Fluorescent lights hovered above the group of us kindergarteners waiting around in the multipurpose room. We ate lunch here, but it wasn’t lunchtime. The room was cavernous and sound echoed everywhere. Jamie, a white boy with a light brown bowl cut, was sitting up on the edge of the stage with some other kids, legs dangling. I stood on the ground with some others. All the sounds around me got muffled and quiet as I saw him look at me. He held his fingers up to his eyes to pull the outside corners up and down and began to chant: “Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees, look at these!” Up and out with his fingers for Chinese, tugging downwards for Japanese, rubbing his hands on his knees, and then gesturing with his hands to pull out his shirt at the end of the rhyme imitating having breasts.
I felt burning heat in my chest, neck, and cheeks, and my stomach dropped as I looked down at the speckled linoleum floor. I could feel my heart racing and pounding out of my chest. Could I get away from this place? Could a hole in the ground swallow me up and take me away? Others were all staring at me. What did I do wrong? Did I do something hurtful to Jamie? I thought we were friends. I felt I had done something wrong— that I was wrong. He called out the thing I’d been trying to hide—that I was different. I wasn’t white like everyone else in that Christian school.
My five-year-old mind raced—is this a rhyme everyone knows, like the nursery rhymes about the itsy-bitsy spider or Psalm 23 or the songs we sing about how Jesus loves me? Do Japanese people’s eyes go a different direction than Chinese people’s? My eyes don’t go up like that, so maybe I’m a wrong Chinese person too. What’s wrong with dirty knees? What are “these” and why is he pulling his shirt out in two places? He was laughing. Do I laugh and play this off? How can I make everyone stop looking at me? How do I make them forget I’m different? I didn’t respond, and neither did anyone else.
I didn’t talk to my teacher or my parents about it. I just wanted it to go away. Talking about it wouldn’t make that feeling go away. Later in childhood, I do remember sharing very hesitantly and vaguely with my mom that sometimes the kids made fun of me for being Chinese. Her advice was to work really hard to show that I’m just as good as they are.
That’s my first memory of school, but it’s not my first memory of being different, since I grew up in 1980s Richmond, Virginia, with very few other Asian Americans. But this experience was deeply excluding and formative in my life. Continued racial ostracizing built upon and added to this experience, and I did whatever it took to avoid being shamed like this again. I hope you haven’t had an experience as direct as this at such a young age. But my guess is that you have your own experiences and that you’ve been asked, “Where are you from?” followed by “No, where are you really from?”
This effect of racialization is known as the perpetual foreigner stereotype, and has been with us since Asians first came to America and continues no matter how many generations one’s family has lived here. The pandemic years of 2020 and 2021 saw heightened levels of anti-Asian racism and hate crimes that reminded many of us of this status.
Freedom and Belonging
In our response to racialization, we hold the complexity of both loving ourselves and loving others.
Given my first memory of school, I always knew that I wanted to have conversations with my children about race, difference, and their feelings. My daughter has already experienced racialized comments as a seven-year-old and my heart breaks for her, but I’m doing my best to help her know that it’s not right and that she doesn’t need to earn her place for any sort of false belonging. There are more tools now—we watched Ji-Young the Korean American puppet on Sesame Street process being told to “go home,” and I got teary remembering times I’ve been told the same. In the episode, she and her friends gather to sing “We can show that we belong, when we sing this song; Our voices matter, see us coming together.” I so appreciate the representation and am glad for younger kids to have this, and yet the sense of proving that we belong and how we have to sometimes shout for our voices to be heard, feels like a different way of bowing to white supremacy.
In 2020 and 2021, the nonprofit Stop AAPI Hate recorded 10,370 reports of anti-Asian racism (as of September 2021). The organization was instrumental in publicizing the attacks against Asian Americans and spoke widely about what our community was going through. Dr. Russell Jeung, one of the founders, was prolific in sharing the data and giving interviews to the media. He also wrote in his spiritual memoir, At Home in Exile, that “Christians have a new citizenship – belonging to heaven and seeing themselves as heirs of the kingdom.” He embraces the “not belonging” or being a guest person (Hakka) and simultaneously works to fight anti-Asian racism. I appreciate the ways Dr. Jeung’s sense of true belonging with God grounds his work of pursuing God’s justice here on earth.
My colleague in Asian American Ministries, Sara Chiemi Kwon, fourth generation Japanese American and third generation Chinese American, has led our team in prayer for the Asian American community out of Luke 13. There, Jesus heals a woman who has suffered from being bent over for eighteen years. As a team, we’ve sensed connections to this with our ministry to college students, many who start college at 18. As a people, perhaps we are bent over in deference to and in fear of white supremacy—injured by being the perpetual foreigner and captive to the false belonging of the model minority myth.
Author Cathy Park Hong talks about freeing ourselves from conditional existence and, as in many healings, there is a role to play for those being healed. Acknowledging that we have been hurt and imprisoned by the injuries is a first step, and then asking God for healing and the grace to forgive. Just as Jesus heals the woman in Luke 13, saying, “You are set free,” I long for us to be free to be ourselves so that we can speak up for our belonging in the United States, apart from the need to earn it, apart from bitterness that might keep us broken and bowed down or focused only on a comfortable “American dream” life. I pray that we can both turn away from the false belonging and be healed and raised up by Jesus, and in so doing participate with others in furthering Jesus’ healing and freedom for our world.