“Smart, quiet, White people”—this is the stereotype of many Asian-Americans. Our parents left their motherlands, waved goodbye to their families, forsook their social networks, learned an entirely new language, saved up for mortgages, and raised children in a culture that thinks of them as model citizens.
These children, us, have in turn lived in two worlds: an Asian-imported world within the confines of our homes and the outer American world. Most Asian-Americans don’t really process this until they get to the university.
Some have been cloistered in American suburbia, they think they are just part of the majority American milieu. They’ve bought into the vision of American diversity and fully partake in this culture as their own identity. Their parental homes are just vestiges of an old culture, an irrelevant shadow that if hopefully suppressed, might go away. Others live in urban centers or immigrant-dominated communities, where they stick with other Asians, if not Koreans. Both the Korean and American culture fluidly exchange in and out of each other, and most likely they’ve come to think all Korean-Americans must live similarly.
Something profound happens when they experience a new bubble: either a sleepover at a non-Korean friend’s house, a Korean-American visiting relatives in Korea, a West Coaster visits the East Coast (or vice versa), a urbanite visiting the mid-West, a high-school student entering college, or what’s most common in Korean Seventh-day Adventist communities is when they come to camp meeting for the first time. One realizes that there is a significant minority identity within the majority and that Asians, let alone Koreans, are very similar.
Some find this Korean-ness to be comforting; hence we join the Korean-American churches, Korean-American student associations, we date and marry Korean-Americans, or, some permutation of the aforementioned. We don’t want to disturb the status quo, so we become a part of it. Others find this insight to be distressing and make every effort either to return to their previous white or black-dominated “bubble” or disregard it altogether. They avoid, shun, and dodge anything that links them to this categorization, manifested in either indifferent or vocal ways.
“Smart, quiet, White people.” Regardless of what our social reaction may be, the cultural stereotype still exists. To deny that Asian-Americans aren’t yearning to appeal to the Caucasian majority would be an understatement. We aren’t usually categorized with the Black or Hispanic minority statuses. Rather, labeled as the “Model Minority,” we are thought of as the docile, silent, ultra-achievers that win golf tournaments and ice-skating championships sponsored by Samsung, conduct painless and quick root canals with slanted-eyed accuracy, and repair computers made in China while simultaneously playing violins also made in China.
This reverse prejudice is evidenced when college admissions specialists state that Asian-Americans must score 140 points higher on the SAT than comparable white applicants. In the arena of professions, there are disproportionately more physicians, dentists, and lawyers compared to the general population. Gender-wise, Asian girls are stereotyped as submissive, while Asian males are stereotyped as obedient. The former makes the best girlfriend while the latter the best employee. Asian-Americans are about 5% of the population, but only 0.3% of the corporate leadership world. About a third of Silicon Valley world is Asian, but only 6% of their board members are similarly. Asian-Americans have a higher than average number of doctorate degrees, but are only 2% of college presidents. The National Institutes of Health has 21.5% of Asian scientists, but 4.7% are directors. And the statistics continue…
Whether there is or isn’t an intentional Asian bias/stereotype isn’t the main point. Most likely Asian-Americans will continue to attend the best universities and land good-paying jobs. And while we’re born in America, educated in America, think like Americans, speak with American English accents, and even raise our kids in America, are we more Asian than we think?
Success in the cultural West is dependent on personal initiative, risk-taking, aggressive networking, self-advertising, assertive habits, outside-of-the-box creativity, and the frequent breaking of rules. Thinking how something can be done in a different way, from a different angle, or out of a new paradigm is considered to be leadership material. The ideal is manifested in the quintessential quarterback, the cowboy, the conquistador.
On the other hand, the cultural East values hard consistent, and persistent work. The perception of peace, harmony, loyalty, and corporate contentment are pivotal! Keeping your head down is paramount. It isn’t by chance that the Chinese have the proverb, “the loudest duck gets shot,” while the Koreans and Japanese both say “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” All wisely refrain from complaining; staying quiet is a virtue. “Don’t break the rules; don’t seek your own credit; don’t create problems; don’t bother anyone else. Listen to others and keep your head down.”
These all stem from a communitarian value system that is in stark contrast to the individualistic leadership initiative of the West. There are a lot of theories for the divergence of these two work ethics. More importantly, no one sees this clash more dramatically than Asian-Americans.
So far, this was an introduction to the specific problem which can be briefly stated as: Is it possible that this Eastern reluctance to initiative is also found in our Asian-American churches, namely our Korean Seventh-day Adventist Churches in North America? We have thousands of “smart, quiet” people in our churches, but are seriously lacking a class of leadership that questions, steps-up, think creatively, sacrifices and risks all.
Is it possible that one of the most educated and affluent generations of immigrants is one of the most diffident, hesitant, and reticent generations as well? Is it possible that this grouping of doctoral degrees, six to seven figure incomes, beautiful families, and law-abiding citizens sees spirituality, religion, the church, and the Gospel as little value? Is it possible that we are merely propagating the same habits of our parents’ generation in church?
How many of us are taking Sabbath School, music and worship, evangelism, devotional lives, preaching, camp meeting, ministry, mission trips, etc. to the next level? How many of us are asking why we do these things, how these practices came to be, what their original purposes were, and see if they are being fulfilled appropriately today? How many of us are transforming our communities with our medical practices for the Gospel, our educational institutions for salvation, our local church leadership for evangelism, our acquired wealth and degrees for God’s glory?
Or, are we merely propagating the same way of life to the next generation so that they will also be the same “smart, quiet, White people?” Do we want our children to be intelligent, well-mannered, respectable, and conventional Korean-Americans? Are we merely justifying our parents’ gamble of leaving their motherland? Are Korean American Adventists simply repeating of our Koreans parents’ lives but now under the façade of being part of the American majority?
We are living at the crossroads of history, full of opportunity. Rather than be Western individualists or Eastern communitarians, we have the opportunity to be the best of both. Rather than being Easterners afraid of tipping the boat, we have the opportunity to call our churches to accountability and a higher standard for the Lord Jesus Christ. Rather than be Western individualists placing the monad above the greater community, we have an opportunity to preach, live, and advocate a self-denying and self-sacrificing Christian Adventism. Rather than be American or Korean, we have the opportunity to capitalize on both our strengths. Rather than be “smart, quiet, White people,” we have the opportunity to be “the Called, the Chosen, and the Faithful”—not Western, not Eastern, not Korean, not American, not Korean-American, but citizens of heaven.
(Originally posted the English Compass)