This time on ‘Interviewing America’ (which, let’s be honest, should more accurately have the much less catchy title ‘Interviewing YDS’) I get to chat to Nat Huang, who I definitely didn’t refer to as ‘my token Asian-American’ to her face. We were going to do this over pizza, but got distracted by eating and our mutual awesomeness, so this is our follow-up conversation:
Tell me a little about where you’re from. My parents are from Taiwan, and I was born and raised in Southern California. (My hometown, Arcadia, has been nicknamed “ArcAsia” and was recently featured on businessweek.com for its chinese population: (http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2014-10-15/chinese-home-buying-binge-transforms-california-suburb-arcadia).
Do you identify as an Asian American? Technically, you’re a ‘person of colour’ – does this resonate with you? I feel rather neutral about the term “person of color”, although it did feel strange the first time someone (ironically, my own brother) called me that. Generally, I’d identify myself as an Asian American, but I don’t necessarily identify with Asian Americans all (or even most) of the time. I think I see myself primarily as an American with Taiwanese heritage.
What parts of you aren’t Asian? What parts of you aren’t American? That’s funny because I actually identify as an Asian happily, just not as an Asian American as a sub-culture – I’m able to have pretty meaningful communication with people who are fluent in chinese, but when I speak with Asian Americans in English, it seems like something is missing. I do have problems with being Asian mostly in terms of expectations of women and what they should be…. they judge your health or ability in terms of how thin you are. I don’t mind true community and connection, but when you’re a collective identity, it’s assumed that you’re in agreement so you don’t talk about things. Being an Asian in America, I’m able to pick and choose which elements of ‘Asian’ culture I incorporate into my life (such as bringing a hot water bottle wherever I go!)
What do you like about being an American? Hmmm…..Freedom of speech and emphasis on individuality? It’s hard to explain, but there truly is a part of my core that really loves America. There are problems and issues, but this is my country, where I was born and raised.
Is there a distinct ‘Asian Christian’/Chinese Christian identity that you identify with? You know it’s really funny I was talking with my parents the other day – when I was very young I was exposed to the stories of Christians in China – their persecution and things like that… a kind of contrast to the American Christian identity – which I received through a homeschooling culture. My identity goes back to the mainland – where Christianity stirred people in deep ways. Here, with Asian Americans, it’s like we’re taking this American identity…this ‘Christian’ identity that maybe we’re appropriating? I never felt a need for a particular Asian American Christianity because I felt familiar with (and that I could relate to) both Asian Christianity and American Christianity. I found that I integrated ‘Asian’ and ‘American’ on a personal and familial level rather than searching for an ‘Asian American Christianity’ in the company of other Asian Americans.
How many generations does Christianity go back in your family? My parents were the first. My dad is the eldest son in a Buddhist Taiwanese family. That was a hard thing. So for me faith is always a personal choice – and you have a choice in how you live it out. My mum’s dad believes in God, which most Asians do, but technically they were the first generation. Because they had to fight for their faith they discipled us… them coming to faith led to really profound changes in their thinking. My dad is very highly educated, got a phd from Princeton, which in Asian culture means high levels of success, but they never put academic pressure on us in that way, which is very different to a lot of Asian American experience. But the quest for learning was always there, but not in a pressurized way.
Let’s talk a bit about ‘Asian theology’. A recent discovery of mine! Previous (limited and brief) encounters with Asian American theology/Christian, soul-searching narratives left me unsatisfied and vaguely irritated, so reading Simon Chan’s Grassroots Theology was quite refreshing. I think he articulated a lot of what my inward being has been searching for and would like to keep exploring. The time is ripe for Asian Theology to take off, I think!
What things in particular do you feel like you’ve been ‘searching’ for? He uses the word sin! And the word Spirit. Which I think are two kind of controversial, sensitive words here – and I think he tries to use those words sensitively. So that was refreshing. And the ‘grass-roots’ part of it. Christianity in Asia started at the grassroots, so why can’t we understand it at that level? Why do we need western enlightenment ways of thinking to analyse something happening organically on the ground? There’s no way you can purely use ‘head’ stuff to understand the movement – but he doesn’t just fall into constructing a kind of narrative of stories – he really constructs a theology.
Given the size/variety of Asia, do you think it’s possible to talk about ‘Asian theology’? I think that’s really hard. I don’t think it’s possible. Maybe not right now. I was reading this Korean feminist theologian recently, which was mostly a personal narrative, claiming to be ‘Asian feminist theology’. Rather than be overly ambitious and overly inclusive, say this is my ‘Korean American theology’ or ‘Chinese American theology’. Be honest with your limitations and speak for what you know.
Yale Divinity School is pretty much a white/black theology focus. Do you feel underrepresented? Yes. But I don’t think it’s necessarily automatically a bad thing. I came here expecting that. There are immigrants in this country, but also people who are forced here, who have a deeper, more painful history with this country. As immigrants we need to listen. We can assert ourselves by actively listening – something Asian Americans haven’t really done. So it doesn’t bother me – not so far! If I wanted to be around Asians I’d go to Fuller, you know? Laughs. But I didn’t. I’m here.
Is it frustrating to you that people try to stereotype you with an entire continent, which holds the majority of the world’s population? Yes. Thankfully that hasn’t happened at Yale as much as it has other places. I love when I used to tell people that I was Chinese and they’d say, “Oh, our neighbors are Chinese” or “Oh, my son’s girlfriend is Chinese” (yes, dear reader, ‘yellow fever’ is a Thing. Gross.) and I’d think: “Yeah, so is roughly ¼ of the world’s population!”
All the world’s major religions have come out of Asia. Is God Asian? Never really put much thought into that before! Well He’s certainly not white! I believe God is beyond race…. Christ was Middle-Eastern. I’ve never seen Jesus as being a blonde dude. URGH. Or as an Asian dude.