Of Suggestions & Spaces

Of Suggestions & Spaces

I think I might have been in second grade the day my dad said to two of my sisters and me, “Don’t tell mom, but when we’re out together like this with me, let’s try to speak English instead of Chinese.”

He didn’t give a reason why. But I remember the look on his face when we made eye contact. He looked almost childlike. In that moment, I could see in his face a muddled mixture of confusion, hope, shame, and sympathy. 

We didn’t follow through with his suggestion. I remember going out with just my dad again a few days later, and I wondered why we weren’t speaking English.

At that point in my dad’s life, he was in his late thirties, and had lived in the United States for over 10 years after immigrating from the concrete jungle of Taipei, Taiwan to the post-industrial hills of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania for graduate school in the mid-80s. He had a wife who could not speak English and spent her days at home. He had five young daughters who were growing up in an entirely white world in Greenville, South Carolina. He did “American” things with his children—took them to the neighborhood pool on Saturdays and served as third base coach for their softball team.

I don’t know why my dad proposed this idea that day; we’ve never talked about it since, and given his track record of remembering birthdays or his own anniversary, he probably has no memory of doing so. But I’ve spent the decades of my life since then imagining the reasons why:

Maybe he himself wanted to fit in better. Maybe he was tired of all the years of being the international student in grad school then being the lone Chinese guy at work. Maybe he wanted to be recognized for who he was: the all-around stellar dad who loves his kids.

Maybe this request was for us. He knew we felt different from our peers, and he wanted to give us a chance to pretend like we fit in. Or maybe he simply wanted to practice his English. 

But still he looked sheepish, guilty when he made the suggestion. 

I think he looked guilty when he made the suggestion because he knew he was teaching his kids—me—that there was something wrong about the way they—I—spoke, a lesson that I was already learning everywhere else. He knew he was teaching me that there was privilege in being in the majority, and that it was okay to make choices that help you fit in, even if it meant turning your back on the language of your family, your culture, your youth, and your identity.

I was already learning these lessons, even though I was only in second grade. At my all-white, fundamentalist Christian school, I learned early on that there was one right way to be a Christian, one right way to be a woman, and one right way to be an American. And all of those right ways were right white ways that I would never achieve. As result, I spent my childhood and adolescence in self-loathing, feeling deeply ashamed of the the things that made me Other, and resenting my family for not meeting the white standards around me and therefore not being good enough.

And so as a kid, I learned to bridge that gap of difference between myself and my classmates. I learned to tell stories that would make me seem closer to “normal,” talking about my grandparents without mentioning that they live overseas. I learned to reject, deny, and hide all of the parts of me that didn’t fit that right/white standard on display around me. Tragically, as a thirteen-year-old girl, the highest compliment you could have paid me was “You are so white.”

I’ve spent my adult life working to unlearn the twisted messages I’d internalized in my childhood about myself, my value, and the world around me. So why am I telling you, the people of UUCC, these stories as I introduce myself for the first time? Because these are the stories that have led me to you today.

I took this role as Director of Youth & Young Adult Ministries because I envision a world in which no other second-grader would have to feel ashamed of the language she speaks with her parents, and where no thirteen-year-old would believe—or even be told—the lies I embraced.

I believe we can create this world by listening to each other and creating spaces for youth and young adults to explore their full identities and learn from each other—the sort of spaces I did not have in my youth. Spaces that are diverse in every way, where all voices are heard and valued, and driven and led by the interests and callings of the young people who gather in those spaces. Spaces that prioritize belonging over programming; spaces that inspire meaning and purpose, and are more than just a fun hangout.

So that’s why I’m here at UUCC. To listen to our youth and young adults to find out what matters to them. To listen in order to develop a collective vision for what kind of space they want to create here at UUCC. And through listening, begin to move us closer to the world as it should be.

I am grateful and excited to join the UUCC community. When you see me around on Sundays, please introduce yourself—I’m looking forward to meeting you!


  1. Jill Christianson

    Thank you Valerie, for sharing so much of yourself in this experience. I hope your journey with the UUCC youth Andreas Young adults is rewarding in many ways. We are fortunate that you have given your heart and enthusiasm in this way!

  2. April Lee

    Welcome, Valerie, and thank you for sharing. I am first generation Chinese American, born of immigrant parents from China, born only two months after they arrived in D.C. in 1957. I was raised in my grandmother’s home in a traditional Chinese family and much of your story rings a familiar bell with me. I was also the only minority in all-white schools throughout my youth in DC, NJ and MD. Unlike your father, however, my parents both insisted that we speak Chinese whenever we were together. Both of my parents were fluent in English. I remember times when my mother would speak to us in Mandarin in front of our white American friends and we would feel embarrassed because we wanted to assimilate, being reminded by white people everyday that we were different. To this day, we are reminded. To this day, I am still told to go back to where I came from, even though I was born in this nation’s capital. I credit my grandmother for never allowing others to define my worth. We suffered a lot of racism. Whenever we told her of the hateful things people said or did to us she said, “Never forget who you are. Never forget that you are descendants of emperors. Your ancestors were writing poetry and wearing silk robes when their ancestors were wearing burlap and grunting for food.” While her historical facts may be off, we got the message, loud and clear. No one can take your dignity and sense of self-worth from you, unless you allow them to. I’m glad that the youth of UUCC can benefit from your experiences, both the bad and the good, to help them know who they are.

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