By Tina Teng-Henson
I wonder if there’s a season in ethnic identity development where you feel like “your” ethnicity has the corner on all the tough stuff: Asian Americans have toxic shame…why can’t we communicate more directly?…Chinese immigrants are frugal to a fault (“cheap!”)…notoriously conflict-avoidant…always saving face.
Recently, I mediated a conflict between an Asian friend and a Latina friend – both dear to me, both unique and beautiful in their own right. Somehow, they’d become the best of friends in the fall – but then by December, something had shifted, and their friendship ended as unexpectedly as it began.
What did I find? My Asian friend was willing to come to the table, but then all too blunt about her unwillingness to apologize or reconcile. What happened to indirect communication and saving face? I only saw that in my Latina friend. That, and the kind of toxic shame that made her turn and hide, pulling out of community; saving face though no one was asking her to. “We’re taking a break from church for a while.” A while, meaning indefinitely. Indefinitely, meaning goodbye. Frustratingly indirect.
I wrestled for an explanation, a lens to make sense of what had become an intractably painful pastoral situation.
Was it an “immigrant-thing”? Both women were immigrants – the Asian friend here far longer than the Latina – each a blend of their cultural traditions and American ways.
Was it a faith-thing? Both women were involved in our church – one was a mature Christian, the other exploring the faith.
Maybe it was temperamental, personality-driven. Both women’s temperaments were entirely pleasing to me, but perhaps they were fundamentally mismatched, and their personalities clashed.
Maybe it was a cross-cultural communication matter. When I later read their Google-chat communications, I thought: they’re completely missing each other. They’re both trying, hard, but one says one thing and the other misinterprets her meaning.
From their shared inability to connect the present conflict to their respective patterns of past relational brokenness, I could tell: this was also about baggage from the past. Baggage that refused to be dislodged from the overhead compartment. Baggage that resisted being unpacked so it could be lovingly sorted through, patiently healed.
Ethnic and cultural differences were perhaps the overly-simple explanation. My friends were showing me that their humanity was far more complex and irreducible than any one of these things. This was language AND online communication AND culture AND personality and so much more. All of this prevented deeper intimacy and vulnerability. To me it was also clear: the work of Satan was obviously at hand as well.
I write, left in a sad place, as we three continue forward on separate paths – one friend leaving our church community, the other tenuously remaining, me staying put in my role, seeking to serve, though without knowledge or insight as to how to move forward. All these lenses, stacked together, and I can’t see through with any clarity. I ask the Lord of all creation what place all this has in his heart. As he goes about his business, watching and acting with sovereignty, yet in a way none of us understands, I wish he would move. I know he can see.
Tina Teng-Henson has been blessed to learn + grow alongside so many different people, in so many places: Long Island, NY — Harvard College + the South End of Boston — Nairobi, Kenya and Lanzhou, China. She is presently enjoying her studies at Fuller‘s Northern California campus and her ministry as an outreach pastor at Recreate Church in San Jose.