By Kaitlin Ho Givens | Blog
After lunch we played hand games. It was just what we did in kindergarten in the suburbs of New York and so after eating, we’d turn towards each other in pairs on the lunch benches, sing songs and clap our hands together to the beat.
There was one hand game that ended with “Chinese! Japanese! Indian chief!” with corresponding hand motions – pulling your eyes to slant upwards for “Chinese,” downwards slanted eyes for “Japanese,” and crossing your arms against your chest for “Indian chief!” You were supposed to freeze on “Indian Chief,” and the first person who moved, lost.
I hated this game. I tried to avoid it at all costs and so I was a big proponent of “Miss Mary Mac,” whose silver buttons all down her back, back, back were much more pleasant. One of my earliest memories is playing with a girl who refused to play anything besides the one I dreaded most.
What’s wrong with Miss Mary Mac? I thought, irritated.
I reluctantly agreed. I found myself going faster and faster as we played – clap clap clap – so fast we could barely fit the words over the beat. Clap clap clap.
“Chinese! Japanese! Indian chief!” I did the motions in a flurry of movement and purposely “unfroze” myself so I lost and we could move on to another game.
But the girl stopped. She looked at me with a mean grin, and said, “You kind of look like that.”
I feigned confusion. She pulled at her eyes to slant them, and laughed. It was what I dreaded most. Someone had noticed I was different, and it was clearly not a good thing.
I remember lying on the floor eating grapes and asking my mom, “Mom? I’m 100% Chinese, right?”
And she said, “Yes, Daddy and I are both Chinese so you’re 100% Chinese.”
I continued, “And I’m 100% American, right? Because I was born here.”
“Yes, you’re 100% American.”
I paused. “So I’m 200%?”
My mom laughed, “Yes, you’re 200%.”
Much of my life has been feeling the weight of this 200%, and yet somehow, being not enough of either. Not American enough, not Chinese enough. I had the vacillating experience of attending a predominantly white suburban school and going to Chinatown on Sundays for my Chinese church.
In school, I was seen as fairly quiet. At church, I was one of the more outspoken. At school, I was the smallest person on all of my sports teams. At church, I was bigger than most with an athletic build that was unwonted, and I often felt like I had to lose weight.
At school, I would get the “slanty eye” jab from people who were feeling particularly mean-spirited, while at church my eyes were admired for being “so big” because I have double eyelids (a feature that most have, but many Asians do not, and one of the most popular plastic surgeries in Asia).
My white school friends didn’t take their shoes off when they came to my house, and I was horrified. When I asked them to take them off, they laughed and said that was weird. “Nevermind,” I muttered. I vacuumed with vigor after they left.
In Chinatown, Chinese shops involve no lines, actively pushing yourself forward and shouting in Chinese; they are not for the faint of heart. The Chinese bakery women would say things to each other about me in Chinese after my feeble attempts at ordering baos; I didn’t know what they were saying but I knew they were talking about me because “lo fan” means white person, and they used that term to refer to me, the white one.
I couldn’t hide the fact that I wasn’t white at school, especially with a last name “Ho” that would always get snickers, while at church I was called a twinkie: “yellow on the outside, white on the inside.”
In subtle and overt ways, I was continuously told by white Americans that being Chinese was weird, and I was abnormal. And yet I couldn’t change the shape of my eyes or the food we ate and the way my culture shaped me, so I was stuck in shame. And it seemed I could never be Chinese enough to fit into the Chinese community, leaving me exasperated. I was confused, weighed down by the 200% of my Chinese-American self, continually feeling like I was not enough of either.
The cacophony of my hyphenated Chinese-American identity sent me running every which way to find a place where I belonged. By the time I got to college, I was jaded by both the white American community and the Chinese community and found myself seeking acceptance in the black community on the gospel choir and the step team, with the Latino community in their cultural association.
It is good to discover other cultures, but it was at the expense of my own identity. I was ashamed of my Chinese-American identity, trying to deny my own culture, and desperate to hear that I was enough. I was weighed down by the load of trying to carry an identity I didn’t understand. I was running from my own skin, my own self, and ultimately, I was running from the One who made me.
I heard the voice of my Creator through a bumper sticker in the Dominican Republic: “Soy especial, Dios no hace basura.” I am special, God doesn’t make garbage.
Something broke inside me when I saw that bumper sticker. I heard the voice of God say, “Kata, you are enough.”
I heard, “The ignorance and inhospitality of white Americans and even your own race have bent you in shame. That was never my intention; I want to heal you so you can stand tall.” I heard God say that his creation of me as a Chinese-American woman was not a mistake, but profoundly purposeful.
There was beauty to be discovered, brokenness to be exposed and healed, and joy and redemption to come if I would just stop running and heed his call. A call to stop cowering under the weight of my own confusion and shame, receive his words of life, and stand tall. A call to intimacy with the Father and a call to a greater understanding of how he made me; a call to see what it looks like to worship him in the fullness of who I am and invite others to do the same.
From that catalytic bumper sticker moment, I have been on this wonder-filled journey with Jesus where I’m still figuring out what it means to be a third-generation Chinese-American. The journey is long but marked with freedom and curiosity, not avoidance and shame. It has been an exhilarating ride of discovering depths of the Father’s heart in ways I never would have known if I had kept running.
If we deny, dismiss, or push aside our ethnicity and race, we are robbed of opportunities to experience deep healing, to enter into the stories of those who are different from us, and we mistakenly assume that our way is the right way and everything else is weird, which hurts our neighbors and our witness.
The Father declares that he has created us purposely, and well. He invites us to explore our ethnic identity with him. Whether we come from a majority or minority culture, we have an ethnicity worth discovering. May we have courage to trust our Creator and be open to his beckoning. Surely it will bring light and life to us and our communities in ways we might never have expected.
I am Kaitlin Sara Ho Givens, also known as “Kata.” I am a Chinese-American campus minister focusing in planting new movements, empowering leaders, and raising up purposefully multiethnic, reconciling communities that reflect the heart of God. I am pursuing a Masters of Divinity at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary. I hold a Bachelor’s degree in English from Boston University. I speak Spanish and French and Minion proficiently, with Greek and Hebrew up next.
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