The Super Bowl is finally over. Let the war of words begin. This time is over the Coke commercial. If you follow the link here, you will find some very happy people from different ethnic groups talking about their experiencing of singing the song in their own language, but not everyone is happy. The negative responses to the Coke commercial heat up cyberspace as soon as it was played. “We speak English … G(et) T(he) F(xxk) O(ut) … ” just characterizes some of them. A lot of my more “liberal” (that’s what they are called these days) friends were (rightly) outraged. Most conservative friends keep quiet. A few dismiss the serious questions about race and multiculturalism by saying that Coke was only generating controversies to sell its product. This makes me wonder about what it means when we say “this is OUR country.” Who is the “our” and who is the “we”?
When I first immigrated, I did pick up English very quickly. I tried my best to learn as much about the “American way” as possible. After all, America is my host country. I want to be a respectful guest. As I get older (and hopefully wiser), I begin to see that the blurred line between guest and host.
What exactly qualifies one as “host” (i.e. “REAL” American)? I’m not sure. I think, based on my interaction with many whites throughout the years, different people have different criteria.
How about the stranger who told my Asian colleague, a full professor and a native speaker with a high-power PhD from Harvard, to speak “English” even before he opened his mouth? For the kid who called my kid “chink” (even when my kid was born here and speaks “American”), skin color is the criterion. In such a case, to that racist child, my kid would NEVER be part of the hosting family called America. For the student who found his professor’s substitute (aka “me”) fascinating because “there aren’t many Asian dudes who can give such great lectures on topics like this” (surely, he jests), (even though I have graduated in two years in the top 3 of my Mdiv class and in a one-year MA summa cum laude, not to mention my earned PhD (no, really, I didn’t buy my PhD from an online course) in three), skin color is definitely the problem. Maybe he thinks all Asians are just kind of stupid and illiterate. Surely, even if we graduate from somewhere like Harvard, we just can’t be that smart. No, I DO feel like a guest, even though I’m the host. Better yet, I AM THE GUEST. My skin color tells them so.
For the teacher who thought my other kid had learning disability because he spoke Oxford-Cambridge English (since he grew up while I was writing my dissertation in England), the accent could have been the criterion. Who knows? She couldn’t understand Oxbridge (that’s not American, you know)!
The real question is, “What qualifies me as an American?”
I can share with you my immigrant experience that many of you do not have to go through. Although I do feel like more of a host than a guest in this country now, I’ll always think about whether my English communication is good enough. That’s a problem most of my white peers (and classmates who scored way below me) don’t have because no one ever throws that excuse “It must be your English” at them. I confess that my wife’s English is definitely better than mine, though I suspect my biblical Greek is better than hers. Is my educational background from the highest ranked western academic institutions and coming away from it with highest grades or degrees enough? IF that would be enough, I guess I would never have to think twice about whether my English is good enough. After all, my English WAS good enough for all my professors and my PhD supervisor (and even for my English publishers). IF English is not the problem, would my Indian classmate who spoke with an accent but writes better than almost every single white American I know be good enough to be American (if given a chance of course)? I doubt if his journey would lead him to be the host.
When does one become a host instead of a guest? By our legal system, the guest turns into a host when the green card turns into a citizenship paper. Yet, why do people still treat other American “citizens” (including those who speak multiple “foreign” languages) as guests? Is it not because the hosting members didn’t realize that way back when, they were also guests of the NATIVE AMERICANS?
I suspect my diagnosis is correct. The model of America for many is a closed system. The Coke commercial challenged that system. As a closed system, the power is in the hands of the few. That’s call an oligarchy. It is not even a healthy republic, never mind democracy. Many in the powerful and dominant culture (mostly white conservatives) do not want the closed system to be an evolving system with a revolving door. They don’t want to be on the outside looking in because outsiders are always weaker than insiders. In a closed system, the power is not shared. That is why even though I’m a “host” on paper, I’m still treated a guest sometimes, especially by people who are not my close friends (of course, my close friends wouldn’t have this aforementioned problem or they wouldn’t be my close friends).
I’m not saying that learning English is not important but in the negative reaction towards the Coke commercial, many take accepting other cultures and celebrating other languages (i.e. diversity) to be a threat to their very existence as Americans (i.e. their closed system). Most of the negative reaction has nothing to do with using English to communicate clearly (hey, I speak JUST FINE, DARN IT; I’m a published author, after all.).
What does this have to do with church and faith? A lot!
I wonder when someone of a different skin color or social economic status or both or of a different language group comes to visit, do we automatically assume that “we” know more than “they” do? IF they come into our membership and participate in the body life of the church, are they hosts or guests? Is the power politics of the society the same as that of the church’s mission? This is something that the Bible fights against. Yet, a lot of so-called Christians don’t see the problem when they too join in the conservative voice of “speak American” when they see the Coke commercial. Why is it that the most “biblical” Christians are often those who want to have a closed system of power? The question is worth asking because the closed system is neither democratic (i.e. American) nor Christian (or St. Paul be damned). Have Christians forgotten the fact that their power does not come from their own doing? Have they forgotten that Jesus Christ is the ultimate host and we’re really just all guests? The Coke commercial asks more questions than it answers, not just for society, but for the church. Sometimes, it even puts us to shame.