The Table Podcast

Ministering in Asian American Cultures

Drs. Darrell L. Bock and Ben Shin discuss ministering in an Asian American context, focusing on four common values shared by Asian cultures.

Timecodes
00:15
Dr. Shin’s ministry background
07:33
Dr. Shin’s experiences as an Asian American in Anglo American and Korean American churches
16:35
Relationship are a shared value in Asian American cultures
21:53
Honor is a shared value in Asian American cultures
24:31
Collectivism is a shared value in Asian American cultures
28:57
Hierarchy is a shared value in Asian American cultures
30:36
Asian cultural taboos that Anglo Americans must recognize
34:46
Cultural differences among Asian students
40:48
How Asian American immigration has impacted popular American culture
42:40
Generational tensions among Asian Americans
Resources Ben Shin, Tapestry of Grace: Untangling the Cultural Complexities of Asian American Life in Ministry David deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship, and Purity
Transcript
Darrell Bock
Welcome to The Table. We discuss issues of God and culture. I’m Darrell Bock, executive director for cultural engagement at the Hendricks Center at Dallas Theological Seminary, and my guest is Ben Shin, who teaches at Talbot Seminary. And he’s got a load of titles, so I’m just gonna let him work through all the stuff that he does there in a minute. But Ben, we’re really glad to have you with us today.
Benjamin Shin
Good to be with you Darrell, thanks brother.
Darrell Bock
Yeah, and our topic is part of the series we’re doing on the church, where we look at different ethnic background people who fill our church. We’ve done a series on African Americans, we’ve done on Hispanics, we have a series planned with other groups, and today the topic is Asian Americans. And Ben has been in ministry both at Talbot and on college campuses, ministering for, what three decades or more? How long have you been doing this?
Benjamin Shin
Yeah, about 30 years, that’s correct.
Darrell Bock
Okay, and the campuses that you work on are which campuses?
Benjamin Shin
I’ve done UCLA, UC San Diego, and UC Irvine.
Darrell Bock
Okay, and your roles at Talbot are?
Benjamin Shin
I’m associate professor of bible exposition, New Testament. And I’m also the director of the Asian American Doctor in Ministry program, as well as the leadership doctor of ministry cohort.
Darrell Bock
Okay, well that already tires me out just listening to all that.

And let’s talk about how you’ve served the faculty at Talbot recently, and you’ve also done some writing in this area. So let’s summarize what that’s all about.

