In early December, my wife, Alyssa, and I moved to Huntington, Indiana, a town of 17,000 that’s about 98 percent white. Alyssa is Taiwanese American and I’m African American, so this was a bit of a shock for both of us.
Although we both attended Taylor University in nearby Upland (another 98 percent-white community), we were in college then. Our community was students, staff, and professors. Though the student body was predominately white (only 7 percent American ethnic minority), with just under 2,000 enrolled, most people of color didn’t feel isolated. Additionally, the town was so small that we didn’t spend much time in civic life or patronizing businesses. To grocery shop, go out to eat, and engage with the broader community we ventured to Marion or Muncie. Although we were in rural white America, as college students, the town was not our home. In Huntington we aren’t afforded that exemption; we are community members in a northern Mayberry. We shop. We go out to eat. We have friends. We go to church. We are citizens of the City of Huntington. For two ethnic minorities who are interracially married, this foray into rural white life has been an interesting journey.
A few weeks ago Alyssa and I were engaging in one of our favorite activities, our weekly shopping trip to Aldi. We had gotten our cereal, fruit, and other necessities and were heading to the checkout. But before we made it, my ADHD kicked in and I decided to go back and grab some other — unnecessary — items, namely more cereal. When I returned to my wife, I noticed she was conversing with an older, white woman. When she saw me, the woman responded in a surprised yet excited manner, “This must be him!” In retrospect, I think she was scouting us from the moment we entered through the sliding doors. As we chatted, we discovered that the lady, stereotypical of many older women, was quite inquisitive. She thought our olive oil was wine, and she was overbearingly sociable. After seemingly meaningless banter, our conversation ended by her saying that she was “very glad that we were in Huntington,” and like many “good” Christians, she invited us to visit her church.
Alyssa and I pushed our cart up to the checkout lane, bagged our items, and headed to the car. Then my wife filled me in on chapter one of the story.
While Alyssa was walking through the frozen food section, she almost bumped into something. She turned around and noticed this something was an older lady. The cordial “excuse me” came out from both my wife and the elderly woman. My wife assumed that the incident was over; both had gone through the social routine of apology and now it was time to move on with life. However, the woman, in her curiosity, had other thoughts.
Before Alyssa could scoot away and find me, the woman asked, “Oh, are you from the college?” It is a logical assumption: 1) we are young and many of those under 25 who live in Huntington are students at Huntington University, 2) when in non-business clothes, we (I especially) dress more “urban,” and 3) we are ethnic minorities, and many of the ethnic minorities that live in Huntington are affiliated with the college — or work at a restaurant.
Post-assumption, Alyssa informed the woman that she was not from the college and that I actually worked at the university. Unaffected by my wife’s attempts to escape, the woman asked where we lived – assuming that we didn’t actually live in Huntington. Alyssa told her that we just moved from Fort Wayne and that we previously lived in Champaign, Illinois. At that moment, the great awkwardness began. In an effort to connect with the anomaly of an Asian American in Huntington, the lady trotted down the road of “trying too hard.”
“I lived in Chicago!”
My wife politely responded, “Oh, I am from the suburbs of Chicago.”
The lady, in all genuineness . . . and cluelessness, said, “What, Chinatown?”
Alyssa’s face immediately expressed the words she could not — or at least should not — articulate, “Are ya serious?” The lady must have noticed my wife’s chagrin because she quickly recanted her statement, “That was a stupid and dumb thing to say . . . but you are Chinese, right?”
My wife, attempting to maintain her patience, responded, “Kinda, I’m Taiwanese.”
At this point, I, the unsuspecting husband, came up with my box of Aldi-brand Honey Bunches of Oats.
The complexity in this situation comes from the lady’s honest naiveté. She had probably never interacted with an Asian American in Huntington; she was probably nervous and somewhat dumbfounded; she was probably hopeful about the prospect of diversity, yet unsure of how to embrace it.
The blessing of this situation, odd as that may sound, is that my wife was given the opportunity to offer grace. When dealing with racial issues — reconciliation as a whole — grace must remain preeminent. This doesn’t mean that words do not hurt, people aren’t insensitive, or that people aren’t bitter. It does mean that as Christians we do not have the liberty of staying mad at someone. Grace is sometimes difficult. Uttering something racially offensive — in either ignorance or brazenness — not only conjures personal incidents of racism, but uproots the experiences of others, of family, and of ancestors. This is a deep litany of pain. It is much easier to choose the ways of anger or apathy rather than the way of grace.
The words that this woman spoke were wrong, they were insensate, but my wife had the opportunity to show her love just the same. If Alyssa had snapped back and said, “No, I am not from Chinatown, you racist idiot?” her frustration would have negatively influenced this white woman’s tolerance for diversity and understanding of others unlike her. My wife’s face said enough to suggest that the comment was not cool.
Don’t get it twisted, though; my wife was upset with the words spoken and she was angry that they were spoken. One is justified for having those emotions as the response of the sin and/or its ramifications. Grace does not preclude us from experiencing frustration and anger, but rather redirects those emotions to a productive, restorative response.
Ultimately, this situation was neither about my wife nor this woman, it was about reconciliation. A graceful response both freed my wife of bitterness and, hopefully, influenced that well-meaning woman towards a greater understanding of racial diversity and, more important, reconciliation.
Thanks, Joshua, for a great article and some very practical reminders of the ways reconcilers can and MUST live out God’s grace, even when it’s difficult. I really appreciate the reflective, even-tempered tone you bring to the table every time you share, both at Urban Faith and on Ed G’s reconciliation blog. I have a lot to learn from you, my brother!
Great story, thanks for sharing that.
And a lot of grace, well done.
Hi Josh & Alyssa. I don’t think we’ve met, but I teach at Taylor University and live in Huntington. I found your entry when I was surfing around the web looking for ways that my congregation can reach across culture barriers to serve Christ and love others – or maybe to love Christ by serving others.
As I read your post, I appreciated your graceful response to a difficult and unpleasant situation. At the same time, I felt a bit sad for the “older, white woman” in the incident.
Huntington is not known as a particularly race-tolerant town and it seems to me that this lady was really trying to break across barriers that can be pretty strong in this town. She didn’t know what to say, she didn’t recognize that Alyssa was Korean rather than Chinese, and she was “overbearingly sociable.” She probably felt a bit uncomfortable. Still, she got out of her comfort zone by trying to be nice. Would it have been better to just pretend not to see Alyssa?
As a white guy, I wrestle with this a lot. I want to make people feel welcome. I want to be friends with people who are different than I. But I don’t always know how to naturally interact, especially when one is a stranger to me.
I’ve lived overseas and my passport is thicker than the average Hoosier’s, so I don’t think I am totally culturally ignorant. But I still struggle with being “natural” while reaching out to others.
As fellow Trojans in a Forester town, we have some things in common. I would love to meet you and chat sometime – maybe at Coffee D’s. Or, better yet, maybe you and Alyssa would like to come over to our house some time. We could sit on our back deck and solve the problems of the world.