Protestors at a rally with signs that read “protect Asian lives” and “stop Asian hate.”

Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

Do you see me? Seeing Asian American Pacific Islander people

May 9, 2023 

Boston in the 1950s was infamously known for its segregated public schools. Attending the Phillips Brooks Elementary School in Roxbury, my brothers and cousins were labeled as “colored” when most of the pupils were white. But when Roxbury became mostly inhabited by Black Americans, we were then labeled as white. It took federal court intervention and forced busing to integrate the schools. Labeled “colored” and white, I grew up not seen for who I really was. Later, I came to understand that racial integration led to federal school funding based on quota representation.

When classroom chairs and desks were screwed down on the floor, my homeroom teacher passed out little white cards to insert into her room seating board. She instructed us to write down our names. Write your last name in capitals first followed by the initial of your first name. I wrote down, “NG, D.” When my teacher came to my name on the roll call, she said, “Is this a “No good desk?” The other pupils laughed out loud.

When I was a child, my father would buy a dozen char siu baos (barbecue pork buns) in a pink box tied with a red string. I usually liked the baked ones. My mother told me to pack a bao for lunch one time. Instead, I made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on white Wonder Bread. I told my mother that it was too foreign and the other kids would laugh at me. She told me that baos were often taken out to the rice paddies for lunch, but I did not want one with me at Phillips Brooks Elementary School. I didn’t want to be seen as a foreigner.

In the eyes of many people in the US, AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islander) people have a questionable place in the American landscape. We are often not seen. While many AAPI people have lived in the US over many generations, ongoing legal arrival of immigrants and refugees from Asian nations continues to convey the perception that AAPI people are “perpetual foreigners.” Moreover, it was believed that Asians were not assimilable into American society. Ronald Takaki’s book title sums it up: we are Strangers from a Different Shore. [i]

During World War II, Americans of Japanese ancestry were questioned about their loyalty to the US. Over 120,000 Japanese Americans were forced to leave their homes and businesses to be interned in concentration camps far from the West Coast. When the war ended, most lost their homes, businesses, and land. Executive Order 9066 is the only government edict that denied a group of Americans their civil rights. To prove their loyalty, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team of Japanese American soldiers became the most decorated military unit for its size and length of service in all of US military history.

My own father enlisted in the US Army and served in Germany during WWII. Before then, Chinese laborers were barred from entering the country and becoming citizens as the result of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. It was only after the 1898 US Supreme Court ruling that the 14th Amendment was said to make clear that birthright citizenship for all was the law of the land. Recently, the US Congress recognized Chinese Americans’ military service by granting them the Congressional Gold Medal. To honor my father’s service, I received the Gold Medal on our family’s behalf. To claim their place in the US, AAPI people went to great lengths to prove that they are seen and that they belong.

I am a Baptist by birth. When my father returned from the war, the First Baptist Church of Boston reached out to the many GIs who became US citizens in their honorable service. My father learned more English at the Chinese Sunday School. And when my father wanted to reunite with my mother and their first son, it was First Baptist that assisted in the immigration process. If it hadn’t been for First Baptist, I literally would not have been born!

While I will forever be indebted to First Baptist, denominations and the US continue to have an unclear view of who AAPI people are. When I served as pastor of the First Chinese Baptist Church in San Francisco, I learned that in the 1950s, there was a movement for assimilation. The denomination wanted the church to drop its “Chinese” label and consider renaming the church, “Waverly Baptist Church,” after the street name. Some churches did change their names, but First Chinese Baptist did not. The denomination wondered if the designation might discriminate against those who were not Chinese from attending. They didn’t want to see us as Chinese Americans.

After the 2020 murder of George Floyd along with the tragic deaths of many other Black Americans in recent years, we are facing a racial reckoning. We read Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist and Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility and doubt ourselves on what we can do, especially for those with any critical self-awareness. Today, we are seeing a growing emphasis on more inclusive representation in all facets of life: marketing, Hollywood portrayals, social media.

Surprisingly, I still meet people who tell me that they are color-blind, saying things like: “I don’t see you as an Asian. I just see you as Don.” Having grown up watching Disney’s “Wonderful World of Colors” when we got our first color TV, I wonder: what is wrong with seeing colors? As a diagnosed (red/green) color-blind person, how I wish I could really see all the colors of the rainbow!

National denominational conventions are opportunities to see each other in the flesh and to break down myths, stereotypes, and perhaps our fears of the other. When you see me, I hope that you will not just see me as Don Ng but also see me as an Asian American Pacific Islander person. I will see you too!

