you keep using that word

Words are powerful little creatures, made up of as little as one letter. They have the ability to lift up and tear down, encourage and demoralize. Humanity is fascinated by the strength of words. We seek to wield its potentials as a weapon, using it to cut our enemies down and defend our loved ones.

But sadly, we don’t often do the work required to wield them. We don’t train, we don’t listen to another’s words or what they mean. We throw around single retorts like a wild swing in order to end conversations. If someone doesn’t agree with you, s/he is an ignorant bigot. If someone is very passionate about faith or theology, s/he is a dogmatic fundamentalist. If the same someone speaks up about it, s/he is intolerant and needs to learn how to coexist.

Someone with the figure of a model is called beautiful, whereas someone with a full-figure is called overweight. Students who are more partial to math and science are called intelligent, while those who are more partial to arts than logic are not given such high a praise. Asians are nerdy, non-Asians are something else.

Can you see the problem?

We decide a word needs to fit another word, and when it doesn’t, then we use a third word to judge it.

One of the biggest words against me is how unfeminine I am. That’s the word I’m going to focus on for this entry.

I’ve been called “kind of like a dude,” a “guy with boobs,” a lesbian, among many other things–just because I love hockey, sci-fi, action movies, and the like. I’ve been asked if there’s anything about me that’s actually girly, if I’d ever considered wearing more makeup and dresses, and a whole slew of the same such questions. I am a word that doesn’t fit a word that people have decided I should fit, and as a result, the aforementioned words are used in a desperate attempt to define me.

What does it even mean to be “feminine”?

When we take traits and interests and apply them to gender, this is where we get into stereotyping people into this one area, and this is where people who don’t fit such a stereotype become confused, upset, or depressed as a result. Who died and made the rule that boys like blue, and girls like pink? Who decided that boys can love Batman, and girls get left with Barbie? Why do guys get action movies while gals get romantic comedies?

This is where the judgment sets in: I hate pink, I love Batman (I just purchased an adult onesie for crying out loud), and my idea of a romantic comedy is Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back.

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I’ve been slowly going through this book for a while. She describes dominant masculinity very well, and it’s her James Bond example that I used in this entry.

Hollywood has a type of masculinity that it calls “dominant.” This is your misogynistic James Bond-type character, but he has to rely on other masculinities in order to exist and be elevated. We, as a society, buy into this dominant masculinity, and, as a result, we allow it to define what masculinity and femininity mean. Guys have to be suave yet totally tough and rebellious (and a bit of a jerk), and ladies have to be Bond girls—size 0-2 (but super curvy), sexy (like, objectifiably-sexy), and flawless (and often need to be rescued by a guy).

Why do we allow ourselves to be put into boxes? Why do we tell the six-year-old girl that she can’t like Batman or the color blue because she’s a girl? Why do we shame the six-year-old boy if he doesn’t like Batman but likes the color pink? What exactly are we telling them when we treat them like they’re doing something wrong by enjoying things that they aren’t “supposed” to like because of their chromosomes? What will the repercussions be?

I had a conversation about these two words with a college roommate several years ago, and this is how she defined masculinity and femininity:

“Masculinity, as it should be, like femininity, is having confidence and strength in one’s own skin—gender and sex and whatever essence the individual has claimed for himself or herself—while remaining respectful for self and others.”

She says there is room for this quote to grown and change. I think we just have to let it.

When I was first trying to figure out what “femininity” meant, I did what lots of people do: I read a book. It was a book called Captivating, which boasts of exploring what biblical femininity looked like. And I spent most of my time yelling at the book in the margins: about its theology, about its use of verses out of context, about reading into verses what they were not saying, and mostly about the fact that all of the females they used as examples were characters in movies (I mean, I’m sure the elven ladies of Middle Earth had their own struggles and strengths, but they kind of don’t apply here, so… yeah…). I also talked with girls who seemed to have this femininity thing down pat. But every time that happened, I ended up getting dressed up by them, and I kinda hated it. Whether or not this was their intention, the third word I kept hearing here was “conform.”

These days, I’m taking my friend’s advice and claiming femininity for myself. I am a feminine female in some areas as well as a masculine female in others. I possess an undefinable, unboxable feminine masculinity and masculine femininity. I am in the cluster of “other masculinities” that the dominant masculinity needs to reduce in order to build itself up. And I love it here, but I won’t be reduced for it. I don’t have to become someone I’m not in order to be me. I’m already me! I like what I want! And I won’t let anyone try to package me up with nice, shiny wrapping paper, crisply folded and taped where things need to be wrapped and hidden away, and then finish me off with a bright pink bow.

The most harmful things in this world are words and the people who use them without thinking of what they actually mean or learning to do so properly. We decide girls should play with dolls, and boys should play with superheroes. We decide girls should be nurses, and boys should be doctors. This makes it very confusing for adults, let alone children.

So what does it look like to be biblically masculine and feminine? Who knows. Seriously. Whoever knows, please tell us, because this whole exercise is getting exhausting. But one thing I believe it means is that our masculinity and our femininity work together in the Body for the glory of God. We don’t reduce one to raise the other. Both are necessary to work in the Kingdom. Both fall under the umbrella of the identity “child of God.”

