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Asian Americans and Silence

Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

If what one has to say is not better than silence, then one should keep silent. - Confucius

When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent. - Proverbs 10:19

In this past year’s movement to promote racial and cultural awareness, it is a painful irony that we, as Asian Americans, are derided for one of the unique virtues we possess.

This post is a response to slogans like "silence is complicity", for allies to appreciate the underrated value of silence particularly in Asian culture, and an encouragement for Asian Americans to experience freedom from shame and guilt when we are silent.

I want to argue that silence is a valid option in a culture that places great value on the frequency, volume, and pitch of emotional self-expression. In a world of shouting and noise, silence is crucial.

I am deeply grateful for my Asian American brothers and sisters who have spoken up during this unique season where anti-Asian hate has garnered so much media attention. I'm especially grateful for the durative consistency by which these prophets have rebuked white evangelical culture over years and decades. They have given voice to anger, suffering, pain, and injustice.

I am an educated, middle-aged, second-generation Chinese American, heterosexual male evangelical who grew up in an affluent suburb of Silicon Valley. I can't speak for all or most Asian Americans but I don't believe I am alone in what I perceive.

I'm also aware of the irony of publishing a post on silence. You can say this post is an attempt to honor my parents and the legacy of my ancestors for the thousands of times they've bitten their tongue in favor of self-restraint and emotional control.

The best metaphor to explain the intent of "silence is complicity" is one's reaction when a friend is bullied. One implicit understanding of friendship is to stand alongside a friend and speak out when he faces an external threat. During high school, I've often wondered what my friends would do if I was singled out for attack. Would they stand with me and fight or would they be silent and run?

I find this metaphor helpful yet limited. Here are three limitations: abstraction, ignorance, and cost. First, the metaphor is deployed beyond the realm of interpersonal relationships towards racial groups. A racial group is abstract in ways that friendships are not. I'm friends with a black person, not black people. I barely know how to defend my friend Tim Hsu much less Asian Americans as a group. Second, ignorance means I'm not sure what my role is in any given bullying-type situation. Where physical danger and verbal abuse are usually easy to identify, I'm typically at a loss for what constitutes a threat in racial terms. It seems to require heightened awareness and vocabulary of terms such as micro-aggressions, gaslighting, and intersectionality. I didn't need books about physical harassment but I seem to need them to understand racial discrimination. Third, an ally stands publicly and privately alongside a friend at great cost to his own well-being. This is not an easy ask. I don't have many friends I would do this for and it's in my selfish nature to hesitate. Thus, one consideration for Asian Americans is our need to determine the cost of speaking up. And because we tend to value harmony, it often means paying a higher price than other ethnic groups.

What does this mean for allies? Silence does not indicate apathy. Silence means non-reactiveness. Last year, I watched a panel of African American and Asian American church leaders talk about Black-Asian solidarity. One prominent black pastor who ministered in the bay area wondered why Asian American brothers and sisters in his congregation didn't speak up. He perceived them as uncaring. An Asian American pastor explained how she learned the value of silence from her parents. She asked him to recognize silence can mean many things.

Silence is introspection and calm. Silence indicates emotional self-restraint. In a culture of hot takes, silence means a considered response rather than reactiveness. Silence is the distance between thought and speech. We prefer not to open our mouth in order to insert our foot.

Silence on social media is not the same as silence in personal relationships. Silence on social media may indicate our distaste for performative empathy and virtue signaling.

Silence can mean suspension of judgment. We may be thinking what you’re thinking but we’re not ready to vocalize it. Yet. We also may not know what to think.

Silence is not permanent. Silence has a season; just as speaking does. We recognize it's time for many Asian Americans to break our silence. However, it's not our role to coerce others to speak in the same way that many have been coerced into silence.

Silence can mean fear. Silence can be a prison where terror chains us and we're trapped in uncertainty and fear of loss. Silence can be an instinctive response to guilt and shame. These may not be socially acceptable emotions but they do indicate the complexities of silence.

Lastly, silence can also signal inner turmoil. It can arise from a mixture of fear, confusion, anger, gratitude, compassion, hurt, guilt, and shame. These emotions are not easy to parse. Some may find value in voicing the contradictions inside of us. Others may process their inner chaos quietly; wanting to work out our internal contradictions on our own; away from the noise of the town square.

Silence is a gift for others and ourselves that can be chosen wisely. We can receive the gift of our silence with gladness because it means harmony and restraint. In a noise-filled world, silence does not condemn us to guilt or shame.

For allies: There will be seasons when we will break our silence. We hope you would exercise patience and compassion to wait for us and invite us to speak. And when we speak, turn our volume up a couple notches just as we turn yours down when you do.

For my Asian American peers: I often wish my parents would be more vocal in their support of my family and me. I wish they would call more and initiate more contact. Don't get me wrong - I'm grateful for their restraint in not giving unsolicited advice. My parents express their loyalty by making themselves available, financial generosity, acts of service, and lastly, by standing with me, often but not always, in silence. I'm learning to appreciate their steadfast and quiet presence as support and encouragement. We will experience bullying in this world and my hope is we do not diminish the value of quiet solidarity in suffering.

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