SSHRC Postdoctoral Award, Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington

While this will come as no news to many of my acquaintances, I am pleased to formally announce that I will be taking up a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada Postdoctoral Award at the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle, beginning on 1 January 2014. This is an externally funded postdoctoral award from the Government of Canada that allowed me to apply by proposing an international institution at which to hold the fellowship.  The purpose is for freshly minted Canadian doctoral graduates to be postdoctoral fellows as part of an institution’s academic life. My award funds my postdoctoral fellowship for two years while providing me with a base from which to get launched onto the academic job market.

I chose the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington because I wanted to be part of an institution where I could augment my studies in religion while being part of a community that valued my disciplinary home in human geography and my topical interest in Asian American and Asian Canadian studies. I was attracted to the Jackson School because of the Comparative Religion Unit directed by Professor James K. Wellman, Jr., who will be my postdoctoral supervisor. As a specialist in Protestant studies, Wellman is a good fit because of his knowledge of mainline Protestant studies (I have found his readings of the Niebuhr brothers very enlightening, particularly as he grounds their work ethnographically; see The Gold Coast Church and the Ghetto: Christ and Culture in Mainline Protestantism) and evangelical studies (see Evangelical vs. Liberal), including in new evangelical paradigms and megachurch models (see Rob Bell and a New American Christianity). I look forward to working with him to develop my interests in American religion while reading and writing broadly around the nexus of religious studies and theology, which means that I will continue to engage the revisionist conversation on secularization as well. The Comparative Religion Unit is also a base from which to network with a diverse range of scholars across departments at the University of Washington whom I plan to engage in conversation about trends in the social sciences of religion. Finally, because the unit is located within the Jackson School, this situates me in an institution that cares about Canada-America relations, human geography, and Asian American/Asian Canadian/trans-Pacific migration and ethnic studies. I plan also to contact geographers and Asian Americanists for further conversation.

My postdoctoral project is titled Witnessing in the None Zone: Younger Generation Asian North American Protestants and public engagement in the Pacific Northwest. Following on the heels of my doctoral project on Cantonese Protestant engagements with the public sphere, this project now moves to a ‘younger-generation’ Asian American and Asian Canadian Protestant population and how they engage existing publics while creating new ones. By younger generation, I mean to say that I am not only interested in ‘second-generation’ Asian North Americans who are born in North America, but also 1.5-generation and transnational migrants as well. The project starts in the Pacific Northwest (especially Metro Seattle and Metro Vancouver) because much of the work that has been done on younger-generation Asian Americans has been conducted in California. This approach does not exclude the Californian case studies; instead, it can be a way to compare and contrast newer ethnographic work in the Pacific Northwest with the work in California. The Pacific Northwest is itself important because it has been conceptualized by many as a ‘none zone’ of religious life, and the fact that Asian Americans and Asian Canadians are engaging and creating theological publics in these sites may serve as a challenge to that thesis. By starting in the Pacific Northwest, I plan to later extend my postdoctoral fellowship work to other sites southward (say, to the San Francisco Bay Area, Greater Los Angeles, and sites in Texas, such as Houston and Austin) and eastward (say, to Chicago, Toronto, Boston, and New York), depending on where the connections may lead and whether these publics are bound by metropolitan units (as in my doctoral work) or conceptualize their geographical parameters differently. Again, the project does not focus on congregations, per se; it examines rather how younger-generaton Asian American and Asian Canadian Protestants engage and create publics, including in electoral politics, grassroots activism, planting congregations (one area of inquiry is whether congregational sites are conceptualized as public or private), participating in circulations of material culture, and involvement in social media (this list is not exhaustive! I am preparing to be surprised by my findings!). My plan is to start interviewing key informants at the beginning of 2014. In other words, details are forthcoming.

In addition to conducting this new research, I will also be writing papers to submit into academic journals in geography, religious studies, and American ethnic studies, while also converting my dissertation into a book to be submitted to an academic publisher. Finally, in keeping with the regulations of my grant, I will be teaching one course at the Jackson School on American religion in the Winter Quarter in 2014. I will write about that course separately.


I look forward to my time in Seattle as an opportunity for further professional development. I anticipate that there will be a lot to learn, and I am very excited to be working with James Wellman. This postdoctoral fellowship promises to be a time that will hone my work on religious and racialized publics, and I am very eager to be challenged in ways that I will not have previously imagined.

PhD Defence and Program Completion

With the successful completion and defence of my doctoral dissertation, I am pleased to announce that the University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies has sent me a note to tell me that I have completed all of the program requirements for the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Geography.  This means that I officially have a PhD in hand.  The degree will in turn be formally conferred at the next Spring Convocation in 2014.

I am happy to share the link for my dissertation, Religious Politics in Pacific Space: Grounding Cantonese Protestant Theologies in Secular Civil Societies, from cIRcle, UBC’s online repository of theses and dissertations. I am in the process of finalizing the details as I start a postdoctoral fellowship externally funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada. This will take place at the University of Washington in Seattle under the direction of Professor James Wellman, Jr. I will be starting on a new postdoctoral project there (details forthcoming), and I will also be trying to turn this dissertation into a book while generating academic journal articles from it.

I defended the dissertation on 3 December 2013. My supervisory committee consisted of Professor David Ley (UBC Geography; my advisor), Professor Henry Yu (UBC History and Principal, St. John’s College), Dr. Claire Dwyer (University College London, Geography), and Professor Rudy Busto (UC Santa Barbara, Religious Studies). Of this committee, David Ley and Henry Yu were present. The departmental examiner was Professor Dan Hiebert (UBC Geography). The university examiner was Professor Don Lewis (Regent College, Church History). The external examiner was Professor Paul Cloke (University of Exeter, Geography). Chairing the proceedings was Professor Leanne Bablitz (UBC, Classical, Near Eastern, and Religious Studies).

