Interviewing America: Being Asian American, and not being Asian American

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.

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Interviewing America: A U.S. Marine’s Perspective on Iraq, ISIS, and God.

I have a lot of opinions about things. Most are unfounded. To combat this random projection of thoughts into the universe, I’ve decided to actually start asking Americans what they think about things, rather than just telling them what they think about things, as much fun as that has been.

I thought we’d just jump in at the deep end, given the number of times I’ve heard the words “liberties”, “threatened” and “terroristevilbastardmuslimISISbeheadings” in the last week. That being the case, we’re going to hear from Thomas Burke, my lovely new friend, who is very good at being a human. He also spent 9 months serving in both Iraq and Afghanistan, in the Marine Corps.

Tell me a little bit about why you joined the army. “Since as long as I can remember it was a spiritual calling, a vocational calling, to be part of something bigger than myself. I was looking for truth at a time when my country was at war.

What would you say the primary role of the military should be? Defence and maintaining the peace of the nation state.

Do you think this is the primary role of the U.S. military? Yes. We do a lot more humanitarian aid than people realise – 95% of my work in Iraq was humanitarian. Some units take that more seriously than others. The bonds our unit made there were incredible. It seems bad to say this, but we had dinner with the Taliban hajj every night. But then the unit that replaced us went there for a fight. They shot a girl and they lost 5 marines. We went looking for peace and we found it.

For the most part they really did love us. I spoke Pashtu and had a really close relationship with children in the area. There are a lot of Americans who are very ignorant, who are Islamophobic, who don’t understand Islam. They view these human beings as aliens. If you treat anyone like a human being, whether you speak their language or not, you’ll get a kind reception. The shit comes down at a unit level. It doesn’t matter what the objective of the war is… at a certain point enlistment becomes so lax that they just let anyone in. This is why I’m so against drone warfare. We’re killing people who don’t have clean water to drink.

Your reception on return? Mixed. There were obviously negative reactions. I’ve been called a baby killer. Most people are appreciative, but appreciative of their ignorance, that they don’t have to know what’s going on. It’s hard returning, being separated from your brothers. We were together, and now we’re all alone. It’s really hard for us to trust, or be vulnerable, with anyone who wasn’t there when we were crying hysterically when our brother died. We became a family whether we wanted to or not.

What do you think of Obama’s recent decision to return to military action in Iraq? It really pisses me off. In Syria ISIS has been cutting the heads off people for the last 4 years. I had friends kidnapped by ISIS. People don’t even know what we now see as the leading threat. Syria is a great nation – a great people – and we watched them be decimated. We did nothing. We’re still doing nothing. But as soon as they got into Iraq, and they threatened our goals there, we go back. That breaks my heart. What would happen if this happened here? We would want someone to help us. We have a responsibility. But I don’t think it includes a full-scale conventional military operation. We shouldn’t be sending advisers… we send advisers because we think we’re this high democracy that knows everything about the world, but that’s not the case at all. I think we can help with air strikes.

You’re also running for office. What is your official position regarding western military action in the middle east? My official position? Humanitarian aid all day. It’s not our fight. We created the mess, though.

You’re a Christian. What does God think of America going back to Iraq? (Laughs) God doesn’t like it. Especially in His name. My Christ likes helping people who can’t help themselves… but at the same time, we’ve kind of tied their hands from helping themselves.

What was it like being a Christian in the army? Very difficult. I became agnostic… one of my best friends got his face blown off. I really stopped believing after that, for a long time. I say agnostic, because I knew God was there. But the question of why… theodicy… the problem of evil, was weighing on my heart for a long time. Being a Christian, you’re held as the one… I was the one people would come up to and ask about things, be told about things… for a man, it’s very difficult to be confused in your emotions. As soldiers, we’re taught to kill, kill, kill. That’s not what humans really are…

 War is such an evil creature. It’s so animalistic and primal that there’s no way we can articulate… war doesn’t have reason. Ethics in war is impossible. It’s impossible to justify actions in war. It’s unfair to ask soldiers to do it…. There’s no such thing as just war. If we are reasonable human beings… there should never ever be a reason why one human being should kill another human being. You have to be the one to end the cycle. War is such bullshit. It’s never fought by the people who want to fight it. It’s taught by a younger generation, who are naïve.

Do you hate it when people expect you to be able to have some kind of coherent answer to everything war-related, just because you were a soldier? Kind of like this conversation? (Laughs) Actually, especially in universities, that’s a responsibility of ours. Veterans do isolate, and don’t want to talk. And that’s not healthy… you can’t just repress shit. We have a responsibility to bring these perspectives; just like everybody has a perspective… and we’re all different. We all saw it differently. Reintegration needs a structured place, like a classroom.

Some of these veterans coming back think what they did is the best thing they’ll ever do in their lives, and they’re 20 years old. That’s so depressing. They need to know they have other things to contribute. So no, I don’t hate it.

If your son or daughter came to you and wanted to join the army, what would you say? I would say absolutely. I’d be very proud of them. But it’s not a war thing. If they told me they were going to join the Peace Corps I’d be equally as excited. It’s about being selfless, discipline, structure.

 What’s your view of America? (Laughs again) (no, really, some people do actually find me funny)  Ah, I hate America so much. Well – I love the America that i idealistically fought for. A melting pot nation where anyone can work hard to have a great life. Where everyone is equal.”