Growing up in a first-generation Asian immigrant family, I did my best to blend into American culture. However, my childhood in a small town taught me that I was different. Some kids made fun of my eyes, thought I ate strange food, and said my parents were much too strict. But over time I learned to adapt and assimilate fairly well into a mostly Caucasian culture. In fact, my father jokingly said I was a bamboo shoot—yellow on the outside and white on the inside.
I eventually met other kids who accepted me. They didn’t see me as bicultural but as a friend who enjoyed the same things they did. In elementary school, I also came to know Christ, and I learned he accepts me as I am. It didn’t matter if I was Caucasian or Asian. God loves me, and he created me in his image. This assurance comforted me when I felt lost or misunderstood by others of a different culture, especially during those typically turbulent years in junior high school.
Turning the Tables on My Cultural Identity
Just when I thought I had figured out how to reconcile my cultural and my ethnic identities, the Lord called me overseas. I moved with my husband and children to a culture where I look similar to the people we serve. When I walk along the street or ride the bus, I can assimilate well because I look like the locals. I move freely, my true citizenship masked by my outward appearance. That is, until I open my mouth.
I may look Asian, but I grew up speaking English. My uptake on my host culture’s language was sIow. When I tried to speak, and mismatched words spilled out, locals could tell I didn’t quite belong.
Any time I tried to engage with locals, they were suddenly taken with this peculiarity. They quickly asked me where I was from, where my ancestors came from, and how long I had lived in that city. I explained that during my upbringing in America, my Asian family spoke only English.
Now that I’d moved to this new country, I needed to learn their language just as any other foreigner. Although they were usually satisfied with my answer, the topic became a monotonous box that had to be checked in almost every conversation. Sometimes I thought it’d be easier if my language and my appearance were foreign to them.
“The love of God crosses all earthly boundaries and unifies everyone in Christ.”
When I wasn’t tempted to mask my identity, I was tempted to flaunt it. My advanced English skills led people to believe I must be an important, well-educated local to speak so fluently. I also struggled with comparing myself to my Caucasian colleagues, who didn’t need to say much in the local language to be rewarded with smiles and verbal accolades for how well they spoke. I realized the expectations for me were much higher. Because I looked like the local people, I should speak like a local.
My ethnicity in this cultural context frequently seemed like a stumbling block, and I was growing weary. All I wanted to do was learn the language, assimilate to the culture, and build relationships to share the gospel and disciple women. I felt so far away from being able to achieve that purpose.
Jesus’s Sacrifice Transcends All Earthly Identities
Thankfully, God used a colleague’s encouragement to illuminate my misplaced hope in identity. God showed me that when I look to people for affirmation in my language learning, my cultural identity, or even the fruit borne in ministry, I fail to honor God for how he’s created and called me. I needed to put the foundation of my identity in him alone—not in my country of origin or even in the ethnicity he gave me.
That’s not to say God doesn’t care about my ethnicity. He actually uses it to point to my eternal identity in Christ. The more conversations I have with locals, the more I realize that being the same, yet different, gives me opportunities to share that aren’t afforded to my Caucasian colleagues. When asked why I don’t speak like a local, I explain I’m from the United States.
This segues into which country I prefer, but rather than discussing which country is “better,” I shift the topic. Societal problems are everywhere, among every country and race, because everyone is guilty of sin. People from every nation, tribe, and language need Jesus to reconcile them to Creator God.
“No matter my ethnicity, my gender, my language skills, or anything else I try to box myself into, it is God who establishes my identity.”
The love of God crosses all earthly boundaries and unifies everyone in Christ. Paul shares with the Galatian church—a group sharply divided by cultural distinctions—that every person should have the opportunity to hear and accept the gospel (Gal. 3:27–29). Just as a Jew is not above a Gentile in receiving sonship by faith in Christ, I am not any better or more deserving than someone I am reaching today. It is a privilege to share with other Asians what God has graciously given to me. I shouldn’t let anything become a stumbling block to playing my part in God’s mission.
There will always be challenges living and serving on the field. But I realized no matter my ethnicity, my gender, my language skills, or anything else I try to box myself into, it is God who establishes my identity. I am not defined by anything else other than who God says I am. I am the daughter of the Most High God, and he can fashion me for his glory however he pleases (Ps. 57:2; Jer. 18:4–6).