I am thankful for Chinese American, Marlene Molewyk, who has agreed to share her story, along with some of the technical and historical background concerning Asian Americans and racial reconciliation.
Are you a first generation American?
There’s actually some debate over whether “first generation” refers to the generation who immigrated here and became U.S. citizens, or to their American-born children. I personally prefer the first definition. My parents immigrated here from China and eventually became U.S. citizens, so technically, they’re really the first generation of Americans in my family. And that would make me second generation American.
What is the native language of your family?
My parents both spoke Chinese. My father spoke one dialect and my mother spoke two dialects. They were frequently treated rudely in this country because of their Chinese accents, so they deliberately chose to teach us English as our first language. They felt we would be more accepted in this culture if we spoke English well, and they were correct. Even in recent years, I’ve witnessed store clerks rolling their eyes at my parents and treating them very rudely. In such situations, my parents would often ask me to speak on their behalf. When I stepped up and took over the situation, those very same clerks immediately lost a huge level of their disrespectful attitude, and they provided far superior customer service than they had offered my parents. This always made me feel very sad for my parents, and as a result, I make a point to treat immigrants kindly, especially those with thick accents.
My mom did hope to teach us Chinese as a second language, but she never got around to it. I speak a little Chinese, and can communicate anything a parent would yell at a child: Go to sleep! Come to eat! Brush your teeth! Be quiet! etc. I’ve also been learning a little bit of conversational Chinese over the years, but it has been very slow going.
Can you please share a little about your family history?
My parents were born and raised in China. My father’s hometown was Wuhan, a bustling metropolis that sits on the banks of the Yangtze River, while my mother’s hometown was southern coastal Guangzhou. Both were from well-to-do families who lost most of their possessions during three successive wars: the Sino-Japanese War, World War II, and the Communist Revolution.
The Japanese invaded China when my mom was five years old, and her hometown fell to their army a year later. Shortly thereafter, my grandparents decided to flee the city. They hid their valuables in the bottom of a battered wooden pushcart, piled a bunch of old blankets on top, and told my mom and her siblings to sit on the blankets. Then, disguised as poor peasants, they snuck the pushcart past Japanese soldiers, escaped the city, and spent the next several years on the run, fleeing ahead of the advancing Japanese army. My dad’s hometown was also captured by the Japanese, but his family chose to stay put. Several years later, his family’s home and business—a pharmacy—were both blown to pieces during a World War II air raid against Japanese troops in his hometown.
My parents fled China as the Communist army was taking over the country, and they came to the U.S. on college scholarships during the early 1950s. This was an era when U.S. immigration laws openly favored immigrants from Europe, but drastically restricted immigrants from China. In fact, only two out of every 1.1 million people from China were allowed to immigrate to the U.S. during the 1950s, so my parents defied staggering odds to get here! The table below illustrates the result of U.S. immigration laws, during the decade my parents arrived in this country. As you look through these numbers, think about the relative size of each country, compared to China:
Number and origin of immigrants to the United States, 1951-1960:
Germany: 477,765 United Kingdom: 202,824
Italy: 185,491 Netherlands: 52,277
Ireland: 48,362 Greece: 47,608
Norway: 22,935 Sweden: 21,697
Portugal: 19,588 Belgium: 18,575
Switzerland: 17,675 China: 9,657
(Source: 2000 Statistical Yearbook of the Immigration and Naturalization Service)
These immigration statistics, as well as similar statistics from many previous decades, significantly skewed the ethnic composition of this country toward white people of European descent. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the overall population of this country in 1960 was 89 percent white and only 0.5 percent Asian/Pacific Islander. As a result, my parents were often viewed as ethnic novelties. For example, when my mom was in college, the organizers of a large flower show hired her to stroll around in a beautiful Chinese dress, pretending to be a random show attendee who came to look at flowers. The reason they hired her: to make the show look more exotic.
My parents eventually married and had five kids, and I’m the fourth of the five. We were all born and raised in the suburbs of Detroit. The specific city I grew up in was 99 percent white, and throughout my childhood, I experienced a significant level of racism. For example, my family was racially profiled every time we drove to Windsor, Canada, which is located just across the Detroit River. In addition, random strangers would regularly shout racial slurs at my family from passing cars.
Of course, not every stranger, adult, and kid I met engaged in discriminatory or hateful behavior, but plenty of them did—enough to significantly damage my self-perception. There was really no way I could avoid the ugly fact that many people thought my family and I were racially inferior, and deep down inside, I began to believe these people were correct. This was a very painful train of thought to entertain, so I eventually chose to avoid thinking too hard about race altogether. Instead, I focused on assimilating into white American culture, which I did fairly well.
In the midst of this confusion, God placed an amazing group of older white women into my life. These ladies attend my home church, and they exude God’s love to such a degree, I feel hugged when they simply smile at me! When I first walked through the doors of our church in 1999, I was an insecure young mother filled with fear and self hate, and I hid my true self behind the prison walls of a carefully crafted facade But these wonderful women saw right through my facade and they recognized that a very wounded heart was hidden behind it, crying out in emotional pain. They eventually convinced me to dismantle the facade and then they lovingly tended and bound up my broken heart, taught me about my identity in Christ, and gave me opportunities to start speaking and writing. Through their selfless ministry, my heart began to emotionally heal in many areas. However, the wounds related to my ethnicity remained unexamined.
How did you examine your race related wounds?
A few years ago, God began prodding me to start looking at those race-related wounds, but I just wasn’t interested in going through the process, because I believed the entire racial conversation was irrelevant to today’s culture. So I deliberately ignored God, until he gave me a few wake up calls and essentially told me, “Race is relevant to your life today! It affected you in the past, and your past still affects you today, more than you realize. You need to examine your heart more deeply!”
I’ve since realized that I assimilated into this culture by despising and stifling my ethnicity, which is a very important part of who God created me to be. So right now, I’m in the process of discovering what it looks like to truly embrace my ethnicity—to be who God created me to be, from a racial standpoint. Specifically, I’m working through a great deal of bitterness, anger, and unforgiveness. I’m also thinking through the different ways Asian stereotypes affect me, as well as how I hypocritically stereotype people of other races.
Deep down inside, I sense that there will be many race-related patterns of thought and behavior that God will need me to identify, examine, and address, and I imagine that doing this will probably involve a great deal of emotional pain. But like childbirth, I know it is pain with a purpose. And most importantly, I know I can trust God as he leads me through this process.
I will feature the second half of Marlene’s interview on Wednesday.
Marlene Molewyk is the daughter of Chinese immigrants. With her four siblings, she was born and raised in the suburbs of Detroit. She is married to John, and they have five children, including a daughter they adopted from China. Marlene’s professional career included work as a broadcast journalist, a production assistant at The Oprah Winfrey Show, and a corporate public relations manager. Currently, she homeschools all five of their children. She writes and speaks about identity issues, parenting, raising autistic and adopted children, and finding God amid the messy realities of my highly imperfect life! Connect with Marlene via Twitter: @MarleneMolewyk; Public Facebook Page: Marlene Molewyk, Writer; and her website: marlenemolewyk.blogspot.com.
© Marlene Molewyk and Natasha Sistrunk Robinson 2012