moms, and although one I know closely and has loved and provided for me the past 21 years, the other one loved me too, enough to give birth to me and give me a chance at life by leaving me in front of an orphanage. Which thanks to God and my amazing parents, was truly a new life.

Last weekend, my aunt encouraged me to pray for my birth mother, which honestly and a little ashamedly, I never have. It’s not because I haven’t thought about her and my birth father, because I constantly do. However, for some time growing up, and even at certain points while I’ve been in China, all I’ve felt toward her is resentment. It sounds harsh, so let me explain. It’s not resentment toward her so much as a bitterness toward China in general. That sounds really harsh as well, and I’m truly working on it! Again, give me a chance to explain. My year here has taught me a lot about tolerance and patience and how little I understand. I could never be more grateful for the opportunity my birth mother gave me to live, and the life I have had because she gave birth to me. It’s not that I ever resent my life now, growing up in an amazing family in America with all of the opportunities that I’ve had. The tinges of resentment come when I’m frustrated with Chinese culture and the ways in which it constantly rejects me and so many other people. Which is pretty much a constant. Maybe all foreigners feel this way, I’m not sure. Maybe anyone who doesn’t live up to that Han standard feels this way. But I would speculate that I feel this rejection in a somewhat different way than most people. As a little baby left outside an orphanage gate in rural China, any possibility of ever “fitting into” Chinese culture, feeling accepted by Chinese people, understanding the language and lifestyle, etc. was taken from me forever. But in my heart, that desire to fit in was always there. It’s not like I chose to study abroad in China because of its mystique or economic prowess or the complexity of its language or its food. All not bad reasons but nah, I mainly came because of my Chinese face and a constant tapping on my heart since I was young to return to the land of my birth and experience it for myself. I quickly discovered, like upon my arrival in the Pudong airport, that I had clearly been living in a myth for however long I may have thought that Chinese people would welcome me in with open arms in the way they treated me like, “yeah you’ve come home!” I don’t think I’ve ever admitted to anyone that that was an expectation I had before coming to China, probably because I’m embarrassed that I ever thought about it that way, since it’s been so far from the reality of what’s gone down in the past year here. Anyway, more reflections to come on my China experience later, but because of that – the plethora of struggles that have accompanied what sounds on paper like a simple year in China to study Mandarin – I have had a really hard time loving and appreciating a country that rejects so many of its little babies and balks at and scorns difference in anyone. And a country that I’ve had such a hard time fitting into and feeling respected in despite how hard I’ve tried. And truly, China will never know how hard I’ve tried.

My intentions here are not to sound harsh or angry or come across like I’m complaining or ranting, because every day I thank God for the people I’ve met here who have welcomed me with open arms and helped me learn their language and navigate their culture. And there are plenty of them too. Or even the people who have politely inquired about where I’m from and looked me in the eyes with interest and asked me about my story. I am so grateful for all of my friends here and I think there are probably many others here like them, with open and loving hearts and minds.

But back to my birth mother. After 21 years growing up with her genes, I’ve just started praying for her and thinking about her a lot lately in this past week. Thinking about the life she gave me and what incredible things that has led to. Thinking about how I feel back in her country and wondering how she feels in her own country. I wonder if she has any resentment herself. I mean, she was the one who was forced to give up a child. Thinking about all the bittersweet feelings I have toward China as my time here wraps up in a few weeks. Part of me is like, “hallelujiah I’m going home!” To a real home where I am truly loved and accepted. Not sure what could be more exciting right now. Part of me wonders what place China has in my heart and in my future, which I hoped to discover in my time here, but the answers to which are still farther away than ever. Anyway, all big things to ponder on this Mother’s Day 2015. And I’m not even a mom myself; who knew that this day could put so much on my mind.

Chinese – American?