Benjamin Shin
Yes. Well, I am Asian American. I’m Korean American, but I was born in the states. So I always tell people I’ve learned to be Asian American over the last 25 years. My role at Talbot, I think, is really to minister to Asian American students, and also to help our faculty to understand Asian American students better. So I recently did a seminar for our entire faculty, helping them understand some of the nuances and differences of Asian American students in the classroom. And a lot of this came out of my book that came out in September, which is entitled Tapestry of Grace: Untangling the Cultural Complexities of Asian American Life in Ministry. It comes out in Wipf and Stock, and it’s basically a collection of my experiences of this lesson of learning to be Asian American over the last 25 years.
Darrell Bock
Okay, now let’s just talk about that for a second. Learning to be Asian American, ‘cause I’m assuming that most people would go, “Well, you’ve been Asian American since you’ve been born, so what in the world does that mean?”
Benjamin Shin
Yeah, so that’s a great question. I was born in Pasadena in the ‘60s, and at that time it was pretty Caucasian, it was all white. So my identity was, and I thought I was white. I grew up eating hot dogs and tacos, I went to a white church, white school, all of that, and I don’t speak a lick of Korean even to this day. So when my parents tried to acculturate me, it didn’t work. And so I pretty much thought I was white, all the way until I went to college at UCLA. Which I think I’ve shared with you Darrell, UCLA is an acronym for University of Caucasians Lost among Asians.
Darrell Bock
[Laughs] That’s great. Except on a basketball court, right?
Benjamin Shin
Absolutely. [Laughs]
Darrell Bock
Interesting. So in other words, you had one identity that you had developed. And interestingly, you are actually also revealing another element that’s a part of this conversation, which is how, if I can say it this way, a second generation person has this assimilation, dual assimilation issue between the culture of their parents and the culture that they’re being raised in.
Benjamin Shin
Absolutely. And this is an opportunity for me to explain one important distinction that I think would be necessary for this conversation. I refer to myself as an Asian American, which then correlates to what you just said. I’m second generation, which means I was born here in the states. But if you ask my father, he wouldn’t say he’s first generation. So he wouldn’t say he’s Asian American, he would just say he’s Asian. Or specifically, I’m Korean American, my father would say he’s Korean. So when you – depending on when they came to the states or if they were born in the states, it would be important to make the distinction between being an Asian or an Asian American.
Darrell Bock
Okay, and there’s another issue that’s hidden in here that we also have when we discuss – had this conversation on Hispanic side, which is, in saying Asian, you’re actually covering a whole variety of different countries. That you aren’t just dealing with one entity. So for example, when we were talking about with Hispanics, we were saying, well, you know, there are Puerto Ricans, there are Spaniards, there are Guatemalans, there are Venezuelans. So you’ve got that to mention in the equation, and one of the things that happens in this conversation is, we forget kind of the sub-sub-grouping that’s also in play when we have these conversations.
Benjamin Shin
Exactly. And so when you say Chinese, for example, there’s people from Taiwan, there’s people from Hong Kong, and so even though they might have a little difference in dialects, they will take offense if you suggest that they are one type of Chinese over another. So the best question to ask them is, what part of China are you from, and they’ll be quick to identify what region they associate with.
Darrell Bock
Okay, so all this is important. I mean, it shows the complexity of what we’re talking about and also introduces another important factor in the conversation, which is that there’s a little bit of a risk of our conversation being too generalized here in terms of lumping a whole group of people, distinct groups of people, together into one bucket, when in fact there is some differentiation to always keep in mind.
Benjamin Shin
Yeah, so in the beginning of my book, I had to put so many qualifications of that point. Saying, Asia is a huge continent, and –
Darrell Bock
That’s true, I’ve flown over it.
Benjamin Shin
There’s so many kinds of people there, and languages, and deep and rich history. So you want to be careful not to stereotype and say they’re all this way, or they’re all that way. But I think it would be safe to say there are some general things you could say would be true of most Asians, but not all Asians. And again, as long as you – I think Asians are honorific, so if they’re apologetic in the beginning, if you or I said, “Sorry, we don’t mean to generalize, but these are some general things that we’ve seen,” they’ll be good with that.
Darrell Bock
Okay. So let’s walk through your life a little more. So we got you to UCLA and you said all of a sudden you realized, I guess what you’re saying is you realized you weren’t white. So talk about what that was like.
Benjamin Shin
