I’ve been on a journey the past couple years to reclaim lost heritage. Specifically, knowledge of my Chinese ancestry. I did grow up knowing a little about the white side of my family, but the Chinese side? All I knew is that they were Wongs, they were from Canada and my father played the guitar.
I’ve made huge progress in my search this year. I can’t tell you how amazing it feels to know my Chinese ancestral home village! This journey of reclaiming lost heritage is revealing a lot to me about the role heritage plays in our lives, in our sense of self and even in our faith.
While I’m not ready to share what I’ve learned about my ancestry just yet (so much is still happening and I’m taking time to savor and process it), I do want to share what it means to me as an adoptee and encourage you to reflect on what it means to you. After all, we all have a heritage.
Essentially, heritage is what is passed down to us from our parents and ancestors. Therefore, it’s potentially quite a lot of different things and individual families often emphasize different forms of heritage over another.
For example, some people will emphasize the language or culinary traditions passed down through the generations. Others might think more about ethnic phenotypes or national pride. Heritage can encompass generational family values like community service or aptitudes like artistry or athleticism.
Heritage, in any form, is an inherited sense of our distinct family identity, the good and the bad. A sense for one’s heritage can give us a context to help us make sense of ourselves as individuals. We sometimes call this representation or mirroring; when children have healthy relationships with adults who share their traits. Children who see themselves in those they love, learn to love themselves.
A strong sense of heritage can make people and communities resilient in the face of suffering and fight back against oppression. Embarrassingly, I think of the movies Braveheart and 300 (the one about the Spartans), but better examples aren’t hard to find.
There are many reasons why someone may not have knowledge of their heritage or have missing pieces of knowledge. Throughout history, when one group of people seek to conquer another, erasing their heritage is a common and effective tactic.
We see this in the Old Testament when the Israelites were conquered. We see it in the way European Americans enslaved Africans and terrorized Native Americans, stripping them of their language, hairstyles, and family connections. When Communist China sought the reshape the people’s national identity, many family genealogy books (which recorded family values and stories as well as hundreds of years of lineage) were sought out and burned.
There are also those who have voluntarily disconnected themselves from their heritage. Maybe it was to distance themselves from a painful family identity. Maybe to trade it in for a different group identity that gave access to privileges they wouldn’t have had otherwise. In either case, that usually signals the end of the passing down that family identity to future generations.
When heritage is lost or erased, we lose a piece of the natural human experience. We lose the ability to learn about who we are with the support of that broader context of family identity.
One last thing before I wrap up these thoughts.
The most powerful thing I’ve learned on this reclamation journey is that my identity as a Christian was never meant to replace my heritage, but to restore it. Sarah Shin’s book, Beyond Colorblind, really cracked this wide open for me.
This realization is powerful because I grew up understanding my identity and salvation through a white lens. In other words, a lens that naturally devalued ethnic heritage.
If we understand “white” as a group identity based on the made-up (false) concept of racial categories, then we understand that “white people” have a real ethnic heritage. For example; Welsh, Breton, German. However, generations of European immigrants downplayed their ethnic heritage in order to self-identify as white and access the privileges of whiteness. For example; access to citizenship, ability to own land, vote.
Reading the Bible through a white lens, it appears that is what we are to do as Christians as well. We leave behind our ethnic heritage (worldly identities) to better identify with Christ and access the privileges of salvation; what we inherit as an adopted child of God.
As an adoptee, I believed I would find more wholeness and satisfaction in replacing my heritage than in reclaiming it. My adoptive family’s heritage became mine, and that wasn’t necessarily bad. But I should have seen that as an addition to, not a replacement for, the identity I’d lost.
Reading the Bible through the lens of non-white cultures, it’s clear God never intended anyone to give up their entire identity. After all, the Bible depicts every tribe, nation and tongue represented in heaven. Instead, being in Christ allows us to restore that which was broken and lost. That way we can embody Christ’s love through our distinct family identities.
This is why I feel reclaiming lost heritage is so vital. It is part of Christ’s healing work to make me whole; to learn to love the parts of myself that God created for good, no longer devaluing God’s work. It is part of how God will work through me to fight injustice and strengthen me to endure suffering.
Of course, I’m learning that reclaiming our heritage is risky and costly. I’ll write again about the risks and rewards. For now I’ll just say I do believe my security in Christ is what enables me to confront the painful things in my heritage and not let fear of more loss paralyze me.