I was sitting in a virtual chat room one day with women of all ethnicities, talking about our stories and our ethnic roots, when all of a sudden I found a surprising kindredness with my white sisters. Though it can often feel like our stories and experiences are as starkly different as night and day, in that moment I discovered something new. Each of the women there had become disconnected from their ethnic roots, albeit in different ways.
I first shared my story with the group. Much of my story is intertwined with my mother’s. She immigrated to the U.S. in the 70s and during that time lost most of her connection with her own family. It’s a painful story, but it’s not fully mine to tell. I can say, however, that I’ve never met some of my aunts and uncles. I’ve also never met my Ba, my grandmother. There are days where the ache in my heart for my family makes it hard to breathe. I so wish I knew my Indian grandmother. I wish I could tell her who I am and show her pictures of my own family. More than that, I wish I could get to know her, hear stories of her life, while cooking something together or sitting at the table drinking chai. I know parts of my mom’s story, but a lot of what pertains to her family is still shrouded in mystery. It’s something we rarely speak about — it’s still too painful.
Growing up, I wish I had been connected to my mom’s family. I wish I knew what it was like to be surrounded by fellow Indians, who all looked like me, dressed like me, ate the same foods, and celebrated the same things. There is an innate desire in all of us to be known and loved by our families, to have deep bonds and live life together. Often times when we are disconnected from them, we become disconnected to our deep sense of culture and identity too.
Interestingly, as some of the other women then shared, they realized they too felt disconnected from their ethnic roots. One woman with Swedish heritage recounted how her grandparents had immigrated to the U.S. and proclaimed, “We are now American. We are no longer European.” Another shared in tears about how her Dutch parents refuse to share any of their family story with her as an intentional way to disconnect from their ancestral past. Many other women reiterated similar stories. Many of my dear friends are transracial adoptees who have never met their birth parents. I have also spoken to many Black women who feel similarly because of the history of slavery and the way their ancestors were violently uprooted from their African homes. Perhaps you feel this disconnect in your own story as well.
It was a tender conversation and one that united us despite our ethnic and geographical differences. Here was a group of diverse women who, for all different reasons, were wanting to reconnect with their roots and flourish in the way God created them to. We were each created as cultural image bearers after all. In Genesis 1-2 we see that our cultural identity is encoded into the very heart of what it means to be God’s image bearer. Humans were stamped from the very beginning with the imago Dei so that we could be God’s representatives on earth. Every culture with its unique bodies, voices, thoughts, actions, and values reflects a piece of God Himself. Seeing, embracing, and living out our faith through our unique cultural identities and expressions is how we become fully alive.
But as many of my sisters asked that day, what does blossoming look like when you don’t have a model to build from? How do we flourish as cultural image bearers when our history has been stripped from us and reconnecting with our roots feels like an impossible task?
For those of you who feel disconnected from your past, for those who can’t speak to their parents (or whose parents won’t speak with them), I want to offer two words of encouragement:
1. Lean into your culture’s global story.
I’m encouraged by the stories of Indians throughout the global diaspora. Often times, part of the global Indian story becomes inspiration for the ways in which I continue to develop my own cultural identity. The same can be true for you and your cultural roots. Think about your ethnic heritage and the specific people group(s) you’re connected to. Consider this: What are the attitudes, mindsets, and values embedded within your ethnic heritage? What are the stories that are valued and passed down within your cultural community? Who are your culture’s heroes?
This is where reading plays an important role. Whether you have Nigerian, Cambodian, German, Italian, or Russian roots, you can do some digging by picking up a history book and learning about a historical past that you’re connected to. Go to your local library or search Google and find some folktales and legends from your culture. Read them, discuss them with your family and friends, and reflect on how your own story both interweaves and disconnects from the story of your global community.
2. Create new traditions and expressions.
There are a lot of traditions that I celebrate in my home with my husband and children that I didn’t celebrate growing up. There are Indian holidays that I’ve chosen to integrate into our family rhythm, new foods that I’ve learned to cook, and new figures and heroes in the history of global Indian Christianity that I now look up to and seek to emulate.
When our pasts have been stripped from us, God extends us the grace and creativity to create something new. In the same way that He promises to make all things new, He invites us as co-laborers to find our story within God’s story. What it means for you to be Korean or Hawaiian or Colombian or Polish or South African will always be unique to you as an individual, and that’s not something to be ashamed of.
Learning to blossom as a cultural image bearer will take time. The process will be slow, and that’s okay too. Be gentle and patient with yourself and allow God’s spirit to guide you on a beautiful journey of becoming fully alive.Leave a Comment
Beth Williams says
I wish I could have known my grandparents also. The paternal grandparents & maternal grandfather all died before I was born. My dad was adopted by a family relative. I don’t really know my history. Some research shows I’m part German, English & Scottish. My parents never got into celebrating their families history. We are all from the lineage of Christ. Made in His image & we can celebrate that. We can embrace & shower the world with His love & grace.