There is definitely some sort of internal pride, an ego boost that you get as a foreigner when you’re in a country where you can more or less successfully navigate the language barrier. Of course no matter how fluent you are, there are always frustrating and/or awkward moments. But still, it should be a good feeling to know enough of a language to get around. I experienced that in Mexico for sure when I was like, yeah I’m not from here but I can speak your language (more or less haha). In China lots of my American classmates get surprised gasps, gaping mouths or wide-eyed looks when they fluently order their 鸡蛋拉面 or barter at the weekend markets.

Somewhere deeply rooted in my ego is this selfishness and envy that has really become apparent lately. See, I’ve been working just as hard at learning the language as my classmates but I never get those awestruck stares or compliments or special attention when I order food or hop in a cab. With confusion and curiosity at best I get asked “Where are you from?” and at worst I get scoffed at with disdain and completely ignored because why can’t I speak clearly enough or push through enough people to get service? I look just like everyone else but I don’t act like everyone else and I certainly can’t speak like everyone else. That is so weird to many people here.

Moments like these continually and to a somewhat concerning degree frustrate me. On one hand, it’s refreshing to blend in with the crowds and avoid stares or “hellos” on the street. I can go where I want and do what I want with generally little attention or disturbance. On the other hand, people generally have no tolerance or patience when I stumble over words trying to buy something, when I pronounce a word wrong or make a mistake ordering food. People commonly ask if I’m Korean which is tempting to reply “yes” to in order to spare trying to explain myself in Chinese. I still haven’t figured out a good way to really get across that I was born in China but adopted as a baby so am now fully American. It’s different than 美籍华人 (Chinese American) because when I say that I always get asked where in China my family is from. Sometimes I just say “Jiangxi” and move on with my day.

It’s okay and it’s daily a completely grounding and humbling experience to be this misunderstood. It’s also very frustrating and draining. It makes me reflect on that pridefulness and selfishness inside me that says “I want to be praised for knowing the Chinese that I do” or “I want to be given the lenience, patience, attention and respect that other Americans are given.” This is not to say that I haven’t met Chinese people who treat me with kindness and respect, because I most definitely have. And I am not at all saying that other foreigners have it easy in China because they certainly do not. However, difficulties in the way they may be perceived are very different than those I experience even though our cultural background may actually be very similar.

I remind myself every day who I am and what is important in life. And that it’s definitely not me and my self-image. It’s hard to be away from those who love you and understand you. But it’s also times like this where you can really discover what parts of your identity you may cling to that aren’t that important. Like how you are perceived by random people. Sometimes we spend so much of our lives wondering where we fit in or how we want to look to the world that we neglect a lot of more important things going on around us. Like in China, there are so many people who are invisible and neglected in society, by their own people, in a much harsher and crueler way than I am or ever will be. For example, migrant workers, who move to cities for work but are rejected by employers or landlords as they seek jobs and apartments, because of their hukou and social and economic status.

As I’m writing this, I think I’m speaking to myself more than anyone else. But if you also find yourself in a season where you feel misunderstood and underappreciated or frustrated with the way others perceive you, think about some of these reflections! Know your value and worth and look past it to see what other things you may be unintentionally blinding yourself to as you spend your time thinking about yourself.

The Bible and 中文

I have been thinking a lot lately about one of my classes here in Kunming, a one on one class where my classmates and I each chose a topic of our own interest and then were assigned to a teacher with interest or expertise in that area. For the past few weeks, I’ve been exploring the history of Christianity in China, with a specific focus on Yunnan. It’s complex enough in English so reading articles and historical narratives in Chinese has been exceedingly difficult.

However, it’s just one of the many blessings I’ve been granted here in Kunming, to have a teacher who is a follower of Christ himself and to be learning in Chinese not only about the history of Christianity in China but also about the church in Kunming today. The last lesson we covered together was about the connection between Chinese culture and Christianity, specifically the Chinese language. I want to share some reflections on what I learned.

