Vancouver Sun: The struggles of affluent East Asian youth in Canada

In this post, I’ll discuss the Vancouver Sun‘s publication of some of the findings in a paper that Johanna Waters and I co-authored in Global Networks. I’ve written about the actual article here, and that’s where I discuss our experimental methodology and some of our key findings.

I like the article that Douglas Todd has written about our piece. This wasn’t something that I set him up to do; in fact, I didn’t even know that he was working on it until he emailed me telling me that it was in that very day’s paper and that he had already gotten feedback on it. As I said, I have been on vacation, so I hadn’t seen a Vancouver Sun where I was vacationing and am relying on the online copy.

The article rightly situates our piece in a longer literature that includes pioneering work done by my supervisor, David Ley, as well as Audrey Kobayashi and Elaine Ho (who incidentally edited the first article I ever published). As those who have read this literature will know, our piece takes seriously this recent literature’s attention to the ’emotional turn’ in cultural geography, an approach to studying space and place that takes seriously how perceptions and constructions of geographies are constituted by emotions. In particular, our piece focuses on the emotional geographies of young people transitioning to adulthood between Hong Kong and Vancouver. Todd reads our two empirical sections fairly and carefully. First, the young people we interviewed described their experience of their family’s supervisory practices as ‘sporadic’ and ‘fragmented’ because while they were grounded in Vancouver, their families often lived at a geographical distance. Second, the young people said that they felt attached to Vancouver, whereas Hong Kong often felt like a ‘hostile’ environment where they didn’t have friends and where they could imagine work hours being unbearable. I am happy with the way that Todd has read our article.

What I’d like to reflect on here is the relationship between academia and journalism. In the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about this, especially because Douglas Todd’s work and my work are starting to have points of convergence and because Sarah Pulliam Bailey has been doing so well covering the Asian American evangelical activism of which I have been a part. As I said when Todd first interviewed me, I felt that the relationship that we were developing was collegial, and I continue to feel that way. To work with journalists is not to seek publicity. It is to be committed to an academia that engages the public sphere and that demonstrates that academic freedom is vital to our democratic discourse. Working with my colleagues in journalism, I’ve gained a greater appreciation of why the press needs to be free, why it’s important that private entities should not control the press’s discourse (this includes when they read my work), and how the academic conversation is enriched when more public voices are brought into the picture.

For this article, I’m glad that Todd decided to give the article his own read without consulting me. I got a sense of why this research was important to our public discourse. Jo Waters and I had our angle, of course, and that was that our public discourse should not simply assume that children growing up in transnational social fields necessarily desire to live transnational lifestyles. But with Todd bringing it to the public sphere, I’ve been impressed by how important it is that this message gets out, especially in our public conversations about migration and citizenship. I write with gratefulness for Todd’s journalistic craft (and for Bailey’s, for that matter). They are teaching me so much about their trade and how we can work together between our different guilds, and I am grateful for their patience and for their collegiality.

UPDATE: After writing this post, I had the opportunity to read some of the comments about our research. I’m thankful for the many people who resonated, and I’m also grateful for those who posted critical comments that might help us refine our future endeavours. Two comments stick out for me, and I’d like to address them here. First, there is the observation that we ‘forgot’ to interview migrants from the People’s Republic of China (PRC), as the ‘astronaut’ phenomenon encompasses more than Hongkongers and there are Hongkongers who work in major cities on the mainland. Second, some noted that this research describes a long phenomenon that can be observed since 1990 (and perhaps before).

Allow me to respond to both, as both can serve as a teaching moment for what we do in academia.

Both Jo Waters and I focused on Hongkongers in our respective projects. This was a practical consideration, as we wanted to limit ourselves to one segment of the Chinese diaspora, and as Weiqiang Lin notes, there are many other Chinese cosmopolitanisms to explore (such as, for Lin, Singapore’s ‘global schoolhouse’). Moreover, we have colleagues who do work on PRC migrants to Vancouver, such as Elaine Ho and Sin Yih Teo. Our study is thus not a comprehensive one that looks at every facet of Chinese transnationalism; instead, academics work with literatures–whole bodies of work–and our contribution is partly to the literature on Chinese transnationalism (as well as literatures on unconventional youth transitions to adulthood, emotional geographies, and cross-border movements more generally). In addition, studying Hongkongers allows for interesting comparative work with the PRC migrants, as well as the ability to unpack how Hongkongers perceive PRC migrants, a theme that was very much part of my master’s work (see this article also) and that has made it obliquely into my PhD work.

