Book Review: Ellen Wu, The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origin of the Model Minority

I’m happy to announce that I’ve got a book review of a very good book in the newest issue of Amerasia Journal. That I am announcing that I have a book review in a new journal issue means that this announcement is in fact a chance to rave about this new book. And rave I shall.

The book that I reviewed is Ellen Wu’s The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority.

If you have not read this book already, you must. It is a magnificent historical account of how Japanese Americans and Chinese Americans were in fact part and parcel of the construction of the model minority ‘success story’ myth after the Second World War. It provides rich institutional histories of organizations like the Chicago Resettlers’ Committee, the Japanese American Citizens’ League (JACL), Chinese News, and the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA). It is a complicated history, combining policy structures with community activism and the agency of individual actors. It accounts for both ideologically conservative and progressive strands among Asian Americans. It opens up theoretical questions about American liberalism. It is — dare I say it — a tour de force.

I want to especially thank Arnold Pan, the Associate Editor of Amerasia Journal, for making this book review happen. The journal issue is titled Asian American Religions in a Globalized World, a topic that is of immediate interest to me. When I asked him last December whether Wu’s book was taken for review, he told me that if I could give him a one-month turnaround, then I could be part of this special issue. This review was the first thing that I published during my postdoctoral fellowship, and I honestly feel so privileged to have started by reviewing such a good book. While some might consider book reviews part of the tedium of academia, this particular book review was a real treat (in fact, I am bold enough to say that I consider most books that come across my desk as gifts, not a grind! – but this one really takes the cake!). I think it’s also appropriate that this review ended up in this particular special issue. With her questions about liberal ideologies of assimilation and community structures, Wu opens up many possible avenues for theorizing Asian American religion.

This book will be of wide interest to many. As I say in the review, Wu is walking in the footsteps of giants like Yuji Ichioka, Him Mark Lai, Lisa Lowe, Henry Yu, Kandice Chuh, and Madeline Hsu. Read it. And read the special issue.

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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:

Migrant Faith (Jeremia Chow and Sarah Crutchfield): helping out with a History 485 Final Project

I had the privilege of being a key informant and informal adviser to an exciting undergraduate class project for UBC’s History 485 course. Taught by Asian American historian Henry Yu (Thinking Orientals, 2001), the course focuses on Asian migrant communities in Vancouver, understanding them in the context of what Yu calls “Pacific Canada.”

Two students, Jeremia Chow and Sarah Crutchfield, approached me with an idea for their final project in that course, one that has successfully come to fruition through this website. They wanted to focus on Chinese churches, and fortuitously, they found my blog and contacted me (unaware, it seems, that Henry Yu is one of my committee members and ardent supporter of my various projects). Their research question focused on how Chinese churches integrated new immigrants, a concern that has run throughout my M.A. project on a transnational Hongkonger congregation in a Vancouver suburb, the collaborative Highway to Heaven project on new suburban religious landscapes and immigrant integration, and the PhD dissertation on how Cantonese Protestant theologies are grounded in Pacific Rim civil societies.

My modest contribution to this project was an interview I granted them on March 26. We met in Vancouver for coffee and Thai food. Their questions revolved around how to approach congregations with the question of immigrant integration. I gave a two-pronged answer.

Theoretically, I told them that they might need to disentangle the assumptions that congregations are de facto parts of civil society, that they provide institutionalized social services, and that their theologies support civil society engagement on the part of the church. Instead, I advised them to look from the ground up, inquiring about grounded theologies and being open to the reality that social services provided by churches might be informal. (This was a similar point I raised in my BBC Heart and Soul interview.)

Methodologically, I emphasized that positionality is important when conducting interviews. Because of the way that interviewees read interviewers for race, class, gender, sexuality, and religion, Jeri and Sarah had to be aware of their own positionalities and understand that their self-awareness could be important for the dynamics of data collection. Because they needed to disentangle their own assumptions about how churches contributed to immigrant integration, I suggested that if Sarah conducted the interviews, then interviewees would find themselves explaining more to her without presuming prior knowledge. In turn, this would enable their data collection to be more thorough so that they could see exactly where their assumptions are dissonant with the data.

