Mar 022014

Language shapes culture. I’ve also heard it said that language and culture are intricately connected. Another dimension of that came to light recently as I listened to this NPR TED podcast episode, Does The Subjunctive Have A Dark Side? [transcript] – where a portion of a TEDx talk delivered by a 2nd-gen Vietnamese-American explained how the absence of a subjunctive mood with verbs in Vietnamese (and by inference, Asian languages), resulted in a huge difference in how they experienced life, for himself and his 1st-gen Vietnamese dad.

I had to find the full talk and here it is. Watch that TEDxDirigo talk Grammar, Identity, and the Dark Side of the Subjunctive by Phuc Tran::

The video is worth watching in its entirety. (For those that read faster than they listen, the full transcript of Phuc Tran’s talk is posted at racialicous.) I’ve excerpted keen insights below (and emphasis added are mine):

… I remember talking to my dad about the subjunctive, and because he wasn’t a native English speaker, he didn’t understand all the nuances of the subjunctive. “Listen, Dad. You can say something like ‘If it hadn’t rained, we would have gone to the beach.’” And his response? “That’s a stupid thing to say. Why are you talking about something that didn’t happen?”

… The subjunctive mood allows us to look into the future and see multiple, highly nuanced possibilities with just a little sprinkling of could’s, would’s and might’s.

… I didn’t know it then, but I was pondering things that my parents couldn’t ponder at all because of the English subjunctive.

… So what happens if a language doesn’t have the subjunctive? What if a language can’t express the idea of something that could have happened? And what if that language were Vietnamese? For my father, there were no alternate realities… There was just what happened and what didn’t happen. There were no sustained moments of contemplating what could have been for him because Vietnamese didn’t allow it.

… For my parents’ survival, however, this lack of the subjunctive was fundamental to their resiliency. They were able to provide for me and my brother, able to find the strength to do what needed to be done in part because they didn’t expend psychic energy on what could have been.

… There I was, hovering between two very different worlds: Vietnamese with its stark indicative, and English with its mirage of the subjunctive.

… The subjunctive helped me envision what I could be; it allowed me to be creative and to entertain crazy visions of “what if.” But as I unpacked all those possibilities, I also fell prey to the dark side of the subjunctive, the idea of “should have.” The idea of what “should have” didn’t improve my present or my future–it clouded my ability to see what actually was because I was fixated on what wasn’t.

… The subjunctive allows us to innovate, but it also allows us to become mired in regret. The indicative does not allow us to imagine at all, but it does allow us to talk about ourselves and our experience in real terms…

Can you relate? For decades I’ve worked at bridging communications between first-generation and second-generation Asian Americans, attempting to better connect with my own parents, as well as for my work with ethnic Asian churches. Not only are language and culture tightly connected together, so also is my personal identity with them, and all of that shape how I see the world and experience life.

As it is with any cross-cultural comparisons and contrasts, the temptation is to pick what’s better and what’s worse in each culture. Don’t fall for that. Different cultures are just that, they’re different. And depending on the context, some cultural artifacts work better in certain situations. Cultivate the cultural-savvy to navigate in our increasingly-diverse multi-cultural world.

Aside: This is the nomenclature I’m using for Asian Americans. First-generation refers to foreign-born Asian Americans that immigrated to the USA after age 12. Second-generation refers to both foreign-born Asian Americans that immigrated under age 12 and of course all native-born Americans of Asian ancestry. Age 12 is not a magical number of changing worldview, but from my life experience, that seems to be the inflection point for which culture holds the greater influence on one’s identity.

Jan 092014

Spontaneous combustion of ideas are so much more exhilarating than a predictable routine to me. And the conversations lit up my switchboard and I want to share one of them with you.

Yesterday I’m chatting over late afternoon tea with a couple of new friends from connections via Telos Ventures (and I’d venture to say you’ll be hearing more about them in the years ahead, or sooner) and the conversations overflowed to dinner from a gracious family’s hospitality. And there was something wonderful and cozy about being in a home instead of a restaurant. The chance meeting was quite a divine appointment, as that echoed the host’s devotional that morning.

I have greater hope for this next generation of Asian Americans than ever (and that’s where I want to give of my time and energy). I believe that being Asian American is more, not less, than being either Asian only or American only.

Being bicultural had been perceived as a liability, because it felt like not fitting in anywhere. Perception doesn’t have to define reality. Let’s reframe that.

