Many of you, by now, have watched the Crazy Rich Asians movie and witnessed the brilliantly composed and executed Mahjong scene where Rachel confronts Eleanor over her relationship with Nick. If you haven’t read the full explanation of that scene, please do so here.
This scene is especially crucial because it is the culmination of a conflict brewing throughout the movie. Eleanor does not accept Rachel – not just because she is poor, but because she is American and not ‘kaki lang’ – one of us. Throughout the movie, Eleanor brings up Rachel’s ‘American-ness’: her career, her passion, her individuality. This is contrasted with Eleanor’s sacrifice for her husband and family in line with Asian tradition. What is especially notable is that her perspective is not stereotyped. Rather than go for the typical Asian ‘tiger mom’ villain stereotype, Eleanor’s actions are believable and even admirable. It all comes to a head when Eleanor has dug up dirt on Rachel’s family and exposed her in front of Nick’s Ah Ma. Confused and deeply hurt, she runs away with Nick desperately running after her.
This mirrors the dilemma facing Asian Australian churches today. We have two competing cultures: the 1st generation Asian culture, and the 2nd generation ‘ABC’/Western culture. Due to cultural factors, 2nd generation pastors have found it especially difficult to submit to the leadership of the 1st generation. 1st generation leaders tasked with caring for their flock, find it difficult to understand the 2nd generation. It is hard to accept each other. To avoid conflict, often we operate in silos, basically function as separate churches; save for the occasional combined service, sports social or special dinner.
Out of our deep hurts, we can stereotype each other into the villain. The 1st generation is ‘so Asian’, traditional and patriarchal. The 2nd generation are inconsiderate, selfish and have passion but no substance.
In the movie, which culture ‘won’ in the end? A fitting end to a Hollywood ‘Western’ movie, would be if Rachel accepted Nick’s proposal at the steps and both continued their lives back in New York, away from Singapore and Nick’s family. But what would they lose in doing so? When the Young family were making dumplings together, Rachel wistfully wishes she had similar precious family moments. Eleanor responds by saying such family bonds require sacrifice. By running away to get married, they would leave behind these values and resources to get through difficulty together.
But what surprised me about Rachel is that she sacrificed herself: her Western ideal of being with the one you love, by allowing Eleanor, representing Asian tradition and family, win. What blew me away even more is that Eleanor ultimately sacrifices her Asian ideals so that Rachel wins. Ultimately their love for Nick trumped their cultural preference. They gave each other the win through mutual sacrifice.
Tran in Why Asian American Christianity has no Future[i], describes the Silent Exodus where our Asian American brothers and sisters have overwhelmingly left the ethnic church and formed their own pan-Asian and multi-ethnic churches. This is not to suggest for a moment that they have been unfaithful, and the same time, Tran asks, what has been lost? We struggle to find mentors, role models, we have no history to draw from, only seminary textbooks and histories of other cultures which cannot fully understand the distinctives of our context. Have you had the opportunity to learn the history of what God has done in your family and your church?
In the Old Testament, Israel were exhorted repeatedly to ‘remember’ God’s faithfulness and His works. Israel drew on God’s record in their own community’s history to survive and thrive in the present and future.
I discovered what I lost when I had a child. Without the consistent support of my parents or in-laws, I felt scared and ill-equipped. I had no resources to draw from to look after a new baby. What God showed me was love demonstrated through the 1st generation aunties. They used their professional skills in occupational and speech therapy, prepared nutritious meals and soups; some became my stand-in parents, comforting me in my struggles and admitting their advice is too old-school for me.
Conversely, I was able to serve them by helping them in their struggle to love and understand their Gen Z and Millennial offspring. Till now, I value the advice my parents Whatsapp me when my daughter is sick with the family remedies that worked for me – advice I just can’t find on Google.
Of course, it is not easy. Having our parents and in-laws around can be very frustrating. Increased contact brings increased potential conflict. But through these times we are building resources in faithfulness.
Our success is interconnected. The gospel ‘wins’ through mutual sacrifice. In Australia, we are seeing many non-believing new Chinese families. They are multi-generational – from grandparents, parents, students to kids now attending school. In order to reach them holistically, we need churches that cater to families for the 1st, 2nd and 3rd generation. We can only reach them if we work meaningfully together and acknowledge we need each other: we need each other’s cultures, languages and potentially, each other’s theology.
There is even more at stake when we consider the global church. Bi-cultural Christians are often touted as being able to connect the Western church with the Global South. The church in China is growing quickly – they have their own practices and theology, even if it is less articulated compared with Western Christianity. If the 2nd generation is unable to engage with their own [Chinese] culture beyond the ‘tourist treatment’: consuming the food and aesthetics without meaningful engagement with the people, we have no hope of reaching the new Chinese amongst us and further, the churches in the West and the Global South will be disconnected.
Can we see conflict as an opportunity? An opportunity for faithfulness? To demonstrate that we are Jesus’s disciples because we love one another? A lofty ideal, but what stands in the way?
At this point maybe you feel defensive. Maybe you feel that the hurt is too deep. Maybe you have been the victim of abusive and bullying behaviour within the church. How can we possibly work with and reach people with whom we so profoundly differ?
There is hope in the gospel. I hope to unpack this in the coming months.
EDIT: Thanks for this response all. I’m in the process of developing training material to tackle this issue in our churches. If you are interested in this training, fill out this form.
[i] Jonathan Tran, “Keynote Presentation #1 Why Asian American Christianity Has No Future: The Over against, Leaving Behind, and Separation From of Asian American Christian Identity,” ed. Russell Yee and Young Lee Hertig, Society of Asian North American Christian Studies, 2010.