American, Reformed, and Not White

“Hey mommy, where are we going for dinner tonight?” Wordpress seo

Turning to her 5-year old son, my mom replied, “Chinatown.”

“Aw man, I hate Chinatown! There are so many Chinese people there!”

I will never forget the look of confusion, amusement, and embarrassment upon my mother’s face.


Somehow I managed to live the first 5 years of my life without knowing that I was Chinese. I thought I was simply “American.”

More precisely, I’m a 3rd-generation Chinese American. My grandparents immigrated to America in the 40s and 50s, and both my parents were born in the States. Yet, both of them failed to retain their parents’ Chinese language and much of their culture.

To my grandparents, it was all about making it in this new country. It was all about survival. Cultural preservation was a luxury, not a necessity. And what was the result?

A couple summers ago a Chinese American friend came to visit my house, and addressing my dad, said, “Ni Hao! Wo hen gao xing ren shi ni” (Hello, I am happy to meet you). Unable to understand a single word after the initial “Ni Hao,” my dad sheepishly replied, “Hi… I’m Dennis…” He might as well have added “‘Murrica!” and offered my friend a hot dog.

Alas, I am my father’s child, and yet, while I lived the first 5 years of my life not knowing that I was Chinese, and the next 23 years of my life never really owning my Chinese heritage, there has never been a time in my life when I didn’t know that I was not white. I was always American and not white.

Growing up from K-12 at a private school called Chinese Christian Schools, which was a ministry of my home church (Bay Area Chinese Bible Church), I was surrounded by Asians. By that time, I knew I was Chinese and that most of America was not. In my world, however, I was not a minority. It also happened that my undergraduate university, UCI (aka University of Chinese Immigrants, aka University of Civics and Integras, aka University of California Irvine), had a student body which was 53% Asian and 22% white by my senior year. I even attended a pan-Asian church while living in Irvine and worked at a Japanese-owned cancer center in an office filled with Asian staff! During my whole life in California, from birth to college to first employment, I was not a minority; but I was.

Being a minority never became more real to me than when I began seminary in Philadelphia, a city where 45% of the population was white, 44% was black, and 7% was Asian. Though my urban church in Northeast Philly was a rather diverse congregation, and there was a decent number of non-white, particularly Korean, students at the seminary, the leadership and the most impactful influences in my church and seminary were predominantly white. This was not necessarily a bad thing, but it was most definitely a new thing.

I soon found myself seeking to win the favor and approval of this new white-dominated world. I noticed myself stressing out about how to impress my white brothers, professors, and pastors, through an agreeable disposition, articulate speech, demonstrating my knowledgeability, and straight up manipulative flattery. I even found myself believing that white churches’ theology and practices were purer and more biblical than others. I mean, when have you ever heard of an Asian church (even the Korean ones!) described as TR (Truly Reformed). And yet when it came time to hang out with my non-white professor at Westminster (Shout out to Dr. Jue!), my Asian and black classmates, or my black pastors, I felt free to relax and be myself. In truth, I preferred this, regardless of what I was beginning to believe about the purity of the white church’s theology.

Therefore, my closest friends at seminary became my fellow Asian American brothers and sisters.Wordpress seo We were a community who enjoyed self-deprecating humor, sarcastically making fun of ourselves as inferior minorities, and yet we wouldn’t have had it any other way. We loved being Asian American! Still, in the back of our minds, as much as we told ourselves that it was okay to stay at our Asian American churches or within our Asian American group of friends, we struggled with the genuine suspicion, whether correct or not, that in the distance, our white brothers and sisters might be seeing us as truly inferior in faith and practice. In fact, we were often tempted to believe that we were less valuable Christians and definitely not as thoroughly Reformed! We were even tempted to believe that churches with 10% non-white attenders were somehow more multicultural than pan-asian churches that were 50% Korean, 45% Chinese, and 5% Japanese, Vietnamese, and Filipino.

So, I was living in two worlds. There was my new “‘Murrican” world, and my old Asian American world. Though my mind believed in the purity of the former, my heart longed for the warmth and familiarity of the latter.

In my second year, I was privileged to go to Indonesia with a buddy and the president of our seminary. My eyes were opened to the reality of global Christianity. I was reminded of the church’s booming growth in the rest of the world, particularly Asia (60% of the world’s population) and the Global South. Moreover, I noticed that my buddy (also Chinese American) and I were able to enjoy a unique interaction and friendship with the brothers and sisters in Southeast Asia, which we doubted our president or any other non-Asian could ever really experience.

