Righting America

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An Asian-American Missioner in the Appalachians | Righting America

by Br. Thomas Nguyen, G.H.M.

Appalachian mountain range covered by fog and green spruce firs.
Roan Mountain, Tennessee. Image by Daniel Martin via Wikimedia Commons

Br. Thomas is a brother of The Glenmary Home Missionaries, a community that ministers to rural populations in the United States. He is a second-year Pastoral Ministry Masters student at the University of Dayton. His studies, his missionary experience, and his lived experience as a Vietnamese-American Catholic form his views. As he says, “my missionary bent makes me more sensitive to those who are marginalized in our society. The attacks on Asians during COVID have re-invigorated my zeal to fight for justice, especially racial justice. My goal is to help all people see the fullness of the scriptures which have social and spiritual impact. In order to restore justice and peace at times we have to ‘bust the wall of ignorance.’”

Wow!!! Asian cultural appreciation month, what a month! In the big cities, I see and hear about all the food festivals going on from one town to another. Doesn’t your mouth just water thinking of a hot boiling bowl of ramen where the noodle is chewy and soft? The broth is so rich and nutritious, your sinuses clear just taking a good sniff! As you scoop up that egg, the warm, hot, flavorful yoke just drips into your bowl making the already flavorful bowl of ramen become even more irresistible. Ummm….yum!!! It makes me wish I had a bowl of ramen right here and right now!

You must be wondering why in the world I am making you salivate by describing a yummy bowl of ramen? There is a reason! I sometimes think that in the eyes of some white Americans Asians are seen as only being good for their food and services. 

Think about it. Why is it an Asian food fest and not an Asian cultural festival? I am not complaining, but I am wondering if there is a better way for Asians to help others understand and appreciate our deep/complex culture. And it seems like white Americans are still very ignorant about Asian culture. Because of such ignorance, we have recently had a series of violent offenses against Asian Americans. It seems when Asians perform a service (nail salons, physicians, I.T. service, etc.) – assuming they have done their job well – they are praised and tolerated. But when something goes wrong, when something like COVID is blamed on Asians, “Su Chung” automatically gets blamed for something they did not do. Does that make any sense?

As a Catholic missionary, I am obligated by Canon law to have a novitiate year (basically a spiritual year.) During this spiritual year, I was assigned to one of Gelnmary’s rural missions for five months. I was assigned in a county that was located in the Central Southern part of the Tennessee. One of the ministries I was involved with included helping at a Food Bank. For the most part, my work there was good; I was liked by many of the locals and they appreciated my work. However, there were moments when some of the people I served spewed racially prejudicial things at me. I want to make it very clear before I explore some of these stories that they are racially prejudicial (as I perceived) and not racist, as “racist” – strictly speaking – pertains to when people see their race as superior to another person’s race. I am making this distinction because though I fight against racism I don’t think it is helpful to lump everything racial into the category of racism. I believe this lumping creates a certain oversensitivity that does more harm than good in the fight against racism. 

Let me give an example of the racial prejudice that I experienced. As a policy, the food bank tells all its volunteers that they are to give families only one portion of food that the coordinators had determined to be fitting for one family. Of course, sometimes we made exceptions, but this is a general policy to make sure everyone had their proper portion. Anyway, on this one occasion there was a big Caucasian man who wore a cowboy hat, who walked with a solid, brown, wooden cane, and who asked for a second portion to bring home to someone else. The policy at the food bank is that, unless the other person is with them, we cannot give them a second portion. I tried to explain this to the man; when he was not satisfied, I went inside to talk to one of the managers of the food bank about how to resolve the situation. As I came back one of the volunteers reported that the man said, “What is that little Asian boy doing, acting like he is the boss?” I won’t get into how I reacted, but I will just say I just shook it off.

What I want to look at here is what the man said. What if I was the boss? Was there anything stopping me from being the boss of the food bank? What I am looking at here is the obvious prejudice that he was letting out in his question. Prejudice is by definition pre-judgment; when we form a judgment about someone before fully knowing. In and of itself the pre-judgment is not wrong, it is just by definition immature and not fully developed. However, the man made a pre-judgment that I could not have been the boss there, but was acting in a boss-like manner, giving orders and all. And the “little Asian boy” part was rather dismissive as well, as it suggested that he saw me as a kid (I was 26 at the time). 

I wonder if beneath all this was a sense of resentment because it was a man of a minority race telling him the rules of the place (which was my job). I wonder if things would have been different if a young Caucasian male came and talked to him instead of me. Unfortunately, resentment by other races is something Asians experience a lot. Though many Asians are apparently treated well, thanks in good part to their practice of “lying low,” I argue that there is in fact a sense of resentment. One can see this when we look at how some major universities treat Asians, what some politicians have said about Asians, and the treatment of Asians post-COVID. All of this points to a deep sense of resentment that lies under the nice looking surface.

Asian Americans are not seen as equals, no matter how much they have achieved, no matter what contributions they have made to American society. Ask yourself during Asian cultural appreciation month: what are the contributions that the Asian community has made to American society? Are they visible or are they invisible? At the end of the day I am not writing these words for Asian Americans alone, but for all humans, so that they may be seen and respected as they should. As I truly do believe that everyone is created in “the image and likeness of God,” this means in a literal sense we should be treated like deities. This is not a call for false worship or idolatry but for a profound respect for the “Godness” that exists in every human person!