Before everything, there was a little girl standing on a mat looking at a girl she didn’t know play kitchen, and all she had in her heart was a bright, open, friendly desire to go over and make friends. This is the girl I’ve always been. This is the girl I am today.
Growing up, I was surrounded with love. My twin, Joe, was my part-time-enemy, part-time-glorious-partner-in-crime. My parents were generous and joyful. I’d run out of the house to jump into my dad’s arms when he got home from work. Home for me, though, wasn’t only limited to our house. It also lived in our church.
Before my brother and I were born, my parents split from their church in New York, moved to suburban New Jersey, and created a church of their own with other Chinese Americans. They all had kids of their own. Together, we became a family in Christ.
We kids grew up together, between Sunday service, Tuesday night prayer group, Friday night kids’ programs, holiday parties, sleepovers, potlucks, cell group meetings, revival nights, summer VBS, and winter retreats. We weren’t just friends, we were brothers and sisters in Christ and called our parents “Aunties” and “Uncles.”
I loved our church because I would always and deeply belong with them. They were my people. My family. They were lovable, silly, and derpy like only our church could be. But most powerfully, we were united by a faith that swore to transform us through a personal relationship with the Creator of C minor and the scent of cedar. We were called together to do good. To show others the unconditional love, forgiveness, peace, and joy that only our God could bring. To serve him with all we had.
I still remember the feel of the carpet beneath my fingers as we played in the sanctuary, the soft blue glow of worship service… even the odor of those accursed stinkbugs our church building just couldn’t quit. My life was in this place. Belonging came with these people.
Lovely people who’d grill you a hot dog at the cookout, help paint your bedroom, laugh hysterically with you at inside jokes… and also happen to believe that the world was ending any day now.
My faith left me flush and breathless with purpose. It was supposed to be a transformative force of love. But my church taught other things, too. Without God, the Bible said, I could do nothing good. My desires, intuition, and plans in life were arrogant and would lead me astray; I should joyfully submit to God’s will for my life. Worst of all, I didn’t belong to myself. I was bought by God, and he was the authority over who I could be. I didn’t have the right to be myself. In fact, I needed to “die to myself.” Everything I was before I gave myself to Christ should be put to death so God could mold a new person out of me.
I was also afraid of “the world.” My mom didn’t like mainstream music, so we only listened to 2 Christian radio stations growing up. Like every all-American kid, we handed out Jesus pamphlets in the mall, filled out workbooks on how to refute evolution, and pledged allegiance to the Bible before memorising Scripture on Friday nights. Uncomfortable with my body, which belonged to my future husband, I even refused to pay attention in Sex Ed. (Miracle of Life who?)
To make matters worse, I started developing a problem I couldn’t explain. Sometimes, I felt like I couldn’t talk to people. I wanted to so badly, but I physically felt like I could not speak, or even smile, raise my hand, make eye contact, etc. It wasn’t until I was 19 that I found out that this was a severe social anxiety disorder, situational mutism (SM), but all I could think then was that I was responsible for my own misery.
Things at home were also hard. To cope with the chaos and surveillance intensifying at home, I began to gorge myself on food, then see how low I could hunger my weight away. I struggled with depression and dissociation. Desperate to escape this world where I felt unseen, outlawed from being myself, and so very lonely, I also retreated into daydreams that lasted hours on end.
And so, in between a religion that taught me I didn’t belong to myself and that the outside world was dangerous, a disorder that confined me, and a home that policed me, I became deeply estranged from my true inner self. I echoed my religious teaching. I turned away from her. That little girl who was outgoing and curious went into hiding. In doing so, I lost my inner voice, my confidence, and my power.
But she never lost sight of me.