(I am a 2nd generation Chinese-American who grew up in a family that embraced traditional East Asian values. This post is written from that perspective, and so my use of “Asian Americans” mostly refers to people who share a similar background. It is not meant to encompass every kind of Asian American. That said, I still think all Asian Americans would benefit from doing Mission Year!)
I’ve been an Asian American all my life (joke), but I came across Mission Year when I was 25 years old. I was experiencing a quarter-life crisis, decided to quit my job in Detroit, and moved to Chicago to participate in the Year One program. Being in Mission Year (as a team member then, and staff member now) has changed and developed the many identities I hold. But its impact on me as an Asian American has been unique. It’s not one that I share with many alumni, and I long for that to be different! So here goes… 5 ways that Mission Year has impacted me and consequent reasons why I think more Asian Americans should do Mission Year!
Mission Year has…
1. Deepened my love for my ethnic identity.
When I started the Year One program, I was nervous about being removed from my Asian American community. I had plenty of experience being an ethnic minority in multiple settings, but I had never been a minority in every single setting. I came in ready to assimilate, but I experienced the exact opposite. Mission Year wanted me to just “be” myself, to hold onto my uniqueness even when it was easier not to. Being myself —especially in my difference— was sometimes hard, often awkward, and always vulnerable. But sharing my heritage that year was special. In naming for others what I deeply cherished for myself, I found myself embracing my Chinese American identity more fully. I fell in love, if you will, with my heritage of rich hospitality, sacrificial service, togetherness, sharing, and cooperation. And for someone who has experienced much of her life having mixed feelings about being Chinese—this experience was a real gift to me.
2. Developed my racial awareness and identity.
When I was little, I told my parents I was (White) American because I liked hamburgers over Chinese food. I looked in the mirror and believed/dreamed that I was White. On one occasion, my substitute teacher even edited my personal essay saying that I shouldn’t refer to myself as “Asian American,” because the word “American” was enough. He said that America was a melting pot, so that meant the word “American” encompassed every racial group. I did not require any distinction.
Those childhood experiences were confusing, but no one processed them with me. I felt different, looked different, and wasn’t always sure what to do with that. I’m not disappointed at any of the adults in my life for not talking to me about race and racial identity development. I mean, the vast majority of Americans don’t know how to talk about those things!
So when Mission Year came along and gave me a space to process my racial experiences, I felt empowered in ways I had never felt before. I also felt challenged, because I was becoming more aware of the daily realities Brown and Black people face. Mission Year gave me new tools to understand race/racism. It also taught me how to have a racial conversation and to have it really well. I’m thankful for the ways I feel more prepared to pursue racial justice and reconciliation, especially in an era where our country’s racial diversity is growing and our racial tensions are becoming more prominent.
3. Deepened my followership of Jesus
It’s hard to go in the opposite direction of what your parents want for you. Especially when their dreams are attached to years of sacrifice. I mean, they left their home country “for a better life”— for me, for us, and for the generations to come. It’s really hard to go against that.
Doing Mission Year is countercultural for anyone, but doing the program as an Asian American felt super countercultural. I had made a number of similar decisions in my life prior to that year, but saying, “Yes” to God that year was only familiar, not easier. It’s been 6 years since the start of my Mission Year journey, and I can say that God has worked in amazing ways I never expected- in myself, in my parents, and in our relationship. Saying, “Yes” to Jesus is painful, tearful, risky, beautiful, and rewarding. I’m thankful I’ve been able to experience all these things over time.
4. Reminded me how to receive grace.
Being a part of a multicultural community has a way of highlighting both the gifts and harmful aspects we bring to community life. One of the harmful things I’ve wrestled with over and over in my life is my obsession with excellence. So many Asian Americans I know struggle with receiving grace; it’s a common narrative. So being a part of Mission Year and being surrounded by folks who didn’t struggle (to the same extent) created a new norm for me. I had people reminding me to be kind and gentle with myself; to relax and enjoy the moment; and to practice self-care and rest. I am certain that my feelings of wholeness today have a lot to do with the practices and perspectives I’ve intentionally grown in since that year.
5. Shown me what it means to advocate for others.
My parents helped me develop a lot of skills, but advocating was not one of them. In Japan there is a saying, “The nail that sticks up will be hammered down.” But in America the saying goes, “The squeaky wheel gets the oil.” I’m constantly living in tension between those two worlds, learning when to hold onto both and when to choose one over the other… but I thank Mission Year for teaching me the value of advocating—for speaking up for myself and for others. One of the names for the Holy Spirit is “Advocate” and I’m learning how to imitate the Spirit’s example in the way I care for individuals and communities at large.
I know that not everyone is able or called to make the decision to commit a year of service to our inner-city neighborhoods. And so my deepest longing is not that more people just do Mission Year; my longing is that more Asian Americans participate in the larger movement of what God is doing in our nation. I recently saw a picture of people gathered together at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston shortly after the shooting- and it was moving. I saw White and Black believers, standing hand in hand in prayer and worship. I saw ordinary people, people of high rank, etc. gathered together in solidarity over the mourning of lost lives. But when I scanned the scene to spot an Asian face, I couldn’t. Where are all the Asians? It’s a question that burns within me. It causes me frustration and longing. It’s a question filled with discouragement and hope.
Asian Americans are under-represented in a lot of spheres, but my heart-prayer is that more and more of us will respond to God’s call to join Him in the places He is mourning, redeeming, and restoring. Mission Year was an on-ramp for me, and my hope is that it will be for many others to come!
Ruth Nakai is a 2009-10 Mission Year Chicago, Englewood alumni and currently serves on staff as Chicago’s City Director. Originally from Beavercreek, OH, she attended the University of Michigan. She enjoys eating a full plate of appetizers and watching her son hit new milestones.