Oh boy. So the first day that I was at UCLA, I walked into this Christian Fraternity, Alpha Gamma Omega. And because I look very Asian, the guys who were there, they started bowing to me. And I’m like, “What are you doing?” I have no idea what they were doing. And then they were surprised that I was fluent in English. So they said, “You speak English,” and I said, “There’s nothing else that I can speak.” And so it was very interesting. And so my face, my body, I look very, very Asian. So my journey at UCLA, which was a five-year journey, was an emerging of becoming aware of my culture. Because for the first time, I met people who were Asian American and specifically Korean American, and even Koreanized. And so I started eating the foods, I started picking out a few words. I saw some of the cultural nuances, and I kind of liked it. I think I felt like, “Wow, this feels comfortable.”
Darrell Bock
And so this formation, identity formation, which I take it came alongside and adjusted where you were previously, obviously became something that stuck with you.
Benjamin Shin
Yeah, and it was during my college years that I first got involved with the Korean American Campus Ministry. And then from there, that led me to go to Korean American churches, which I had never gone to. So just to give you an idea, my first probably 20 years, I went to Lake Avenue Congregational in Pasadena, under Paul Cedar’s leadership. In college, I was in John MacArthur’s church, Grace Community, I was a pretty fundamentalist Christian. And then I get introduced to Korean church, and it’s very different. And that’s where my formation really took off.
Darrell Bock
Now let’s talk about this a little bit, because some people would go, “Well, is establishing and getting comfortable with his identity a good thing or bad thing? I mean, does it segregate the body, or is it inevitable as a part of a person’s identity?” How do you view that question?
Benjamin Shin
I view it as a realization of God’s design. Obviously when we look ahead to Revelation Five and Seven, there’s every tribe, nation, tongue, that will be worshipping the lamb. In the meantime, God has placed all of us, different ethnic makeup, to be gospel carriers. And so my call is to be Asian American. And I’ve been able to be in two cultures, so that’s been very advantageous for me as I look ahead to the future and think about even my kids, who will be more Caucasian or westernized than I have been.
Darrell Bock
Okay, so one of the tensions that you sometimes here is that the church at 11:00 is the most segregated hour in American culture. And yet I think sometimes it’s hard for people to understand that some of the reason why that exists is because people who operate as a minority in the culture, when they get to operate in their own world, in their own sphere, that actually is a positive experience for them to be able to be, if I can say it this way, among their own in some way. Is that a proper way to think about what’s going on here, sociologically?
Benjamin Shin
Yes. And that is a complex issue, Darrell, because homogeneous churches may not exactly be in Heaven, according to Revelation Five and Seven. But at the same time, this side of heaven, it becomes necessary for evangelism. Because usually same people will reach same people more likely, and they can experience God in their own spiritual and cultural expressions. And to be honest with you, in America, this is a big struggle because when you look at multicultural churches, usually the given language is English. And the celebration of each specific culture, even though there’s a diversity in the congregation, is oftentimes lost. And so from an Asian American sociological perspective, they would say, “White churches that try to be multicultural are either color-blind, or they try to whitewash everyone. And as a result, they defer to the majority culture.” And so the question is, in what way is that multicultural?
Darrell Bock
Right, exactly. And so, one of my responses to this is to say, as long as these communities have a connection to larger portions of the church that are multicultural so that there’s input, this is not necessarily such an unnatural move to make. In fact, you see it, you know, just see it in the Asian community with Korean churches or Chinese churches or whatever. You see it in virtually almost any community. African American community, it’s part of how they’ve survived as a culture, to have this dimension. With the Hispanic churches are the same way. It’s a simplified world in which it becomes easier to function for a while, and it’s almost like a vent and a relief.
Benjamin Shin
Oh, absolutely. And then there’s a whole language barrier. What about people who don’t speak English? How can they survive in those situations? They can’t.
Darrell Bock
Yes. So, okay, so that’s a huge background. So let’s turn our attention to some of the distinctives of – wait a minute, we aren’t done with your story yet. I just realized. So we got you in ministry, so you’ve ministered on a variety of campuses and you minister at Talbot. Talk a little bit about the background of your experience there.
Benjamin Shin
So I started in the white church, and I was there for 25 years. And then when I was getting out of college, I was invited as a worship leader to go to my first Korean church. Now, I have a rock and roll background, Darrell, and so I played with more beat than the Korean church was used to. And I brought in a 12 string, steel string, acoustic-electric guitar, and I was rocking out. And people thought I was the anathema. People were like praying for me as I was leaving.

