America has always been a nation of immigrants. A nation of hyphenated, bicultural ethnicities where diverse cultures—that have warred against and conquered each other, that have created centuries of poetry and painting and song and that have endured for millennia longer than the United States—are curiously flattened into a catch-all label based on skin color, physical features, and continent of origin: African-American, Asian-American, Latin-American, and so on.
In a similar yet different manner, the Germans and the Scots and the Polish and the Italians and the Swedes have had their distinguishing features scrubbed clean and white in this new land of opportunity and dreams. They too were once treated as outcasts, discriminated against for their differences. Having been accepted into the majority culture, they become “American” and forget their own struggle. Now the status quo, the insiders, the popular kids, they close ranks and lop off the adjectival qualifier of their own hyphenated identity.
For most Europeans this transformation is an easy one because the racial mindset is deeply embedded in American culture and sinful hearts. If they want to fit in, they can—their accents will fade, even snuffed out by their second generation; they can drop their strange food and traditions before the wider culture, only tiptoeing out to eat at their ethnic restaurants when the streets are empty and the night is dark. But ironically what they can’t change is what expedites their acceptance the most—their race, their skin color, and the way they look. The rest of us hyphenated Americans still struggle for full acceptance, to wrest off our own adjectival qualifier and simply be American.
Wait, you might say. Don’t German-Americans celebrate their German heritage? Shouldn’t we be proud of and appreciate the culture of our parents? The difference is this: White European-Americans have fluidity in contrast to other Americans. They can be Swedish-American when they desire. And they can also be simply just American when they so desire. For the rest of us, we are locked in to our adjectival qualifier, indelibly marked as “other” no matter the longevity of our stay. In Asian-American studies, this phenomenon has been dubbed the “perpetual foreigner syndrome.” One famous instance of this phenomenon in action is when Tara Lipinski won the gold medal at the 1998 Nagano Olympics, triumphing over fellow American-born Michelle Kwan. The MSNBC headline that appeared moments later read, “American Beats out Kwan.” A mistake with no ill intent, but one of many instances that betray how European-Americans view fellow immigrants from a different shore.
How easy it is to bemoan this fact, to feel caught between two cultures. On one hand, I will never be considered truly American as much as I am an American. On the other hand, I will never be considered truly Chinese (or Taiwanese—a complexity in itself) as evidenced by my just barely passable Mandarin and my ABC label (American-born Chinese). As a hyphenated-American I am between two cultures, inhabiting both, but never fully accepted. Why, I ask God, do I have this bicultural identity?
It may come as a surprise, but did you know that Scripture is full of bicultural, hyphenated people? Perhaps America’s tendency towards ahistoricity gives us lenses that see immigration and multiculturalism as more modern phenomena, and lenses that cloud us from seeing the mixing of cultures and great movements of people in Scripture.
People much smarter than me have pointed out that Moses was a quintessential bicultural. He was born into a Hebrew family in Egypt—he could be called a Hebrew-Egyptian. And though he certainly saw himself as more Hebrew than Egyptian, he was raised in Pharaoh’s household and thus seemed rather Egyptian to his fellow Hebrews. Perhaps this is why, after murdering an Egyptian bully, he receives a curiously cold reception when he interrupts the two quarreling Hebrews (Exodus 2:13). Why didn’t they embrace him as a freedom-fighting zealot who had struck the first blow against their oppressor? Because they saw him as more Egyptian, one who had grown up among oppressors and was culturally one of Egypt. Moses too felt the tension of his two cultures.
Likewise in Exodus 4:10, when Moses objects to being God’s spokesperson to the Israelites, he says that he is “slow of speech and of tongue.” Many interpreters have understood this to mean that Moses may have had a speech impediment. Again, people smarter than me have noted that Moses may have lacked confidence in the Hebrew tongue because he was bicultural. That same Hebrew adjective translated as “slow” has a wide semantic range, but I find it telling that it is also used in Ezekiel 3:5-6 and translated as “difficult” in reference to language. Those who are bicultural know that despite how fluent you might be at your non-native language, you often lack confidence in your ability to speak it, especially before those who are native speakers. It’s very possible that Moses felt his bicultural identity keenly in that moment and so demurred to the task. And yet God used him uniquely as one who could move between the courts of Pharaoh and the slave camps of his people.
Other biculturals abound in Scripture. The second generation of Israelites born in Babylonian exile, such as Ezra and Nehemiah, were bicultural, at once Babylonians and Hebrews. In the New Testament, Jews settled all across the Roman Empire, becoming bicultural in the process. Paul, the great missionary and church planter, was bicultural as well. Born in cosmopolitan Tarsus, but raised as a Pharisee, Paul’s ability to navigate both the synagogues and the pagan temples of each missionary stop, to deal with Jews, Greeks, and Romans was in part due to his biculturality. Perhaps like some of us, Paul once hated the fact that he was bicultural, the discomfort of being between two worlds. But as he neared the end of his course in that Roman jail, singing praises in his heart that to die was gain, I’d like to think that he also gave thanks for his bicultural identity through which God used him to reach both Jews and Greeks: “To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews…To those outside the law I became as one outside the law…that I might win those outside the law…I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.”
How then can those who are bicultural use their unique identity for the kingdom and people of God today? I have some preliminary suggestions and would love to hear yours as well.
- Because hyphenated-Americans have grown up with two sets of lenses, two often-competing and conflicting ideologies, they are often less prone to accept cultural preferences as truth. They can better discern between what is American and what is Chinese and thus what is Christian because all their life they’ve had to shapeshift between those cultural worlds. As a result, I believe biculturals are especially gifted to contribute to and further develop the age-old Augustinian question of what it means to live in both the city of God and the city of man—a question never more relevant in this historical moment. Mark’s two-part series (Part 1 & Part 2) deals with this issue with much more depth and insight.
- As the future of Christianity shifts to the Global South, biculturals should carefully consider how God might use their adjectival identity (Latino, African, Asian, etc.) and their cross-cultural sensitivity in such portions of the world. For instance, I’ve known Asian-American churches that have church planted in Asia, and as a bicultural, the jarring elements of such a change will always be present, but they would be greatly reduced for you than someone else. Perhaps the next century will see a great movement of bicultural Christians returning to the countries of their immigrant parents and grandparents as the need for pastors, theologians, and educators from resource-rich America become great. Biculturals would also be uniquely equipped to avoid the colonialism mentality as they cross oceans to other continents for the gospel.
- Biculturals can know the sting of xenophobia more sharply than any other group. Their immigrant parents are often not aware of the snarky jabs and micro-aggressions that are flung their way. But being culturally sensitive, biculturals know when they are being insulted; they know when they are being treated as an “other.” Knowing rejection, biculturals have the unique opportunity to speak out against xenophobia in the church (refugees anyone?) and more positively, to practice Christian hospitality toward strangers and those in need. I’ve seen firsthand how a church community that practices Christian hospitality is both attractive and transformative.
To my hyphenated-American, bicultural brothers and sisters, there is purpose for why we’ve been given this identity. May we use it well so that others might know—whether bicultural, tricultural, or monocultural—that we can have a more foundational identity in Christ.
1. Frank Wu, “Where are You Really From?: Asian Americans and the Perpetual Foreigner Syndrome”.
2. I gleaned this insight and the subsequent one on Exodus 4:10 from Dr. Andrew Lee during my ISAAC internship.
3. I am deeply indebted to Maranatha Grace Fort Lee in New Jersey for their warm example of true Christian hospitality of which I have been a recipient many times over.