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.

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Guest lecturing in Steven Hu’s UCSB class

I had the privilege of guest-teaching in my friend and colleague Steven Hu‘s class on ‘Global Christianity and the Public Sphere’ at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Skype is such a powerful tool, and I’m glad that we can learn from each other across universities through this medium. It’s also always fantastic to be able to interact in such direct ways with the goings-on of UCSB’s brilliant religious studies department, the academic home of many crypto-geographers of religion (including Ann Taves, who gave the Geography of Religions and Belief Systems Annual Lecture at the national geography conference in 2013).

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I learned a lot from Steve’s students, mostly from seeing in what they were and were not interested. Steve assigned my article on the Hong Kong democracy movement and wanted me to talk about geographies of ‘grounded theologies‘ and Hong Kong. We decided to do this in more of an interview style, with Steve asking me questions about what geography is, what Hong Kong is, and what the Umbrella Movement is. I did my standard run-down of the political system in Hong Kong, its legacy of colonization, and how to make an ideological map – all of my favourite things! We also got to talk about the different ways that Catholics and Protestants label themselves vis-à-vis the term ‘Christian,’ which is one of Steve’s favourite things, and I got to tell the class about how the colloquial Cantonese term ‘talking Jesus’ is not about evangelism – it’s about a long-winded person going on and on about meaningless things (not unlike certain points of some of my meandering answers to Steve’s questions). We also talked about some of the unexpected Byzantine practices in the Umbrella Movement because finding ways to always include the Orthodox in geographies dominated by Western Christianity is how I roll.

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Oh yes, that Syndicate forum.

 

At the end of the interview-lecture, I got to ask my own questions, and I’m so grateful to Steve for providing this time because that’s where I learned the most, as that’s when we got to talk about the students’ favourite things. I asked them whether they were personally interested in Hong Kong, and that’s where things got interesting. They told me that they were interested in comparing protest movements and that the most interesting bits of the interview-lecture were the parts about how these protest movements, far from being solely focused on the secular and the material, were laced with religion. They especially connected when I held up my copy of Nathan Schneider’s Thank You, Anarchy and said that one of Schneider’s central arguments is that Occupy Wall Street generated new theologies. They also liked it when – as Steve talked about connections with the Polish Solidarity Movement – I held up my Black Madonna of Częstochowa prayer card (which they seemed to know a lot about – good job, Steve!!). And yet, I also got to respond to another student’s questions about the church’s collaboration and confrontation with the government through the lens of capital – sometimes (I said) capital will determine whether the church will kiss the state’s ass (#sorrynotsorry); after all, as I’m coming to argue, capital has amazing power to do theology – it may even be a god (or, as one of the greatest theologians of our generation, Ms Lauryn Hill, says, ‘it’s funny how money change a situation‘). That seemed to connect well with the students as well, although I could sense that there was some nervousness about the political implications of church-state-civil society separation and collaboration in protest movements. Lastly, I got to learn way more about Steve’s own research on New Calvinist urban ideologies in Shanghai, which I think for the class was a great ‘fishbowl’ moment (Steve and I being the two fish) where scholarly collegiality was put on display.

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Q. Wait, what does this have to do with Hong Kong? A. EVERYTHING.

All this is to say – thank you, Steve, for a great Skype class session. Your class has given me some things to think about, and reflecting on it will be great for keeping my scholarly focus as I keep moving forward. When you read this, please thank them for me, and by all means forward this post to them as a token of my gratitude.

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Photo taken by Steve! Thanks for having me!

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.

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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.

American Association of Geographers, 2016: San Francisco

I’m writing from the Hilton in San Francisco’s Union Square on this second day of the American Association of Geographers’ (AAG) Annual Meeting 2016, which this year takes place from March 28 to April 2. I’m happy to report that we had some very successful sessions yesterday for the Geography of Religions and Belief Systems (GORABS) Specialty Group, and the events this week seem to be gathering momentum for geographies of religion to become increasingly mainstream within the discipline.

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The paper I presented at this year’s AAG was titled ‘”Under a Vast Sky”: Religious Protest Art and Hong Kong Localism’s Demystification of Urban Ideologies.‘ Along with some brilliant graduate students Natalie Hyacinth (Royal Holloway, London) and Laura Cuch (University College London), I co-organized a series of incredibly well-attended sessions titled Creative Approaches to Researching Religion in the City (March 28). The sessions were titled: 1) Embodied Practices and Narratives of Everyday Religion, 2) Exploring Faith Through Participatory Public-Engagement Art, and 3) Negotiating Difference and Urban Space; I chaired the first session and presented my paper in the third session. My abstract was as follows:

