Asia-Pacific Worlds in Motion V: Migration Beyond Borders (St. John’s College, UBC)

I am currently at a graduate student conference called Asia-Pacific Worlds in Motion V: Migration Beyond Borders at the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) St. John’s College. This is a conference co-organized by graduate students at UBC and the National University of Singapore started by my friend and colleague Mark Lawrence Santiago in 2008.  I was a co-organizer of its third iteration (Mobile Identities) in 2010, also at St. John’s College, and I play a marginal alumnus role on this year’s committee, though I’ve been appointed the point person on site for the conference (although the credit for organizing really goes to largely to the co-chairs, Lachlan Barber and Kara Shin).

I presented in a panel this afternoon on Migrant Families and Youth, along with my fellow co-panelists from UBC’s Educational Studies program, Yao Xiao and Ee-Seul Yoon, as well as our discussant, education and family scholar Dr. Mona Gleason. Yao presented on ‘The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: educational narratives of migrant families in urban China,’ and Ee-Seul spoke on ‘Border anxiety in migrant youths’ phenomenology of secondary school choice in Vancouver.’ My presentation was titled Re-working Family Values: ‘conservative’ and ‘progressive’ approaches to family and religion in Hong Kong. Here’s the abstract:

In its contemporary usage, the term ‘family values’ has come to evoke strong feelings, usually along the lines of sexuality.  The term has usually been employed by religious groups, and those who dub themselves ‘pro-family values’ might argue that the term encompasses more than sexuality and should translate more broadly into public policies that encourage more healthy family psychology, thus discouraging gambling, drug abuse, and pornography while encouraging best parental practices.  In this paper, I will explore a neglected dimension of ‘family values’ by examining Protestant and Catholic approaches to the ‘right of abode’ in Hong Kong.  A key policy issue under contestation in Hong Kong is the rights of those entering Hong Kong to reside there, especially with regards to temporary foreign domestic workers and pregnant women from the People’s Republic of China entering Hong Kong to give birth.  The Protestant and Catholic approaches to this migration issue are strikingly different.  While evangelical Protestant leaders have concentrated on the sexual and psychological dimensions of family values, they view these migrations as undocumented, and thus illegal.  However, a coalition of Catholics and progressive Protestants who are said to be more liberal on sexual issues approach the issue precisely as one of family values, for to deny the right of abode would divide families.  I draw on 43 key informant interviews with both Protestant and Catholic leaders, in Hong Kong, 5 focus groups with Protestant Christians, and documentary evidence to triangulate the oral data.  This paper thus introduces the term ‘family values’ into a discussion of transnational families and migration policy and argues that ideologies of family must be more carefully examined in Asia-Pacific migration studies, as they have direct relevance to migration policy.

As a panel, we are very grateful to Mona for responding about the ways each of our papers explored how families constitute the nation-state by making the personal political, with the state and families themselves constructing all sorts of borders to conceptualize the family.

We also had a fantastic keynote talk this morning from my friend and co-author Dr. Johanna Waters on ‘Education Beyond Borders? some implications of contemporary educational migrations,’ in which she examined the stories of failure emerging from international education as well as its domestication through extension campuses in post-colonial sites. Tomorrow morning, Dr. Eric Thompson will speak on ‘Singapore perspectives on migration research: a review.

This conference is always an excellent space for conversation because of the interdisciplinarity of the participants, and what I have experienced so far has been very productive. I’m very excited about the next two days.

Posting with Jim Wellman on Niebuhr and Obama

My friend and supervisor for next year’s post-doctoral fellowship, Jim Wellman, and I collaborated on a post for his Patheos blog on American religion. It’s titled ‘Drones, Mr. Niebuhr, and President Obama.

As we watched Barack Obama justify drone warfare as a just war policy yesterday, we were struck by how many allusions there were to the work of mainline Protestant theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr. Wellman is arguably one of the current top authorities on Niebuhr, and generously, he took on some of my comments in his blog, including some work on Christian pacifism that responds to Niebuhr. If you have not seen Obama’s speech, do watch it here:

I see these comments as continuous with my work in geographies of religion, a field that I have theorized as not only as a subfield within cultural geographies (as it is more popularly conceived), but as an analytical axis by which political, economic, and cultural geographies can be interpreted. As I argued in my piece on ‘grounded theologies,’ geographers who use religion and secularization must reveal modern geographies to be theologically constituted, as the ‘secular’ can also be read (as per the Immanent Frame) as a theological orientation. Obama’s speech on security, counterterrorism, and geopolitics is a prime example. While it is ostensibly non-religious and non-theological, that he uses Niebuhr’s ‘proximate justice’ theory to argue that drone warfare is a form of just war policy suggests that he is in fact doing theology through public policy. Wellman and I argue that whatever you think of Obama, you really have to contend with Obama’s theological framework if you want to seriously engage him in democratic conversation and debate.

The implication here is that religious and theological literacy is a primary task for any ‘secular’ discipline. While there are hard secularists who may scoff at this notion, that even those parties lay claim to something called ‘secular’ is to say something about ‘religion’ or ‘theology’; if those statements are said ignorantly, it does a disfavour to everyone in the public forum. This is why I feel so happy that I’ll be working with Wellman. Recently, he had me sit in a seminar class that he’s teaching on American megachurches, where we conversed with non-geography students with arguably one of the most important books to come out in geographies of religion, Justin Wilford’s Sacred Subdivisions. As we covered a lot of ground exploring how Wilford conceptualizes Saddleback Church’s usage of space as a cultural geographer, I couldn’t help but be cheered that a discipline like human geography–one that has been conceptualized as uncritically secular until very recently–was contributing to public religious literacy in the form of these students grappling with this geography text. I think this signals good times ahead for geographies of religion, if I might be so presumptuous.

Working with Wellman will allow me to sharpen some of my own theological and religious reading, especially in American mainline Protestant theology, which will supplement what I currently know about geographies of evangelicalism and the critical crypto-Catholic conversation on secularization in theology and religious studies. This in turn will help refine what I have to say about Asian American, Asian Canadian, and Asia-Pacific religions. All of this is not a deviation from my work in geographies of religion and grounded theologies. It’s an extension and refinement, as all of this stuff is very spatially oriented and thus very geographical.

Thank you, Jim, for the opportunity. I look forward to the fun times ahead.