In a fast-changing world that we find ourselves in with global travel and increasingly accelerating connectivity via mobile and social, bicultural means built-in agility to adapt into more contexts than someone monocultural.

And becoming culturally adaptable is not something you can acquire through the education of book learning or get training for. I’ve been pondering that it can only be developed through life experience. The ones that have to live in multiple cultures before age 21 will have innately honed skills via nurture that post-21 people will be notably lagging.

The wealth of life experience, educational attainment, and financial status of accomplished Asian Americans could in due time do so much more good than ever, a bigger dent in the universe, a bigger difference, a greater contribution, or whatever metaphor that calls out this percolating potential. Gaining for oneself is far less satisfying than giving of oneself for the blessing of many.

James Choung has noted this prediction:
Historians William Strauss and Neil Howe studied American generations as far back as 1584. Based on their findings, they took some guesses at what future generations would look like. … In their book Generations, they predicted that Asian Americans would be “a major cultural and intellectual force” by 2025 — like the German descendants in the 1880s and 1890s, and their Jewish counterparts of the 1930s and 1940s.

Jul 142013

Very privileged to get a tremendous opportunity last month to speak during a Sunday worship service at an ethnic Chinese church in Austin, Texas. The message was very well received, I think. The sermon was translated live side-by-side, phrase-by-phrase, from English to Mandarin Chinese, and that was followed by like 20 minutes of interactive Q&A, plus I was counseling afterward for another hour. For those of you that have your pulse on viral videos (5M+ views), the translator was Jia Jiang of the 100 Days of Rejection Therapy notoriety. Listen/download the audio:


Very grateful for the opportunity and the receptiveness. What I experienced was just how much emotion is under the surface for my kin among the Chinese/Asian people, but it’s too often unexpressed and suppressed, so when there is an inviting and safe opportunity to begin exploring those feelings, it can be a rather surprising and even disorienting experience. That’s how I interpreted how the emcee (aka moderator) described it as he shared some closing words to wrap up the worship service. And also personally very touched by the kind words of introduction from my friend Paul Wang Jr. who serves as English Pastor there.

And, thus begins my journey of being a vocal advocate for mental health being more accessible to Asians and Asian Americans. Your feedback is welcomed, after you listen to the sermon.


cf. my Gospel Herald article Can the Church Help with Mental Illness?

Sep 152012

What’s up with this crazy wild viral popularity of PSY and Gangnam style? Are millions being entertained because they’re laughing at Psy or laughing withPsy? What’s struck the nerve?

First on YouTube, then appearances on mainstream media on the likes of Saturday Night Live (9/15), TODAY show (9/14), The Ellen Show (9/10), MTV Video Music Awards (9/6), has fanned the flame, and extended the bandwagon for other coat-tailing trend-followers. There’s a surge of color commentaries all over social media and traditional mainstream media speculating as to why:

My take: check the “all of the above” box. Yes, Gangnam style has become viral because it’s silly, fun, easy, satirical, edgy, novel & unexpected, unconventional, surprising, innovative. It’s also the confluence of traditional mainstream media and social media, and the economic engine driving the industries of music, entertainment, and news, all need the attention of masses of people, so popularity feeds popularity.

And I have to wonder how much truth is under the radar, too; just heard a podcast episode about media manipulation on Triangulation episode 67 with Leo Laporte and Ryan Holiday, author of Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator, a media strategist with keen insights about the manipulation of mass media. With both social media and traditional media being funded by advertisers that pay for eyeballs from the attention of readers & watchers of news & entertainment, they’ve got a vested interest to appeal to whatever might trigger the masses to click-through. To reach millions, what’s popular by default goes to the lowest-common-denominator, dumb-down, and keep the cookies on the bottom shelf, our basest instincts. (Or maybe I’m just overthinking this.) Even the best of fact-checkers may not be able to unveil the rumored secret conspiracy theory of covert operations that drove its popularity Gangnam style.
Sep 182011

Got tapped to weigh in on this informal survey on Facebook from Tom Lin: What are some gifts Asian Americans bring to the Church and missions?

Scroll down to see all the responses that came in and add your response

Santa Ono: “A cultural perspective that often places community before self. A tendency to listen well.”

Delwin Archer: “An inspiring discipline, passion and work ethic! A focus on excellence. A love for the arts—especially music.

Grace Yung Watson: “Generosity, hospitality and tenacity to name a few.”

Joe Nho: “A respect for cultural heritage in the assimilation of Christian life.”

