the rift of names

Peter Liang was convicted. Relief passed through my body like an exhalation. Then the tension crept in, like it always does, twisting and kneading in my chest, my stomach–the tension roused from the realization that the world is agonizingly far from what it should be.

Tension arises from the chasm between the shalom of Eden and the Earth still healing from the ravages of sin’s disease. Because in our world, as Jonathan Walton puts it, “Justice is behind bars.” We want people to pay for what they did. We want them to answer proportionately to the ways in which they hurt us. Yet the paradigm of Christ complicates this narrative when we begin to see that in this story of human Fall, brokenness, and redemption, we are all at fault, and we are all victims–though not in the same ways.

So the reaction to news like Peter Liang’s conviction is mixed…and painful.

Relief: the life of an unarmed black man maintained enough value in the eyes of the law that the person who killed him had to account for that action.

Grief: after a succession of police officers unlawfully killing black individuals, the only one convicted is an Asian man, a man of color.

I understand better the protests and the counter-protests. They point to a strife-riddled landscape of American racial politics where the model minority and the marginalized black body are pitted against each other in the wrestling match to earn the prize most elevated in our realm: white privilege. Both persons are reduced to objects, pawns in a greater struggle to uphold white supremacy because if we learn to cast suspicion and hate upon each other, we never address the corrupt referee supervising the match.

So we wrestle with each other, and afterwards retreat to fight our people’s battles against racism alone. Asians to Asian problems, Blacks to Black problems. Yet the desire exists for our battles to come together, for Asian peoples in the U.S. to care as much about #BlackLivesMatter as black peoples care about the exoticization and and humiliation of Asians. But we remain stagnant, sequestered within our individual protests, the silence of stillborn conversations carving the trenches between us.

I’ve realized recently that I feel the weight of this silence acutely because it manifests itself in my own name. My name is Joanna Chin. My first name weaves together the first names of my Jamaican grandmother (Joan) and my Dominican grandmother (Yaniris, translated as Anna). My last name is Chin, endowed to me by my great-grandfather, who emigrated from Hong Kong to Jamaica decades ago. My first name gives me access to blackness, mixed and multiple. My last name tethers to the vast expanse that is called Asia.

It is far easier for me to skip around the ethnic playground of Joanna, practice the cultures of being Latinx and black, figure out what that means to me and watch it evolve as I learn more and celebrate it, learn more and struggle with it.

I have a far more complicated relationship to Chin. Chin is either the exotic celebrity friend I name-drop to others (ohhh look I’m so mixed!), or the estranged relative I mention in passing (moving on…). Close enough to take ownership of, distant enough that I cannot call myself Chinese–or Asian. It cannot be fully mine, only partitioned, a divided portion handed down generationally.

My last name dwells in the attic like an antique heirloom, and when taken out, I use the reactions of others to my advantage.  I anticipate the raised brows, the cave-like Ohhhs their mouths make, the undulating nods that affirm that they “knew I looked mixed.” I am happy to corroborate their evidence. They do not expect the layers of curls and brown face to belong to a Chin. In Jamaica, it would be common. In New York City, it’s more expected. In the neighborhoods of my childhood and my college experience, it was a consistent surprise, further marking my difference from the norm of whiteness.

I learned from a young age that Chin means that I will always be explaining myself. The privilege of just being is rare unless in the company others just as mixed as I am, people who just get it.

So when Peter Liang is convicted, the news wedges itself in the gap between my names, the pressure on both sides creating a tension that until now, I didn’t know how to language. I had to ask myself: Why am I feeling resentful and frustrated with my Asian brothers and sisters? I have Asian friends, I KNOW many of them have advocated for me and been allies in engaging with racial struggles. But why do I feel so distant from Asian communities? 

