I recently went back to the States for a week to surprise my mother for her birthday. Despite the current state of affairs in America, with racial tensions running high, I didn’t expect to experience anything that would make me feel out of place as a person of color. I was going to Southern California after all, where Asian Americans can be found as easily as avocados and aspiring actresses.
But I was wrong.
My mom had invited me to come with her to an English conversation club at a nearby college. It was a new outreach ministry to international students, started by some people from the megachurch she attended. We were the first to arrive in the student lounge, and sat on the hard plastic chairs for a few minutes before an Asian girl came in, asking around about the English club. Her name was Yan Min, from China, and she had just started classes there. We were deep in conversation when several other volunteers from the church arrived—all white. My mother and I briefly introduced ourselves to them and were about to dive back into our conversation with Yan Min when one of the volunteers said, “So… should we each take one?”
I was confused at first, not understanding what he meant. There was only one student who needed a conversation partner. And then it slowly dawned on me that he wasn’t speak to me and my mother, but about us. He had assumed that we were also there to practice our English.
My mom immediately jumped in and explained that we were also volunteers, and that her daughter here had actually graduated from Berkeley and majored in English. I was embarrassed for the man, and embarrassed that my mom felt like she had to list my credentials to prove that we were qualified.
This incident would have been amusing if it were isolated; something to brush off and laugh about. But it happens more often than I’d like to admit—the presumption that I am a foreigner simply because I am Asian.
I remember the time I attended my friend’s church in North Carolina. The church was hosting a group of Japanese exchange students that week. When the pastor urged the congregation to greet the foreign guests, my body stiffened as I saw several people home in on me. Assuming that I was an exchange student, they warmly welcomed me before my friend could interrupt them and explain that I was visiting from California, and not from Japan.
I sense it whenever I visit a white church and have to introduce myself. I can see their eyes carefully considering me, their speech deliberately slow and simple while their minds are racing to figure out where I’m from. I can feel the urge within me to speak fluent English, dropping slang or using sesquipedalian vocabulary just to make it obvious that I was born and raised in the States.
It’s curious how these memories I have are all in the context of church.
Outside the church, my experiences are much more confrontational: chants about slanted eyes, threats telling me to go back to where I came from, sing-song gibberish that mock the Chinese language. These racist encounters are so universal among East Asian Americans as to be almost banal in their unoriginality.
Inside the church, I am not told to get out. In fact, I am invited to come in… but as a guest. I am received, but as an outsider. I am welcomed, but still as the perpetual foreigner. It does not occur to them I am home, that I am not a visitor.
The jagged pill of outright racism makes me mad. But this saccharine-sweet “othering” that’s coated with good intentions just makes me sad.
And then there’s my experience of living in Asia for the past 14 years. While I am perceived as a perpetual foreigner in America, here, I am the perpetual native.
When I first came to China to teach English in the 90’s, I was on a team with three other ladies: two blondes, a redhead, and me. Whenever we went out together, I was automatically pegged as the translator, even though I could barely get by on what I learned from my one semester of Mandarin in college. I recall one time when we all went out to a park, and a group of school children gathered around my teammates like hungry birds, chirping at my poor friends with their chorus of “Hello! How are you?!” They obviously did not notice me, for I was just another Chinese face in a city of 15 million other Chinese faces. When the kids asked to take a photo with the Americans, I wasn’t in the picture. I was the one behind the camera.
Nowadays, I still get a lot of confused looks when I tell people that I’m from America. “But you look like us!” they say, baffled that I don’t have a big nose and blond curls like the stereotypical image they have in their minds. “Where is your hometown?” they press further, and I dutifully respond by telling them, “Chao Zhou, in Guang Dong province,” even though I have never stepped foot there in my life. Their minds are eased that I am still Chinese, after all. In their imagination, America is a land of white people, and an American person of color is oxymoronic (something that a good portion of America seems to agree with right now).
Here in China, I’m not the foreigner. I’m the local nanny, the translator, the teacher who isn’t white enough to teach English (even though my mom would like to remind everyone that I graduated from Berkeley as an English major).
Sometimes, the assumption that I am part of a group is as toxic as the assumption that I am not. Sometimes, inclusion is as destructive as exclusion.
Both invalidate the complexity of my identity. Both cause shame. Both deny me of agency and true belonging. I am simply who people imagine me to be because of the color of my hair, my skin, my eyes.
But the reality is, I cannot be boxed into the false dichotomy of either foreigner or native.
I am both/and.
Otherness and Likeness
Jesus was the embodiment of this both/and paradox of otherness and likeness.
Wholly divine and fully human.
Son of God and Son of Man.
Alpha and Omega, yet Emmanuel.
He lived in a world that could not seem to reconcile the two. He was too foreign to be considered one of us, and yet too familiar to be considered “The One.” Instead of receiving Jesus in the fullness of all his deity and humanity, the world rejected him for both.
Yet for all the times we treated him as other, he continued to reveal his solidarity with us. He made his dwelling among us. He shared in our humanity and suffering. He laid down his life for us. He loved those who wanted nothing to do with him.
And when we believed him to be just like us, he continued to reveal his distinctiveness. He offended those who couldn’t see him as anything other than the hometown boy. He didn’t play by the social or cultural rules. He commended outsiders over his own ethnic community. He challenged the expectations of those who wanted to use him as a poster boy for their own causes.
Like Jesus, I want to embrace the paradox of my likeness and otherness, instead of feeling like I must choose one or the other.
I want to expose the exclusion that shames and distances, and call out the inclusion that enmeshes and limits.
I want to engage the world in loving but uncomfortable ways; not writing off those who would reduce and reject me, but inviting them to accept me with all my similarities and singularities.
Because at the end of day, I’m not the only one who is both perpetual native and perpetual foreigner. We are all native to one another in the shared humanity that makes us connected and compassionate. We are all foreign to one another in the diversity that makes us intriguing and beautiful.
We are all alike and we are all other.
We are all both/and.