Alison Klein Esselink: “… would it be too worldly to mention ‘delicious food’?”

Peter Cha: “Crossing racial/cultural borders through serving ‘others’ and collaboratively working with ‘others’….”

Kathy Khang: “The ability to live in the tension of sometimes competing / opposing cultural value systems.”

Paul Tokunaga: “… the potential to be peacemakers and peacebrokers between blacks and whites

Kathy Khang: “There are so many cultural values (saving face, filial piety, etc.) that when redeemed by God’s love and grace can become powerful in mission. … Asian American women have the gift of having come out of cultures that historically considered them as property but living out the opportunities of equality under and through Christ.

DJ Chuang: “AAs have tons of untapped potential! … I’d add: long-term loyalty, third culture adaptability, global mobility, consensus builder…

Tom Lin: “3 big gifts: (1) multi-lingual and bi-cultural upbringing, (2) ‘non-threatening’ asian face :), and (3) highest U.S. demographic group in educational resources and financial income!”

A bigger question would be – what would it take to tap into all that potential? Let’s get a move on!

[aside: I did get permission to post the thread but not yet from each respondent. Will note accordingly as/when I do. ]

Jun 232011

This is a conversation I want to engage. And Vince Marotte has fired the first shot. It won’t be the last. The church has a big glaring communication problem and Vince calls it out with his first eBook, Context and Voice: Communication Design in our New Media Culture.
Vince describes the problem this way in Chapter 2:

Something is broken in the way that the Church communicates. There is a serious disconnect between how the culture communicates and how the Church does. This is in stark contrast to the church of a hundred and fifty years ago which was the catalyst of cutting edge communication technology and strategies. Starting with the Hebrew culture of story telling and the passing down of scriptures, history, genealogy and arts through simple spoken word.

My remarks here will be a book impression. Not a book review. Not a critique. Not a summary. Not an overview. More of a book reaction. I was very eager to read the book and finished it in a day.

I liked the book’s idea, not just because I’m an ideas guy. I like the author. I just had a nagging feeling that something was missing.

Maybe I’ve hung out with Vince too many times during this year; one too many. *grin* The book didn’t have the shock value for me that it will have for average joe church leader. And if you’ve been a follower of @m_vince or subscriber to like me, you would have heard these ideas before too: on a webinar and/or in a presentation slide deck.

Maybe I read it too fast. The book is written in a stream-of-consciousness conversational-style and the reader is warned right in the introduction. This did make the book easy to read. Did I mention I read it in a day, actually, under a day?

Maybe the typos bothered me. Did Vince talk into his MacBook and run a voice-recognition software like Dragon Naturally Speaking, and out came this eBook? :) Again, I love what he said but what was written (typed) made for a bumpy ride. :)

One thing missing from the book was pictures, or diagrams, or charts. That didn’t reflect new media very well. In other words, words alone don’t do the book justice. Or was this a restriction of the eBook format? I needed a picture, a framework to unpack the big ideas. And I’m an ideas guy.

Vince uses key words in a new way and with fresh nuances: designing communication. context. voice. culture. distribution. content creators. What does it all mean? It wasn’t mapped out. (And that’s okay by me.) Vince does like to skateboard, and there are no paths in a skate park, so he takes us on quite a ride. Doesn’t give us answers. He does get our adrenaline going and I know for me I want more. Here’s the 1 diagram that can help you get the lay of the land, the skate park, of the eBook:

Maybe it was the form factor. The eBook read like a series of blog posts, but more than blog posts. On almost every page, I was itching to click something to add a comment, but I couldn’t! I was reading the eBook in ePub format on iBook. The book’s begging for a conversation, but without a way for me to immediately respond on the spot, it felt like a monologue. Ugh. I know this is not the author’s intent. He does want to cultivate conversation, a lot of it at that. And it’s hard to find conversation partners on this topic. He’s asked me, in person, and indeed they are hard to find. The business of church is too consuming, of both our time and money. Maybe that’s an underlying issue, too, for why we don’t have more front door content that can connect in the context of our new media culture today. Maybe the whole economic engine and business model of sustaining the church as we know it is broken.

The hope I have in this eBook is that it is The Conversation Starter. Where the eBook form factor does work is this: you, the reader, can take it in 1 piece with you. Reflect and digest. Then come back and engage and join the conversation. I’ve seen Vince do online “coffee talk” sessions at his Gateway Church Internet Campus, so he’s definitely accessible and conversational. The eBook speed-to-publish reiterates the urgency and need for “front door content” to be created and distributed via new media. Traditional publishing takes 12-18 months, that’s too slow for ideas about new media that’s running on network technology that goes obsolete in 6 months.

