I am honored to introduce to you articles from three South Asian American colleagues. Each is an accomplished speaker, but in an American Christian culture and an Indian Christian subculture that doesn’t fully affirm women’s leadership gifts,their voices aren’t heard often.
I am grateful to Jason Thomas, Executive Vice President of Field Ministry, IVCF for suggesting that I invite fellow South Asian women leaders who have stories to tell and limited opportunities to tell them to raise their voice in writing.
I have loved working with my friends Ritu Singh, Caroline Lancaster, and Maureen Mathew as they translated their experiences to written words. Their stories are not only personal but also cultural contributions, reflecting how women (and men) experience life because of their South Asian identity.
Ritu writes about the pain of feeling disintegrated because of our cultural identity, where we can only be fragments of ourselves in many contexts, continually changing ourselves to fit others’ neat categories and expectations of who we are. Yet she comes to recognize that God can use this alienation as a gift.
- In what ways might God use the fragmentation you have experienced as a gift?
- How can you welcome ethnic minorities to be fully themselves?
The Gift of Gershom: God's Call to the Alien Experience
by Ritu Singh
“Where are you from?” It’s amazing to me how four words can send my mind into a tailspin of thoughts — asking, “What does this person really want to know?” It’s a simple question; it shouldn’t cause too much trouble. But it does. Every time. I’m forced to compartmentalize myself into manageable sound bites.
My internal monologue is this: “I’m Indian but I’m not from India. I was born and raised in New Jersey, but you wouldn’t be asking me this question if you weren’t confused by the sound of my name or curious when you see my skin color, face, and nose ring.” Over time, I have crafted a “good enough” response: “My parents are Indian from India, but I was born and raised in New Jersey.” But even that answer leaves me feeling short changed, like I’ve had to become “less than” in some way.
I want to say things to steer you away from stereotypes: “My parents came here close to 40 years ago — so they are quite assimilated.” Or, “I may have been born and raised here, but my parents definitely raised me the Indian way.” Or even, “I know I may look Indian and have been raised by Indian parents, but I wouldn’t be accepted as an Indian in India. I’m very much American to them, but they respect me somewhat because I speak Hindi.” I want you to understand that I am assimilated and still Indian, but there’s no socially acceptable way to say that.
It is hard to articulate a simple answer when I feel “Where are you from?” is really asking the question “Who or what are you?”
This “simple” question creates a specific tension linked to my core. It involves the internal war of existing as all of yourself when there is a whole world around you trying to convince you that you can only be one or two understandable parts. This tension bends you to pick the part of you that will be important and acceptable, and discard the part of you that must be ignored or forgotten. It’s a tension that confuses, but maybe more sadly disguises.
It would be too easy to credit this one question as the sole culprit of “other”-ing. American culture loves grouping others by affinities or commonalities. Whether through social media, local “meet-ups,” or online dating, we are invested in finding others like ourselves and putting everything into neat categories. As a culture we invest in finding what is common to a fault instead of facing the tension of what is different. But making everything easy to understand and keeping our tensions low by limiting our exposure to difference is a problem.
For me, asking “Where are you from?” is merely the unveiling of a truth — I am a foreigner or “other” to this person or place; I don’t “fit in.” With every layer of difference, more explanation may be required or one runs the risk of being stereotyped or forced to acculturate. Many of us who visibly can’t escape these questions are “other”-ed frequently without intention. The weight of this tension transforms into enduring a life trying to manage self and others.
My most memorable experience of being othered is around my name. Ritu is a common name in India. However, growing up in the States, I endured incredibly lazy variations of how my name was pronounced: “Rat’-oo, Ret’-oo, Ri-too’, Ra’-choo, Rachel.” Eventually, I grew embarrassed by my name because it drew unwanted attention to me and the entire country of over a billion people I apparently represented. My name eventually turned into two syllables accepted in the American English language: “Ree’-too.”
This was more than standardizing the pronunciation of my name. It was choosing how to exist among people that couldn’t meet me in my differences. It was a choice that shaped me and molded my mind and values to prioritize acculturation — to make it easier for everyone else. It was a choice that evolved into being ashamed of how my mom wore Indian clothes everyday and growing incredibly self-conscious when friends would come over and my family refused to speak in English. By making my name convenient to those who were uncomfortable with the “other,” I reduced myself to either a stereotype or even worse, rejected my heritage. This choice relieved me of the exhaustion, anxiety, and insecurity that came with perseveratively explaining my family’s traditions and “strange” cultural practices (some of which can be googled, friends). It felt like the only way to survive the tension of the world telling me I am not welcome here.
In the early life of Moses, I’ve sensed similar tensions. I resonate with Moses’ early multicultural experiences — never truly accepted by any one community, an Egyptian to the Israelites and an Israelite to the Egyptians. I feel the tension of this struggle as an American to most Indians and an Indian to most Americans — being both but never fully accepted by either. Moses fled both communities, attempting to start over. He marked his “othered” life by naming his son Gershom meaning “exiled/alien,” declaring himself truly a “foreigner in a foreign land” and establishing a permanent reminder of his experience.
I have needed space to acknowledge my own experiences as a Gershom. I have had to take time, to acknowledge where my counter(multi)cultural life has distanced me from the family/communities I was born into. It has been important to lament the losses and not move on too quickly — allowing God to do needed healing and restorative work.
We can see another tension in Moses’ story at the burning bush — not one generated by human division, but initiated by a holy purpose. God makes an invitation to Moses that challenges his “other”-ness and has the potential to put to purpose every experience Moses had undergone. This holy moment is the beginning of God moving Moses from exiled shepherd to powerful activist and leader. God shapes Moses’s fragmented identity into a complete and profound calling. The result of Moses’s yes to a faithful and trustworthy God leads to a life of immeasurable purpose sealed with deep intimacy with him.
When challenges have exhausted my strength and hope feels faint, I need Moses’s story. I am reminded that as the world pushes me to bend and fold, God has made an invitation that will use my life and complexity to confound the spaces he calls me to. I can have confidence that when I said yes to Jesus, God declared his covenant over my life and established my place as his beloved daughter, giving my life a corresponding value and significance. Remembrance renews my confidence that my “yes” and Jesus’s power transformed me and gave me purpose I may not see fully at that moment. As my love for God increases and his call on my life deepens, the understanding of my complex identity that grows alongside them bears a powerful, life-changing gift — the gift of Gershom.