The last few months have been difficult for Asian Americans. We have seen an enormous rise in anti-Asian harassment and acts of violence. The media seem to ignore or undermine the pains of our community. We’re especially hurting because of the attacks on our elderly, many of whom have sacrificed relentlessly for their families to live in America.
Last week, however, there was a different kind of shock and pain that spread throughout the country. Eight people were killed at Asian-owned spas, six of whom were Asian American women. As I’ve thought about these events, I’ve come to realize that so much of my 22 years as an immigrant has been learning how to live with my head down.
When I first immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 8 with my family, we arrived in a rural area with very few Asian Americans. In my first week of school, I raised my hand and confidently called the teacher by her title instead of her name because that is what we did in Korea. The whole class laughed at me and I learned that I should be very careful about speaking up. I learned to keep my head down.
In just a few months I realized that everyone would turn to stare at us when our family walked into a restaurant. I asked my mom if we could stop eating out. I learned shame for being different and wanted to keep my head down.
Sexism Plus Racism Equals Shame
By the time I was in high school, I learned my vulnerability as not only an Asian American but an Asian American girl. I learned that I would be the target of crude remarks on the streets as well as school hallways, and that the sexual comments were always racist as well. I also learned that though these fear-inducing experiences felt unfair, there was nothing I could do but keep my head down and avoid being noticed.
I’ve come to realize that so much of my 22 years as an immigrant has been learning how to live with my head down.
In college I learned that people expected me to consider it a compliment to hear catcalls that began with “Ni hao” and “Konichiwa.” In one instance, I was walking home after Bible study when a group of drunken white male students grabbed my shoulders and joked that they had always wanted to sleep with an Asian woman. I realized that keeping my head down may not be enough and spent the rest of college carrying empty glass bottles in my backpack, constantly looking over my shoulder.
Years ago, when I was traveling for work, I avoided the advances of two young men who, to no surprise, approached me with “Ni hao.” The next morning, I woke up to a vandalized hotel door. What my mind learned in the shock of that event was that I am not allowed to say no.
To prevent another situation when my rejection could be retaliated, I became absolutely determined to keep my head down. I berated myself for playing into the stereotype that Asian women are subservient and compliant, but my fears overcame my desire to speak out for myself.
Social Media Increase the Pain
This last week has been exhausting for me emotionally, mentally, and spiritually as I’ve tried to comprehend the Atlanta shootings. On top of absorbing shock and grief about the death of the eight individuals, I have been overwhelmed by social-media comments about the shootings.
Some argue that the shootings were not racially motivated and we shouldn’t conclude that race had anything to do with it. Others are outraged that anyone could fail to see the racial element of this crime. I’ve seen so many Christians bickering with one another, following one Facebook comment after another. I’ve felt a growing weariness because my heart was unsettled by everything I was reading.
I felt that the humanity of Asian American women was being lost. I cannot prove what the shooter was thinking when he decided to walk into those spas. In fact, no one can know the depths of another’s heart except God. But I can say this incident all too well reflects my daily life.
Every stage of my life has seen the intersection of racism and misogyny grow deeper. This shooting proved to me that the fears I had experienced for years were all too valid: as an Asian American woman, I am not only a perpetual foreigner but also often a sexual object and a fetish. Something about my dual identity as Asian and female makes me more susceptible to sexual demands.
I had always known that if I did not keep my head down, I may be taken advantage of for someone else’s sexual desires. But now I see that there is one more thing to be fearful of: I may pay the price for someone else’s temptations.
Now I see that there is one more thing to be fearful of: I may pay the price for someone else’s temptations.
Asian American women are real humans who have real experiences shaping their reactions to this heinous crime. There are few things as harmful as asking us to carry the burden of proving that our pain and confusion are real. But we also don’t need voices so loudly crying racism and intersectionality that our voices are drowned out.
What We Need
This experience is uniquely painful for many Asian American women. It is hard enough allowing ourselves the grief because of the complex cultural norms that have taught us not to focus on ourselves. What we need in this time is to be invited to share our experiences, to have our fears heard, to have friends mourn with us, and to be reminded that we can live with our heads up.
This is particularly urgent and necessary in the church because of the way Scripture and God have been misappropriated in this crime. The shooter is a self-identified Christian and member of an evangelical church, and he claimed he killed the women because he needed to be rid of his temptations.
What I fear is not only that the gospel’s public witness has been tainted, but that it has particularly been corrupted for Asian American women. The world has just witnessed a self-proclaimed follower of Jesus brutally take the lives of eight people for the sake of his pursuit of holiness. And it was specifically Asian-owned spas the shooter entered, and mostly Asian American women who paid the price for the shooter’s obsessions. Instead of fighting his sin to to the point of shedding his blood, he did it to the point of shedding the blood of six Asian American women and two other people.
How could unbelieving Asian American women know of this event and find themselves drawn to the church? Why would hurting Asian American women want to listen to the good news of people who question their pain in the midst of such tragedy?
Emulate the Lord Jesus
Brothers and sisters, I plead with you: whatever your thoughts on the motives of the shooter, please do not dismiss the experiences and pains of the Asian American women around you. Listen to them, grieve with them, and ask how they’re doing. Do this for the sake of the gospel and the honor of Jesus Christ.
I am brought to tears when I think of the Asian American women in my life who do not yet know the Lord and will now have reasons to find the church repulsive. It breaks my heart to know they may blame our faith and find reason to deny God, when in reality this shooting is completely antithetical to the character of God—and the gospel has answers to the pains they’re experiencing.
As a youth director, I especially think of the young Asian American women in my ministry. I think of how they may also learn to keep their heads down. I am constantly fighting to point my students to the truth of the living Word and the fellowship of the church. It makes me weep to think that they could lean more into the world because the church fails to help them lift their heads.
It makes me weep to think that they could lean more into the world because the church fails to help them lift their heads.
This act of helping “different” women move from living with heads down to up is not new to us. God has exemplified it for us repeatedly in his Word. The angel of the Lord found Hagar, the Egyptian woman, at the spring of water and listened to her affliction. Hagar praised God for being “a God of seeing” (Gen. 16:13) and returned to Abram and Sarah in obedience. Jesus uncovered the shame of the Samaritan woman at the well and offered her living water. She went into town and helped many believe Christ through her testimony. Though the bleeding woman was a Jew, she was a social and religious outsider in every sense. Jesus didn’t just heal her; he called her “daughter” and sent her to be freed from her suffering (Mark 5:34).
These three stories are examples of the triune God approaching women who had many reasons to keep their heads down. He listened to them, knew them, cared for their pains, and sent them out to live in peace, not hiding.
These women remind me that I too am loved and seen by my Maker, even in my deepest fears. My experiences in this broken world and my defense mechanisms tell me to live with my head low. But God shows me another way: I can lift my head high, knowing that as an Asian American woman, I reflect his royal image.
Whatever the world’s distortions about my body and being, I know that all of me has been bought with the blood of Christ, that I fully belong to Jesus, and that my complete worth is found in him. Brothers and sisters, would you help the Asian American sisters in your life also internalize this truth by reflecting Christ and helping them live with heads held high?