The In-Between Space

By Sherene Joseph
In eLetter
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Growing up as a third-culture kid[1] in homogeneous [2]environments, I never thought about being Asian or South Asian. After all, no one ever asked me about my ethnic background. When people saw me, they knew I was from India. It wasn't until we moved to the United States that I realized I had to start classifying myself as an Asian. There wasn't even a box for South Asian on most documents, so I would check the Asian box and write Indian next to it. It took me a while to realize that when I mentioned Indian to people, some of them were confused, thinking I was Native American. I have had to specify that I come from India on a few occasions.

In my 44 years on this planet, I had never given my ethnic identity as much thought as I have in the last three years. The conversation about race, ethnicity, and skin color has been swirling around our nation. I’ve become adept at using phrases like Asian American, South Asian, and Indian immigrant in the last few years. I never expected that I would have to define my ethnic origins at any season of my life. Still, while it was frustrating in the beginning, I have grown to understand the need to define it in a way that allows others to see the beauty in my ethnicity and also be eager to learn more about it.

I was born and raised in a Christian home and family, and our ethnicity and culture were never separated from our faith. I grew up singing hymns and reading the Book of Common Prayer, which was brought to the Indian church by early missionaries and other Protestant denominations that flourished in colonized India. But we also wore brightly colored silks and fragrant jasmine in our hair—our faith and culture were intertwined.

But over the last 19 years, as I raised a family in the United States, I realized that I was living my Indian identity separate from my Christian identity. As I moved into majority-white spaces, I started to assimilate in ways that initially seemed small but started to impact me. Bright colors moved to the back of my closet, and jeans became a staple. Small stud earrings replaced my long dangly ones, and even today, pure gold jewelry highlights my "Indianness" more than fashion pieces. The Anglo-Christian teachings that had formed me were comfortable in the United States, but the Indian part of me was slowly disappearing. I realized I had started to feel embarrassed about being Indian and had worked so hard to fit in that I was now in danger of not belonging anywhere. I was not Indian enough to be Indian, nor would I ever be American enough (specifically white American).

Indian Christians specifically struggle with the pressure to either assimilate or segregate. It is easy to segregate and choose to move in Indian spaces, but many parents start to feel a disconnect with their adult children as a result. Early on in parenting my son, I realized there was a fine line between my formation, which is Indian, and his formation, which is a mix of two cultures and countries. Assimilation, on the other hand, is even more complicated. It entails giving up parts of your ethnicity and culture to embrace something new. Quite often, holding your ethnic identity and faith in each hand—especially as a parent—becomes a balancing act.

The events of 2020 changed my way of thinking. I was in a unique position of embracing everything my ethnicity gives me entirely, but I could also fully embrace living my life in this beautiful country. I did not need to give up one for the other, I just had to live in the in-between space. Not that living in the in-between is easy. If anything, it's challenging and emotionally exhausting and requires complete dependence on God. But I now know that I can live in this land as a foreigner, build roots, and seek its welfare while at the same time be a bridge-builder between people of different ethnic backgrounds. There is so much I have learned from my life in the United States, but there is also so much I can teach others.

That is what I find God has called my family and me to be—bridge builders for His glory. We are Indian, but we are also American. There is beauty in celebrating the two cultures and walking this multi-ethnic journey. It's leaning into the discomfort and getting used to being uncomfortable. And it is rewarding work.

Do I find it exhausting when someone tells me they met an Indian lady who looks like me, or if I have ever had butter chicken? Sure, sometimes the work is exhausting, but I know the moment will pass. So, I remind myself to depend on God to keep going and not get weary.

Being a bridge builder is hard work, but with intentionality, a willingness to learn, and an open heart, we can build strong relationships that reflect the beauty of God's coming kingdom. All we need to do is step out boldly in faith and love radically.

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month. If you would like to learn more, check out the resources Sherene has recommended below:



[2] In sociology, a society that has little diversity is considered homogeneous. A society is considered homogeneous if it is relatively uniform demographically (e.g., age, ethnic origin, economic or education status) or culturally (norms, customs, religion, etc.).

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