Ambassadors to Both Cultures

Editor’s note: This week we highlight writers whose family backgrounds are Chinese. As they share their experiences growing up and testimonies of God’s work in their lives, they also discuss God’s calling to befriend Mainland Chinese. As they openly and honestly share the struggles and goodness they have encountered while working through questions of identity, family, and community, we hope you are encouraged. We live in an amazing time of diversity and cross-cultural interaction, for “…he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place.” (Acts 17:26)

Lydia Romanin, who is from Los Angeles, California, graduated with her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Wheaton College. She enjoys writing, listening to people’s stories, piano, and baking. She, her husband Nick, and three kids currently serve with China Outreach Ministries at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.  

My husband is Italian-Slovenian American, but he can be just “American.” Why is my label Chinese American? Why can’t I just be “American?” Frustration, confusion, and pride are all words that characterize my journey in understanding my identity – to be born in America and Chinese by blood. For me, being Chinese American is not just about knowing where to find authentic Chinese food. It is so much more. Through situations and individuals in my life, God has taught me that he created me Chinese and American for a purpose: to love Mainland Chinese people and share Christ with them.

Who Am I?

Before getting into the nitty-gritty of this post, I first want to talk about some of the syntax I will be using. Identity is a complex word and is defined by Merriam-Webster as being the distinguishing character or personality of an individual. Basically, your identity can be boiled down to the question, “Who Am I?” To answer that question, most of us look at things like our family of origin, culture, language, our worldview, values, faith, etc. For some, identity also includes the word bicultural of, relating to, or including two distinct cultures.

Language: It’s My Choice!

The two distinct cultures in my life are American and Chinese. My parents came to America from Taiwan in the 1970s, and both settled in Los Angeles, California, where they met each other at a fledgling Chinese church in downtown. Without going into an entire research paper on the role language plays in identity, I think I can safely say that language is one of the external manifestations of identity.  

Memory is a funny thing. It is so colored by our emotional state that often, what we remember is vastly different than what really happened. With that said, I remember in middle school and high school, not wanting to speak Chinese to my parents. The house rules were, “When at home, speak Chinese. (Speak anything else anywhere else).” When I spoke Chinese, I felt like I was Chinese… only. And I didn’t like that.

I think this was mostly because language was the most obvious giveaway that I was different from my white American friends, who in my eyes were the “legitimate Americans.” I guess that just made me… an illegitimate American? Looking back, it is ironic that I viewed white Americans as more “legitimate” than me, because in Chinese American circles white Americans are actually called “waiguo ren,” which literally translated means “outside country person,” or foreigner. My language was the one aspect of my identity that I could choose. And I did not want to be Chinese. I wanted so much to be just (European) American, so I decided I would speak English whenever I could.    

Being Bicultural: It’s Complicated

Sitting at the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, the South Pasadena I remember was a small, upper middle class suburb of LA. Home of the Tigers, I always thought “South Pas” high school students had an unfortunate choice of school colors – orange and black. Anyone with a slight taste for trendiness knows that orange and black rarely work together (unless you want to be a tiger of course). My classes growing up always had about 5-6 Asian students, a few Latinos, and an equal number of African Americans.

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I ended up in the gifted and talented education (GATE) program halfway through elementary school and found myself surrounded with mostly nerdy white kids and scholarly Asian kids. I remember feeling like being part of the GATE program was equivalent to being Asian. That was just the way it was with expectations. If you were Asian and not in the GATE program, it was probably because you had just come from China and your language skills were not up to par for GATE.  

In middle and high school, I became more invested in my friendships at school with GATE program graduates, who naturally filtered into the honors program in middle and high school. Many of them were the same students as elementary school. I remember in middle school and high school, I didn’t really feel like associating with any students newly from China. The Chinese Americans were different though; they were like me. English was our chosen language and we functioned in it at school and in society at large. Because of our language, we didn’t feel out of place. We were part of the “in” group that knew what was going on. I had many Chinese American friends, but Chinese from China? Few to none. The Chinese friends I had from China were the ones I was asked to help.  

Freedom in Christ

In college I was recommended a book by Jackie Pullinger called Chasing the Dragon.   

This book changed my life.

Jackie Pullinger was a British woman who dropped everything, sold everything, and went with two suitcases to Hong Kong to work with Triad gang members. My thought after reading this book was, “How could a British-European woman who wasn’t Chinese love Chinese people so much?” I had Chinese blood in me and I didn’t even love Chinese people that much (if at all).  

I was humbled.  I felt a tinge of shame.

Another influential character was Dr. Wayne Martindale, an English professor at Wheaton College. His love for the Chinese people compelled me to give loving this people group a chance. Again, he wasn’t even Chinese and he had such a deep love and desire to see them know the True God.  

Jackie Pullinger and Dr. Martindale were both people who helped me realize the wisdom I now pass on to worried parents of ABCs – when our identity is found first in Christ, when Christ is how we define ourselves, everything else will fall into place and cease to matter. Being {this} much Chinese or {this} much American doesn’t matter anymore once my heart truly believes that I first belong to Christ. All else is of this earth and it’s ok how it all plays out. Whether my cultural identity is 40% Chinese and 60% American or 25% Chinese and 75% American, it doesn’t matter to me anymore. I was at peace with not knowing exactly how much of me belonged to my various cultural identities.  