We are also aware of how dated the phenomenon that we are studying is. However, it’s partly because we’ve had such a long time to reflect, including the time elapsed between our two projects, that we’ve been able to make some of the claims we make. Again, this provides good comparative material for the new research emerging from our colleagues as well as a call to our fellow researchers to pay attention to the voices of young people in these transnational social fields.

Exponential and the Open Letter

It has been one week since the Asian American Open Letter to the Evangelical Church was released on  I am one of the original signatories and part of the planning committee for this open letter.


Because I have been on vacation over the last two weeks, I apologize for my delay in blogging about this important event, as well as an article in the Vancouver Sun that featured some research that Johanna Waters and I did on transnational youth between Hong Kong and Vancouver.  This post will cover my involvement in the publication of the open letter.  A forthcoming post will focus on the Vancouver Sun article.

My involvement in the Asian American open letter began when Religion News Service’s Sarah Pulliam Bailey contacted the group of us who had blogged about the Rick Warren ‘Red Guard’ fiasco and said that she had obtained information about an orientalizing incident at Exponential, a church planting conference that was incidentally being hosted at Saddleback Church but had no connection to the actual church itself.  Kathy Khang has provided a rundown here of what happened.  The gist of things is as follows: the Rev. Christine Lee, a Korean American Episcopal priest and assistant rector at All Angels’ Church, New York, tweeted that she had seen a skit at the conference where a white pastor used an orientalizing accent, but when she reported her concerns, her comments were brushed off.  This tweet was shared by Asian American writers Kathy Khang and Helen Lee, who proceeded to write the open letter.  Sarah Pulliam Bailey directly obtained the story from these tweets.

My comment to Bailey was that this second incident demonstrates the necessity for why the conversation must remain public.  I said: ‘It is worth observing that it has almost been 10 years since ‘Rickshaw Rally,’ and there are prominent American evangelical publishers, conferences, and pastors who still use Orientalizing imagery’. What I was doing was to place this incident in a historical trajectory that dates back to the Asian American evangelical campaign to pull ‘Rickshaw Rally’ from Lifeway Publishers’ Vacation Bible School publications in 2004. I am thankful that the open letter also uses this trajectory, because the concerns of Asian American evangelicals focus on whether they in fact have a place in American evangelicalism, especially if prominent pastors and publishers feel free to orientalize them despite a decade of protests. (It would be a worthy academic history project to check if there is activism that predates this decade, and whether those activists are connected to the ones at present.) As I have said repeatedly, each of these incidents were public, which makes a public response to them, including one via the press, extremely appropriate.

Over the week after Bailey’s article was published, the planning committee for the open letter gathered signatures. Exponential also issued a public apology after gathering a group of Asian Americans to talk about the skit, at which the story is that Jeya So’s story about her past of being bullied as an Asian American resonated with the conference organizers. I signed the letter to indicate my public support for this public response to these public cases of orientalization. The signatories comprise people gathered from diverse points on the theological spectrum. It is worth noting that this is a letter to the evangelical church and thus includes those conventionally labeled the ‘mainline’ and those whose theological orientations are ‘liberal’ and ‘liberationist.’

The idea now is to keep this conversation about the place of Asian Americans in American evangelicalism–and indeed, in American religion–public.  Indeed, the letter indicates that this is not so much a letter that goes on an attack, but rather, it is an invitation to a public conversation. As some noted to me, the letter struck them as conciliatory, and I agree; it should not sound a note of aggression.  Instead, it signals that while private conversations are necessary, like the one that led to Exponential’s informed apology, they are insufficient. If a decade has passed since Rickshaw Rally, then this conversation about race and orientalization must be had with American evangelicals in a public forum, one whose openness provides some accountability for actual change to happen.

This public conversation is in turn not a niche conversation. It is good for our public sphere. In a social and political situation where evangelicals are themselves the subject of public discourse, this conversation fits within key debates that are being had in American civil society, especially regarding the intersection of faith and politics. The openness of the open letter is one way to enter into this conversation because it interrogates whether the word ‘evangelical’ in our public discourse is inclusive of Asian Americans. If it is not, that would be curious indeed, given the observations in the social science of religion that Asian Americans are a quickly growing group of evangelicals and have historically been part of key American Protestant conversations. This open letter is thus an invitation to a broader conversation about American religion, especially because American religion concerns every person in the American public, and if that’s the case, then it is an imperative to know what we’re talking about when we talk about ‘evangelicals,’ including the fact that there are many Asian Americans who are very much included in that term.

UPDATE: Those interested in how these initial thoughts turned into reflections on how ‘the private consensus is unraveling’ should read my post on Religion Ethnicity Wired. Admittedly, the framing of the ‘private consensus’ and its undoing in this blog post is limited to American religion. My postdoctoral framework for the concept has to do with the Pacific Rim.