Carry your uniqueness proudly, and take words with a grain of salt or learn how to put some on as armor. But don’t be the person that cuts people down with it. Words can just as readily bring peace as well as war.

How will you use your words?

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I have hope for a unified Body

I came across an article today from LifeWay, and my soul smiled.

Dr. Thom Rainer, the current CEO and president of LifeWay Christian Resources, issued a formal apology for VBS material that was released 10 years ago called, “Far Out Rickshaw Rally – Racing Towards the Son.” The material was the subject of major controversy, utilizing Asian stereotypes and generalizations to teach kids about Jesus.

In his apology, Dr. Rainer addressed the issue, acknowledged the hurt that it caused, and proposed a solution to move forward. According to the article, LifeWay is planning to train staff members to be culturally sensitive and avoid disrespecting other ethnicities and cultures. And the fact that this man had nothing to do with producing that material speaks volumes as well. Above all else, his focus is on the Body of Christ and its members. It takes a lot of love and humility to give a 10-year overdue apology for something he didn’t personally do, and it has made the biggest difference in reconciling our cultures.

This is a huge step since my last entry regarding cultural insensitivity within the Body. It is a bigger issue than just skin color—when my culture is made one-dimensional, my identity is attacked. I am Chinese-American and Christian and female, and this is how God made me. It’s when my brothers and sisters don’t try to understand the implications of this identity that I am hurt. It is a complex identity. Being Chinese-American is already complicated. Both of these cultures clash in many areas as it is. And on top of that, I’m a Christ-follower, which clashes with both of those. When my Chinese culture tells me that my family, my blood, is the most important thing, that I am to be loyal to that forever, no matter what the circumstances, how do I reconcile that with my American culture, which tells me that the individual and the individual’s freedom is the most treasured thing? And then there’s this Jesus guy who says that He is the object of greatest value, and even our love and commitment to our family has to look like hate in comparison to our love for Him (Luke 14:26).

Being female in these cultures is a whole different can of worms. I don’t fit the stereotype of the typical Asian woman, and I have no desire to. I often wonder what God was thinking when He put me together. “I’m going to make her make no sense at all, and in doing so, make perfect sense.” Because essentially, that’s what it is. All of my cultures and pieces of my identity clash, but in me, they work, and they work together.

Someone once said to me that with Jesus, there is no culture. I would absolutely disagree with that statement. With Jesus, there is perfect culture. We, as broken mirrors, reflect that perfect culture imperfectly, but reflect it, we do. This thing called “identity” isn’t simple. It’s not just one thing. I’ve been told often that my identity is “child of God.” Yes, absolutely, but what does that mean? What is the makeup of a “child of God”?

I think “child of God” is more like an umbrella or a body. Underneath this identity is all that makes it up, like a skeleton, if you would. Underneath this yellow skin, God has, as I mentioned, created me to be Chinese-American and female. These absolutely affect my identity as child of God as much as child of God affects these identities. And beyond that, my identity as a healed and healing person also affects my identity as child of God. The way I see and experience God is very much influenced by everything that makes up who I am.

I feel most loved when those around me make an effort to understand or at least respect my identity—this includes my ethnicity and culture. I feel stripped of my identity when people try to be “politically correct” or “color-blind.” Color-blindness didn’t work for anyone else, it won’t work for us either. When you tell me you don’t see color when you look at me, I will hear that you don’t see me. I will feel like you’ve taken something away from me, like you’re denying something that is deeply rooted in me.

This article gives me hope for healing within the body. The Body of Christ cannot be masochistic if it is to be healthy, and when one part is hurting, the rest of it is also afflicted. We in the Asian-American community have been hurting, and this wound has been neglected for a long time. But we are a part of the whole.

As the Body is conscious of the pain it feels, I am excited for the healing that can come about now. When I signed my name on the open letter to the church, I hoped that someone would listen. We are hurting, and it needs to be addressed in order for this Body to be whole.

I am grateful both to Exponential, for their apology and speediness in addressing their contribution, and to LifeWay, for showing that it is never too late to reconcile.

a multicultural family of God

“We are a part of the body, we are North American Christians every bit as much as any other North American Christian, and we are weary, hurt, and disillusioned by the continuing offensive actions of our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. When one part of the body experiences pain, should not the whole body feel the repercussions?”

Angry Asian Man and Kathy Khang have posted an open letter to the North American evangelical church from its Asian-American congregation. I’ve read over it before signing it myself. It’s not church-bashing in any way, but it does call the church out in order to seek reconciliation for some blunders. The letter is an invitation to understand Asian-Americans and why it hurts to have our culture minimized by the dominant culture, and it also offers ideas on how to bridge the gap that causes us to misunderstand each other.