There are actually certain Chinese characters that have biblical significance to their composition. For example, we talked about the traditional Chinese character 義 which means “righteous” or “just”. In John, Jesus is referred to as the lamb who takes away the sin of the world. Or sometimes we say the lamb who covered our sins. In Chinese, “lamb” is 羔羊, specifically that last part 羊 refers to the animal. So if you look back at the character for righteous, you’ll notice there is a 羊 on top and a 我 on the bottom, which is the character for “I” or “me”. So to pick that character 義 apart, there is a the character for lamb over top of the character for me. Or more symbolically, the ultimate meaning of righteousness or justification is Jesus, the lamb of God, covering the sins of the world and rendering us righteous before him with his blood shed for us on the cross. It’s an extremely significant, beautiful visual with its meaning condensed for posterity into that tiny, meticulous Chinese character.

I’ll give a couple more cool examples. There’s the character 婪 meaning covetous, avaricious or even manipulative. On the top you can see two side by side 木 characters, each one meaning “tree”. Then on the bottom is the character 女 or “woman”. So, according to my teacher at least, each one of those tree (木) characters refers to the trees in Genesis 2 in the Garden of Eden, the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. And then that bottom character 女 or “woman” refers to Eve, who alongside Adam, ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, sinning and disobeying God. Now, embedded forever in the Chinese language is that biblical story of manipulation and sin.

It may seem a little crazy that Chinese characters have biblical symbolism but it’s not improbable because Christianity had entered China back in the Ming Dynasty (started in 1300s) and even earlier in different forms that we may not consider true Christianity. At this time, the language was being developed and adapted and has continued to be up to present time (as most languages are).

One more example that really struck me, although it’s a little different. The Chinese word for the kingdom of heaven is 天国, 天 meaning “sky” and 国 meaning “nation, state, country”, etc. You see that character 国 in 国家 or 国花, both related to “country” or “national, of the state”.

I don’t know if this was intentional or not but I think it’s remarkable that within that word for heaven is the character for “nation” or “state”. Countries are 国家,America is 美国,China is 中国,etc. Every single country has that 国 character in its name. But it’s also in the word for the kingdom of heaven, 天国.

So if you look at this word with the same analytical lens that I did the other two, I think it speaks volumes to the role of our present world, of this compilation of nation states (国家’s), full of thousands of cultures, languages, people groups, littered by wars, disease, terror, strife, in God’s plan for eternity, His plan for the kingdom of heaven. Revelation 21 talks about a new heaven and new earth; it says God’s dwelling place is now among the people and that He is making everything new. This earth that we all inhabit, these nations we stand behind and belong to, are part of God’s eternal mission to renew the heavens and earth.

This Chinese word for heaven which very serendipitously includes the character for nation or country, can serve as a reminder to Christians around the world that we are stewards of this earth and that in the here and now, even in our world of warring, greedy nation states, there is much hope. As we live out our daily lives, in the people we meet, the way we treat our planet, and the way we view and interact with other people and nations, as Christians we should constantly seek to see things through a lens of eternal significance and ask God to continually remind us of His plan for the kingdom of heaven and the renewal of earth.


Since I’m not a student in Shanghai anymore, I’ll switch back to my old blog. A lot has changed in the past two weeks. I left the massive, bustling city of Shanghai right as the wet, cold winter was beginning to seep through my bones, despite the layers upon layers of scarves, jackets and hats I wore out and about. Erika and I joked that you would never know we grew up in the northeast US if you saw us shivering our way around Shanghai. It was kind of pathetic how much we complained about the cold. From the Pudong airport at midnight on the Friday before Christmas I boarded a China Eastern flight to Auckland, New Zealand, where I frantically rushed to finish my final papers before my family arrived the next day. Yup, it was fun trying to figure out how to get a charger that fit the outlet at 3 am on Saturday night.

