eric-wang-story1_web.jpgWith candor and without script, my classmate Chulyu began playing a short Korean drama clip to share how Koreans observe Lunar New Year. The audio was faint, the visuals dim, as Chulyu used his small laptop to play the video to a room of fifty or so people. I was enthralled by the video, but even more by the audience—faces of black, brown, yellow, white—who got out of their seats unprompted, huddling together and leaning forward, eager to watch the clip…

On January 29, 2020, at Candler’s Lunar New Year (LNY) Celebration—a space where Chulyu and other Asian/Asian-American students could express their culture—my peers, faculty and staff at Candler expressed their interest in other cultures, including my own.

With a kinetic, out-of-seat interest, people gathered around Chulyu as he shared about and demonstrated Korean bowing.

With a humble, pupil-like interest, people listened to Assistant Professor of American Religious History Helen Kim explain the Year of the Rat. They listened to me explain Chinese brush-painting practices. They listened to other students explain how folks from mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Vietnam, and Korea celebrate Lunar New Year.

With a joyous, participatory interest, people said and sang “Happy New Year” in multiple languages, took down paper lanterns containing trivia questions on Asian culture, and opened red packets containing small Chinese paintings and candies.

And with a (literally) hungry interest, people delved into the cornucopia of Asian foods handmade by Candler’s students and Dean’s Professor of Systematic Theology Kwok Pui Lanherself—foods including Taiwanese-style bubble tea, Chinese, Korean and Japanese fried gyoza and steamed dumplings, Bundt cakes, rice cakes, rice desserts wrapped in banana leaves, Vietnamese sausages, mochi ice cream, and so forth. (My list here does not do justice to the range of delicacies present.)

Both the LNY celebration—and the humble, appreciative, participatory interest the Candler community showed in Asian/American-American culture—meant a lot to me. The LNY party and the Candler community told me (and I believe other Asian/Asian-American students too) that our cultures are not merely permissible, neutral, or peaceably co-existent with a majority culture—but rather, that our cultures are good, positive, worth celebrating, worth partaking in.

Events like Candler’s LNY celebration cherish the ways through which Asians/Asian-Americans have creatively arranged matter and thereby bear the image of a creative God. And when through human art and agency I am reminded of how creative God is—creative enough to endow humanity with creativity—I give God glory. I worship God for being the Artist that God is.

Simultaneously, I appreciated that students did not celebrate culture uncritically. For example, Chulyu was unafraid to state that once he decided to follow Jesus Christ, there were Korean customs surrounding ancestral veneration that he gave up and believed should be given up. People may certainly disagree over the specific cultural practices that one must forsake (if any) in becoming a Christian, but I am grateful that Chulyu was unafraid to acknowledge the real conflicts between culture and Christianity. Cherishing Asian/Asian-American cultures does not mean one must affirm everything about them or hide one’s faith-based disagreements with them. I was grateful that students at the LNY party authentically discussed conflicts rather than gloss over them in the name of “pluralism” or “diversity.”

Although I am the only Chinese-American student of my year at Candler (I am grateful though that there is also a student here of Taiwanese descent), I have not felt pressured to assimilate into another cultural location during my time at Candler. Of course, by no means can/do I claim to represent anyone else’s experiences, and my feelings are connected with my individual circumstances.

Yet, I can say that I feel comfortable here with my hyphenated cultural identity, largely because so many people within the Candler community talk, act, and posture themselves in ways that encourage minorities to celebrate their culture. When Candler hosts its regular “International Partners Lunches,” when James T. and Berta R. Laney Professor in Moral Leadership Robert Franklin and Professor of Christian Ethics Timothy Jackson resiliently invite painful discourse on race in the classroom, when Candler’s black students and faculty show me what it looks like to both glorify God and self-embrace, when Candler’s Caucasian students move out of their seats, huddle together and lean forward to partake in Asian/Asian-American culture—I am reminded that the parts of my heritage and myself that do not oppose the Gospel are not just okay, permissible, or yet-to-be-assimilated.

Rather, they are—as God declared all of God’s unfallen creation—good.

I thank Jesus Christ for Professor Kwok and all the others who made Candler’s Lunar Year Celebration a reality, and I am incredibly excited for more events like this to come.

Photos by Shinjae Lee.