When I think about Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage month, I find myself perplexed, the same way many Black Americans feel when talking about African American History month. You feel honored that the nation has taken a month to focus on your culture and heritage, but there’s this inner sigh from knowing why a month is needed to highlight your ethnic makeup—namely, because people don’t always understand you, your culture, or your history.
The problem, however, is less those who don’t know, but rather more, those who don’t want to know about other cultures. I had a friend once say to me that she didn’t want to make any more friends. “I have enough friends as it is.” I can possibly see why more friendships could busy and complicate your life, but as a believer, I’d like to say this is unbiblical. In the same vein, when we choose not to learn about other cultures, especially ones we interact with and see in our community, we do ourselves a disservice in not equipping ourselves with knowledge to be used for kingdom growth.
So, being that it is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, there are a few things we can do, not just this month, but throughout the year as we seek to honor the whole body of Christ, all those made in His image, including Asians and Pacific Islanders.
1. Thirst for knowledge.
Knowledge isn’t everything, but it does give you a foundation to build more knowledge upon so you’re asking deeper questions, not shallow ones. Some people don’t know the difference between someone who’s Asian and someone who’s Pacific Islander. And then of course, there are South Asians and Central Asians. And unlike other ethnic groups, we don’t share the same language and culture and history. We might have similar Eastern cultural values, but our languages and foods and traditions may differ greatly.
I had a lady in her fifties at church ask me once, “I know you’re Vietnamese, but what language do you speak?”
I said, “Vietnamese.”
She said, “No, I meant, what language do you speak, Chinese Mandarin or Cantonese?”
I said, “It’s Vietnamese. It’s not Chinese. It’s its own language.”
Some of you reading this may be thinking, “I can’t believe she asked that!” while others of you are thinking, “I just learned something new.” So yes, learn, research, ask. As you build upon your knowledge base, you’ll be able to have a wider worldview and perspective on what God is doing among His people.
2. Introduce yourself, your family members, and your friends to Asian and Pacific Islander cultures.
Be an advocate for other cultures. Go out and eat at an Asian or Pacific Islander restaurant. (Panda Express doesn’t count—unless, for you, that’s out of your comfort zone.) You don’t have to like everything, but there’s usually something you will enjoy. Ask the employees what the bestsellers are. Go to parades or celebrations your city might put on to celebrate Chinese New Year or Japanese Blossoms in the spring. Watch a foreign film with subtitles.
Do what you can, when opportunity presents itself, to choose to do something that involves another culture. And invite others to join you. Do it as a family or a group of friends. You might be surprised at what you will continue to enjoy.
3. Make relationships with Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
After you’ve learned new things and experienced some culture (or even before), start a conversation with a coworker or a barista or a neighbor who’s Asian. Or maybe there’s someone in your church you want to start a friendship with. Reach out; be intentional. It might take you out of your comfort zone, but it’s a first step toward engaging.
And yes, you’ll possibly say something inappropriate, but most people are gracious and kind. And if they’re not, you can move on to a different relationship. But, of course, don’t use people as projects. Have a genuine longing to know the person, enjoying their company and who God’s made them to be.
Here in the South, we invited some families over to celebrate Lunar New Year with us. Some of the folks had never seen an Asian soup spoon before, a common utensil in our house (the year is 2021). They were adventurous in their eating, but stopped at the fermented shrimp from a jar. And that was OK; I wasn’t offended. Everyone has their boundaries; it was just fun to celebrate with them (and there are some things from the South I wouldn’t eat either.)
4. Be okay with uncomfortable situations.
I think we forget often that our lives aren’t meant to be comfortable. Engaging in this present world with its cultural values should remind us of this. But, also, putting ourselves in uncomfortable positions for the gospel should be a common act.
Reaching out to a new person, praying in front of others, sharing the gospel with an unbeliever—all of these acts can be very uncomfortable to some people, but as believers, we still do it. We leave our comfort zones for the sake of the gospel. When people tell me trying something new is not their thing, I cringe. How do you ever grow?
At a mostly Caucasian church, I once invited the pastoral staff to lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant. The youth leader was a young twenty-something who grew up on pizza and chicken nuggets and is known to be a picky eater. His mom affirms that he rarely ate anything else. But that day, everyone was trying everything and in the context of relationships, he tried the tripe (animal stomach lining) I put before him. Of course, he didn’t like it, but we all had a fun time discovering new foods and relating to one another.
The point is, God created so much for us to enjoy in its diversity, especially His people. It would be a shame for us not to experience and welcome all that God has to offer through this diversity. So, for Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage month, go out and try something new. You might be surprised by the blessing that comes with it.