This essay was originally published in This Common Life, a weekly newsletter from Amar D. Peterman.
Over the past several years, I’ve had the opportunity to talk with dozens of young Asian Americans across the US about the historic and present-day contributions of Asian Americans and the future of Asian America. Some of these conversations have taken place in focus groups that I’ve led, but the majority happen over tea, coffee, or a meal.
As I’ve written about in several essays, my experience as a South Asian in white spaces was filled with much confusion and grief. It wasn’t until I met Dr. Ashish Varma—an Indian American professor who taught at Moody Bible Institute—that I saw Christianity and Indianness fully embodied in an individual. Two identities that I was explicitly told were irreconcilable were, at once, located within him. Even more, Ashish was not disordered by these identities, but rather saw his faith and heritage as complementing one another—even flowing within and through one another—in a unified faith practice.
While I don’t think I’ll ever reach the level of brilliance and insight that Dr. Varma possesses, his example not only helped me reconcile my Indian heritage and Christian faith together but further inspired me to be active in reaching out to minoritized people of faith in predominantly white spaces.
While many of these conversations have been filled with a collective hope for a vibrant, multiethnic, practice of faith in America across religious traditions, my proposition that cultural and ethnic identity ought to be embraced has also received plenty of pushback—even from other Asian Americans.
The critique I hear most often is that an emphasis on ethnicity inhibits our ability to find common ground. Because we are so focused on our particularities, these young persons argue, we will never be unified as a country or even as local communities.
This reply always saddens me because it is, almost verbatim, the argument I made throughout my years of deep formation within white evangelical spaces. Hearing this response reminds me of how trapped, how confused, and how frustrated I was in that space. (This is not to suggest the students I hear making this argument are experiencing these emotions, only that this is what I felt at the time I was making these arguments).
In recent months, I have heard this critical response more than usual. Perhaps it is the political and social moment we are in or another factor that I am unaware of. Either way, the number of young Asian Americans who’ve told me that we need to focus more on what we have in common (often something like a shared faith, affinity for a sports team, hobby, or genre of literature) and less on our particular cultures, histories, and experiences has increased substantially.
I frame this response within the ongoing, persistent mythology of Asians as model minorities and perpetual foreigners. As model minorities, Asians are upheld as upwardly mobile, eager-to-be-assimilated immigrants. Following the 1965 Hart-Celler Immigration Act, it was engineers, doctors, scientists, and scholars who were allowed entry into America. In return, white politicians, social commentators, sociologists, and more used this to contrast Asians directly with the ongoing racist perceptions of Black folk as criminal, lazy, and prone to violence. However, Asians ought not understand their utility and tokenization as a safety net. As the COVID pandemic has revealed, Asians today continue to be imagined as a perpetual foreign “other” that carries mysterious languages and diseases with them. For all our attempts at assimilation and integration into society, we will always be “other.”
To suggest that we must give up our particular languages, culture, cuisine, norms, and communities in order to achieve “unity,” is to contribute to these myths — it is to continue striving towards acceptance in a society that will not accept us, to give our love to a nation that doesn’t love us back.
The question we must ask of any appeal to unity is what it will cost us.
In short, I am unwilling (and frankly, unable) to give up my Indianness in order to fully participate in a project aimed towards uniting our communities and nation. This is because any appeal to unity that comes at this cost is not actually a call to unity, it is a call to homogenization. At the heart of such a uniting call is an imagination of a particular culture that allows the demanding party to remain unchanged while those called are forced to leave behind their particularity and assimilate into something else. This cost is too great.
In reply to these young and bright Asian Americans, I offer a counter-imagination of unity in difference. What if the solution to the polarization in our world today is not melting into one homogenous thing, but an ability to move beyond tolerance and embrace the difference around us? What if we imagined difference as a gift from God or a blessing to our society? What if the path to reconciliation was not around or despite our particular cultures and ethnicities, but through them? What if, as my friend Eboo often says, we imagined the future of our nation as a potluck, rather than a melting pot?
Unfortunately, I’ve never had a critical listener reply positively to this vision within the duration of our conversation. However, I hope, as Dr. Varma has done for a decade, I planned a small idea in their mind; and I pray that God will work to create the conditions for that little thought to grow into a compelling vision for the future of our society that we might all join in.
Great article, thanks! For better or worse, the answer(s) to ‘melting pot or pot luck,’ may be yes (to both), and very sadly may take many decades to play out. Two examples by way of empathy. My own background is Pennsylvania Dutch(i.e. German). My family has been knocking around what would become SE Pennsylvania since 1700. In the mid-later 1700’s, Ben Franklin vilified the German immigrants as a blight on the PA colony: ” why should the (“swarthy”) Palatine Boors [Germans] be suffered to swarm into our Settlements, and by herding together establish their Language and Manners to the Exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who … will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.” A somewhat self-contained farming community, the Germanic dialect continued to be spoken widely through the mid-1950’s. When my parents moved in 1962 to an elite northern NJ suburb, they changed the pronunciation of our last name to be “more English,” the better to fit in;. in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, my ancestors and cousins were still referred to as the Dumb Dutch. Sadly it seems change & welcome can take time! But keep fighting! I hope and pray current immigrant communities will find more respect and harmony. And yes, I still like local PA sauerkraut and scrapple!