The 2014 Umbrella Movement democracy protests in Hong Kong have been noticed for their production of protest art featuring religious themes in makeshift street shrines and sanctuaries. I claim that such religious protest art, which has been a staple of Hong Kong urban heritage preservation (or ‘localist’) politics since the mid-2000s, offers geographers an opportunity to theorize the ontological nature of religion in global cities. While both religious and artistic production are often seen as belonging to the realm of the purely subjective (sometimes to the point of mystifying material processes), Hong Kong localists – usually describing themselves as a ‘post-80s’ and ‘post-90s’ younger generation – have attempted to use religious protest art since the mid-2000s to exegete the Hong Kong government’s urban vision of the Special Administrative Region as an international financial centre as itself a religious artistic vision, one that demolishes local Cantonese cultural geographies to make way for urban spectacles of conspicuous consumption. Based on ethnographic interviews conducted among 45 Hong Kong Christians in 2012 and an audiovisual archive collected from 2013-5, I argue that Hong Kong localist religious art demystifies the seemingly secular state vision of Hong Kong as a global capitalist city by exposing its theological logics. Localist religious protest art thus works against superstition by recasting the symbolism of the urban landscape in Hong Kong. This paper thus contributes to the creative study of religious cultural geographies by showing that reversing the conventional theoretical wisdom on ideology, as religious art reveals the secular as superstitious.

I am happy to have received some very good feedback and supportive comments, including from colleagues from Hong Kong, on this paper. But more as a point of pride, I’m ecstatic to say that this was among the most well-attended and diverse sessions in the history of GORABS. We had a series of excellent papers, as well as the honour of having Harriet Hawkins (Royal Holloway, London) and David Gilbert (Royal Holloway, London) as discussants to our second and third sessions.

This year, as the Chair of GORABS, I also organized a few more sessions, two of which have a time change for today. They are as follows:

GORABS ANNUAL LECTURE *WITH TIME CHANGE*:
Our Annual Lecture (Session 2684) this year will be given by Dr Katharyne Mitchell (University of Washington) on Sanctuary and Refugees in Europe. The *REVISION* is as follows: while the original program has this lecture in a Thursday slot, it has been CHANGED to Wednesday, March 30, 5:20 PM – 7 PM in Metropolitan B, JW Marriott Hotel, 2nd Floor.

GORABS BUSINESS MEETING *WITH TIME CHANGE*:
We have also revised the time for our Business Meeting (which was originally also on Thursday) to immediately follow the Annual Lecture in the same room. All are welcome to stay; our meeting will last no longer than one hour.

JOINT KEYNOTE:
On Thursday, March 31, there is a Joint Keynote Session held by the China Geography Specialty Group and GORABS that will be delivered by Dr Fenggang Yang (Purdue) on Mapping Chinese Spiritual Capital and Religious Markets. This will be held from 11:50 AM – 1:10 PM in Imperial B, Hilton Hotel, Ballroom Level.

CHINATOWN WALKING FIELD TRIP:
This walking tour of San Francisco’s Chinatown covers the largest Chinatown in the United States. It will be of interest to geographers studying ethnicity, race, religion, and China. Food is available throughout, and much street shopping will be involved. The walking trip is sponsored jointly by the Geography of Religion and Belief Systems and China Geography Specialty Group. We will depart at 2 PM on Thursday, March 31, from the Taylor Street Entrance of the Hilton San Francisco Union Square and will return to the same building at 4 PM.

Looking forward to seeing everyone in attendance this year – it’s been fun so far!

Syndicate: John Milbank, Beyond Secular Order

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From late December 2015 to early January 2016, Syndicate Theology ran what is being advertised now as the most-read symposium that the site has ever run, a fact that contributor Matthew Tan was generous to point out in his write-up on the forum. I was honoured to be the section editor for this forum, not least because the Theology and Social Theory section played host to the work of the scholar who wrote Theology and Social Theory in the first place: John Milbank. Our symposium focused on his newest book, Theology and Social Theory‘s sequel: Beyond Secular Order: The Representation of Being and the Representation of the People.

The book itself is controversial, for reasons that you can read about here in the symposium introduction that I wrote. This led to a controversial forum, which we rolled out in the order of most sympathetic to most outright hostile:

Milbank is beyond generous in his responses. Not only were his answers thoughtful and thorough, but they managed to elicit a new response from Singh calling Milbank’s project ‘racist.’ There’s also a point-for-point refutation of McCarraher that not only reads as a genuine invitation to conversation, but also is surprisingly revelatory of Milbank’s own working-class position in relation to both British politics and the hegemonies embedded in the academic discipline of theology.

Not that anyone is counting, but as a point if one were to go down the ‘identity politics’ route and accuse us of selling out to white theology: I note that three of the contributors are men of colour (in fact, two are Asian American, and one is Asian Australian) from very different ideological perspectives, and the white woman is married to a Korean American. I am (quite obviously) not white. And yet, here we are – engaging. There’s something to be reflected upon there – I’m not quite sure what it is, but it may have something to do with Milbank’s theology, for all the shots fired at it as a white man’s ideology, having some resonance in geographies that are not white, surprisingly not from the elite classes, and perhaps weirdly socialist in political orientation.