In the end, I felt the book left me hanging. I finished chapter 10 and tried to turn the page and it wouldn’t go anywhere. That’s it?! No conclusion? Screeched to a halt. To be continued? No web link to continue the conversation? Abrupt ending. Did I get an incomplete download? Help?! The suspense is killing me! Great job, Vince, you’ve left me wanting more!

Dec 142010

The third reason we need Asian Americans to be Asian Americans is multi-cultural competency. 2 Asian American authors have described this as third-culture adaptability (via Dave GibbonsThe Monkey and the Fish: Liquid Leadership for a Third-Culture Church) and cultural intelligence (Soong-Chan Rah‘s Many Colors: Cultural Intelligence for a Changing Church).

What is cultural competency anyways? This is from the National Center for Cultural Competence: a Definition and Conceptual Framework = the capacity to (1) value diversity, (2) conduct self-assessment, (3) manage the dynamics of difference, (4) acquire and institutionalize cultural knowledge and (5) adapt to diversity and the cultural contexts of the communities they serve.

Many Asian Americans have lived and worked in at least 2 vastly different social-cultural contexts. This life experience can be incredibly valuable for the increasingly multiethnic world in which we live. It seems to me that quite an effort is needed to reframe this as an asset rather than liability. Incredible potential; not yet fully developed IMHO.

I asked an Asian American leader about how his heritage was an asset to his leadership. He’s a leader with an organization that’s connected with college campuses, where the demographics tend to be Caucasian and Asian, with varying proportions from campus to campus. He responded that he couldn’t think of any way that his Asian American heritage affected his leadership.

This would be understandable if he was adopted by a non-Asian family. But this response was a little puzzling when he also mentioned attending an Asian American church. Wondering out loud: do Asian American compartmentalize  more than other racial groupings? How do we all lose out when Asian Americans are unaware and/or unconscious of our multi-cultural competency? Another way to say this: what would it look like if being Asian Americans was more than a generic American?

Many if not most leadership wisdom agree that diversity is a good & valuable thing. And yet, the American church on the whole stay in the pragmatic shadow of the so-called homogeneous unit “principle”, which is more of a sociologically observed description rather than a bona-fide principle. In so doing, settling for an incomplete aspiration than that of the powerful Gospel that breaks down the dividing walls between races & ethnicities as well as the spiritual separation between people and God. Both are important.

Few churches intentionally address the issues of faith & race. In a racialized society, it does matter. A notable portion of living out theology is culturally-colored and not culturally-neutral. Of course, I am not suggesting race & ethnicity should be a part of every sermon and curriculum. But then again, those football illustrations come from a particular cultural context, eh?

One church in Seattle takes time to deal with it — here’s 2 presentations from Quest Church‘s annual day conference on Faith & Race ::

Soong-Chan RahThe Changing Face of American Society and the Church

Brian BantumThe Church Cannot be About Multiculturalism

[photo credit: seeminglee]

Nov 302010

The first reason we need Asian Americans to be Asian Americans is globalization. It doesn’t get any bigger than that. The world needs Asian Americans and America needs Asian Americans.

When I was growing up, lots of things were “Made in Taiwan.” Now, almost everything we use in America is “Made in China” — electronics, clothes, dinnerware, appliances, furniture, what have you. Case in point = Lenovo buying out IBM’s PC division. One conversation overheard around the Thanksgiving table was the speed of building modules and how much more modern the cities in China are compared to that of the United States. Simultaneously, the pace of innovative products from Japan is declining while more innovation is increasing from Korea, i.e. Samsung, Hyundai, LG, Kia, et al.

With the economy and cash flow of manufacturing flowing so quickly into China, and with the knowledge industry fast emerging in India, the epicenter of world commerce and the global shift of power is already under way, and the decline of the American empire is around the corner. With 1/3 of the world’s population already in China and India, all that people power over the long-haul will outdo any industrial machinery power, especially in the knowledge economy of the digital information age.