Anyway, it was all worth it to see my family after four months away from home. I’m convinced I have the most b.a. dad ever because we rented an RV after flying to Christchurch and he commandeered that giant, unforgiving beast (only suitable description for it) across mountains, over tiny bridges, around steep, narrow, curving roads, over cliffs that dropped thousands of feet down to straight up ocean, and into the tiny parking spots at the RV parks. It was quite an adventure, breathtaking and exciting every minute. Also just wonderful and comfortable to be surrounded by family again, despite the bickering and arguing that is always bound to arise when with the ones you love the most. Thanks to my parents for being so patient and loving despite my constant mood swings.

New Zealand is one of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen, though I still have a lot of the world left to see. Didn’t see any hobbits bouncing around the shire though, so a little disappointed. Did watch the Lord of the Rings crammed with the family in front of the RV’s mini tv. So all in all, not a bad alternative.

I’m sure for those people who have lived abroad, it’s always a huge culture shock/adjustment moving back home or transitioning out of a place. For me it’s been super strange leaving China and not going home but going to a place like home (but different enough to be really weird). I’m sorry for the lack of good description there but all I can come up with is that it is weird to be around so many friendly English speakers but then driving on the other side of the road and not recognizing any store or brand names from home.

Now that I’ve been in Sydney a day, it’s even stranger of a transition. I just got to the Youth With a Mission base where I will be spending the next month teaching English to a group of 10th grade Korean boys. I came in on a bus service from the airport in the dark last night, not really knowing who was expecting me or what the base would look like. It’s super hot in Sydney now and the building I’m in is comfortable but pretty basic.
Because of the heat and the white walls and the plastic folding chairs and tables and the smell (smell can trigger memories like no other), I’m reminded of the Happy House in Haiti, where I haven’t been since 2012 but will never forget. But anyway, about teaching English for the next month. I feel really unqualified for this, and didn’t actually find out I was going to be teaching until a couple weeks ago. But it’s only a month and it’s not a paid position so hopefully they don’t expect a lot of me. I know it will be a learning experience but I have no clue what I’m doing. It’s weird because the area that I’m in, Glenorie, about an hour outside of the city, could be along the road from Pennington to Princeton, NJ or in a suburb of Chicago. Or even Maine. It’s wealthy, full of rolling hills, farms, gated communities, trees, and little shopping centers. I went shopping today for essentials and things at Target and then got snacks at a grocery store on the way back. It felt almost like I was back in Princeton but not quite, because again the cars drive on the other side and everything is a little different.

So the point is that a lot has changed in the past couple weeks and it’s always hard. I will never regret my amazing travel opportunities and experiences around the world, but I really do miss home. Nothing is quite the same. I’m finding that at the same time that I miss home, I also deeply miss Shanghai, with all its crazy aggressive drivers and metro chaos and spitting, smoking old men. A shoutout to my roommate Erika in Shanghai and all the friends old and new who made my time there memorable. And of course to my family who does more for me than is imaginable and our time in New Zealand together. These kind of people and things remind me everyday of who I am and what I can come back to. And I’m reminded also that at one time I felt nervous and anxious about being in Shanghai but I made friends and got used to it. So I’m praying and hoping that that will happen here too.

*image: drawing by Bruce Swann, Australia Inland Mission

Reflections on the Identity Crisis

In a world bursting with insincerity, temporality, complexity and duplicity, it is more than natural that people everywhere at every age and stage of life struggle to understand themselves and grasp at the construction or discovery of their personal identity. I have been wrestling a lot lately with the concept of identity, such an intimate, personal, individual, intrinsic notion that drives every person on this planet, but yet so malleable and vulnerable to social, relational, environmental and cultural forces. I always thought it was so cliché and dramatic when kids went through identity crises in middle school or high school and cut off all their hair or got crazy tattoos or went wild and became disillusioned and rebellious. I never understood how people could seemingly so easily lose their way, like they weren’t grounded by anything and everything claimed their attention and pulled them farther and farther away from the truth and a real sense of purpose and identity. Let me note that by no means are all the kids who get tattoos and cut their hair off or rebel against the system lost and disillusioned, but that is definitely a trend in teenage culture today.