It was crazy. And so I realized that Korean church at that time was not ready for what I was bringing in. I did not know any of the cultural cues, so I’m probably about 26 now, I’m in the Korean church, and I’m making every cultural blunder possible. I’m touching people, I’m not bowing, I’m looking them directly in the eye. So I was looked at as a punk. I was a punk. And so I made every cultural mistake and blunder possible. That’s one of the motivations for why I wrote the book, ‘cause I wanted to warn people who were like myself, saying, “Don’t do this.”

“This is every mistake that you could possibly do culturally.” And so as a result, I think I’ve accumulated quite a lot of advice and wisdom for that. And so then I was in a church, and then I became a youth pastor in a Korean church in 1989. And I stayed in that Korean church for 15 years, it was quite a learning lesson. It was a high curve. And I picked up some of the cues, culturally, and I’ve been ministering in a Korean church ever since. So, I’m 53 years old, first 25 years in a white church, and the last 27 years in the Korean church. So it’s been an experience.

Darrell Bock
And then you’ve also had alongside your ministry at Talbot these ministries college outreach that you’ve done on various campuses.
Benjamin Shin
Yes. So our ministry at UCLA, at Irvine, and San Diego, it started as Korean American Christian Fellowship. And then we dropped the K in 1998, ‘cause it was a stumbling block. ‘Cause we would be evangelizing on campus and they would look at our sweatshirts and say, “Do I have to be Korean to come to your group?” And we said, “No,” so we changed our name to CCM, which stood for Crossroads Campus Ministries. And then we became more pan-Asian, not just Korean. And then we have several non-Asians in the fellowships as well. So that was quite a learning experience also.
Darrell Bock
Okay, well that kind of overviews your background and how the journey that you’ve been on. And I also think it helps people to understand how a person can kind of have, and does have, oftentimes, a dual identity. An identity as a Christian at large, if you will, but also the particular ethnic connection that they have, and that those two things can work together in a way that is helpful for people.
Benjamin Shin
Oh, absolutely. That’s been my journey.
Darrell Bock
Okay, so let’s talk a little bit about Asian culture, with all the caveats and surgeon general warnings that we’ve put around it already, you know, that there can be ways to generalize that aren’t helpful at one level. So this is not true of everybody, but generally, you said there’s certain things that Asian culture shares across the spectrum. What are some of those things that you would point out?
Benjamin Shin
Okay, I’ll summarize it in four key words. Relationships, honor, collectivism, hierarchy.
Darrell Bock
Okay, and I would say that three of those might be foreign to some people. So I think everyone at least attempts to say, “Well we’re into relationships, we’re committed to that.” But even that might have a twist to it. Again, when we hit the interview with the Hispanic community, they said, “We’re into relationships, and by that we mean sometimes relationships trump time and schedule and accomplishments and that kind of thing.” So play that out for us. What do you mean by relationships?
Benjamin Shin
Okay, so the idea is we are not linear in terms of time. We are more event-oriented when it comes to going to something. So that means we’re not punctual. So we joke about Asian time as being something that’s not on the dot. So if something’s at 5:00, we might show up at 5:45. It’s all good. And as long as you’re there with the people, that’s what really matters. So you want to have opportunity to get to know them, and be with them.

I tell – and this is related to the collectivism idea too. Asian culture thinks not about me, but we think about we. It’s very similar actually to the culture of the New Testament, where it’s all group-oriented. So within that, when you have groups, there’s also a sense of honor where you honor the group and the older people and so forth, which is connected to hierarchy. But then also if you don’t follow the group, you also shame individuals and whole families, potentially. So they’re all linked together.

Darrell Bock
Okay, well you did link them together. I want to kind of go through them one at a time, which is a very Anglo thing to do, to break it up. But let’s – so the relational thing, the interesting thing, what you said about relationships is also what you hear from the Hispanic community. They have a very similar kind of relational emphasis in which the schedule is less important than the relationships. And so you’ve got Latin American time, sounds like Latin American time and Asian time are almost exchangeable.

Okay, let’s talk about honor. I think this is one that probably most people of an Anglo background probably understand less about than any of the other things you mentioned.

Benjamin Shin
Yeah, so I wrote a whole section on that related to shame, which is the downside of honor. I heavily rely on David deSilva’s work, Honor, Patronage, Kinship, and Purity, which I’m sure you’re familiar with. Because parallels between the first century and the 21st century are uncanny. And so when you honor a person, that is the most – that’s one of the highest virtues you can ever do for a person. You honor their name, you honor their family, their reputation. And to speak poorly of them or to look down on them, to shame them, would be – that’s like a cardinal sin.
Darrell Bock
Okay. And this is both honor, both individually and collectively, right? I mean, you honor the group as the individual.
Benjamin Shin
Yes, so individuals with people who are of status or rank. Like pastors, for example. It would be parents who are older, it would be grandparents. It’s usually the males, because it’s very patriarchal as well, in the culture. So again, those are the kinds of people that would be honored in that situation.
Darrell Bock
Now another element that I find at least in Asian circles when I travel in Asia is the role of the importance of family. Not just living family, but even ancestors in the background and that kind of thing. Which is a little bit, another unique feature. We’re running into a break, so I think we’ll get started with this, we may not finish it. But talk a little bit about the role of ancestors in the thinking of many Asians.
Benjamin Shin
Well I think it’s notable, on the upside, that we look to our lineage and we honor them. I think that’s a good thing. Again, there’s always a bad side, and that is sometimes in Asian culture, there’s ancestor worship. Which is a big issue in Asia, and Korea in particular. And so they have rituals, and sometimes it’s syncretistic. So Asian pastors, let’s say, in Korea sometimes are unwilling to speak out against ancestor worship, because again, it might shame people. So that shame dynamic comes into play, and it becomes sometimes a detriment rather than a help.
Darrell Bock
I raise the question of the issue of how do you challenge people in and honor and shame culture in which criticism, I would take it, is a hard thing to introduce? How does that work?
Benjamin Shin
Yes, you’re absolutely right. The reason why criticism, at least directly, would be frowned upon is because it shames the person. So here’s something that you can appreciate Darrell. You have to be a parabolic approach to the side. And so what you would do is you would either find other people who can have greater social credibility with the person you’re going to criticize, or you kind of let the word go down the line and get to the person. Now, I’m not saying this is right or wrong. I’m just saying, this is what I’ve observed in terms of how you would confront a person.