Wordpress seoThey joked with us in ways they wouldn’t joke with non-Asians, they fed us crazy things (like bat and dog) that they were hesitant to serve to our president, and still, they never hesitated to engage us Westminster students with conversations about Van Til, Calvin, and Reformed theology. My Chinese heritage and appearance, whichI had come to believe was a limitation and a weakness, had become a gift to be stewarded. To my Indonesian brothers and sisters, we were three things in harmony: American, Reformed, and not white. I had now entered a third world (quite literally).

I originally planned to title this post “American and Reformed, but Not White.” However, it occurred to me that the word “but”  in that title might betray certain false assumptions. The word “but” might imply that whiteness was normative for the American identity or that it was a primary or dominant aspect of the Reformed identity as many non-white evangelical scholars have accused.

Wordpress seoBut what if what it meant to be American and Reformed was simply to exist for the good of the nations? What if being American and Reformed meant to serve the nations, not with a dominant or imperialistic perspective, but a, nonetheless, valuable one. First and foremost, I blog as a follower of Christ. I also blog as a self-identified American, admittedly, a non-white, 3rd-generation Chinese American, and yet no less American than, say, Billy Graham. More simply I blog as myself, one of thousands of Reformed Christians, one of millions of Americans, one of billions of human beings worldwide, all with unique stories, experiences, and perspectives, all having value in the eyes of God.

Andrew Ong

Andrew is a third-generation, San Francisco Bay Area ABC (American Born Chinese). He and his third-gen wife have two daughters and still live in the East Bay. After graduating from the University of California Irvine and Westminster Theological Seminary, he completed his PhD in World Christianity at the University of Edinburgh, researching Chinese American evangelicals and Neo-Calvinist theology. He presently serves on staff at Christ Church East Bay in Berkeley, California. Andrew's a simple guy whose passions include: sushi, pizza, nachos, and the Golden State Warriors. On his less sanctified days he lives by the maxim: #ballislife.

5 thoughts on “American, Reformed, and Not White

  • September 15, 2015 at 10:17 am

    You compared your father’s sheepish admission that he didn’t understand, to an act of ignorant jingoism. Do you think that’s potentially an unfair caricature of your father? Quite often the phrase “Murrica” is associated with racism, xenophobia, and a belief in the falsehood that is American exceptionalism. My wife doesn’t speak Korean, so when her mother’s friends greet her in Korean, is she supposed to be ashamed?

    When you discuss attending school where you truly were a minority, what do you think motivated you to attempt to win favor or prove your worth? You mention that you begin to believe that “white theology” was superior; do you think that the school in any way actually beleived this, or intentially worked to make you feel that your upbringing was inferior? On some other posts on this blog, there have been mentions of mostly white churches that think they are multicultural, and I definitely agree that it’s problematic because they’re often far from it. A church that is 95% white with a token black family is hardly multicultural for instance. I think what’s unfortunate is that a lot of white people think that they don’t have any culture, or are somehow neutral, and end up conveying this sensation consciously or unconsciously. We all have unique cultures, mannerisms, traditions, and customs. I wonder if American minorities are simply more aware of these differences, because they’re actually exposed to both the culture of their families, and the white culture that is so prevalent in America. So many white Americans are ignorant of these differences, as they all too often have never been outside this comfort zone, live in white neighborhoods, go to mostly white schools, only have white friends, etc. It’s hard for them to recognize their own cultural biases because no contrast actually exists in their lives.

    In regards to your feelings of being an outsider, I have found at least in my own limited experience that these feelings seem to be pretty common when we’re among individuals whom we feel are significantly different from ourselves. I’ve felt a strange need to work harder, to be kinder, to prove myself in a way, when in these situations. When spending time with my wife’s family at their Korean church, I feel perpetually on my toes, as though everything I do is being watched, scrutinized, and judged, even though it likely isn’t happening at all (probably partly due to them being friends with my mother-in-law, lol). This feeling often applies when with friends or large groups of people who are black, Hispanic or Latino, etc. The problem in my life is that I shouldn’t feel different. I shouldn’t feel like an outsider. In every case, my own self-consciousness betrays the fact that I’m in a fellowship of believers; a gathering of all of God’s unique children, whom he has gathered unto himself.

    My hope is that someday, the church can treat all believers and non-believers (regardless of ethnic background, linguistic, or cultural difference) with the understanding, warmth and compassion that we extend to our own flesh and blood without prejudice.

    In the mean time, thank you for your valuable time and thoughtful post in this topic. I look forward to many more discussions relating to this area. This is very much a topic that even my children, and other children have begun to notice. Even at 5 years old, they’re already separating into groups by race and skin color. My daughter has asked some tough questions about why she looks different, why some kids don’t talk to her, etc.

    Until next time, cheers!