The defence took place at 9 AM on 3 December. After the chair read the rules (including the very ironic statement that ‘latecomers will not be admitted’), I gave a 25-minute presentation on my dissertation. This was followed by almost two hours of questions from each of the examiners; David Ley voiced the questions from the external, Paul Cloke. I passed the entire ordeal with minor revisions, which were completed in one day and then submitted to the Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies with the approval of the committee. The dissertation was archived today.

The defence covered many of the fundamental points of the thesis’s overall argument. The dissertation set out to answer the question, What are the imaginations and practices that constitute the engagements of Cantonese Protestants with the civil societies of Metro Vancouver, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Hong Kong Special Administrative Region? The argument was that most Cantonese Protestants unintentionally but inadvertently reinforced the secularization thesis as a theological practice when they engaged in such public activities because they tended to reinforce the privacy of religion while leveraging an essentialized ethnicity to maximize their impact on secular public spheres. Accordingly, most of the questions addressed this central question. Many asked me to defend my view that secularization and ‘religion’ are not binary opposites but fall under the rubric of ‘grounded theologies.’ Others poked into whether my assertion that transnational linkages between Hong Kong and the North American sites were sparse could be generated from the empirical material (it can, if one takes a grounded public/private split seriously, which forms the basis of my argument about secularization). Still others interrogated my spatial re-orientation of terms like ‘progressive’ and ‘conservative’ to signify how congregations relate spatially to their civil societies.

I am very grateful to each of the committee members for reading the thesis with such care. I am also extremely thankful for my friends who attended the defence and critically engaged me during the public discussion. I am told that few candidates have so many friends who attend, let alone ask such pointed–yet supportive–questions. These were from members of the community, one of which asked me to point hopeful ways forward for Cantonese Protestant theologies (revealing my very open positionality as a confessing and practicing Christian) and another of which asked me to relate my findings to parallels and contrasts with the black church (speaking into very interesting emerging conversations in theology about race and theology). For more about my personal theological practice, including my strange connection with the black church, see here.

I will emphasize that what it means that I have a PhD in hand is that now I am recognized by the academic community as someone who has demonstrated that I can do research and teach in my field. In other words, I am now officially qualified to learn more. This does not signify the end of things; it means that I’m at the very beginning of a very long journey. I have a lot more to learn, a lot more to think about, and a lot more to stay in conversation about. That I am revising the thesis into publications suggests that I will do much more thinking about the topic in addition and connection to my postdoctoral project, and for that, I will appreciate the chance to remain in conversation with those who are interested. The program is completed, but the conversation is just starting. I am grateful and excited.

POSTSCRIPT: for those who want to read the periodic updates I had on my program, they can be found here:

South China Morning Post: Children of rich Chinese home alone in Canada face challenges

I am grateful to the South China Morning Post‘s Ian Young for writing an article last Monday on the publication that Jo Waters and I coauthored in Global Networks on transnational youth transitions between Hong Kong and Vancouver. More on the actual article can be found here.

Illustration: Sarene Chan

After the piece published by Douglas Todd in the Vancouver Sun came out, Ian Young contacted Jo and me for a follow-up article in the South China Morning Post. While Doug went mostly with what our academic publication said, Ian wanted to learn more for himself about the phenomenon in a sort of boots-on-the-ground way. In addition to interviewing Jo and me (and props to him for noting that Jo is a fellow of Kellogg College, Oxford), he also interviewed a Taiwanese young man in order to round out the picture. This asymmetry between the Taiwanese and Hongkonger examples is only slightly problematic because Ian was cognizant of the difference and because he was suggesting that this phenomenon had more to do with a sort of Greater China geography than Hong Kong. The jury is still out on that, though the original theorists like Aihwa Ong and Donald Nonini in fact presume it, and I would like to see more research on different Chinese transnationalisms (pace Weiqiang Lin) to provide even more differentiated portraits.

I am grateful to Ian for writing up this piece as a work of long-form journalism, which (as he tells me) is often hard to come by these days. I’m fairly happy with the way it turned out. My comments were based mostly on the literature and our findings, and references to the economic calculations of transnational migrants from Hong Kong can be found throughout the work of David Ley, Jo Waters, Katharyne Mitchell, and Kris Olds. I am also glad that Ian was fairly careful about not having Jo and me give definitive advice for those contemplating transnational family arrangements; far be it from us to tell any family what to do! Instead, both Jo and I were quoted as emphasizing the possible emotional consequences of split families as factors for consideration. Finally, my only regret with my comments has nothing to do with Ian, but rather in my forgetfulness to mention that this emphasis on material familial bonds has long been a subject of discussion in Chinese American and Chinese Canadian history, and the go-to work on that is Madeline Hsu’s Dreaming of Gold, Dreaming of Home.

Again, I am very glad that Ian Young contacted us about this story. To reiterate my previous posts, I am finding that these connections between academia and journalism are proving very educational for me, helping me learn about issues that are both similar and different between academic conversations and what is happening in public discourse. What is fascinating about Ian’s work is that as he is based in Vancouver, he is interested in chronicling events in the transnational social field between Vancouver and Hong Kong as a public sphere of sorts, and I will be reading with interest how he will implicitly theorize this public. These public connections are never about private publicity; they are about understanding why academia is a public good that can collaborate with other sectors, such as journalism, to inform a larger public conversation. To that end, I look forward to working with Ian Young in the future as we keep the conversation going.