I’m happy to report that I am overall very pleased with the end result. Not only was the data collection thorough enough to challenge their own prior assumptions, but they have stumbled upon the next frontier of Chinese church research in Vancouver: Mandarin-speaking charismatic churches. Because of the dominance of Cantonese churches, Mandarin churches have been understudied. Their data provides an important window into Mandarin-speaking churches, enabling comparisons with existing work on Cantonese Protestant congregations and engagements with civil society.

This is my second foray into helping undergraduates design a research project. My prior experience took place in another course taught by Henry Yu comparing transnational migration in Vancouver and Singapore in the summer of 2011. I led a group documentary project on religion and migration, from which we produced a short film Moving Faith (we are working to disseminate this project!). These experiences have been formative for my own pedagogical convictions, as these public presentations are an excellent venue for demonstrating the value of undergraduate public education. I will certainly use field work as a required component of courses I teach in the future, and these two projects have given me valuable insight into how field work can be presented to a public outside of the classroom.

Thanks, Jeri and Sarah, for including me in this very insightful project.

Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop

On Saturday, 19 February 2011, I joined the Board of Directors at the Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop (ACWW).

The ACWW was started in 1979 by a group of creative writers who had been influenced by the rise of Asian American movements in the United States.  The term “Asian American” was coined in their first publication with the Powell Street Revue, Inalienable Rice.  Since then, the ACWW has also been the publisher of the only Asian Canadian magazine in Canada: Ricepaper.

The current discussion in the ACWW is to continue the good work of promoting Asian Canadian writing and making Ricepaper more well-known.  My story with Ricepaper began in Fall 2004 shortly after I had moved from the San Francisco Bay Area to Vancouver.  I attended an event with the Chinese Canadian Historical Society of British Columbia (CCHSBC) at the Vancouver Museum, where Ricepaper was also being promoted.  Back then, I was interested in continuing my own creative writing work that I began in high school when I co-founded the literary magazine Sea Changes at Moreau Catholic High School.  Even back then, I was interested in writing on Chinese church experiences as well as moving into academic studies of Chinese Christianity in North America.

Since then, I was aware of Ricepaper, but it was not until I took an Asian American directed studies course with Henry Yu that I began thinking about the CCHSBC, the ACWW, and Ricepaper again.  The president, Allan Cho, got in touch with me in January 2010, and as he was putting together a new board for the next generation of Asian Canadian writers, he was interested in seeing if I wanted to get involved.  It took me about a year.  And so now, I’m on the board.

For now, I understand the mandate of the ACWW to promote Asian Canadian writing, both through Ricepaper and the writing workshops.  If you’re interested, do get in touch with either me or with the rest of the board.  We’d love to get more subscriptions and ideas for promotion.

UPDATE: I left the ACWW board of directors in 2012 because I needed to focus on other personal and professional commitments. However, I still think the world of this board and this magazine and always read their work with interest.

Comprehensive Exams, 17-21 January 2011

Since 20 October 2010, I have been reading for comprehensive exams.

The PhD in Human Geography at the University of British Columbia requires three exams to be written in the second year of the PhD.  These three exams address three broad fields that will be addressed in the dissertation and that can serve as broad teaching areas for a future career in academia.

My exams are set for 17-21 January 2011.  I sit one exam for each of 17, 19, and 21 January.  These are written, take-home exams where I have to answer two questions about a broad field in human geography; the normal length of each answer is a 7-10 page literature review.  On the following week, I also sit a three-hour oral exam with my doctoral comprehensive exam committee.  Currently, my doctoral committee consists of: David Ley (UBC Geography), David Edgington (UBC Geography), Henry Yu (UBC History), and Claire Dwyer (University College London, Geography).

The rumour has gone around UBC that the Geography exams are among the most difficult in the Faculty of Graduate Studies.  I cannot confirm the truth of this rumour, but what I can say is that it is simultaneously difficult and rewarding.  The aim of these exams is to give a broad understanding of the field and to invite interdisciplinary approaches to the subject matter (which only goes to show how interdisciplinary Geography is as a discipline!).

