Dear Asian Youth,
On December 17th, my grandpa passed away at 2:32 A.M at the East Jefferson General Hospital in Metairie, Louisiana. It wasn’t supposed to end that way. He entered the hospital, oblivious to the fact that he would never walk out again. He was content and mobile, with only a minor health issue due to his feeding tube. However, the poor care he received at this miniscule, run-down hospital ultimately resulted in his very last breath. The doctors gave up before his heart even stopped.
“He’s in a better place now,” my mom said over FaceTime, her lips trembling as tears trickled down her face. “Gung Gung is in heaven now.”
My grandpa was never religious. Even though he rarely spoke about God or the afterlife, my mom was always at the forefront, never surrendering her beliefs, despite the snobbish glares she received from our relatives and family members. Growing up, I lived in a Christian household and witnessed countless arguments between my mom and her family regarding religion. As my mom cultivated a deeper relationship with her faith, she reached out to the people she loved in order to share her story—to restore hope. As always, it resulted in my mom being shamed and labeled as insane or crazy. “When did she get so religious?” My grandma would ask me. Barriers separated them; a middle ground was yet to be found.
Still, leading up to his final moments, my grandpa listened to my mom speak about her journey towards declaring her faith. She knew that he would soon depart to the afterlife. While he laid silently on his hospital bed, worship tunes poured in through her phone speakers. Since he was paralyzed, my mom communicated by observing the movement of his eyes. His eyes. They slowly squeezed shut as he took his final breath. His frail, delicate hand clutched onto the wooden cross my mom gifted him right before.
When my dad, brother, and I received the news that he had passed, we immediately packed our suitcases and hopped on the next flight to New Orleans. Because this was my first funeral, I didn’t really know how I was supposed to feel. I was distraught and confused at the same time. I didn’t know what to expect, and I especially wasn’t aware that my faith would be challenged in the process.
It wasn’t until I attended my first funeral that I recognized the dissonance between my Christian faith and my Chinese heritage. Despite witnessing my mom constantly fight with her family, it wasn’t until the funeral that I finally discerned the gap between my faith and heritage. Before, I wasn’t aware of how I should pay my respects and more importantly, that the very ritual clashed with my faith. As my family planned the logistics of the funeral, I was a spectator in a war of words between my grandma, her sisters, and my mom. They explained that in Chinese culture, it is a tradition to burn paper money and offer gifts to the deceased. This ritual originated from the Chinese folk belief that by setting these items on fire, the deceased will receive the offerings and possess the opportunity to live a prosperous afterlife. This belief is rooted in materialism which is prevalent in Chinese culture. My mom responded by saying that Christians firmly believe that material possessions and luxuries simply don’t exist in the afterlife because in heaven, they aren’t necessary. After hours of incessant arguing, my mom managed to convince them that excluding the burning of fake money in the program would be the most fitting option. They surrendered.
As I observed these discussions, I was torn. Over the past few years, I have witnessed the glares that my mom received at weddings and the irritable comments at family gatherings. Does my Christianity really portray me as less Asian? If the two have clashing beliefs, can I even be both without losing strength in one or the other? I grappled with these questions for a long time.
After all, Christianity is viewed as more of a Western aspect of culture. To my peers, I was seen as more “Americanized” because of my faith. It was already a punch in the stomach that I quit Chinese school in second grade, but being Christian somehow painted me as even more of a fake Asian. While other parents emphasized successful careers and wealth, my mom taught me that our religion only worships God, not money. While others strived to be “good enough” in the eyes of their parents and peers, my mom would say, “You are already good enough in the eyes of God. You don’t need to gain the approval of others.” Despite her comforting words, I still developed a distorted image of my religion in relation to my culture. I grew up in an area that is predominantly Asian. Because of this, I held this twisted misconception that Asian Americans had to find their security in idols, such as prestige and affluence. I was fearful of how my faith would characterize me in the eyes of my Asian peers. I started to believe that I wasn’t Asian enough due to my family’s unabating faith. Although my mom rarely placed emphasis on school, I set high expectations for myself. I started to view my faith as a burden rather than a blessing.
I was losing my religion.
“You’re Christian?” My Asian peers would often ask in a condescending tone upon learning about my faith. I used to view this statement as a compliment. I liked taking pride in my faith because my faith was the only tool that allowed me to persevere through obstacles without falling apart. But later, I could only see it as an insult that only further incited the battle between my two identities. Instead of acknowledging and embracing Christianity, I shrugged as if faith mattered no longer to me. I pretended as if my faith wasn’t the only thing keeping me from plunging into a blackhole of self-doubt. I was embarrassed.
Instead of using my free time to read the Bible, I spent hours doing whatever I could to live up to the standards I set for myself. My mind had been consumed with thoughts about school, extracurriculars, and college that I rarely spoke to my mom. When I was up studying late at night, she would stroll calmly into the room and remind me of what mattered the most.
“Don’t forget to look up,” she whispered in my ear. She knew I was lost. Lost and admittedly confused, not about what I valued, but whom I valued. She was right. I was broken.
Broken, but still loved.
That’s what my mom would tell me. She did not believe in the concept of conditional love, because the love that God gives us is unconditional. One day, she sensed that I was more overwhelmed than usual. She walked into my room and said, “Why are you so worried?”
Why was I worried? I honestly didn’t know the precise answer. I was worried because I was losing sight of myself. I was worried because I couldn’t come to terms with an aspect of my identity that allowed me to embrace my imperfections. Above all, I was worried because I couldn’t accept the overlap between my faith and my heritage. So I thought that in order to truly resonate with one, I had to lose the other. I chose to let go of my faith—the component of my identity that I could control.
“You have God who loves you as you are. He tells you to come as you are and that you don’t need to worry about proving yourself to other people,” My mom said. “But you have to have faith in Him.”
In that moment, a flood of memories poured in through my mind. Memories of who I once was: someone who couldn’t care less about how other people viewed me. That was the mindset that my faith supplied me with. I recall all of the moments where my mom would tell her story about her faith, how it saved her from dying in 2013 when she was diagnosed with a rare, uncured autoimmune disease. Despite the people who called her crazy or unrealistic, she was fearless and resilient. I always envied the way she expressed her story with such confidence and honesty. I remembered that I was resilient like my mom, faith and all. I remembered that I could take pride in my Christianity while also taking pride in my Chinese heritage, regardless of the religious shame I encountered when meeting relatives. I remembered that these two elements were important facets of my identity, and I did not have to surrender one or the other to take pride in both. I remembered why I held this faith in the first place—why I believed.
Now, whenever I visit my grandpa’s tombstone to pay respects, I am reminded of my journey—a war between two opposing sides that raised their white flags in order to identify a middle ground. Regardless of whether or not they coincide with one another, I choose to celebrate both.