So, where is this going? I have so many questions about identity because I’m in this journey too, figuring out what it means to be an alive, thinking, seeking, multicultural young adult and follower of Jesus all at once. And while I’ve been deliberating over what forms identity and what forces and elements can forge the closest truth-seeking, loving, humble, sensitive, aware person to the image of Christ, I’ve come up with an idea of three forces that shape identity, at least for me. I don’t know if I’ve come away with any answers, but I definitely see major challenges out there both for myself, other individuals, the body of believers, and the world. Hopefully you can discover truth and resonance in my words as well.

First of all, I believe everyone has a cultural identity. This can be constructed by where you’re from, your family, customs, heritage, traditions, national pride, patriotism, loyalty to your country or your people. It can be strengthened and formed through language, community, where you live, what you eat, the way you look, or the way you talk. More on this later.

Next, there is spiritual identity. For me, this is clear and has been for as long as I can recall. I know that my value and worth is immeasurable because of Jesus’ sacrifice in taking my sin and the sins of the world to the cross in order that I can live. The ultimate determinant of my identity is my worth, freedom and purpose in Christ. But what does it mean to truly have an identity in Christ? Can that be enough to bring Christians together in a world divided so fiercely along ethnic, cultural, religious, and economic lines? How can the body of believers unite in awe of God’s grace, mercy and love when the world has made us so different? These are some of the questions I’ve been struggling with. Jesus is more than enough, but do our relationships as Christians and does the church and body of believers reflect that?

And lastly, though this one is a little vague, everyone has a relational identity. This is reflected in the people who you choose from among your communities to relate to and develop relationships with, people who understand you and who you feel comfortable around who shape who you are. Maybe you share a common cultural or spiritual identity or maybe your backgrounds are completely different but your personalities or outlooks on the world and common interests draw you together. Your relational identity reflects your deepest desires, what excites you, impassions you, and who you want to spend time with in order to best be yourself!

Of course, you can see that these spheres of identity are full of layers upon layers of complexity and that they cross and overlap unendingly in ways we probably will never be aware of. Your relational identity is likely shaped by your cultural and spiritual identity (and any other aspect of identity that I’m neglecting), because you choose the people you spend time with based on who you are or who you want to become. But there are so many complications and complexities. Like what do you do when your spheres of identity clash? Or when one of your spheres is split? It is a struggle to define and fully comprehend each of the facets of your identity. For me, cultural identity and how it plays into relational (community) identity is the hardest to figure out. I was born in China and look 100% Chinese but grew up in America in a conservative, Christian family. So where exactly do I belong? My spiritual identity has always been clear, but when it intersects with different groups of cultural identity, it makes it hard to relate to even those who share similar core faith and belief systems. Knowing what about my identity is most important and what is adaptable, I continue to navigate a maze of relationships and life circumstances, in search of truth and true fellowship.

How do you create and nurture a balance of all of your spheres of identity in a way that enables you to be loving, aware, multicultural, sensitive, diverse, and Christ-like so that you can be friends with lots of culturally, spiritually and relationally different people? And as Christians, how do we first and foremost cultivate a spiritual identity that is clear and concrete and then strive to build relationships from that? Is this even possible? Ideally, this would create an extremely culturally and relationally diverse group of people.

Though I could never hope to comprehend how achieving this delicate balance of identity is possible, I believe that harmony of personal identity is sort of an allegory for the ideal image of the larger body of believers. As we individually strive to construct an identity rooted in truth, purpose, holiness, awareness and love, our separate but like-minded images will bring us closer together and transform the collective. Reflecting on Pentecost that just passed us this Sunday, when “God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven” were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in their own language (Acts 2:1-13), clearly God’s Word and the power of the Holy Spirit moves throughout all peoples and places. Jesus’ commission challenged his followers to go and make disciples of all nations – creating a multicultural, multiethnic, diverse, complex, heterogeneous church. In Luke 13, Jesus says as he describes heaven that “people will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God.”