The three fields I will sit are as follows:

COMPREHENSIVE EXAM #1:
GEOGRAPHIES OF RELIGION, SECULARISM AND SOCIAL THEORY

  • “Old” and “New” Cultural Geographies of Religion (the “old” refers to the Berkeley school of cultural geography led by Carl Sauer, the “new” to Jim Duncan’s turn toward process in the politics of placemaking)
  • Theories of religion
  • Anthropological and sociological approaches to religion
  • Political constructions of secularity
  • Islam and the West: liberal, feminist, and ethnographic approaches
  • Religion and transnational migration
  • Congregational studies (i.e. R. Stephen Warner’s “new paradigm”)

Major thinkers I address in this list include a diverse range: Wilbur Zelinsky, David E. Sopher, Lily Kong, Reinhard Henkel, Peter E. Hopkins, David Ley, Claire Dwyer, Kevin Dunn, Banu Gokariksel, Philip Kelly, Paul Bramadat, R. Stephen Warner, Helen Rose Ebaugh, Janet Chafetz, Peggy Levitt, Steven Vertovec, Peter Berger, Harvey Cox, Emile Durkheim, Mircea Eliade, Clifford Geertz, William James, Rudolf Otto, Karl Marx, Rodney Stark, Max Weber, Talal Asad, Jose Casanova, Michel Foucault, Jurgen Habermas, Stanley Hauerwas, John Milbank, and Charles Taylor.

While religion is the major focus of the list, such a diversity of sources also enables a broader address of the following in future research and teaching:

  • social and cultural geography
  • intellectual histories of the social sciences
  • multiculturalism and migration studies

COMPREHENSIVE EXAM #2:
PACIFIC WORLDS IN MOTION: ASIAN MIGRATIONS AND GEOGRAPHIES OF MIGRATION AND ETHNICITY

  • Theories of international migration
  • The “mobilities” paradigm (John Urry)
  • Multicultural theory and policy
  • Labour migrations
  • Transnational migration studies
  • Second-generation issues
  • Asian American studies
  • Race theory and race studies
  • Asian Canadian studies
  • Pacific Rim studies

Major thinkers I address include: Stephen Castles, Mark J. Miller, Catherine Bretell, James Frank Hollifield, Nancy Foner, John Urry, Ghassan Hage, Robert Putnam, Brenda Yeoh, Katie Willis, Christian Joppke, David Ley, Nina Glick Schiller, Linda Basch, Christina Szanton Blanc, Elaine Ho, Peggy Levitt, Mary C. Waters, Aihwa Ong, Ien Ang, Laurence Ma, Carolyn Cartier, Ronald Takaki, Glenn Omatsu, Sucheng Chan, Lisa Lowe, Jack Tchen, Robert G. Lee, Henry Yu, Helen Zia, Kay Anderson, Dorothy Fujita-Rony, Madeline Hsu, Alexander Saxton, Judy Yung, Peter Ward, Patricia Roy, Charles A. Price, Eiichiro Azuma, Carlos Bulosan, Yen Le Espiritu, Vijay Prashad, Chris Lee, and Peter Li.

While Pacific migrations and ethnicities are the major foci of the list, this list also enables me to address the following in future research and teaching:

  • Globalization theory
  • Citizenship in theory and practice
  • Global economics and geopolitics
  • Theories of social and cultural capital
  • Race and ethnic politics

COMPREHENSIVE EXAM #3
CITIES IN THE ASIA-PACIFIC: HISTORICAL AND POLITICAL ECONOMIC PERSPECTIVES

  • Asian cities in global and regional contexts
  • Colonial and post-colonial cities
  • Global cities/world cities
  • Pacific Rim studies
  • Cities and the welfare state in post-colonial Asia
  • Cities and the neoliberal state in post-colonial Asia
  • Convergence/divergence theory (e.g. Terry McGee’s desakota model)
  • Garden cities and urban utopias
  • Sustainable cities
  • Rural-urban relations and migrations
  • Labour in Asian cities
  • Urban development in Asia