This was freeing. In essence, what Paul wrote to the Ephesians 3:12, “In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence.”

Getting Involved with Chinese

As I reflect on God’s call in my life to minister to and serve Chinese people, I realize that my younger years were filled with God-given opportunities for me to interact with Chinese friends – teachers asking me to help recently immigrated students transition to life in America, children from China that lived with our family, a single mom and son who lived in our guesthouse, and a trip to China to visit my Chinese relatives. These divine appointments were all extremely influential in forming my understanding of my identity, though at the time, I wasn’t ready to serve and truly love yet.   

It wasn’t until my identity in Christ was solidified that I felt the freedom and desire to pursue opportunities to minister to Mainland Chinese. Dr. Martindale had shared with his classes that he took a group of students on short-term trips each summer to teach English in China, so I approached him one day and asked if there was a group going that summer. He expressed that no students had shown interest yet, so there wasn’t a trip planned. There had to be enough interested students to form a group large enough for the trip to be on.

I was confused and disappointed, but asked him to contact me if anything ended up happening. I thought perhaps God was throwing me a curve ball. Maybe he didn’t want me to explore ministry with Chinese. Perhaps this realization that I had room in my heart to love the Chinese was just something for my own personal growth, not one that would impact my future. I kept praying about it and asked the Lord to make it very clear to me if I was supposed to go to China that summer. To my surprise, two weeks after I talked with Dr. Martindale, he contacted me and said that after I went to his office that day, ten other students approached him, interested to go to China that summer.We had a group!  

So I served on that short-term trip for seven weeks in Tianjin, China, and throughout the trip I prayed for God to give me some insight into whether or not longer term ministry was something for me. One year later, I was serving the Lord in Wuhu, Anhui, with the English Language Institute China (ELIC). I stayed in Wuhu for three years as an English teacher, leading Bible studies and helping a student ministry.  

My husband and I now work on the campus of Purdue University, ministering to Chinese students and scholars with China Outreach Ministries (COM). The Lord has continued to grow my desire to see Chinese people know him. What started as a small seed has grown into a full love.               

It’s a “Good” Culture Day: God’s Redemption for All Cultures

Working with Chinese internationals as a Chinese American has a few benefits. When Chinese students meet me, they sometimes say they feel more comfortable around me because I have a Chinese face. After discovering that I also speak Chinese, they feel relieved to know that miscommunication will be less likely and that if they have difficulty with their English, they can switch to Chinese. “What year did you come over to America?” is a common question, and a question I have come to be proud of because it means my Chinese is good enough to pass for a native Mainlander. Knowing how to speak Mandarin makes for a strong connection point with Chinese international students.  

Having the language is great help for connecting, but sometimes my own expectations (and the expectations of others) are more ideal than realistic. I have the words, but I don’t have the slang, the pop culture, or the cultural non-verbals that go with the words. I think that having the language can open doors with relationships, but I’ve realized that language without the culture is just words. I think my “American-ness” shows when I ask certain questions like, “What do you think would happen in China?” or “Why do Chinese girls like stuffed animals?”  

Although my understanding of Chinese culture is not the same as my understanding of American culture, being bicultural allows me to navigate the middle ground between Chinese and American cultures much more easily. I can explain to Americans a bit of Chinese culture and vice versa. Sometimes when there are cultural conflicts or misunderstandings, I can help opposing parties understand more of the other person’s perspective. As someone who is a peacemaker, that is a huge asset.  

Some days are “good” Chinese days and some days are “good” American days. Sometimes I have to tell myself, “They (the Chinese) said that because it’s their indirect way of showing you they love you,” because my American self felt offended or hurt. Other times I say to myself, “But I can’t call my (American) teacher by his first name. That’s so disrespectful!” Although being bicultural requires me to juggle different cultural identities, I think it shows that no culture is perfect. Each culture can learn elements of the other to balance out and make up for the other culture’s weaknesses. Elements of all cultures are affected by sin and it is neat to be able to explore how God is redeeming both American and Chinese cultures.

The Urgency for Action

In this moment in history, Chinese millennials are hungry for the gospel. They are open to spiritual things. They are hungry for a hope that goes beyond government ideals, higher education, or financial wealth. In a generation that includes many children whose identities are nondescript and rootless, we find hearts that are eager for intimacy and relational connection. Many of the undergraduate students I meet have failing relationships with their parents, no intimate relationships whatsoever, and a limited understanding of self.  

The parents of these millennials, the generation before, are also in a state of openness to the gospel, though for different reasons. Many of them have been greatly disappointed by the Chinese government; the familiar venues in which friendships were built in their childhood (communal living) are no longer around; and their children are in a technological age that they are slowly coming to understand. Because of historical events, most have also seen and experienced things that have left them questioning the existence of a higher power.    

The fields are ripe for harvest among Chinese hearts. Chinese young people and middle-aged adults are eager for relationship and eager for things that are never changing. Those that come to study or further their careers in America are here and are open to cultural experiences and new ideas. They are open to new perspectives. It is because of this readiness that I think it is crucial for Chinese Americans to use their position as ambassadors to both cultures, to grow Christ’s kingdom. That is why I am doing it. This season will not last and we must be obedient to God’s calling, whether that means educating others about the need or taking part in the action yourself.

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Further Reading

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