So, as we go forward from this day, let us strive to treat foreigners residing in our land as native-born, loving them as we love ourselves (Lev. 19:33-34), because the image of the kingdom of God is lively and beautiful in its diversity. Let us continually thirst for genuine, God-breathed truth in the answers, relationships and communities that we seek. Let us always remember what binds us together and what parts of our identity are solid and steadfast despite the storms and battles of this tormented world. Think about the ripple effect and the many ways in which you individually can enact reaction and change. Never stop seeking and striving to discover, develop and cultivate new aspects of your identity!

image: artist, Yann Houri, France, 1990

What Haiti Really Taught Me.

“Haiti changed me. My heart, my worldview, my thoughts, my passions and desires. It’s where I developed a vision for international development, poverty alleviation, sustainable and equitable business, and creative solutions to environmental and social injustices. Seeing the beauty and joy and incredibly unique and awe-inspiring Haitian landscape, people and culture strengthened my faith and opened my eyes to God’s plan for the world and for my life.”

This is the classic response I give whenever anyone asks me about my short-term mission trip experiences. And there’s nothing necessarily wrong or untrue about it. But right at a time in my life when I find myself lodged into monotonous patterns and routines of college life, going through the motions, struggling to live with daily passion, vision and purpose, a good friend and mentor asked me to reflect on my three trips to Haiti and write a blog post for my home church about my experiences and reflections. I thought about it a lot, and almost wrote an extended version of the few sentences above until I realized how cliché, fake, and shallow that would be. Instead, I really challenged myself to deeply reflect on the true significance of Haiti to my daily life two years after my last trip, the ways that I allow these experiences to permeate my everyday decision making, and the ways that I continue to walk in ignorance and neglect for the place and people that I claim to have been so moved by.

I’ve been to Haiti three times, beginning in March 2009 and spanning my high school career. I came face to face with extreme poverty for the first time, and I will never forget how much the sight of tin and mud makeshift huts, barefooted kids with tattered t-shirts, infants with brassy, red hair (a sign of iron deficiency), and people openly defecating on the roadside, broke me and moved me. Despite these searing memories that replay in my mind often, I continue to find myself living and mindlessly participating in avaricious, prideful, selfish cycles of materialism, apathy, separation and indifference to the constant struggles and battles of the poor and oppressed around the world. As much as my worldly perspective has broadened and softened and my eyes have been truly opened to unimaginable poverty, these realizations mean nothing if they fail to penetrate my heart and transform my everyday life. I realize that the only way that we can ever truly dream of change and empowerment for Haitians or people anywhere is if we change the way that we live our daily lives in the comfort of our own homes. The stories, faces, and sights that we see and experience in Haiti or any other developing country will remain nothing more than poverty tourism or toxic charity if we don’t allow them to change how we treat the poor in our own community, the way that we handle our money, the way that we approach our job or schoolwork, or the way that we see and treat other peoples and cultures different from us. I believe that God does use experiences like short term mission trips to break us, mold us, change us and inspire us, but we have to remember that the discomfort, life changing realizations, and harsh realities we see are not meant to only last a week and then fade in the midst of the comforts, routines, and busyness of everyday life. The change, challenge and discomfort should be ongoing, continual and tangible even as we pass between cultures, places, national boundaries, economic strata, and in a sense, realities.

I encourage all readers to take this moment to reflect on God’s call, purpose and commands for your life, and how His Word in the midst of the experiences you face tangibly takes root and is lived out daily. Whether you have had the opportunity to participate on a short-term mission trip or not, ask God what it truly means to be poor in spirit or to go out and make disciples or to be the light of the world in 21st century America. And if you have been on mission trips to Haiti or other nations, ask God how to keep these people close to your heart even as you are physically separate. Pray for them, thank God for your experiences, ask him to soften, shape, and open your heart in order to mold your actions so that you can truly live out Christ’s message of love, grace, and redemption here on earth.

image: Joao Baptista, “Saint-Pierre Church, Haiti,” from Haiti Sketchbook 2012/13