Now this flies against scripture in part, and there’s one particular passage I want to bring up, and that’s First Timothy Five One, where the NAS says, “Do not sharply rebuke an older man, but instead appeal to him as a father.” Now when I show Asian Americans or Asians that verse, they can’t believe that’s even in the scripture. Because it’s unheard of, because of hierarchy and honor, that you would even say something challenging to an older person. But I let them know, you have permission from the scripture to do this, but make sure you do it in the proper way. In an honorific way, to appeal to them as a respected father. So those are a couple of ways that I would probably advise a person. You can do it, but that’s kind of the cultural nuance way to do it.

Darrell Bock
Okay. And let’s talk about, let’s shift now and talk about collectivism, which is thinking about the group. Which, in a Western culture, particularly European Western culture, we’re so focused on the individual we tend not to think in group terms very much. And so, talk about the, really, almost the pervasive way in which this works. If you ever find yourself in an Asian culture – and this is also true so some degree, interestingly enough, in parts of Europe. You walk in and you drop in, and there’s this language of solidarity and the fact that we connect to one another, and the honor that we’re supposed to show to one another. That’s something that only happens rarely, or certainly happens more – is more rare in the United States. Talk a little bit about this collectivism.
Benjamin Shin
Okay, so let me begin by contrasting that. I think if we were to give a general baby description of Western culture, you would say it’s individualized, it’s specialized, it’s unique, it’s even privatized. It’s about me. Whereas the Eastern culture, it’s all about the group, the community, the family. It’s about we. So let me give you two examples of that. Many years ago, in the winter Olympics, there was a Japanese skater, and she got the silver medal. That’s a pretty high accolade. But when she was up there giving a speech, she said, “I have shamed my country.” So she saw herself collectively as part of a larger unity, or entity, not just, “Oh, I blew it.” She saw herself as part of Japan. So that’s a clear example of the collectivism.

Here’s the second example. At my last church, after church we would often go out to eat, and there was a food court, Korean American food court, Korean food court, around our church. So we would go there, and it’s a huge, open mall area with several different eateries, and it’s big. You can sit all around this area. I didn’t understand this until I connected it to collectivism. What would happen is, we’d go with 30 people out to eat, and they would bring all the chairs and tables together in one area. It was a fire hazard. But the reason why is because of collectivism. And whenever someone said, “Oh, I’m gonna go eat over here,” they would grab that person and bring them, say, “No, you have to join us.” And so that’s an example of the collectivist. It’s ingrained, it’s deeply impressed in their soul. And that’s how they function almost all the time.

Darrell Bock
You know, your food example makes me think of, I just was in Hong Kong, and having a meal, and one of the things that I love about a Chinese meal is that the table is in a circle, and there’s this serving area in the middle of the table, and what people do is they don’t order their food individually. They even order it corporately. They get a variety of things, and then you spin this thing around, and everyone takes a little bit out of it. It seems to me it’s a perfect illustration of what we’re talking about.
Benjamin Shin
Yes, yes.
Darrell Bock
And so that actually impacts thinking. Because I not only think about what happens to me and how that impacts me, but I’m constantly aware of how what I do impacts the people I’m connected to.
Benjamin Shin
So one of the things that we saw at the college campuses, okay, the – going to the pizza place was always good, because you wouldn’t order an individual pizza. You’d order one large pizza, and everyone grabbed their pieces. Again, that’s just collectivism in action.
Darrell Bock
Yes, exactly. And actually, it is a very biblical value. The sense of having a connection to the other people in the body, that you don’t just represent yourself. You represent a group, you represent Christ and that group. All those values are part of biblical values that oftentimes, when we think individually, we don’t think about our connection to other – and even our participation and contribution that we’re supposed to make to the group as being a part of the group.
Benjamin Shin
That’s right, that’s right.
Darrell Bock
Okay, the last one’s hierarchy. Talk a little bit about that. And I think the way I want to ask this question is, I think most of us understand hierarchy in general, but is there anything peculiar about the way hierarchy works in Asian culture?
Benjamin Shin
Yes. So most Asian cultures are highly influenced by Confucianism. And Confucianism is made up of five hierarchical relationships. It’s like a ruler to a subject, parent to a child, husband to a wife, brother to a younger brother, and an older friend to a younger friend. And so in these hierarchical relationships, everyone knows where their pecking order is. So here’s an interesting thing that I didn’t understand until many years later. People would one day would meet me for the first time, they would ask me what year I graduated from high school. And I thought, “That’s kind of an odd question.”

