Visiting Assistant Professor, Asian American Studies Program, Northwestern University

I am pleased to formally announce on this blog that I have accepted a position at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL as Visiting Assistant Professor in the Asian American Studies Program. I will start there in September, teaching five courses over the year on a quarter system; my contract there is for two years.

I am very excited about this new program at Northwestern because its story mirrors many similar themes in the history of Asian American studies as a discipline. Like many other ethnic studies departments, Asian American studies at Northwestern began with a student strike – including a hunger strike – contesting the university’s commitment to a colorblind liberalism with a radical call to serve communities of color. By 1999, a program was put together, and just last year in 2015, it began offering an undergraduate major in Asian American studies.

My introduction to Asian American studies as a discipline can also be traced back to the influence of one of this program’s core faculty, Carolyn Chen, who is now at the University of California, Berkeley. I met Carolyn through the Asian Pacific Islander and Religion Research Initiative (APARRI) conference that was held at Claremont School of Theology in 2009; it was she who encouraged me to gain broader exposure to Asian American studies by attending the Association of Asian American Studies’ (AAAS) annual meetings. Because of this, I am thankful to have had a brilliant visit to Evanston during the 2015 AAAS meeting when we stayed one block away from Northwestern at the Hilton Orrington, during which I discovered that Evanston is home to all of the familiar Asian American cuisines that have been part of my diet on the West Coast.

I suspect that it is also because of Carolyn that Northwestern’s conception of Asian American studies – far from being antagonistic to religion (as it is in other parts of the discipline, particularly those that take to a very particular bent of materialist analysis) – understands that religion and even conservative ideologies circulate through Asian American communities as much as secularities, liberal democratic philosophies, and radicalisms. Indeed, Carolyn pioneered the course at Northwestern on Asian American religion, a class that I will also teach, with the encouragement of my new colleagues, who have been very kind to me as I make this transition to their academic home.

For me, Asian American studies is fundamentally about the study of the ideologies that constitute Asian America regardless of whether I subscribe to them or not; as I understand it, this is what it means to be committed to the community as an activist scholar committed to racial justice. As the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire once said of community education: ‘A real humanist can be identified more by his trust in the people, which engages him in their struggle, than by a thousand actions in their favor without that trust.’ As one of my new colleagues, historian Ji-Yeon Yuh, reminded me in one of our earlier conversations, Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed was banned during the 1970s dictatorship in the Republic of Korea, which means that it was photocopied and secretly circulated and therefore seriously treasured as a text of liberation during the minjung movement, a theological activism that has come also to influence Asian American theological politics. Put this way, I do not really understand how it is intellectually plausible to sunder materialist and theological analyses in Asian America, and my new colleagues seem quite open to me thinking this way.

I am thus very excited about my upcoming appointment at Northwestern. As I see the course list that I discussed with my colleague Shalini Shankar and with which I’ll be working closely with Ji-Yeon over the next year, it is reflective of what I understand to be the modus operandi of Northwestern’s Asian American Studies Program. In the Fall Quarter, I’ll be teaching a course on Comparative Minority Conservatisms, examining the way that conservative ideologies have circulated through communities of color, especially in light of the 2016 federal elections in the United States. In the Winter Quarter, I’ll be teaching Asian American history (a survey course that introduces themes in Asian American studies) and Chinese American Experience (a course that looks at themes in Chinese American studies, which is the focus of my research in Asian American studies). In the Spring Quarter, I’ll teach Asian American religion (which was Carolyn’s course, although I think I will give it my own spin as well) and Asian American social movements (which will give students a sense of the rich tradition of Asian American radicalism). This course list should show my commitment to teaching through a variety of ideologies circulating through Asian American communities, what those ideologies may have to do with religion and secularity in Asian America, and how understanding these ideologies helps with the cause of racial justice.

I’m very excited about going to Northwestern, and I hope to be blogging from there as well, so I will keep you posted about how things unfold there with both my teaching and how my research on occupy movements and theology in Asia and Asian America my research on occupy movements and theology in Asia and Asian America unfolds.

Chinese America: History and Perspectives: Liberal Protestant Chinatown: Social Gospel Geographies in Chinese San Francisco

I am very pleased to announce the publication of one of my articles in the very interesting peer-reviewed academic-community-collaboration journal, Chinese America: History and Perspectives – The Journal of the Chinese Historical Society of America. I picked up my copy of the most recent issue at the Chinese Historical Society of America (CHSA) directly after the field trip that I led for the American Association of Geographers in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Founded by the late Chinese American historian Him Mark Lai, this journal’s point of interest for me is that it speaks directly to how the academic work done at San Francisco State University’s (SFSU) College of Ethnic Studies – the founding site of critical ethnic studies – is immediately related to community organizations. With the recent academic controversy around the university budget cuts that immediately affect this College, the perseverance of this journal is quite moving, especially as it looks like the journal is growing with an editorial board that is starting to look like a who’s who of Chinese American studies.


