I sat in a plastic chair in the fluorescent-lit conference room, leaning on the small tablet desk attached to my seat. The chairs were arranged in a circle around the edge of the room, filling one by one as people trickled in. Eighteen. Nineteen. Twenty. I could hardly believe it.
It was the first San Francisco Bay Area meetup of Progressive Asian American Christians, an online community I had inadvertently helped to start. Less than two months prior, I had written a piece about how lonely it is to be a progressive Asian American Christian. At the end of it, I linked a then-empty Facebook group that a new friend of mine, Lydia Suh, had created. It would be a place, I imagined, where people who resonated with the piece could go to see that other people like them existed — where they would see a bunch of profile pictures and feel validated and maybe post the occasional article.
Neither Lydia nor I expected what followed: Three hundred people joined the group the day after the piece went up; less than six weeks later, we had two thousand. But it wasn’t just the numbers that surprised us — it was the energy and enthusiasm that these folks brought with them. They immediately started sharing their stories, discussing controversial topics, asking when we could start meeting in person. The first meetup took place a month after the group started (in Minneapolis, impressively enough); within the next three months, eight more cities would start their own.
On this sunny Saturday afternoon in February, on the fourth floor of an office building in the city, the first Bay Area meetup about to begin. As I watched people rolling in — peering around, introducing themselves, finding seats — I noticed an unfamiliar feeling in my chest.
“Bear, we have to go inside.”
My son pulls at my hand. His tug is insistent, surprisingly strong for someone who isn’t yet two; when I refuse to comply, he pulls harder, his legs in a textbook tug-of-war stance. I counter his weight with one hand as multiple Target bags hang from the other. I do not have the wherewithal to make the walk around the block that we often do after coming home.
Nor do I have the time. It’s almost 4.30, and we have a date. After struggling for a few moments, I pull out my ace:
“Yei-Yei and Nai-Nai want to talk to you.”
Suddenly his arm goes slack. He drops my hand and runs to the front door, patting it insistently as I fumble for my keys. We enter the house and I fetch my laptop. As I sign onto Skype, he claps his hands and looks eagerly at the screen.
I curated an internet-only primer on race in America for the good people at Level Ground. If you’re interested, you can find it here.
In fourth grade, whenever I got bored during Miss Lieber’s social studies class, I would flip to the back of my textbook and look at the pictures lining the back cover. There were 41 portraits, laid out in neat rows, with George Washington in the upper left corner and George H. W. Bush on the bottom right. As a filmstrip clicked away in the background, I would stare at the faces of these men, their names and party affiliations, the years they held office.
I never consciously acknowledged the fact that all these faces were white; it went without saying that they would be. Of course the person who held the nation’s highest office was white, would always be white. It was the same when I watched the news and Entertainment Tonight during dinner with my family every night: Of course the congressman waving to the camera as he headed into a building was white. Of course every movie star was white. Of course, of course, of course. It made sense, right? America belonged to white people. Families like mine were allowed to be here, tolerated as long as we didn’t complain or make trouble, as long as we were appropriately deferent to the white people who graciously allowed us to inhabit their space. But the thought of having power of any kind never crossed our minds; in order to have that, to have a say in how things were actually done, you had to be white. It was so obvious that it wasn’t even worth noting.
That was the way things were from my earliest memories into my adulthood. But then in 2004 — the summer after I graduated from college — an Illinois state senator named Barack Obama gave a speech at the Democratic National Convention. And in that moment, everything changed.
The Huffington Post picked up “The Loneliness of the Progressive Asian American Christian,” my most recent piece for the Salt Collective. You can find it here.
For a long and formative time in my life, the Asian American church was my home. I came to faith at 15 in the high school ministry of a Chinese church. This was the place where I started to grasp the idea of a gracious God who loved me unconditionally; it was also where I came to terms with my Asian American identity, something I had been bitterly fighting for a decade. It was the first Asian American community I’d ever been a part of, and for the first time in my life, I felt normal. I now had friends who innately got how I interacted with my family, how I thought about school and college and the future — all the experiences that made me so different from my peers at school. I felt seen and accepted and understood, both by God and the people around me.
In college, I was part of a Chinese American campus fellowship — but as the years went on, I started to notice a disconnect between my friends there and me. I was beginning to care a lot about race, politics, current events, feminism. No one at my fellowship discouraged me from pursuing these things, but for the most part, they weren’t interested in discussing them either. Whatever the reason, when I wanted to talk about those issues, I mostly had to look elsewhere.
And then I went to grad school — a clinical psychology graduate program that was housed in a seminary — and my whole world got blown open.