Asian, Christian, Canadian: these terms are ‘not mutually exclusive’

Ross Lockhart, Vancouver School of Theology Professor of Mission Studies, along with colleagues Albert Chu (Tapestry Church and Director of the Centre for Missional Leadership) and Jason Byassee (Senior Minister of Timothy Eaton Memorial Church and former VST Butler Chair) recently published their research from an ethnographic study of Asian Christian lay people in the Lower Mainland.

Christianity: An Asian Religion in Vancouver (Cascade, 2023) builds off earlier research published as Better Than Brunch: Missional Churches in Cascadia and challenges the default secularization thesis which suggests that churches are inevitably declining in membership and influence.

Too often, however, this assumption of decline is based on only watching the denominations that were “church plants of Western Christendom” in North America over the last several centuries.

But what if, in addition to decline, God is actively at work changing the face of the church in Canada today? The findings of this study note, through a mixed-methods approach including interviews and participant observation exercises, that many churches in Vancouver with predominantly Asian composition are growing both in size and influence.

That prompted the question of what we might learn about God’s transforming power by looking to Asia rather than Europe to predict the future of Christian witness in the Pacific Northwest of North America.

Here is an excerpt of the publication: 

In slang, ‘banana’ is a term for an Asian person who is ‘white on the inside and yellow on the outside.’ This was a common term that one of the authors (obviously Albert!) was often called growing up in Canada. Although he looks Chinese, the perception was that he had been fully acculturated into mainstream North American culture. Not surprisingly, many understand this term to be pejorative.

More recently, another slang term (also understood to be pejorative), that is used among Cantonese-speakers is the term ‘Jook-sing. Jook-sing is a Cantonese term for an overseas born Chinese person. The origin of the word relates to the bamboo rod. If you were to take a careful look at the stem of a bamboo plant, you would notice that the stem of the bamboo plant is hollow and compartmentalized. Thus, water poured in one end does not flow out of the other end.

The metaphor then is that Jook-sings are not part of either culture; not truly Asian, nor truly Canadian. Even more disparagingly, because they are neither truly Asian or Canadian, some would say that Jook-sings are hollow and ungrounded.

What then if you were to add someone who also identifies as a Christian into the discussion? Is a “Jook-sing” Christian even further compartmentalized? Not truly Asian, not truly Canadian, nor truly Christian either? Or is the foundational claim of Galatians 3:28 actually true, and baptism gives us an identity that gathers up our lesser ones in him?

Jotaro Kawabata, when asked about his identity as a Japanese Canadian Christian, argues against this notion. Instead, he comes with another helpful description. Jotaro sees his identity more like a Venn diagram. He sees these three core identities not as competition, but instead simply as descriptors of who he is.

As Jotaro states: “I’m Christian, I’m Canadian. I’m Japanese. It’s all mixed up. It’s not one over the other. It’s not mutually exclusive.” Much like how someone may have a hyphenated name, Jotaro and many other Asian Canadian Christians have come to fully accept their hyphenated identity.

This does not suggest that there is no tension. The typical Asian Canadian Christian must negotiate between not two, but three worlds, hoping to find a balance between family, church, and Canadian society. For Jotaro, it is the struggle between his Japanese heritage and Canadian culture that causes the most tension and stress. Interestingly, it is his identity in Christ that helps reconcile this tension.

As Jotaro states:

This is why Vancouver is so unique. I needed a grounded identity, which I found in Jesus. I was so lost in my identity as a Japanese Canadian. Even to this day, I struggle with it. The Japanese culture is to give to others, to work hard for others, but in the Canadian culture, that may not be highest priority. Even to this day, I still struggle with it, but time and time again, I realize that Jesus is the one who wants to center me to make sure I have balance between the other two.

Although Jotaro didn’t use the words, he is pointing to something that is found throughout Scripture, a recurring emphasis for the people of God to place their ultimate allegiance and primary identity upon Christ.

Lesley Chung has taught math and French at Terry Fox Secondary High School in the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam for the past 20 years.

Born and raised in a Buddhist family, she had numerous good Christian friends in elementary school who persistently invited her to church. Lesley would say “No, I’m Buddhist, why would I?” These friends were so persistent that Lesley, while in grade six, even went with them to a Billy Graham crusade, but “nothing came of it except they kept pushing me to the front. No, I don’t want to go up!”

Nevertheless, her friends would not give up, and continued to be persistent. From time to time, Lesley would get picked up in the church van, filled to the brim with kids, to attend Vancouver Chinese Evangelical Free Church.

One Saturday, Lesley remembers quite vividly, in her room as a 13 year old with the sun streaming through the window, she decided to pick up the Gideon Bible that she received a few years earlier. While reading the Bible, and in particular the biography of Gideon founder John Nicolson, she was “overcome with deep emotion, really profound emotion, started crying, and for whatever reason, got on my knees and prayed, ‘Lord if you would bless me, I promise I will read the Bible every day,’ which I did.”

As a teacher who has worked with immigrant students over the course of 20 years, she has seen how “immigrants have one foot in different places all the time.”

For instance, she has talked and walked with numerous Iranian and Iraqi Muslim female students, who have struggled with the wearing of the traditional veil or hijab. Hijab wearing is certainly a very visible outward expression of one’s ethnic and religious identity, and one that causes not only an internal struggle of whether to wear one or not, but an external tension with society. In Quebec, Bill 21, which prohibits provincial employees from wearing religious symbols, has certainly been a topic of much debate in Canadian society in recent years.

As Lesley reflects on this in relation to her own life, growing up in a place in which parents and family expected her to be a certain way, the church another way and Canadian society a third way, she admits that this “tri-influence has been difficult.”

However, she states, 

I care for my freedom, but it’s hard when I’m being tugged in different places. Canadian culture has its beauty, but I’m glad things keep me grounded. Christian faith has been so instrumental to form me into who I am. I’m so thankful. . . . If anything, the church has instilled in me the sense of awe and wonder at God, of fear in this almighty God, that also influences how we are, how we ought to live, that reflects awe and glory of God. It helps me not to go towards Canadian culture that pushes and pulls in so many directions.

It’s interesting that Jotaro and Lesley both use the words grounded when it comes to the role of their Christian faith in forming their identity. It is out of “being rooted and established in love” (Ephesians 3:17), that these two Jook-Sings are finding their true identity.

Under secularity, the church no longer finds itself in a position of privilege, and thus Christians find it increasingly difficult to maintain a distinct identity. In response, some Christians advocate for a withdrawal from the world. Other Christians advocate for a different response, accidentally capitulating to the values and norms of the society in which they are located.

Instead, we ask, what does faithful engagement with a secular society, specifically from a minority position, look like?

Jason Byassee (left), Albert Chu and Ross Lockhart held a book launch at Tapestry Church in September.

As authors, we wonder if Asian Canadian Christians have an advantage to this endeavour, as Asians in Canada have always found themselves in a minority position. Immigrants and newcomers to Canada are constantly needing to find ways to maintain their culture and ethnicity.

Even Jook-sings are constantly needing to both affirm and challenge certain parts of their ethnic culture. What values should one keep and from which culture? Could it be that this daily negotiation of what it means to live as an ethnic minority provides Asian Christians the tools and skills to better sustain a distinctive Christian identity in a secular setting?

This excerpt first appeared in Winter 2023 issue of the Vancouver School of Theology’s Perspectives magazine. It is re-posted here by permission.

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