My contribution to this issue, which is backdated to 2015 (academic journals sometimes take time to produce!), is titled ‘Liberal Protestant Chinatown: Social Gospel Geographies in Chinese San Francisco.‘ Here’s the first paragraph as an abstract of sorts:

This paper is about the cultural geography of what I call “Liberal Protestant Chinatown” in San Francisco’s Chinatown. I show that, since the 1920s and 1930s, a younger generation of Chinese Americans coming of age in San Francisco espoused a “liberal” theology, which in American Protestantism refers to the interpretation of Christian conversion as the “social gospel,” the call to convert the structures of society to be more politically and economically equitable based on a rational, scientific view of just distribution in modern circumstances. While this liberalism is usually opposed to a “fundamentalist” position seeking to defend the scientific inerrancy of the biblical text and the primacy of individual subjective conversion in Christian experience, Liberal Protestant Chinatown rejected both the conservatism of Christians who placed their emphasis on personal subjectivity and a non-Christian Chinese establishment in Chinatown that sought to retain village kinship structures, clan associations, and ritual practices. In this way, liberal Protestants sought to build a new trans-Pacific cultural geography in Chinatown, one marked neither by missionary activity to westernize China nor by an economy linking the United States with Chinese villages, which they alleged at the time to be fraught with the criminal underworld trafficking of persons and narcotics (although this is difficult to fully substantiate and led during this period also to the unfair stereotyping of Chinese American young men as gangsters and “gooks,” which the liberal Protestants also sought to mitigate). My central argument is that the social gospel of Liberal Protestant Chinatown thus configured the cultural geography of Chinatown into a network of non-profit organizations seeking legitimate economic advancement for Chinese Americans in the 1950s and 1960s, reframing “Chineseness” as the local heritage of the Chinatown community for which they sought material improvement.

Consider this my first published try at attempting a theological re-reading of the discipline of Asian American studies. Certainly, there have been many other attempts at this – look no further than the work of Rudy Busto, David Kyuman Kim, Russell Jeung, and Timothy Tseng, especially at their essays in the formidable Revealing the Sacred in Asian and Pacific America –  but I suppose what I’m trying to contribute to this enterprise in this essay is to show that a site like San Francisco’s Chinatown is a place ripe for studying the material manifestations of Asian America as a theology. Moreover, my paper deals explicitly with the rift within Chinese American studies (which has spilled out across Asian American studies) between Frank Chin’s anti-Christian advocacy within Asian American literature and feminist novelists who have some connection to San Francisco’s Chinatown (especially Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan). For these ideas, I am also very grateful to Dean Adachi for organizing a session at the Association of Asian American Studies in 2014 on San Francisco as the ‘Asian American Holy City,’ where I presented the first iteration of this paper. I also cite one of my students from my trans-Pacific Christianities class, Mariam Mathew, who wrote a very helpful paper probing why Frank Chin hates Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club so much. In some ways, then, this is also a contribution to understanding that academic-community nexus in Asian American studies as constituted by ‘grounded theologies.’ You could say that I think that the grounded theologies in Chinese American studies are worth much more interrogation, and I plan to do just that in future articles, hopefully to be published in other Asian American studies journals.

Some have asked about which churches I covered in this essay. The answer is that my research is awkwardly situated in relation to the norms of sociological congregational studies, which means that I often engage churches as institutions when they are part of the story I am telling about Cantonese Protestant engagements with civil society. While readers will find references, say, to First Chinese Baptist Church, Cumberland Presbyterian Chinese Church, and the Presbyterian Church in Chinatown, this paper is really about San Francisco’s Chinatown more generally as a civil society – that Chinatown itself should be read theologically.

I am very thankful to Chinese America: History and Perspectives‘s editor-in-chief Jonathan X. Lee (SFSU) for encouraging me to submit to this journal. Because of him, I am a big fan of this journal now; indeed, the authors in the past issues read like a who’s who in Chinese American studies. I am also grateful to the two anonymous peer reviewers whose comments strengthened this essay significantly and for the CHSA’s Johnson Zheng for seeing through all the logistics for this essay’s publication; I especially appreciated personally connecting with him when I picked up my complimentary issue from the CHSA museum last week.

Society of Race, Ethnicity, and Religion: Rethinking Reparations to Chinese North Americans (with Grace Kao)

I’m very excited to be going to Denver to present new research that I’ve done with my friend and colleague, Grace Kao (Claremont School of Theology). We’re delivering a co-authored paper at the Society of Race, Ethnicity, and Religion at the Iliff School of Theology. The keynote speakers include James Evans, Orlando Espín, and Rita Nakashima Brock. Grace and I are sharing the stage on Friday afternoon with Jeffrey Robbins, Kristian Diaz, and Grace Ji-Sun Kim.

Our paper is titled Rethinking Reparations to Chinese North Americans: A Comparative Analysis Between the U.S. and Canadian Case. We’re comparing the (non)apologies that were given to Chinese Americans for the exclusion era by Congress in 2011 and 2012 to the Chinese head tax redress that culminated in the Harper government’s apology with reparations in 2006. We’ll be assessing these apologies in light of the United Nations-backed international standard for reparations as well as the comparative case of Japanese American and Japanese Canadian redress for World War II internment. We’ll also suggest some ways to repair the reparations in light of new redress efforts, especially for African Americans and Canada’s First Nations.

We’re very excited for this conference and the conversations that will unfold from this. At a personal and professional level, I’m thrilled to be working with Grace. Grace served as a discussant for a panel that I organized at the 2012 American Academy of Religion. Her critique of my paper was so incisive that over coffee with her afterward, I asked her to teach me the ways in Christian ethics. It’s really because of her that I know anything about the Niebuhrs, Ramsey, and Rawls, as well as where Alasdair MacIntyre and Stanley Hauerwas fit on the map of Christian ethics. The brilliance of this project is that someone that I have long considered my teacher has become my peer. Bringing our projects together – mine on Cantonese Protestants in Vancouver and hers on the ethics of reparations to aggrieved communities – we’ve managed to write a paper that we both like, bridging geography and ethics. Of course, we talk quite a bit in geography about ethics, but to actually work with an ethicist – that’s the next level!

Needless to say, I’m very excited for what will come of this collaboration, and I am looking forward very much to this conference.

Head tax redress, 2006 (Source: CBC)