Michelle Reyes says
Thanks for sharing your story, Beth! We all have complex stories. You’re also right that God brings our story into his own and we can celebrate what God is doing in our lives!
So interesting. Explains why parents/grandparents just want to move on with their lives and leave the past behind, never revisiting it in storytelling. It’s not just culture: it’s experiences as well, particularly, I think, war. The second world war was never something my grandparents wished to dwell on or recall.
Does this ‘ignoring’ of the past really help us? I can think of several friends and relatives who effectively buried difficult experiences of various kinds. They appeared to navigate life efficiently, but I still wonder…
This begs the question: there is the trauma of leaving one’s culture behind, but what about personal trauma – abuse, etc? Not something to leave behind. Surely all trauma needs to be dealt with, safely of course? And how can we help those of our family and friends who find it too painful to talk?
Michelle Reyes says
Angie, you’re asking such good, deep questions! You’re absolutely right about war and personal trauma. I don’t have all the answers to this. I do know that our journeys are life-long and the more we lean into Christ, the more he heals and redeems our stories. More than that, God is a just God and he promises to bring justice to the evils we experience in this world. I cling to the promise of Revelation 7:5 that God is making all things new and also, as God promises in Acts 4, that he is continuing to refresh us until that time of ultimate restoration. That being said, on this side of heaven, for those who are suffering from abuse and trauma, I also encourage folks to reach out for help, counseling, community support. We can’t do this alone.
Beautiful! Yes I have often wished I have more of a connection with my irish, scottish, german… and whatever other roots. <3 Thanks for writing this.
Michelle Reyes says
Hi Adrienne! For sure! My dad has German and British roots and one of the first things I did to explore my German heritage was buy a German cookbook and start working my way through the recipes! It was so much fun. Our family made a list of our favorite meals from the cookbook and we’ve incorporated them into our regular dinners. God gives us the grace and freedom to create new traditions when old connections are lost.
Dr. Jeanne Sheffield Estrada says
Thank you for sharing and expressing your lovely article. It touched me very much and I’m sure so many others who read it. I am a pastor with NotesOnLife.org, an online ministry which I’d like to invite you and the other readers to visit. My husband, Wayne and I have posted 500 + articles now after 5 years of dedication to this ministry God has given us. We also have our own television broadcast at: NotesOnLife.org/TV which reaches to those who know the Lord Jesus and those who are still lost.
Many blessings to you, dear sister for expressing so well how we are all connected to each other no matter our ethnic inheritance. and the greatest blessing of all is that we are connected because of our love in Christ.
God bless you,
Michelle Reyes says
Thanks, Dr. Jeanne!
Mary Gemmill says
This is really helpful.
I work a lot with refugees from several different cultures and these insights will prove valuable to me as I help them to settle in a new country
Michelle Reyes says
I’m so glad to hear this post was helpful! My mom immigrated to the U.S. in the 70s and I know firsthand the difficulties of being an immigrant family and wrestling through how to fit in, whether to assimilate, how to preserve a home culture, and more. These are such unique challenges. I will be praying for you as you navigate these important, but difficult conversations with those you serve.
Patricia Reid says
Patricia Reid from Coquitlam B.C. Canada
Just lately I have found real comfort about my past with many homes and families in my childhood, abuse and neglect.
I am 79 years old and thank our Lord and Savior for His reaffirming His Word to me that by the precious blood of Jesus Christ we have been adopted into the family of God! No one can take that from us. It is ours for all eternity!
With age comes fewer relatives to relate to, I have found the scriptures and music with the Holy Spirit’s enlightenment, my solid rock, comfort and peace. We are his and He is ours forever! God bless all of you my sisters in Christ who are searching for more. He never fails!
Michelle Reyes says
Hi Patricia! Thank you for your vulnerability and sharing a part of your story. We have both joy and pain in our stories, don’t we? I know my childhood is a mix of grief and bright spots too. In exploring who God has made us as cultural beings, he can also bring us healing and freedom from those pains of the past. You are also spot on that, as believers, our story becomes adopted into God’s story — and that is beautiful! That is something we can celebrate! God is constantly redeeming, reconciling, and refreshing who we are.
Thanks so much for this post. I am one of the adoptees you mentioned. My biological sister and I were adopted a year apart by the same couple.
They were and always will be my parents. I identify with who they were. My dad retired from the Navy, went to college later in life and was a pastor and school teacher. My mom stayed home until we were in school. She went to work and then to college and was a social worker for seniors.
Their rich and varied history is mine. They adopted things they liked from other cultures and incorporated them I into ours.
I know a little about my personal cultural background. Maybe it’s time to see the history behind that culture.