Asian/Pacific Islander – Can’t We Get Another Checkbox?
A Muslim, Christian, Brooklyn Perspective
By Sania Khan and Samantha Wagar
In many circles we’re known as a pair. “Sania and Sam” – it even kind of rolls off the tongue. And on the surface, it’s pretty logical. We grew up in the same upstate New York suburb, grounded by similar middle class values and closeness of family. Post-grad we independently migrated to the faraway land of Brooklyn where we quickly (if grudgingly) embraced the Converse wearing, herb-growing, bike-riding culture, and re-connected. On forms we both check the humorously broad “Asian/Pacific Islander” box. We can graciously or playfully answer the infamous “what are you?” question, depending on the circumstance. And perhaps most relevant to our daily lives, we share a joint love for spicy food (and subsequent compulsion for hot sauce), an equally intense appreciation for a good dance party and an ever lengthening Google document of curated poems, quotations and encounters, the “inspiration collaboration.”
Of course, there are also obvious differences. Sania is a first generation Pakistani-American and Muslim, Sam, one-quarter Korean with many generations of Protestant roots. Sania grew up observing Ramadan and hails from Prospect Heights; Sam, Christmas and Lent, now calling Bushwick home. Obviously, the north-south Brooklyn rivalry is the most divisive.
But, below the surface, what anchors our friendship is deservedly more complex. Each deeply faithful, inquisitive and tenacious people, we were well into our individual spiritual journeys when we re-met. We have found unparalleled strength, challenge and personal growth, not through the laundry list of commonalities, but through the exploration of our differences and the discovery that these bond us infinitely more.
Sania: My Malcolm X Moment
Pakistani. Muslim. American. I see these parts of me as consistent, not in contradiction. The news cycle may indicate differently. But I have to admit that it, and the rise in popularity of cuisine from the Sub-continent – have shared influence on my identity construct. I’ve had to understand that on a societal level my cultural identity has very much been conflated with my religious identity. This meant when growing up I had to balance my concern for smelling like onions when my mom was frying Samosas (the best you’ll ever have FYI), with making sure I had a rational response to queries about whether every woman in my family wore a burqa. Needless to say, I think I’ve developed an advanced ability to handle awkward situations. Really though, the biggest challenge for me has been figuring out how to uncover that simplistic group identity for what it really is — personal and complex. On this quest, the climax thus far was this past October when I had the privilege and opportunity to perform Hajj.
Hajj, if you’re not familiar, is a pilgrimage to Makkah, Saudi Arabia, that is compulsory for every Muslim who can physically and financially perform it. Officially, 3 million Muslims from all over the globe attend to ask for atonement while collectively tracking the footsteps of Prophets. I really had no idea what to expect when I embarked on this journey. I had been told my whole life that this would be the most formative trip of my life, and I tried my best to treat it as such. Before going, a requirement is to ask family, friends, and acquaintances for forgiveness for anything you may have done to hurt or offend them. I’ve told a lot of bad stories, bad jokes, and God knows what else – so, I decided to handle this in the form of an email. To my surprise, I received many heartfelt responses, spanning all faiths. The responses showed me how putting myself out there in a spiritual context was not met with apprehension. Actually, it fostered deeper connections.
The trip itself was filled with innumerable lessons and awe-inspiring moments. Aside from the intense and deeply personal spiritual realizations during the trip, some of my favorite moments were: at the Ka’abah seeing birds circling above in the same formation as millions of people performed Tawaf (NatGeo worthy), seeing someone listening to the recitation of the Qur’an on their Beats By Dre headphones in a mosque in Medina, and seeing an older gentleman reading a tattered Qur’an commiserating with a younger pilgrim who was scrolling through the same verses on his iPad – diversity on all fronts.
My attempt to sum up the experience is to call it a lesson in religious practicality. At every juncture of the trip I was pushed further out of my comfort zone – be it through a change in city, people, or environment – all while trying to fulfill the primary requirement of Hajj – to maintain patience. This was as true and practical a test as I’ve encountered. It paralleled life. For me, the constant change led to a deeper understanding of my own beliefs. Simply put, I noticed that what I identified as familiar shifted. I experienced this sitting next to an Iraqi woman outside the mosque in Medina. Neither of us spoke each other’s languages. But she said to me, “Sunni or Shi’a?” I said, “Sunni.” She pointed to herself and said, “Shi’a,” then smiled with a minor head tilt (the one your aunt does when she has someone to introduce you to) and said “Here, same!” I could not have said it better myself. We were all there taking a hiatus from our daily lives for a simple purpose – to pray and reflect. It was irrelevant that we prayed and reflected in different ways; it was the fact that we were doing it with similar intentions that mattered. This deep commonality outweighed any surface differences. That was my Malcolm X moment.
