Although this discussion primarily deals with how pastors can better minister to Asian-Americans in the West, there are enormous implications and lessons to be learned from this insightful Q&A session with regards to how Westerners, in general, can better understand the mindset of many Asian-Americans. So, even if you’re not a Christian or don’t really give a rip about ministry matters, it’s worth taking time to listen.
Personally, I’m really thankful for this discussion because this shed a great amount of light onto my experience as an Asian-American. Balancing a predominantly white, southern-American, individualistic context with my home life of being raised by a Japanese mother, I felt firsthand what Dr. Julius Kim and Dr. Stephen Um described as a ‘confluence of Western and Eastern value systems’. This has been to my advantage in so many ways, but it has also left me a bit confused at times.
“Oftentimes we develop leaders based upon the ways they express themselves vocally as well as in their actions, in their words and in their deeds. Oftentimes because of certain Eastern cultural value systems Asians tend not to put themselves forward. They’re much more deferential. They’re much more…accommodating…just being very sensitive to the context and to the other leaders around them. So they’re less vocal. As a pastor, you may look at certain Asian-Americans growing up and maturing in your midst, and say, “I don’t think he has what we call ‘leadership potential’. He’s too quiet. He’s too accommodating. He’s a great ‘server’, but I don’t think he could ever be a leader because through his words and through his actions he hasn’t demonstrated the kind of assertiveness that we need to see among the rugged individualism of American identity. Oftentimes we define leadership based upon that kind of rugged, individualistic, assertive character. What happens is, it is not that they do not have that ability, it’s that oftentimes they suppress it because of this confluence of both Western and Eastern value systems.”
This confusion, for me, is especially true with regards to the realm of ‘leadership’. As someone who is half-Japanese, it’s incredibly difficult in the U.S. to navigate these tricky and, oftentimes, biased waters. I’m not very assertive (I can force myself to be…it’s so incredibly awkward). I’m ‘overly-accommodating’. My concern, when it comes to decisions, is often directed toward the consensus of the group and what is best for ‘the team’. I don’t advance myself in conversations, but allow others to speak first. As Dr. Um says below, I feel I must be invited to partake of things where I feel under-qualified. To the average Westerner, I seem to be a disinterested, quiet, unassertive, people-pleasing, non-leader. Maybe this is why I was always ‘the dishwasher’ or ‘janitor boy’ at all those horrible jobs throughout high school and college?
“You might have Asian-Americans in your midst who are extremely capable servant leaders and you don’t know it. Because they don’t advance themselves. How do I know this? Because they run the board at your local hospital, obviously they have leadership there. Let’s say there’s no Asian-American specific church, but they come to a church that’s predominantly white and because they like the preaching and they like the vision, but perhaps…he or she has not advanced himself/herself and that person is just there and you might think of them as being disinterested. And you say, ‘Well, why don’t they just come and tell us?’ Somebody who is on the outside needs to be invited. The Gospel tells us that when it comes to authority and power it’s not about power accrual or accumulation. It’s all about power distribution. That’s exactly what Jesus Christ did on the cross. He emptied himself and became nothing and He gave of His power. He was rich and became poor so that you could become rich - He was willing to be impoverished. He was willing to be poor. That is a gospel principle.
You might say why don’t they initiate. Why aren’t Asian-Americans more intentional? Because, you see, when you’re part of a minority culture in a dominant culture, you need to be invited. Let me give you an example, I had one fellow who came and said, ‘Dr. Um, can I ask you something?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ He said, ‘Why do all the Asians sit together at the cafeteria at seminary?’ And I said, ‘I’ll answer that question if you answer this. Why is it on this side all of the white Americans are sitting together?’ He said, ‘Excuse me?’ I said, ‘When you are a part of the dominant culture, you don’t have, perhaps, what Harvie Conn has said an ‘ethnic consciousness’. In other words, when you’re a part of the dominant culture, you’re not aware as much if you were a part of a minority culture. So the minority, he/she knows they are a minority. The person who is a part of the dominant culture must invite and engage in power sharing. That is the only way you are going to be able to work through some of these issues.”
I realize many of these things are generalities - Dr. Kim and Dr. Um state that multiple times throughout this discussion. But they are true in most cases. And the reverse could be about said about ‘power sharing’ for Caucasians who enter, as minorities, into an ethnic church or business meeting, etc. Regardless, it’s given me a lot to think about.
I think I am a leader. I know for sure I’m not the ‘rugged, individualistic Western leader’ that is often in demand as the stereotypical entrepreneurial church-planting man-beast. I don’t want to be that. I can’t be that. Is it against my nature or nurture? Who knows. Part of me regrets not knowing this stuff about myself when I was a kid. It would have saved me a lot of confusion and angst. What I do know is this mixture of Western and Eastern values I have carried throughout my whole life is a gift. I know it will serve me well in Japan.
I’m just hoping they don’t need another dishwasher.
If you have the time, it’s worth reading this article and listening to the mp3 through the Gospel Coalition.
Also, if you’re interested in another example of Eastern vs. Western dynamics, here’s another post we did last year about the phenomenon of ‘Arguing In Japanese’.