WORDS BY COOPER MAY
In this new place I have come to call home, a decent pair of shoes costs around $15, but for me, they are $30.
The moment I walk into a room, eyes are fixed on me, prices in shops are raised, and the bottles of water are dusted off. Before I can open my mouth in my broken, native tongue, who I am has already been established; my salary has been assigned, my religion guessed, and, in some cases, the food I eat and how I eat it. All of these things have been decided based the color of my hair and skin. My only hope is that after enough conversation, tea, and patience, I become less of stereotype and more of a fellow human being. This is my reality living in Southeast Asia, but it wasn’t always this way.
Growing up in Southern California, I was unaware of the diversity around me. My best friends consisted of a Catholic Irishman, a Christian Mexican, and a Japanese girl with a Hawaiian heritage. The sports teams I played on consisted of every race and color of the rainbow, and the rock climbing community I fell in love with was as eccentric as they come.
I didn’t recognize it as diversity because it was normal. I didn’t understand racism because it seemed archaic. But I am a SoCal, blonde-haired, Christian, Caucasian of German descent, so what do I know? I don’t pretend to know what it feels like to be a minority in America, but I am beginning to understand what it means to not want to be different.
The first few months of adjusting to this country and learning some simple phrases in the native language were innocent enough, but as more time passes, the veil of innocence slowly falls. Early on I accepted the fact that foreigners are charged more for things, are assumed to have deep pockets and an affinity for the cross. As I begin to call this place home, however, I'm starting to see these things less as general rules, and more like personal attacks.
"As I begin to call this place home, however, I'm starting to see these things less as general rules, and more like personal attacks."
Even while building relationships with locals, I don't doubt many are taking an interest in me simply because of unwarranted assumptions. For some, they will gain popularity if they have an American friend. Or perhaps they think that I am able to grant them U.S. citizenship and a land them a job our west.
Then there is the inverse where, because negative assumptions are made, relationships are never started. I may be seen as a threat to their culture and beliefs; some may think I am a missionary come to abolish their way of living, demand they become secular, and renounce their beliefs. There are the religiously minded who call me an untouchable because of my hamburger-eating habit, or my own beliefs that differ from theirs. The scenarios seem endless and loneliness, inevitable.
This learning experience is especially interesting in a caste system culture. Just as I was unable to comprehend the reality of racism because of the normality of diversity, the culture here can’t comprehend the reality of diversity because of the normality of racism. It is a part of life to classify people based off of where they are from, the color of their skin, facial features, diets and family lineage. Who you are and what you can become are all decided by these predetermined factors. Unlike most minorities, I chose this life. I have a way out, a way back to a world where I am not forced to think and feel such things.
Being a minority is difficult and I imagine it will get worse for my family before it gets better, but we have a newfound value now which no exposure to the highly diverse cities of California ever gave us.
When Jesus said blessed are the poor, hungry, and hated, He didn’t mean those with many blessings to be had. What he meant was those who have money will never know what it feels like to be provided for, those who are always full will never know the generosity of others, and those who are loved by all will never understand the fullness of God’s love and care for them. If we are to find encouragement in anything, it is God’s Word. It is through what we lack and the weaknesses we claim that God is able to glorify Himself the most.
As with all adversity, this comes with painful patience and grace and is never accomplished through avoidance or arrogance. If I deny the legitimate and understandable assumptions those around me have about others with the same skin color as me, then there will be no progress. Most of my productive confrontational conversations have started with “you are right,” which is a painful pill to swallow.
All racial judgments I have encountered personally here in Asia, as it pertains to my race, have been partially true. The key word is “partial.” For example, “You are right, Americans consist of the top 1 percent richest people in the world, but things are more expensive there so even though they comparatively make more money, it is still possible to be poor and in need.” I don’t just affirm their assumption, I speak depth into it. This is far more complicated and painful in other scenarios because it will always first require an acceptance of judgment before addressing it.
For those of you who find yourself in the shoes of a minority, those of you on the fringes of society, you are not, by any means, at a disadvantage. I may not enjoy many of the racially fueled encounters here, but I have never valued God’s love for diversity and our capacity to love others despite our differences more than I do today. These hardships only strengthen our capacity for compassion and awareness.
No matter what you do, you cannot erase the gap between race, gender, ethnicity or place of origin. But you may be the only few who have the ability to bridge the gap. I don't know if we can change much in our society as a whole — Facebook rants only go so far — but we, as followers of Christ and minorities in this world, have a powerful presence in our workplace and our families.
Only with power and encouragement from Jesus can we accept the strength and opportunity in our weakness and unique position. Then, through love and grace, we are able to help others to see the world differently, not so that we can receive better treatment — we must “do nothing out of selfish ambition” — but so more people can look at one another and see them for how their Creator sees them.