Back in New York, I’ve applied this religious practicality by maintaining composure during rush hour on the subway, and opening up to Hipsters. Just kidding, still closed off to Hipsters. Although I love yoga. But I still smile! In truth, I feel liberated in the concrete jungle knowing that embracing and respecting diversity in beliefs and lifestyles is not in any way inconsistent with my own. In fact, that deep respect and embrace is an expression of it, at its core.
Sam: My Asian American Theological Crisis (“TC”)
My religious identity, much like my Asian one, is somewhat conflicted and very mixed. In the early ‘60s, my dad came to the US from Korea through a Christian adoption agency, to a Presbyterian minister and his wife in upstate New York. To say that international adoption was rare in those days would be an understatement. Remarkably, he was found, malnourished and sickly, wandering the streets of Seoul, his life essentially saved by some American missionaries, who, when it comes down to it are also responsible for my existence.
They say I’m a hapa. I have little trouble (and some fun) convincing people that I’m Hawaiian, Mexican or even Armenian. Yet our family’s traditions are about as WASP-y as they come. Truthfully, I’ve always been confused about which box to check on forms. Am I Asian enough for it to count? What about my mom’s great grandfather who was off the boat from Greece? Or the American lineage that my dad was adopted into with long and deep roots? What about the whole 25% of me that’s unaccounted for altogether?
What has been more consistent to my sense of identity is my relationship with Christianity – well, kind of. I was raised in a loving, if conventional United Methodist Church. I was an acolyte (candle-lighter) for Sunday service. I learned to cook, working side by side with my dad in the church kitchen preparing community dinners. I tried to stay out of trouble on youth group trips and retreats. But, even as I voluntarily went through the confirmation process at 16, I felt a lack of authenticity and a sense of disconnect with the adult self that was already forming. And so, my interest and involvement waned.
In college, fresh with political righteousness, I bonded with a fellow former upstate Methodist (and current Church of the Village member) – who at the time was exploring Quakerism – over what we termed our “TCs” or theological crises. Grateful for the warm community of our church upbringings, we were struggling to reconcile their rhetoric with our social, political and intellectual identities. We didn’t feel like the church represented us and refused to live as contradictions. We also felt increasingly alienated by the figurative hijacking of “Christianity” and “Evangelism” by the right wing conservative movement.
And so, as a young adult living in the city that never sleeps, I found myself socially, politically and intellectually satisfied, but spiritually devoid. So I embarked on my very own “religious pilgrimage” – albeit less international than Hajj – church shopping in Manhattan. I attended mega-churches, rock-and-roll churches and stodgy Upper East Side churches. I even commenced what has become a long-term membership at the church of yoga. And then I found Church of the Village (COTV), and I was home. There it doesn’t matter if I’m a hapa, Mexican or Armenian. In fact, it doesn’t matter if I’m homeless or a doctor or a trapeze artist. No one questions my sexual or political orientation. There are no feelings of hypocrisy, walking in to worship after an amazing yoga practice or groggy after a Saturday night out.
COTV doesn’t challenge me in ways that dogmatically conflict with my modern, urban life – but oh, does it challenge me. I realized a long time ago that the quest for the right house of worship was in fact just the beginning of my pilgrimage. It has compelled me to confront some of life’s hardest questions: Are there conditions to the love of the God that I believe in? What defines me as Christian? Who was Jesus, in what context did he live and die and who would he most resemble in today’s society? This confrontation has been honest, enriching, humbling and sometimes painful. It’s forced me out of my comfort zone and definitively taught me that the most important lessons are learned from the people most unlike yourself.
Our Muslim-Christian Venn Diagram
Our ethnicities and religions are a reflection of the vast diversity within the Asian-American community, and a minute representation of it at that. At the end of the day, our families come from different places, we identify with different religious traditions and doctrines, but what we believe, what brings meaning to our lives, what challenges us, what guides our morals is oddly, surprisingly, inspiringly the same. In fact, the overlap between our beliefs would make for a surprisingly rotund Venn diagram (be grateful we didn’t impose this on you, but we really wanted to). What bonds us as friends is more related to our differences than our surface similarities.
Please join us at the Church of the Village during the month of May as we celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. Each week we will recognize and incorporate practices from the rich and varied cultures of the Asia-Pacific Region within our worship. Our recognition will culminate on June 2nd with a grand celebration in worship.