    • September 15, 2015 at 2:17 pm

      Dear Dennis,

      First of all, thank you for reading my post and for your penetrating questions! Secondly, thank you for introducing me to the word “jingoism.” I can definitely see your point, and perhaps I may have caricatured my dad, though I honestly did not intend to use the “‘Murrica” comparison to connote racism or xenophobia. I only told the story to illustrate the reality of how un-Chinese my family has already become, not to shame anyone. Thank you for sharing your perspective. It will definitely sharpen my thinking and writing in the future.

      Regarding my desire to win the approval of white people, I believe it was my prideful self simply trying to position myself amongst the ones whom I believed were in power. The reason I thought white people were the ones with power was because they were the ones teaching the classes and the white students were getting most of the attention from the faculty. I don’t think the school would ever say that white theology was better, but it is a confessional school, which subscribes to the Westminster Confession of Faith. Most Chinese people don’t grow up in churches that subscribe to this Reformed document, though many, including myself, have come to embrace it as rightly interpreting Scripture (for the most part). Whether subscribing to the WCF makes my seminary one that subscribes to white theology is another question for another day.

      It is truly unfortunate that some white people think they don’t have a culture or that they are neutral. It is very likely that they are unconscious of it for the reasons you state. Because of this, I count myself as privileged and blessed with my ethnic minority identity to serve the church with this unique perspective that white people may have a harder time seeing. Also because of this, I try to be careful not to ever play the race card as a victim in order to one-up myself against white people.

      Thanks for sharing about your outsider experience in the Korean church. It’s a challenging reality (my church in college was over 90% korean when I first started attending), but I share your hope about fellowship and security within the body of Christ. That’s what Reformed Margins is about!

      Thank you for spending the time to share your valuable thoughts with us, it means a lot! God bless, as you as you navigate the challenges of the Korean church and culture, and as you raise your children to be the next generation of the people of God, who will, hopefully, handle issues of race far better than we and our forebears have.

      • September 15, 2015 at 3:50 pm

        Thanks for your response Andrew. I only mentioned the “Murrica” thing, because I usually hear it used to make fun of rednecks (it’s often deserved though I might add). Without knowing you personally it’s hard to know what you meant, so in light of your clarification it makes sense what you were trying to say.

        I can definitely understand you wanting to better your position in regard to those in power. I think this is a natural tendency (even though often prideful as you mentioned), and is often reflected in how we all behave, be it in church circles, or in a secular work environment. In my own life where I’ve tried to be careful, impress or otherwise earn favor, was due to a desire to fit in. When surrounded by similar, like minded individuals, we’re “part of the group”, whereas when surrounded by people different from myself, I suddenly stand out like a sore thumb. I have this paranoid fear that I’ll offend someone, or say something embarrassing, or that I won’t be respectful of someone else’s traditions or culture, and in doing so potentially damage the relationship. In all reality, the wonderful people at the Korean church my in-laws go to maybe felt the same way about me. We don’t attend that church as we live in VA (they’re in AZ), but we do go there when visiting. We currently attend a Southern Baptist church here locally (I know…I know…), but it’s a wonderful body of believers, and we’ve always felt at home there. They interestingly don’t hold to dispensationalism (I’m not complaining, just FYI).

        I would agree with you that your ethnic minority is a blessing and privilege. I think it gives you the authority to speak into the hearts and lives of people who come from similar backgrounds, and have similar struggles to those you’ve dealt with as you’ve grown and matured in Christ. I think it also gives you a powerful voice to those who haven’t experienced your life and upbringing. It gives people valuable perspective into a different way of thinking and seeing this country we call home. Much like how a lot of people have a difficult time understanding the Black Lives Matter movement; I think it’s often due to a lack of perspective. When we see things only from our own point of view, we dismiss people, and ignore potentially valuable lessons and opportunities to serve God in our communities. We often don’t empathize with people who are enduring hardship or who legitimately have a more difficult time simply getting by, paying bills, holding down a job, or otherwise. Dismissiveness is so dangerous, and it’s so much a part of white culture. We often need to be challenged in our thinking, to reevaluate our positions and consider whether our perceptions of culture and faith are grounded on the word of God or not; to continually be Reformed 😉

        I think growing up in America is tougher than most countries solely in regard for the mixing of cultures, languages, and ideas. Most other countries are relatively homogenous by comparison, and I think due to this complexity, we as Americans are still trying to figure out how best to deal with this complexity and the racial tensions it brings. I consider myself blessed to have a mixed race family, and my hope is that my children will see it as the blessing it is.

  • Pingback:"White Theology"? (Part One) - Reformed Margins

  • Pingback:"White Theology"? (Part Two) - Reformed Margins

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.