I’ve had a lot of people tell me I put too much emphasis on my cultural and ethnic identity. And it really hurts me to hear that. Yes, my identity is first and foremost a child of God, but under that umbrella includes my being first generation Chinese-American amongst others. You cannot ask me to separate my Chinese-American-ness from my identity as child of God any more than I can ask you to separate your culture from your identity as child of God. It is a beautiful thing that people of all colors can worship one God, so why are we trying to make this family monochromatic? When you look at me, I want you to see how God has put me together down to the smallest detail—this includes my ethnic background, my gender, and my history. Look how God has made sense out of this mess that is my identity! It’s a thing of beauty, and all the things that make it up should not be diminished.

I’ve also been told that my American identity should be most dominant because I’ve chosen to be here in the land of the free and the home of the brave. But what kind of “American” should I be? What does it even mean to be American? My American identity is affected by my Chinese identity as much as my Chinese identity is affected by my American identity. This country is built on immigration, and I am as much an American as anyone else here. The “American Dream” is attainable by me as much as it is by anyone else. It is a bloody, brutal, and dirty road to get there as evidenced by the need for such a letter to be written.

I think this letter is thoughtful and inviting. Please try to understand the hurt and the pain that is felt when our family doesn’t try to understand who we are—when my new family hurts me as much or more than my first family did. I’m still trying to figure out this identity as an Asian-American Christian. I’m inviting everyone to walk alongside me in that endeavor and understand a bit more clearly what the struggle is and how to overcome it.

Also, mad props to Exponential for giving a thoughtful and sincere apology and for taking the steps to reconcile and understand their family.

a definition of miki

It’s a freeing feeling to realize no one has to understand you when you’ve taken away their power to define you.

I think people have been trying to define me since I was born. I’m Chinese, my relatives say. But I was born in Clearwater, Florida (home of the scientologists’ HQ, apparently), so that actually makes me an American. I have a driver’s license from California (watch out now) and a passport from the United States of America. No such paperwork from China, however, but there is a yellow tint to my skin and an almond shape to my eyes (or so American literature has told me).

I’m Chinese, so I need to be fiercely loyal to my family. Even when they abuse me emotionally, verbally, and physically. Hm. Is that something I really want defining me? And what’s this about being a terrible driver? Apparently I missed that memo when they passed it around the office. And I’m supposed to be either “dragon lady” or property? Well, neither of those sound particularly appealing either.

But I’m American, so I need to be individualistic. I need to move out when I’m 18 (which I did, but that was a complicated situation), and I need to “take the path less traveled by” (which is a horrible misconstruction of a beautiful and bittersweet poem). I’ve got to do everything it takes to get to the top and get my white picket fence and family unit with a husband and 2.5 children (when exactly can I get the other half of that third child?).

Then I got older and found out there’s this thing called “Asian-American” (growing up I just thought that meant Asian living in America) – an emerging culture – making me both and neither at the same time. Now this one is messy. There is no structure, no script to follow; no identifiable footprints, maps, or blueprints. I just got thrown in the pool, and I’ve got to learn how to swim, or I drown. It’s tense, and scary – the kind of scary that can only be felt when you’re suspended 50 feet in the air walking a tight rope made out of fishing line. (Did I mention there’s no safety net?)

Can anyone see why I craved a definition for myself?

I took on many, accepted ones people have given me without prejudice. My cousin was more than happy to oblige while we were growing up: fat, ugly, stupid, useless; and then when I chose my dignity and life over family pride and appearance: selfish, ungrateful, etc., etc., etc. Sadly, I believed a lot of those. Then came the teen years with the church ladies: “lose a few pounds,” “if only you didn’t have acne, you’d be pretty,” and while this one was not ever verbalized, it was was most definitely felt: “you’re a failure for not being able to fix your mother.”

I’m not particularly sure why the negative ones were the ones that stuck.

Then in came this Man, and He called me daughter. He called me beautiful. He called me beloved. He called me His.

How did I respond to Him?

I laced up my red converse and ran like mad.

How could any of that be true when I believed the exact opposite for decades?

But yet they are. And only He has ever asked me to uproot everything I ever believed about myself and gives me the strength to do so. Often.

So somehow I got to a crossroad where I could choose to believe one thing and go one way, or the other and go another.

Everything the world defined me with stemmed from expectations of me to perform a certain way. And I’m sick of being a one-woman circus act.

I’m building an altar at this intersection. I’m taking all of the lies that told me I need to be a quiet, submissive, cute, little Asian woman and throwing it on there. I’m taking the lies that told me I’m ugly, fat, less than, and a failure, and slamming it on as well. I’m taking the lies that told me I have to perform an act to look like I have it all together in order to earn God’s love and my salvation, and it’s going on, too. The world will define me no longer. I am lighting this sucker up and leaving the ashes as a reminder of the decision I made and the path I chose.

And unlike Mr. Frost, I will not be dwelling on the what ifs of the other path.

On the other side of the coin, everything God defined me to be just required me to be me.

My identity is given to me by the Creator of the universe and shaped and defined by how much I believe in the freedom of being His.

Keep hurling lies at me if you want, world – it’ll just keep this fire burning. And it’ll remind me that much more how much I define myself.

Watch out, world, here’s your warning.

Miki is discovering who she is.

Can’t stop me now.

featured in WitnessLA January 2013