The awkward realization swept upon me that although I have had Asian friends for years, I still feel alienated while present in Asian-predominant spaces. I lumber my way around these interactions like a space pilot who has never flown a freighter before, afraid of crashing at every jostle and turn. I hesitate, always conscious of the internalized racism festering in my mind, the jokes about language fluency and intelligence, the historic silences between Asian and black communities. Instead of dealing with these feelings of confusion and shame, I tamp them down, pretend they’re not there. I inhabit Joanna and pretend everything’s ok with my last name.

My experience at a racial reconciliation conference last week shoved all these feelings back to the surface with painful clarity. One of the speakers, Kathy Khang, shared about her experiences as a Korean woman and connected it to the story of Esther, speaking frankly about her struggles in navigating the American landscape and the expectations placed on her once she was thrown into the category of “Asian.” Like Esther, she had to “pass” to survive the court of identity politics. Like Esther, she had to be re-named to fit in. Though I cannot claim the experience of an Asian woman, I was struck by how much value we all place on names and how our stories of oppression, survival, family, and migration are embedded in them.

As I drew close to the story of Kathy (her English name) and absorbed her narrative of acculturation and alienation, the truth of my previous distance from my Asian brothers and sisters became clear. I struggle to see them and be fully present with them, not only because I doubt that I belong to them, generations removed as I might be, I doubt they belong to me, that their problems, their pain, are also mine to bear and share. As Christina Cleveland put it, “Reconciliation happens when your problems become my problems,” a reminder that caring for others should result in the mutual investment in each other’s stories and points of view.

I have not invested enough time or energy in the stories of my Asian and Asian-American family, and that convicts me. I must now position myself in the posture of learning, sharing in their lives if I am asking them to share in the lives of me and my black family.

So last Wednesday I went to my first Asian-American Christian Fellowship gathering. The theme was “What Do We Do Next?” in response to the Peter Liang conviction and #BlackLivesMatter. I sat in the second row and immediately regretted it because of the awkwardness coating me like a second skin, so strong I was sure others could sense it. Scanning the room, I noted that I was one of a handful of brown people. I shifted in my seat and tucked my arms into my lap, hoping I didn’t stand out too much. It wasn’t until the formal meeting ended and everyone was mingling that I forced myself to thread my way through the chattering crowds and pried my lips open to start conversations.

Why is this so hard? I kept thinking. I reminded myself that this was hardly an anomaly of an experience–I actually do have meaningful friendships with many people across ethnic and color lines. Then why did I feel so self-conscious in an Asian-predominant space?

The tension within myself, tension born from a mixed heritage, a lifetime of explanations and confused silences, the weight of steps traveled between names and between communities dragged my shoulders, pounded at my heart…until a tall guy came up to me and started talking. We were both small group coordinators and traded anecdotes about working with students. Then another guy scooted in and buoyed the conversation as we laughed over class mishaps and video game adventures gone wrong. I glanced around me, a smile creasing my cheeks as I saw throngs of people tucked in every space, munching on bao, poking at each other’s shoulders in jest, drawing pictures in the air as they bantered on.

It wasn’t until I left the room entirely that I realized that the knots in my stomach had loosened.

The tension hasn’t disappeared, and the process of examining my relationship with my Asian brothers and sisters and that aspect of my identity is only in its inception; so much lies unresolved in my own heart. But with this realization, I can address and challenge the confusion, frustration, and alienation between these parts of myself, the parts of this nation that all belong to me and I to them. I can converse with my brothers and sisters and find junctures of commonality, even as I explore and embrace the differences between us. Through this, I discover that rather than increasing the distance between my story and theirs, this action twines both of our stories together at last.

Like Indiana Jones leaping over the seemingly treacherous crevasse to find the Holy Grail, I prepare to leap into and over the once insurmountable rifts within myself, recognizing that, like the intrepid explorer, I will miraculously find my footing. When least expected and most-needed, God will craft a bridge from where there was only void, and in that crossing of air and ground, I will find the place where my names meet, inseparable, invaluable.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s