This is what the much revered intercessor at InterVarsity’s National Service Center said to me as she walked past me in the corridor. Perhaps she was in a hurry? But she walked fast past me, and then took a step back to grab my arm and say, “Oh yes, God gave me a word for you too. Transcend. Transcend.”
Transcend? What does that mean? How do I exactly transcend? I’m not proud to say this, but at the time I was more miffed than grateful for the word. The intercessor spent lots of time with other people, quality time it seemed, praying for them and giving them words. I got two of the same exact word and in passing in the hallway. And a bewildering one at that! Transcend.
As I described in my last post, I was young—23 when I finished my InterVarsity / Urbana job based in Madison, Wisconsin, and for the almost three years I was there, people earnestly wanted to learn more about my culture. They had the best of intentions, but frankly, I had no idea what to tell them. I didn’t really know what was “my” culture. I didn’t have that level of self-awareness, and in retrospect, I don’t think most of us do. But here I was, one of a handful of minorities in an office that keenly wanted to diversify, and it confused me. Wasn’t I like them? Was there really that big a difference between me and them because of my color and ethnicity? Weren’t we all the same? I hate not knowing what to say, and these were hard questions, questions about who I was. Direct questions. I felt awkward and unsure. And I felt dumb for not knowing.
I wanted to dodge these questions but there was no avoiding them as the topic kept coming up. So I read and I prayed. I became a sponge at every talk, particularly the ones on multi-ethnicity; I took copious notes and studied them. I journaled all the time to sort out my feelings and thoughts.
With help from some of InterVarsity’s Asian American ministry materials, I decided to keep lists in the back of my journal to keep track of experiences that felt “Asian,” “American” and “Christian.” I felt really uncomfortable generalizing, but the exercise helped me more than not, though in the end it frustrated me more. For example, “Asian,” was my group orientation, my tendency to put the good of the group before my individual self. “American” was a favorite saying of our departmental head: “you can always ask for forgiveness later.” “Christian” was seeking first the kingdom. The “Christian” category, of course trumped all.
But when it came down to what to do in everyday situations, things were not as clean cut. The Bible was sometimes no help as I saw both examples of “American” and “Asian.” How do I ask for help from my boss? The “American” way was to just ask. Figuring out what was “Asian” was much harder, as there weren’t really enough Asians around me to ask or observe. Over a long time, I worked out that the “Asian” in me expected older, more titled people to initiate. I expected my superiors to check in on me and notice when I needed help. As a younger and less-titled person, I did not have permission to initiate or ask.
On top of becoming self-aware of being “Asian” and “American,” everyone was telling me to be myself and “bring all my Asian-ness to the table.” For others to benefit from the gifts God gave me as an Asian person, I needed to be my Asian self. I remember mulling long on this, and decided to try it as an experiment. I don’t think I lasted more than three days without bursting into tears. There just weren’t enough other Asians in the office. Obviously, no one is going to pick up my “Asian” cues and act “Asian” especially if they’re not that. I cannot act like myself. I cannot be in this crowd like my natural “Asian” self.
Though an insightful and necessary exercise, in the end, it made me very tired and compounded the huge headache of all this cultural self-awareness. When I wasn’t exhausted, it made me very angry and upset. It’s really disturbing to be constantly asked who you are, and encouraged to be who you are, and not be seen for just that. It’s angering because I thought I was doing all the right things, and seeking in all the right ways. I still I had no idea what to do and how to be.
One night, I was on the phone, venting as I often did those days with my friend JL. Talking to JL that season was my lifeline, as I was often on the verge of tears. I was so frustrated, I had no idea what to do. God please help me! How many times did I have to plead for God to help me?
And then, the usually patient and gentle JL, interrupted my complaints, and said to me, “Grace, you know, you’re totally red lining!”
“You know, from the missions trips you went on—you are red lining.”
(“Red-lining” is IV-missions-speak for when you’ve lost your awareness that you’re in another culture and you’re unfairly judging them by your own.)
I had never thought of applying my missions training to a building of all Christians in my very own country of America, but it is exactly this perspective that gave me His deep peace. Perhaps this is what the intercessor’s “transcend, transcend” meant— his peace that transcends all understanding, all need for knowing. It was my acceptance that I was indeed different which made everything else click! Though I couldn’t bring all my “Asian-ness” to the table and those others couldn’t know me fully on my own terms, I could still get to know them on their own, if I embraced my difference. Thinking this way allowed me to befriend people who on the surface had very little in common with me, and to see what God was doing in them literally on their own home turf. What a true blessing. It was a season of immensely rich blessing.