We have featured Vivian Mabuni here before sharing her plight with breast cancer. I am honored she has again agreed to share her story with us. Hear the voice of this Asian American.
I was blown away when I heard you speak at the Synergy Women’s Conference in 2010. You spoke about the challenges of being a strong Asian, Christian, woman and some of the culture and religious issues that arise with that. Can you please explain this phenomenon to our readers?
I walk each day as an Asian-American Christian woman drifting between four separate worlds (Asian. American. Christian. Woman.). These worlds often have opposing values that affect my mindset and how I respond and make decisions.
I grew up in Boulder, CO one of a handful of Asian-Americans in a graduating class of 650. My dad was a producer and director for the Colorado Shakespeare Festival. When I was nine years old, he directed Romeo and Juliet and I would accompany him to the rehearsals. He mentioned in passing I would never play the lead role of Juliet because I was Chinese. His words confirmed what I already knew as a young girl: because of how I looked, I would be treated differently and there was nothing I could do to change their preconceived ideas about me. I wanted more than anything to fit in. I’d scan the shelves at the toy stores-no Asian Barbies or Disney Princesses, look through pictures in magazines, in textbooks, on TV or in the movies and no one looked like me.
We spoke Chinese at home, my Grandma lived with us and she would fix strange lunches for me. My friends would have ding-dongs and I would have a Chinese shredded ground pork sandwich. We were culturally Buddhist so during certain times of the year we would invite the spirits of dead grandparents I had never met into our home, burn incense, fix elaborate meals for them and bow to them in reverence. My non-Asian friends could not relate to this part of my world. Looking back, there were times I felt embarrassed about being Asian.
The greatest compliment growing up from my friends was, “I don’t even think of you as Asian, you’re just Viv.” That comment meant I was fitting in, but I realize now a big part of me, the Asian part of me, was not acknowledged in their comment.
The Asian-American world is made up of two worlds: eastern and western. Generally the eastern world is group oriented, concerned for keeping face, hierarchy, and has a high view of authority. In the eastern world, what we do reflects on to others. Kim Yu-na, the gold medal skater in the winter Olympics wrote in an essay about the pressures she faces, “If my performance fails, the whole nation may turn their back on me.”
The western world, on the other hand, values individuality, personal achievement, independence and self-actualization.
The Western phrase that sums it all up is the old Army slogan: “be all that you can be.” The Eastern phrase would be: “be all that your family has sacrificed for you to be.”
If you take a peach and cross it with a plum, you get a nectarine. This is what an Asian-American is like. A nectarine is a unique fruit. It is neither peach nor plum but pulls traits from both. I live in tension between the eastern and western worlds, drawing traits from both.
My parents were both born in China, their families fled China during the Japanese invasion, rebuilt their lives in Taiwan, graduated from the top universities and immigrated to the United States via the education route. They met while pursuing their Master’s Degrees, got married and went on to pursue their PhD’s. My mom was just shy of receiving her PhD when she gave birth to me.
While my dad had told me there were certain things I couldn’t do, like play Juliet, both my parents were considered “open-minded.” They encouraged me, especially my mom, to go after anything I wanted. I set my aspirations high and had goals as a young girl to be the first woman on the moon or else the first Asian-American woman President of the United States. I found myself in various leadership positions in clubs and student government. At the age of 12, I labeled myself a feminist. As a panel discussion leader, I had my girlfriends run into the classroom waving their mother’s bras screaming, “Burn your bras, equal rights for women!!” Women, in my mind, were capable, strong leaders and men had better beware because we were on our way to taking over. I believed in my heart and tried to live out in my life the song “Anything you can do, I can do better” when relating with men. My posture and view was one of competition with men and pride. Underlying all of this was a subconscious drive to prove I was even more valuable and could produce more than a man because my Asian culture emphasized the value of boys over girls. The valuing of boys over girls is still true today. Female infanticide (killing of an infant) still takes place around the globe. Confucius teaching stress the three obediences for a woman: when a girl, obey your father; when a wife, obey your husband; when a widow, obey your son.
During high school, God graciously and radically transformed my life and I stepped from darkness into the Kingdom of His Beloved Son. In college, with the influence of certain Christian authors, I swung from my strong feminist beliefs clear to the opposite side.
After graduating and entering my first years as Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ) staff I found myself sharing with the men on my staff team that I had a “conviction” about women not initiating and therefore would never call them on the phone and would only return calls–even ministry related business calls. My thoughts at that point centered on the idea of needing to turn down and even turn off at times my gifts of leadership in order to not threaten any potential male from taking their rightful place of leading.
I gravitated towards and found security in a high structure and rules oriented Christianity. I developed a mentality that Christianity could only be expressed in a certain cookie cutter way and if other’s did not fit my black and white viewpoint they were wrong. This time my posture was one of inferiority as a woman and conforming to a certain Christian culture which also fit my Asian cultural grid of the value of men over women. And honestly, as I looked around, just like I couldn’t find Asian Barbie’s, I couldn’t find Asian-American Christian women in leadership to model after. I scanned the book shelves in Christian book stores and looked through conference brochures, but didn’t find anyone who looked like me. Underlying this was a desire to fit in and be defined not by who I was, but by high structure which provided for me a false sense of security.
Natasha: For now, I want to close this post by sharing Nikki Toyama’s interview entitled, “Female Asian-Americans: Finding a Voice.” Nikki explores the tensions Vivian addresses in her story.
I’ve taken the liberty of sharing several videos throughout this series because I don’t want people to read words through a technical medium and not personalize the message. I want us to have names, faces, new images to replace stereotypes and humanize the people who are different than us. I want us to see these people as sons and daughters who have parents, and other healthy relationships. They are beautiful, smart, and intelligent. They want opportunities to strive and desire the same for their children. They hurt when people view them in the wrong way, tell lies about them, and make them feel less than human. They are “us” because these are all things humans have in common.
We will continue Vivian’s story and interview questions on tomorrow.
© Vivian Mabuni and Natasha Sistrunk Robinson 2012