Last fall I met Mariko in a church membership class. She took a genuine interest in getting to know me, and pretty soon we were talking about my ethnic background, which is a topic that white people that I meet or work with (or even those who are already my friends) don’t usually bring up with me. She then invited me to a “focus group” to discuss racial issues in the church. It had never occurred to me that racial issues are related to my spiritual life, but when Mariko and her husband Paul showed a keen interest in my race-related journey/story, I felt that this was very important and that God had something to do with it.
When I was asked the question, “On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the greatest, to what degree does race affect your daily life?” Honestly, I really didn’t know how to answer that question. But it sure made me think a lot. True, when I look at myself in the bathroom mirror every morning, I see a female with black hair and brown skin, but I don’t regard myself as any different from my friends or co-workers who have lighter or even darker colored hair or skin. But there have been times in my life when I seriously wished I were white, had blond hair and blue eyes, or that I didn’t have this ethnic “baggage” to carry.
I am quite fortunate to not have had blatant experiences of racism. Maybe it was due to the fact that I lived for a while in very diverse California. But there have been plenty of times where I felt like an outsider, like I didn’t belong. I couldn’t really determine whether it was because I looked different or because of my personality, but the way people treated me made me feel that there was something wrong with me.
Nowadays I don’t really get affected by the fact that I am not a native to the United States. However, I cannot deny that going through an extremely grueling and shaming process called immigration, acculturation, and assimilation during an already tumultuous season of adolescence definitely shaped who I am today, at least how I have come to perceive myself. And my identity definitely plays into my spirituality and relationship with God. In fact, I have realized that a lot of the brokenness that God has been healing and working on me thus far in my adult life is related to my racial/ethnic identity in some form.
I came to this country when I was 12 years old. I remember my parents telling me and my siblings that they wanted a better life for us, and life is better in America. All I knew of that country was how much better their stuff was compared to ours in the Philippines. Every time my aunt and uncle sent us a package of American goodies such as candy and magazines, my siblings and I would be in awe. I went to a private Catholic school in Manila where I learned to read, write, and speak English (very well in fact). But I remember a time in 6th grade when the principal and teachers forced us to speak only English for a day. Now we had a bunch of other rules in the school, but for some reason I was really ticked off by that; it felt like oppression to my young pysche. So, guess what, I broke that rule. And although I was a highly-regarded student, I was given a de-merit.
When one of my sisters and I moved into my aunt and uncle’s house in Nashville and my mom moved to San Francisco to stay with other relatives, I felt like I was dumped into the ocean without a life preserver. Everything was so foreign to me but nobody, not even my aunt and uncle, bothered to talk to that budding teenager that she was experiencing culture shock, not to mention shock from being separated from most of her family. (My dad and two other siblings immigrated 2 years later).
From then on, life for me (this was all subconscious) was all about survival. That means do whatever you can to fit in, to not look or act or sound any different or do anything that would make people look at you weird or laugh at you or ask you stupid questions like where did you learn to speak English or you have such a lovely tan.
Two years after living in the deep south, I truly felt like an American. Well, at least I could speak English without a detectable accent. I also had to move to California to be with the rest of my family. I was in the middle of high school. Guess what, my struggles with my racial identity did not end there; in fact, they got worse. My high school in a San Francisco suburb was very diverse. It brought me a lot of confusion. I just moved from a place where I was surrounded by white people, and all of a sudden, there were actually other Filipinos in my school! Talk about reverse culture shock. But I truly appreciated not being so different from everybody else anymore. I quickly befriended a Filipino gal my age. We got pretty close but all of a sudden she got into the popular social group and completely forgot about me. I think that was the time that I subconsciously started despising Filipinos and my native culture, as well as being ashamed of being Filipino. It didn’t help that my parents and other Filipino adults around me often backstabbed and criticized or were envious of other Filipinos.
It has only been through meeting Mariko and thus becoming involved with the focus group for “Removing the Blinders” class, that my eyes were opened to this deep-seated shame that I’ve carried regarding my race and ethnic background, and how God is so sad and grieving that I am so broken in this way. This brokenness has even influenced the way I perceive and treat people, even as a Christian. Although I haven’t really struggled with judging people for the color of their skin (in fact, I just love being and interacting with racially diverse people and learning about other cultures), I am definitely guilty of having a “consumer mind-set” when it comes to social things. Consciously and subconsciously, I think of people as either outsiders or insiders. And I have continued to behave and live (even within the walls of the church) so as to be an insider or at least feel like one. Being an outsider or feeling like an outsider feels like death to me. And I think this is due to the trauma I had experienced as adolescent trying to acculturate to this country. Unfortunately, I had not only successfully acculturated, I have completely assimilated. In most ways, I see myself as a white person. For one thing I am very independent. But deep inside I am always longing for true community and for communal relationships with people. Also, this very Filipino trait of hospitality just keeps spilling out in so many ways. And not to mention the artistic parts of me. Having been increasingly involved in the arts community in my church, I am getting back in touch with the artist that God created in me, and you know what, a lot of it is related or has been influenced by my Filipino culture.
God, the faithful Redeemer, is busy at work in my life! He is taking back what I had lost to the enemy because of the sinfulness and brokenness of this world. He is removing not only my blinders but also my shame. As I have intently looked into the nature of God, being the perfect community–Father, Son, and Spirit–whose unity and diversity welcomes and includes anyone and everyone, I am convicted of my self-centeredness and my exclusivity. It is hard to face this ugliness, but the God who also identified with my sin by becoming a frail human being, gives me the courage and strength to repent and join with others to seek his heart and allow him to truly make us into that united body and holy dwelling in which he lives through his Spirit (Ephesians 2:21).