I’ll jump to my conclusion and then list a few supporting references. While there’s been good activist advocacy since the 60s and historical studies (albeit some may argue that it’s not yet sufficient), Asian Americans have much more to say now, as Asian Americans, for the present & future of America and the world, by working out and articulating the interplay of their identity and cultures and societies. We need these conversations in the open and not just confined in the silo of academia (as in Asian American studies). Asian Americans have the innate raw materials from their social-ethnic context that can navigate the bicultural dynamics (what Dave Gibbons calls “third culture“). Asian Americans have the potential to bridge and keep America connected with the evolution of a global village. Better than being left behind and disconnected into demise. This certainly includes Asian Americans who aspire into leadership roles and lead in a way that differs from the American constructs of leadership, yielding to more risk and uncertainty and unpredictability.

Let me refer you to the thoughts of a friend, a seminary professor who’s a 4th-generation Chinese American. Dr. Jeff Jue‘s talk, The Asian American Church: History, Racialization and Globalization, at the 2010 Korean Pastors Conference (Mission to North America) reiterates this compelling need and the contribution of Asian Americans in the church and, thus, American society:

Books like Claiming Diaspora: Music, Transnationalism, and Cultural Politics in Asian/Chinese America (Zheng), Chinese American Transnational Politics (Lai and Hsu) point to how globalized and transnational the world in general and American society in particular have become… the lives and identities of Asians and Asian Americans also reflect these cross-national formations.

And, Simon Tay rightly noted in Forbe’s America’s Call To Globalization: The U.S. must respond proactively to Asia’s rise — “… while the Asian presence in the United States has grown beyond the confines of Chinatown, it is still not part of Main Street culture. Asia is still a specialty store. Global-as-Asian is just beginning and needs more engines to drive it forward.”

Nov 262010

While we wait for the final results to come in for the 2010 Census, very likely over 15 million, I want to share a few thoughts of things I’ve sense over the past decade or so as an Asian American and as a part of L2 Foundation, a private family foundation that’s developing leadership & legacy for Asian Americans.

Over the years, I find myself growing to embrace this label and categorization more than I used to. I know there are all sorts of problems and issues about the label. I may address some of them in this blog series. The term “Asian American” itself seems to be a lightning rod and magnetic force — repelling some while attracting some. Some say that it doesn’t matter at all what ancestry we have, we’re all Americans, and that’s all that matters.

In the Christian subculture, some say that our identity is only spiritual, only grounded “in Christ,” which I agree is true and ultimate. Yet, when this theological conviction is held to the exclusion to the reality of who we are on earth and our innate social and genetic context, it sounds an awful like Gnosticism, the first heresy of church history, a belief that our body doesn’t matter and only the spiritual matters.

So this is an introductory foreword to kick off a blog series about why we need Asian Americans to be Asian Americans. First, a few disclaimers to minimize the knee-jerk reactions.

To say that we need this is not to say that every Asian American must be Asian American’ish. There is a whole spectrum of people in the Asian American mix. A growing percentage are bi-racial, with Asian and non-Asian ancestry. There are some that are politically very pro-Asian. There are some that are very assimilated into “mainstream America” and don’t have any interaction with an Asian American context. And that’s okay.

Being Asian American as an Asian American isn’t everything. To say that we need this is not to say that an Asian American is only Asian American. We are more than our ancestry, and in a multicultural society and global world, we do well to learn & grow in cross-cultural appreciation for the others.

Being Asian American doesn’t mean being only with Asian Americans. There’s a social dynamic connoted by phrases like “birds of a feather flock together.” Cliques stunt our personal development and limit our ultimate contribution to society and the world. Yet, to have no connection with Asian Americans, something is definitely lost there too.

Being Asian American doesn’t mean nothing. There seems to be a social pressure or default consciousness that to be American is to fit in with the majority. That’s where the institutional structures and power dynamics is to be found. To be a part of the system, you have to work within the system. To change the system would (most likely) take revolution. We’ve already had several of those in American history.

Being Asian American doesn’t mean representing all Asian Americans. To be Asian American doesn’t mean one has to be well-versed and represent all kinds of Asian Americans. It’d be a good first step to have some semblance of understanding of one’s roots. For me, that’s being Chinese American.

All to say that our American society need more Asian Americans to be Asian American. It is to say that at this state of the union, we have too few. We certainly don’t have too many. We’d do well to have a few more to stand up and represent. We’d do well to think through and have more robust conversations about what it means to be Asian Americans. We’d do well to allow the richness of our Asian American’ness to overflow and not hide it under a bushel.

In the next blog posts of this series, I’ll delve into a dozen or so reasons as to why we need more Asian Americans to speak up, with less anger, with more grace, with confidence, without apology. [Reasons #1, #2, #3, & the rest]