By Joy Wong
All my life, I have had an unexplainable aversion to large groups of Asian Americans. For instance, when my husband Will wanted to check out a dumpling food truck that was swarming with Asian Americans, I felt a strong inner reluctance to approach that crowd. Another example — when I first started college, I initially felt a repulsion to the Asian American campus fellowship. Most of the time, I attributed this reaction to my introverted tendencies — but why the aversion to Asian Americans in particular?
It’s only recently that I’ve begun to unpack this strange reaction. I realized that when I’m in a crowd of Asian Americans with nothing to distinguish myself from those around me, such as a leadership position, I feel painfully invisible and worthless — almost as if my existence didn’t matter at all. It turns out that this feeling originated in my childhood.
I grew up in a mostly Caucasian neighborhood, where I was one of the only Asian Americans in my school. Early on, a few of my classmates began to make fun of me for my Asianness. I told my parents about what happened at school, and my father said to me, “Never be ashamed of who you are.” The encouragement from my father gave me the strength to go back to school and face the taunts of my classmates again.
However, at that time, instead of being ashamed of who I was, I chose to be proud of my Asianness. I began to consider myself better than others, and to take an attitude of condescension as a way of preserving my own self-worth. This morphed into a pride in my uniqueness as an Asian among Caucasians — and the separateness made me feel special and “set apart.”
I believe that this is why I’ve often felt invisible in a group of Asian Americans. The one factor that I relied upon to distinguish me from others and to give me a sense of personal significance was gone. I had been buying into the lie that my personal worth and significance came from how I was different from others, especially in regards to my ethnicity.
Many people may find this surprising, since I’ve been around Asian Americans for most of my life. I’ve been actively involved in Asian American ministries, churches, small groups, etc. However, most people do not know that I felt very insignificant in those groups until I became a leader. The sense of personal significance that I lost when among Asian Americans was regained when I was assigned a special role, setting me apart from those around me.
Now that I’ve uncovered all this, I feel much more comfortable among large groups of Asian Americans. I’ve learned to tell myself the truth — that my personal worth and significance comes not from how different I am from those around me, but from the fact that I am loved by God. It is in this truth that my sense of worth will always be secure, and to which I must remind myself to come back to, again and again.
Joy Wong completed a Masters of Divinity degree at Fuller Theological Seminary. She and her husband currently attend New City Church of Los Angeles. To contact Joy, please send your inquiry to firstname.lastname@example.org.