But what they were doing, Darrell, was they were sizing me up, knowing whether I was older than them or younger to them. Because depending on how I answer that question, if I was older, there was a specific honorific language that they would speak to me at. Whereas if I was younger than them, then they could kind of speak down to me. So again, this is like, wow, this is wild. You know, Western culture’s flat, it’s egalitarian. Not in terms of Eastern culture. It’s very hierarchical.

Darrell Bock
Okay. So you put all these factors together, and obviously it makes for a very distinctive culture, and a distinctive way of relating. You said you broke a whole series of cultural taboos when you first started ministering in this area. I suspect that because of the way you were enculturated to begin with, that you walked all over these in some way or another. Can you talk about what some of these things are? And part of it is to ask the question this way: if I as an Anglo person walk into an Asian context, an Asian American context, and I’m trying to minister and be sensitive to people coming out of that context, what are the mistakes I’m likely to make? And what should I avoid doing?
Benjamin Shin
Okay. Well, how many hours do you have left at this point?
Darrell Bock
Oh, we got some time, so just keep going. We’ll just keep going on this.
Benjamin Shin
So one of the things that I think is important is that if you are confronting or encountering an older person, when you shake their hand, for example, you know, in American culture, you don’t want to give them a dead fish. You want to give them a firm grip, right? You don’t do that in Asian culture. You instead – in Korean culture, what you do is you would kind of cup your elbow if you’re younger, and you would just put out your hand, they would grab it. Because if you squeeze it, you’re challenging their authority. And that’s what I did. I squeezed so many older people’s hands, and they looked at me with, like a death look. I was like, “Sorry, sorry, I thought I was being friendly.”

The same is with touch. You don’t touch them. So you know, you go up and you pat them on the shoulder, “Hey bud,” you know, you hug them. No. Because it’s an honor culture, it’s kind of related to purity and space. You have this cleanliness area where you just don’t touch them. You just bow, you honor them, and so forth. And again, if you don’t do that, then you are shaming them. So I think those are just a couple of the initial things in terms of greetings.

Darrell Bock
And are there other actions or things that you do that you might be completely unaware of that might rub someone the wrong way, if I can say it that way?
Benjamin Shin
Yes. I wish I could show this to you on the video, but when a guy crosses his legs, you would cross it in a certain way where it’s just perpendicular, where the leg would point out and the foot would point out. But in Asian culture, when you look at men when they cross their legs, we do it in what we would call a feminine way, where the leg crosses over and points down. And the reason why is, one of the most shameful things you could ever do is point your foot towards someone’s face. Because again, it’s a purity law. Your foot has stepped on the ground, and almost everything that’s dirty. And so I used to look at men and go, “Wow, they kind of look effeminate, why are they doing it that way?” Because they were not wanting to shame people with the bottom of their foot. So that’s one thing.

Another thing is you never touch a person’s head. That’s also a sacred space. And so if you do that – I’ve seen people almost get in fights when they would touch their head. And they would want to throw down and have a rumble, and I was like, “What’s going on?” Well, because that’s a sacred, honorific space. You don’t touch that head.

Darrell Bock
Interesting. I’m reminded of the first time I had to remove my shoes to go into a home. It was my first trip to Japan, and I thought to myself, “This is so strange. What in the world is going on here?” So and again, it’s one of those cultural things where it’s not a matter of right or wrong, it’s just different. And being aware of it is just being sensitive.
Benjamin Shin
Absolutely.
Darrell Bock
Okay, well let’s talk about – well let me deal with one other issue that’s sensitive, and that is how have Asians been viewed culturally, the history? And then when you talk about – when you’ve interacted with the Talbot faculty and trying to have them be more sensitive to the Asian Americans who are attending the school, and to the Asians who are attending the school, what kinds of things are you telling them?
Benjamin Shin
So, in our grading scales, we often have something called participation, where you get a few points when students ask questions and so forth. If they are Asianized, they are never gonna ask a question in class. And the reason why is, in their particular country, like let’s say Korea for example, the professor just lectures and lectures and lectures. And if you ask a question, it’s viewed as challenging the authority of the professor. So I pulled our faculty, “Look, our students will study harder than the average student, because they have language challenges and so forth. But they will never ask a question in class, and they will sit in the back with their pack or their herd of friends. And if they ask a question, they will come up together at the end of class and ask a question privately. Or they may come to your office hours.” So that’s one thing that I tell them.