Today’s media-rich world has enabled all of us to see our global family more clearly. According to Pew Research Center, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders continue to be the fastest growing population in the US. In our denomination, effective missionary endeavors many years ago as well as evangelism today have led to phenomenal AAPI church growth. There are now many Asian groups who have made their home in the US. The work of ABC missionaries Adoniram and Ann Judson in Burma over 200 years ago has produced many dedicated Baptists to come to our US shores as the result of political and religious persecution in Myanmar. Today, we recognize new Burmese Baptist conventions that are continuing their Baptist witness as a diaspora in many areas of the US. They are finding a place to belong in this country’s landscape.

Religious communities, and specifically American Baptists, want to include AAPI people into genuine fellowship. But sometimes those who are unfamiliar with AAPI are reluctant to engage in conversations. They may feel awkward or as outsiders. Here are three suggestions to consider.

– AAPI people are not all foreigners. Some are, but many have been in the US for many generations. Personally, I am third generation since my grandfather first came to San Francisco in 1910. Now my grandchildren are fifth generation. When you meet an AAPI person, don’t ask, “Where are you really from?” Instead, sincerely, ask who they are, what kind of work they do, and learn about their interests and hobbies while sharing something about yourself with them. Relate with AAPI people in the same way you would with anyone else. And if they are a recent immigrant or refugee, welcome them and explore together how interesting it is to get to know each other.

– AAPI people can be Christian. While there are many world religions that are ubiquitous in some Asian countries, the Cosmic Christ calls all persons to follow him. Eliminate the stereotype that only white or Black people can be Baptists. Increasingly, there are AAPI people who are pastoring local churches, serving on denominational staff, and participating in envisioning what the beloved community can be today.

– AAPI people are not inscrutable. The damaging commentary of AAPI people being secretive, mysterious, and difficult to understand has led to dehumanizing them. These stereotypes derived from AAPI people being unfamiliar with their new country. They speak their Asian languages to go about their lives and to preserve cultural heritage; they are not necessarily speaking ill of you. Naturally, AAPI people drew together for protection and to carry on with life. Today’s touristy areas like the Japan Towns and Chinatowns were once isolated from the rest of the city for their own survival.

When COVID-19 became a pandemic with the probable source of the virus in Wuhan, China, hate and violence against AAPI increased across the world. It was significantly sensationalized by some political leaders. For a long time, I was looking over my shoulder every time I was out on the street. Framed in global geopolitical tensions, today’s US and China relationship is unfriendly. When it goes sour, these events can threaten the safety of AAPI people in the US. Scapegoating AAPI people for problems has been used throughout our US history. Sadly, there is not much I or most of my friends can do except to hope that US and China relationships will improve. After months of practice, I’ll continue to look over my shoulder in the days to come.

What we can do is to plan to be together. It is tempting to remain quite comfortable staying safe and sound in our particular neighborhoods with our own kind. But that’s not what Christ is calling us to be and to become. Christian fellowship demands us to reach out and to build true Christian communities. When Jesus told the Parable of the Good Samaritan, he took down barriers that prevented compassion and community from happening. It was only the Samaritan who saw the victim to be worthwhile. In the Avatar movie, Jake Sully and Neytiri say to each other, “I see you”—recognizing each other’s value.

In many sincere attempts to be inclusive and diverse, I have been appropriated to read the Bible in Chinese at a number of plenaries. I chuckle at such requests since I literally flunked out of Chinese language school as a kid. While such intentions are honorable and perhaps innocent, one can easily reinforce stereotypes that send the wrong message.

Kathryn Choy-Wong, Lucia Ann McSpadden, and Dale M. Weatherspoon recently co-authored Building Lasting Bridges: An Updated Handbook for Intercultural Ministry, published by Judson Press. [ii] This valuable resource begins to assist you and churches to understand one another, or in other words, to see one another as all God’s children on earth.

American Baptists have a biennial convention which is meeting this June in Puerto Rico. Your denomination may also have a scheduled national convention on the calendar. I have come to see these conventions no longer as simply reunions or a justified vacation from local church work. These religious gatherings are opportunities to see each other in the flesh and to break down myths, stereotypes, and perhaps your fears of the other. In truth, when we are coming from all parts of the country at a convention, we are a closer resemblance of the Body of Christ than when we are only in our comfortable and familiar local churches.

As an American Baptist, God willing, I’ll be at the San Juan Biennial in June. When you see me, I hope that you will not just see me as Don Ng but also see me as an Asian American Pacific Islander person. I will see you too!

Rev. Donald Ng was president, American Baptist Churches, USA, 2014-15, the first Asian American to serve in this elected position. For 17 years, he was senior pastor of the historic First Chinese Baptist Church in San Francisco. He retired from full-time ministry in 2015. May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

[i] Ronald Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1989.

[ii] Kathryn Choy-Wong, Lucia Ann McSpadden, Dale M. Weatherspoon, Building Lasting Bridges. Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2022.

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