About three weeks ago, a few friends and I went out for an evening on the town, something we’ve partaken in many times, though not as often recently due to our hectic schedules. As the night drew on and our conversation seemed to grow louder as the surrounding conversations dissipated with each departing patron, I was approached by a curious gentleman.
Seemingly harmless in his inquiry, he asked me for the location of Buddhist temples in the Milwaukee area. I, of course, indulged his curiosity and the two of us began to discuss his interest in Buddhism, the merits of Buddhist teachings, and a few of the different branches and sects of Buddhism to the best of my knowledge and experience. I found the conversation pleasantly interesting.
I share this story because it was one of many times when I was acutely aware of my “Asian-ness.” The gentlemen approached us because our physical appearance triggered an association to Buddhism and though I was not offended by his questions at the time, it led me to reflect on what it meant to be a young, Asian American, Catholic man today. How do people see me? More importantly, how do I see myself and what is God’s plan for me?
After some years toiling over the meaning of these identifiers, I realize something. This is not to say that I’ve come to some profound conclusion and no longer grapple with these thoughts, but I realized the impermanence of my youth, the socio-political construction of my Asian- and American-ness, and the coincidence of my gender. All these things are beyond my control. Only God’s love is permanent and the only thing I can control is my love for him. My relationship with God has not always been steady but it is the most reliable thing in my life. It is not dependent on time, politics or biology; its universality and timelessness give me hope.
Although we ground ourselves in our faith, we must not forsake our other identities. I am a young, Asian American, Catholic man for a reason. Each of these identities has allowed me to witness to certain groups of people. I have been told that I relate well to young people, something I find harder to believe with each passing year. Still, I serve even in my uncertainty and pray for support and guidance always.
My Asian American identity allows me safe passage into Asian as well as non-Asian communities. God has blessed me with the sensibilities of both worlds, and my parents have been my earthly examples. They have taught me humility, respect and gratitude – tools that have allowed me to bridge the gaps between the generations and cultures. As a man, I am incomplete. God created us to need one another, to share with one another his gifts, to praise him with many voices – men and women, young and old.
I have uncovered some of the challenges for young Asian American Catholics, that, of course, being the question of identity. However, we are definitely not alone in our struggles. Remember that God knows us better than we know ourselves, but it doesn’t hurt for us to know ourselves either.
(Akarath Soukhaphon, 27, belongs to St. Michael Parish, Milwaukee. He works as a part-time admissions counselor for Messmer Catholic Schools, and is pursuing a master’s degree in geography at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)