Also in class, when you ask people to break up and have a discussion, they’ll often be shy and will feel either misunderstood, or it will be challenging for them to contextualize or relate to other people of different races. So I’ll tell them, if you want to maximize group discussion, then have them talk amongst themselves, and they will have usually a spokesperson who might share what the group came up with as a whole. So those are just a couple of things that I shared with, so that the teachers at our seminary would understand the students are not aloof, they’re not disengaged. They’re with you, it’s just that’s their upbringing.

Darrell Bock
Another element that I know that we’ve talked about here on our campus is the way in which authorities get cited in papers and that kind of thing, which can sometimes run into plagiarism issues in terms of the West. Talk about that difference a little bit.
Benjamin Shin
So you may have heard this idea, but in Asia, imitation is the highest compliment. And I don’t believe there are plagiarism guidelines or restrictions in a lot of Asian countries. So when our students come into the Western seminaries, we’ve had to institute classes that teach people, “Well, in America, you have to cite so-and-so if it’s their idea.” And I think it’s a shock for some of our Asian students first, they’re like, “Wow.” So sometimes they just have to be reminded if they’re caught, and let them know, “This is not allowable in American culture.” So it’s pretty shocking to them.
Darrell Bock
It’s actually an example of where collectivism is one value, and individualism is another. In other words, wisdom in – I take it that wisdom in Asia is shared wisdom, and so it doesn’t matter who said it. As long as it’s wise, you pass it on, and the content is what matters, not who cited it. Whereas in America, it’s kind of intellectual individual property kind of thing.
Benjamin Shin
It’s my idea, yes.
Darrell Bock
It’s a good example of a cross-cultural difference that sometimes we don’t even think about. Let me ask you one other question, and that is, tell me what I as an Anglo don’t get about – or might not be likely to get about Asian Americans. We’ve talked about a lot of things, but is there anything that’s particularly, how am I gonna say, challenging about the Asian American experience that I as an Anglo might not be aware of because I haven’t lived as an Asian American?
Benjamin Shin
Yeah, great question. So let me walk you through how I would break the ice if you were a Caucasian wanting to get to know Asian American. The key is food. Offer them a meal, invite them to your home, share a meal. That will break the ice. When you do food, which is a big part of the culture, they will feel comfortable with you. Now what’s gonna be also – this is something I’ve done with my students, then I’ll offer to pay for the food. When you do that, they will be indebted to you forever, because as the authority now, you are lowering yourself in a sense below them. And that’s gonna really speak to their hearts, because they’re used to the structure, almost a caste system of hierarchy. And so if you can do this for them, they will see you as not only very kind, but they will also see you as very benevolent and willing to minister to them.

Here’s one more thing. This will empower them tremendously. This is something that I learned as a parent, this is something I would say works with millennials. This certainly works with Asians. Ask them their opinion. “What do you think?” You see, they’re always taught, “This is what to think.” If you ask them, “What do you think?”, you’re empowering them. You’re giving them value, you’re saying, “I’d like to hear what you have to say.” So ask the question. Because they think we have all the answers as either professors, or as the Westerners. But if we ask them to share, they – some of them will not stop talking. Because they have not had the opportunity to do this.

Darrell Bock
Now let me raise one other issue with you, ‘cause most people aren’t aware of this. But Asians and Asian Americans have kind of, I don’t know what other word to use, have kind of had to fight for their presence in American culture. Most people aren’t aware of the history of even immigration in relationship to the presence of Asians in the United States. Can you talk a little bit about, one, that history, and two, the impact that that has had on Asian American self-understanding?
Benjamin Shin
Yeah. So immigration’s been really tough. It wasn’t until 1963 that immigration opened up where more Asians could come over. They’ve struggled with language, they’ve struggled with in their previous country they were high-ranking, they maybe were very affluent. They come in as poor college students. They had to learn the language, they had to work in Laundromats, or washing dishes. I think that as they look back – as Asian Americans, we would look back and look at our parents and say, “They struggled, but they worked hard.” So that work ethic I think has been implanted and then passed down to the next generation. That’s why we have received the title, “The model minority.” Which means we’re loyal, we’re smart, we work hard, we’re high achieving academically.

