All Equal in Jesus’ Eyes?

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By Dorcas Cheng-Tozun | Twitter: @dorcas_ct

O_Dorcas

With growing apprehension, I watched the three other girls in the room. They flitted from curling iron and hairspray to lip gloss and compact, curls bouncing and blue eyes encircled by dark bands of eyeliner. I didn’t own any makeup, hadn’t ever learned how to apply makeup in my 18 years, so I just sat on the floor, fiddling with my ponytail and wondering if I was actually ready for college.

Ten minutes later, the primping still in full swing, I looked at my schedule again to make sure I had read it right. The italicized letters, printed on crisp paper emblazoned with the university’s red logo, hadn’t changed: chapel.

In a mirror I saw my own reflection between the elbows and shoulders of the girls jostling for a closer look. My jeans and plaid, button-down shirt, an outfit I had donned rather successfully at other college visits, looked almost mournful in comparison to the ruffles, silks, and floral patterns on the other girls. My coppery skin, straight black hair, and dark brown eyes made me look even more out of place.

“Are we supposed to dress up for chapel?” I asked tentatively.

“No, it’s casual. You look fine.” The freshman who was my assigned host gave me a brief, overly bright smile in the mirror before returning to her efforts.

I glanced at the other visiting high school student, who perfectly matched the two college girls in style and appearance. I wondered if she had been privy to the memo I had somehow missed: how we looked at this Christian college really, really mattered.

It wasn’t my first time being around girls like this. In fact, I had grown up with them. I was from the San Francisco Bay Area, a region known for its expansive immigrant communities, yet somehow our family had still ended up in a nearly homogeneous suburb where most of my classmates knew no difference between Chinese, Japanese, or Korean. On more than one chilly morning, I had faced down a line of girls on the blacktop of my elementary school.

“You can’t play with us anymore,” one of them said. Their arms were locked together, their tiny faces masks of disapproval. “You can’t be our friend.”

“Why not? What did I do?” I was desperately running through every word I had said and chosen not to say the day before. I thought of every carefully timed laugh and nod of assent, wondering what I had done to make me too different to be associated with.

“Just because,” another girl huffed. Then, as one unit, they deliberately turned and walked away.

A few days later, all would be forgiven. I once again tediously followed the girls’ conversations, trying to understand what kind of activity Brownies was or where in the world Sesame Street could be. I wanted so much to be like them, but the essence of these carefree girls with their confident demeanors and big, light eyes escaped me. And just when I thought I was making progress, the cycle would begin once again on the blacktop in the crisp morning air.

As hard as I tried, I could never be on the inside circle.

I found high school to be a subtler, more mature version of the same. No one kept me out, but no one fully invited me in either. I expended so much energy maintaining my tenuous social connections that I forgot there existed friendships that were easy and sustaining.

My older sister, who had attended another Christian college, warned me I would be in an uncomfortably small minority if I followed in her footsteps. But I wanted to believe my different background wouldn’t matter in a place where Jesus came first. Regardless of how I looked, I thought it was my heart that others would see.

Yet as I walked alongside the other girls to chapel, I began to have my doubts. Their heels clicked in rhythm as they enthusiastically discussed their favorite brands and TV shows. Occasionally one would glance at me, and I could see her wanting to will some commonality into existence. But eventually the other girls huddled closer as I trailed behind, all of us accepting that I had little to contribute to the conversation.

During chapel, and then later in the cafeteria, I searched for others who looked like me—or, more importantly, others who didn’t look like everyone else. I saw only a handful of individuals—out of thousands—who weren’t white. I told myself it might still be okay. After all, we were all equally loved and accepted in Jesus’ eyes.

“What’s it like being a Christian in California?” a loud male voice caught my attention. The boy sat on the other side of the cafeteria table, his lanyard identifying him as another prospective freshman. “I mean, it’s so liberal here. My dad says no one in California is really a Christian.”

I was the only visiting student who didn’t nod at his comment. One of the college students offered assurances that, as surprising as it sounded, there were actually some wonderful, authentic Christians on the left coast. I pressed my lips together, holding back the defensive retort rising from my gut and wondering if I could ever be appreciated for who I was—on the outside or the inside—on that campus.

Truthfully, I realized I no longer wanted to find out. Picking up my tray, I slipped away from the table. No one noticed my departure as the students inched toward one another to fill the empty space, closing into a tight circle as I walked away.

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About Dorcas:

Dorcas Cheng-Tozun HeadshotDorcas Cheng-Tozun is a writer, blogger, and editor who has found healing and hope through words. Previously she worked as a nonprofit and social enterprise professional in the US and Asia. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and adorable hapa son. You can find her online at www.chengtozun.com or on Twitter @dorcas_ct

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Image credit: Sodanie Chea 

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