by Dr. Michelle Reyes
Sophia is the Greek word for Wisdom, and Propel Sophia seeks out the voices of truly wise women and asks them to share worked examples of how they express faith in daily life. Pull up a chair at Sophia’s table, won’t you? There’s plenty of space.
I’ll never forget the day I first said the phrase, “in my culture…”
It was a casual conversation between friends and, in between pouring drinks and settling into comfy lounge chairs at a park, the words seamlessly slid out of my mouth. We were talking about family get-togethers, and in particular how we interact with our parents, and all of a sudden I became very self-aware that my views on community and elders were very different from my friends. Not in a bad way, per say; just different. As we took turns swapping stories and laughing till our bellies ached, I enjoyed seeing deeper glimpses into my friend’s lives and their familial dynamics. At the same time, I felt a sense of excitement to share with them how my family did things differently.
My comments were brief. I didn’t overbear them with a long speech. But I did share that in my Indian culture, we place a high premium on honoring elders and publicly disagreeing with someone older than you is just not done. Even as a young child, I was very aware of how this ethos distinguished me from many of my classmates, who openly challenged their parents, or even now as an adult with friends who aren’t as forthcoming about their lives with their family as I am. Again, not right or wrong. Just different.
The moment I shared this story, I felt an immediate relief as well as an energy that I hadn’t felt before. Most of my life I had felt like my ethnicity and culture was a curse; that, in some way, made me odd and uncool. I intentionally tried my hardest during my teens to not mention my cultural identity for fear of being made fun of. But I’d finally come to a place where I was learning to believe that God made me as Indian American for a beautiful purpose. I was starting to understand that being fully seen means embracing my Indian heritage, not hiding it. Proudly embodying and expressing how I see the world and live my life as an Indian American was helping me feel fully alive.
Since that day in the park, I’ve made intentional choices for my cultural identity to be seen, verbalized, and celebrated. I’m not just talking about wearing Indian clothes, eating Indian food, or celebrating traditional Indian holidays. Rather, to embrace and express my God-given cultural identity means understanding the story he’s uniquely given me and being proud to share my story with those around me.
I recognize that the word “culture” is heavy with meaning and emotions today. When I talk about culture, I’m simply referring to the narratives born of our ethnic identities. Each of us has our own unique cultural narrative: a composite of the complex stories we pick and choose from our communities—including families and friends—that help us determine what it means to live a good life and to be a good person. These stories tell us what is normal and right, what is human and what is not. At my core, I’ve collected, organized, and created a unique story that guides my interests and choices. My story is similar to other Indian Americans, but it is also uniquely my own. I am like all other Indians, like some other Indians, and like no other Indian. This is true for everyone. We all have a cultural narrative that is both similar and distinct from our ethnic community.
In the Bible we see that God values distinctiveness more than he values uniformity. In Genesis 10, for example, we read about the “Table of Nations,” which maps out the descendants of Noah from the line of Seth. Here we see how God’s image bearers spread into the world and develop distinct cultural identities. Going throughout the world and developing unique ethnicities and stories is a fundamental aspect of what it means to be human. Having a culture and a story is intrinsically woven into what it means to be made in the image of God. Even Jesus had a complex, multicultural heritage according to the Gospel of Matthew that fueled his cross-cultural ministry.
So why don’t we embrace our cultural identities more? Honestly, sometimes we just don’t know where to start. A woman once told me that her Dutch parents refused to share any of their family story with her as an intentional way to disconnect from their ancestral past. Another woman I know with Swedish heritage says that her grandparents just never wanted to talk about their homeland or traditions. Many of my dear friends are transracial adoptees who have never met their birth parents. I have also spoken to several Black women who struggle with how to develop a cultural identity because of the history of slavery and the way their ancestors were violently uprooted from their African homes.
At first, I wasn’t sure how to start embracing my cultural identity, either. There is real pain and struggle for many of us when we come to the issue of cultural identity. Honestly, I’m still on a journey and will most likely continue to be throughout my life. But I’ve committed to reflecting and exploring my story and who God has made me to be. I believe that it’s only by embodying who God has made me—including my cultural identity—that I will fully and authentically be me. So, I’m going to keep learning and celebrating my cultural story. By God’s grace I will live it out to the fullest. This is how I’m learning to become fully alive.
Dr. Michelle Ami Reyes is the Vice President of the Asian American Christian Collaborative and the Co-Executive Director of Pax. She is also the Scholar in Residence at Hope Community Church. Order Michelle’s new book, Becoming All Things: How Small Changes Lead to Lasting Connections Across Cultures, which releases April 27. Follow Michelle on Twitter and Instagram.