And I think what we’re seeing now, Darrell, more than ever, is in a number of marketplace areas, in corporations, in the media, in movies, in music, Asians are – it’s rising. Or as the young Asians would say, “Asian Americans are sexy.” Which mean that they are really the hot thing. People want to do this, people want to eat kimchi and sushi and all the foods. It’s like the new cool thing to do. It’s hipster, if I could say it that way.

Darrell Bock
And so, in this move to assimilate and really they found their place in many ways, there still is another tension that I think we have just enough time to talk about, and that is the transition from first generation to second generation to third generation Asian American, which has its own internal dynamics that sometimes people are unaware of.
Benjamin Shin
Oh, that’s one of the biggest challenges. Especially in churches, Darrell, where you have first generation, older, traditional people, with second generation, younger people in their 40s and 50s. Because of the hierarchy, they’re still looked down upon as children. Whereas they may be very high achieving in their particular corporation, for example. And so as you’re related to the parents, you will always be their child. So if you would apply “Children obey your parents Ephesians Six One, “Children, obey your parents and the lord.” Right? “For this is right.”

But see, children – we would say in American culture, child is someone who’s past 16, right? They can get their driver’s license. In Asian culture, you’re always their child, no matter how old you are. So they’re not given opportunities to soar. They’re given responsibility, but maybe not the authority to make their own decisions. So this is the plight, this is the challenge, this is what I consult churches with all the time. And I’m just praying that we can all work it out somehow with the gospel in Christ.

Darrell Bock
‘Cause there’s a real tension that comes as the younger people come along, they’re more assimilated, in some ways, to culture. They have accepted and in some cases rejected certain traditions of the older group. And so there’s real pressure there.
Benjamin Shin
And I think what’s happened, unfortunately, is that history that the parents went through of immigration and hardship and struggle, a lot of people in the second generation, we dismiss that. We don’t know that, because we had the easy life. So as a result, we feel entitled, maybe. And as a result, that is looked down upon even more by the older generation, which is a very honorific, respectful generation. So you can just imagine how the clashes continue to escalate.
Darrell Bock
Yeah, I’ve seen it. I mean, I minister in Asian American contexts, and you even see it in the way the services are structured, where you’ve got the original language service that has one completely different character to the other service that’s going on that’s usually ministering to the younger people. Ben, I want to thank you for taking the time to kind of help us understand a little bit about Asian American culture and the element that it makes up in the church. You know, the reason we’re doing this series is because we believe the church is made up of a variety of people, and that God has brought us all together in Christ. And yet, there’s an ethnic identity that people live with. It’s a part of who they are. And understanding that is an important part of being in the church. So we thank you for being a part of our conversation today.
Benjamin Shin
Well thanks for the opportunity, blessings to you, and this is a great, great podcast. Thanks for doing it.
Darrell Bock
Glad to do it, and we’re glad you could be with us on The Table, and we hope you’ll join us again soon.
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Ben Shin
Benjamin C. Shin has served in the ministry as a pastor, parachurch leader and professor for more than 20 years. He is a graduate of UCLA, Talbot School of Theology and Dallas Theological Seminary. He enjoys reading, music, sports (especially the UCLA Bruins) and spending time with people. His vision and passion includes mentoring leaders, rebuilding churches and teaching the Word of God. He is married to his bride, Jen, and has two wonderful boys named Adam and Zachary. He currently serves as Associate Professor of Bible Exposition and Director of the Asian-American Ministry track for the Doctor of Ministry at Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, Calif.
Darrell L. Bock
Dr. Bock is senior research professor of New Testament and executive director for cultural engagement at Dallas Theological Seminary. He has authored or edited more than 40 books, including Jesus according to Scripture: Restoring the Portrait from the Gospels, Jesus in Context: Background Readings for Gospel Study, Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Sources and Methods, Jesus the Messiah: Tracing the Promises, Expectations, and Coming of Israel’s King, Who Is Jesus?: Linking the Historical Jesus with the Christ of Faith, and Key Events in the Life of the Historical Jesus: A Collaborative Exploration of Context and Coherence.
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