Growing up in a Chinese American refugee immigrant family, I was taught (among many things) to be both grateful and proud of being American. As a small child, I remember learning to proudly say, “I’m an ABC: American-Born Chinese.” Emphasis on American. I would root for the U.S. in international competitions like the Olympics. Over and over, my parents would talk about how great the opportunities were, how much better they were here than where our family came from.
Copyright: rorem / 123RF Stock Photo
I have always felt I belonged here in America. Some of my Asian American friends have experienced people saying things to them like, “Go back to your country.” “Oh wow, you speak English so well.” “Where are you from? No, really, where are you from?”
I’ve always been surprised by these stories. And I didn’t really understand when my Mexican American husband and the Black students I mentor talked about feeling unsafe and unwanted in the U.S. Sure, a kid in third grade made fun of the Chinese dessert I brought to a class party. In fifth grade, another kid mockingly mimicked Cantonese when he heard me speaking to my mom. Both these incidents made me self-conscious about being different, but I didn’t feel unsafe. I didn’t feel like my belonging in the U.S. was being questioned.
Why are my Asian American friends asked such questions? Why do my husband and students feel uncomfortable in the place they were born and raised? Don’t we live in a salad bowl where everyone comes together in a beautiful mix, welcomed and celebrated?
It’s sad and so troubling that the answer to that question is no. Not everyone here in the U.S. experiences welcome and celebration of their racial, ethnic, or cultural backgrounds. Not everyone is treated equally, though our Declaration of Independence says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Why is this not the experience and reality of so many people of color?
Mary with Black students in her ministry
I have a lot of thoughts and feelings surrounding this question. Mostly grief, pain, and anger. But these days I’m experiencing a new emotion I haven’t felt before: fear.
For the first time in my thirty-six years, I feel scared to be a person of color in the U.S. I am afraid of what others will think and do if they see me as an outsider, not someone who belongs here. Will someone judge me, attack me verbally or physically, just because of what I look like?
I feel this because of comments made by presidential candidates, neighbors, and on Facebook groups about immigration, the Black Lives Matter movement, Muslims, people who don’t speak English, Syrian refugees, and some of the other hot topics of today.
At first, I couldn’t believe people were saying such hateful and inflammatory things. Is racism on the rise? No. Though this is a new feeling to me, it is unfortunately a very familiar feeling to many people of color. I was just unaware of the reality that others lived in.
Four years ago, God called me to love and serve the Black community at San Jose State University. As I listened to their stories, learned their realities, and experienced their fear and sadness, God has grown my awareness of racial and ethnic injustices, brokenness in our systems and relationships, and historical and ongoing oppression. And I see, in the lives of my beloved students and their families, the impact of these things.
In 2012, an article in the SJSU student newspaper made a case against Black History Month. At the same time, the university was in the process of eliminating the African American Studies department and there was no university-sponsored event celebrating Black History. Then, in 2014, a student of color was physically assaulted by his roommates over the course of a semester and received no support from witnesses. Two months ago, five students coming back from an InterVarsity conference were stopped by police and asked if they had weapons in the car.
These incidents (and there are more) leave my students feeling worthless, afraid, and hopeless. They wonder if anyone is really on their side and have a hard time trusting. This breaks my heart.
Yes, I know God is a God of justice and love for those in the margins. I know that, as a follower of Jesus, I am called to pursue justice and love. After entering into the stories of other people of color, I understand a little more what it means to engage my heart and actions in these painful and possibly unsafe places.
It’s not easy to engage. It can be very uncomfortable and overwhelming. It would be easier to avoid. But God has shown me that my life is tied to the lives of others and I am not purposed to live without their realities in mind. I am purposed to engage. My engagement starts with listening, learning, and praying. I will choose to listen to painful stories, grieve, and pray. I will attend rallies, advocate for others, lead Bible studies and train students in cultural awareness and racial reconciliation. I will do what I can to pursue love and justice in the circles in which I have influence.
Mary was born a friendly, fiery extrovert with a flair for drama. Growing up has brought a healthy dose of wisdom; she's learned to appreciate being still and quiet.
Mary attended Santa Clara University, where she cultivated great friendships, studied accounting, and fell in LOVE with Jesus (Christ, not her husband--that Jesús came later).
Mary has a passion for people and loves developing friendships, empowering leaders, and walking with others as they explore faith. She's wife to Jesús, mom to two adorable sons, Jesse and Ángel, part-time InterVarsity campus minister at San Jose State University, and assistant coach for a high school girls basketball team. Though her big Chinese family drives her up the wall sometimes, she loves them to pieces and knows she wouldn't be who she is without them.