I’m grateful to Christian Amondson for having the fortitude to host such a wild and crazy symposium on Syndicate. Milbank’s oeuvre has been profoundly influential in my own work on grounded theologies, so to have done this forum where the contributors engaged each other with such gusto is a deep honour and privilege. As for the symposium being widely read, all I can say to our readers is, ‘Thank you,’ and, ‘Hang on tight!’

Radio Columnist: Grounded Theologies Segment, Sense of Place with Minelle Mahtani on Roundhouse Radio 98.3 FM

As of November 5, 2015, I became a regular columnist on geographies of religion for a local radio station in Vancouver, BC called Roundhouse Radio 98.3 FM. The show on which I make my comments most Thursdays at 10:30 AM is called Sense of Place with Minelle Mahtani.

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What is interesting about this show is that Minelle Mahtani is an accomplished cultural geographer in her own right at the University of Toronto-Scarborough. Working on geographies of mixed-race identities, one of the unique hallmarks of Minelle’s work is her attentiveness to the public sphere, maintaining her interest in journalism in theory and practice from her days with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). Her show Sense of Place is a brilliant exploration of the ‘sense of place’ that people in Vancouver have, with interviews with local Vancouverites to tease out their understanding of placemaking, emotions, affect, and identity.

You could say that the ‘Grounded Theologies’ segment is where we get to nerd out as geography colleagues on air about the particular field of geographies of religion. Minelle usually comes at the questions from within the discipline, aiming it for a lay listening audience, and I have to take theory and practice from within the discipline to address current events. I’ve had quite a bit of fun talking about a wide variety of topics, including the #PrayforParis hashtag after the Paris attacks, religion and migration, Christmas Eve and ‘Christian privilege,’ Christmas Eve itself, religion and private property in Vancouver, and Pope Francis and the Year of Mercy.

Minelle and I have heard that there has been interest in using her show for educational purposes. To that end, our last show was on me as a geographer of religion, with the hope of kicking off a new set of topics aimed at experimenting with bringing a high level of theoretical rigour into a show for a lay audience. We’re still tinkering around with this, so updates on how we progress should be expected. As academics, I think we may well write a paper on our experiences on air talking about cultural geographies of religion as well.

But the best part is that the cornerstone of my work, the concept of ‘grounded theologies,’ is now the name of a radio segment on which I’m the commentator. There’s nothing to complain about there.

Review of Religion in Chinese Society 2(2): ‘Under the Umbrella: Grounded Christian Theologies and Democratic Working Alliances in Hong Kong’

In 2015, the Review of Religion in Chinese Society published a peer-reviewed paper that I wrote trying to unpack the Umbrella Movement’s cultural geographical background. In this paper, I especially advance the approach of the new cultural geography in understanding the many layers of history behind democratic movements in Hong Kong and their engagement with Christian theological sources. Here’s the abstract in both English and Chinese:

Taking the geographies of the 2014 Umbrella Movement as the point of departure, this paper provides a geographical reading of democratic landscapes in Hong Kong. Using a new cultural geography approach, this study unpacks the grounded theologies that undergird the participation of Christians in democratic movements in Hong Kong. The central argument is that two Christian grounded theologies in Hong Kong – collaborative and critical – have been generated by how Christians acting within two different working alliances have positioned themselves vis-à-vis the Hong Kong government. Drawing from both ethnographic and public archival research, I trace the origins of a democratic working alliance to the 1978 Golden Jubilee Incident, after which a democratic consensus was developed in Hong Kong. Following this thread through the 1997 handover, I demonstrate that this consensus bifurcated among Christians who disagreed theologically as to whether collaborating or critiquing the government was the ideal way to implement democratic reform. This paper contributes to the study of religion in Chinese societies by providing a geographical approach that can be used for comparative work in the social scientific study of religion and democracy.

本文是以二零一四雨傘運動的地理為起點, 用地理學的角度去看香港的民主景觀。此硏究乃以一個新文化地理途徑去分析多種的接地神學如何從下鞏固了香港的基督徒參與民主運動。其論點中心是兩個不同的香港基督教多種的接地神學 —— 合作性及評論性 —— 已經從基督徒如何在兩個不同的合作聯盟之內把自己與香港政府的關係定位而產生。由於一九七八年金禧事件之後香港發展了民主共識,本人便從人種學及公共檔案硏究去追溯金禧事件為民主合作聯盟之起源。隨著這線索一直至一九九七回歸,本人演示了此共識使在神學上意見分歧的基督徒分义成兩派,一派認為與政府合作乃執行民主改革的理想途徑,另一派則認為評論政府才是執行民主改革的理想途徑。本文提供了用地理途徑去作宗教和民主的社會科學硏究比較,因此對華人社會的宗教硏究頗有助益。

I’m deeply thankful to the editor, Fenggang Yang (Purdue), for graciously accepting this manuscript and seeing to its speedy publication. I hope this paper is useful for understanding democracy movements in Hong Kong,their many complex histories, and their relation to theory in social science.