Major thinkers I address are: Terry McGee, David Edgington, W.B. Kim, Anthony King, Fucheng Lo, Peter Marcotullio, Karen Y.P. Lai, Saskia Sassen, Brenda Yeoh, Fulong Wu, S.O. Park, Ryan Bishop, Abidin Kusno, Laurence Ma, Kris Olds, Manuel Castells, H.W. Dick, P.J. Rimmer, Michael Douglass, G.L. Ooi, John Gugler, Jonathan Rigg, Andrew Sorenson, and Dean Forbes.

Though the list focuses on Asian cities in particular, broader areas for future writing and teaching include:

  • Comparative Asian, North American, and European cities
  • Migrant labour
  • Pacific and Pacific Rim studies
  • Urban sustainability
  • Theories of “orientalism”
  • Colonial and post-colonial studies
  • State politics: welfare and neoliberal models

So now…it’s back to reading!  The labour is rewarding, the knowledge both intellectually stimulating and relevant to the contemporary situation.

Winter/Spring 2010: Update on Ph.D. Happenings

The Winter 2010 term has drawn to a close, so much so that it’s a shame to call it the Winter Term all the way into late April!  The Spring 2010 term is just beginning.  It is time for an update.

I have taken two directed readings courses this term.  The first was with Henry Yu (UBC History) on Asian Americans in Global Context.  The course began with the classic texts of the Asian American movement: Sucheng Chan’s Asian Americans: An Interpretive History and Ron Takaki’s Strangers from a Distant Shore: A History of Asian Americans.  The course focused on an intellectual history of the Asian American/ethnic studies political movement.  It then branched out into the historical periods in which an Asian identity in American, Canadian, and Australian contexts were formed: in the labour migrations in the classical capitalist economies of the nineteenth-century, the political context of Cold War constructions of “Good Asians” and “Bad Asians,” and in the contemporary setting where Asians are regarded as the “model minority.”  We also explored issues such as gender, sexuality, and religion.  The final product of this course is a course syllabus that we design for undergraduates to introduce the issues of ethnic studies and Asian Americans.  My syllabus begins with an exploration of personal positionality, enters the issues by framing a narrative of the Asian American experience, and then tinkers with that narrative by exploring Asian bodies in colonial and post-colonial spaces.

The second course was with David Ley (UBC Geography) on Geographies of Religion, Secularism, and Social Theory.  The course was designed around my writing of a paper that would explore, critique, and provide new entry points into the geography of religion.  The paper has evolved into an exploration of two ways the geography of religion has been done: first, through the Berkeley school of cultural geography’s emphasis on the imprint of religion on the cultural landscape and second, through the new cultural geography’s critique of the Berkeley school and re-emphasis on the practices that make sacred spaces sacred.  I also engage thinkers on secularity such as John Milbank, Charles Taylor, and Talal Asad and introduce the notion of a grounded theology to guide ethnographic work on geographies of religion and their intersections with fields that don’t look sacred at first glance.

These two courses are leading into what looks to be a very busy (but productive!) spring and summer 2010.  I have just finished a very successful conference presentation and paper presentation in Washington DC and ten days of intensive field work on the Highway to Heaven (see my previous post) and will be finishing these papers that I’ve just mentioned.  My spring review with my committee for my first year of the Ph.D. will be in mid-May.  I have taken three courses thus far: 1) cities in the Asia-Pacific region, 2) the politics of Asian America and Asian Canada, and 3) geographies of religion, secularism, and social theory.  I plan for these three courses to form the basis of the three comprehensive fields I will be examined in for my comprehensive exams in Fall 2010.  These exams will develop professional competence in these fields that will be useful for future teaching and research.

What to look out for in the Spring 2010 term:

  • A field course with Henry Yu on cultural spaces in two post-colonial cities: Singapore and Vancouver (10 May-18 June).  I am a group leader for several undergraduates doing field research.  My group will likely work on religion and the city.
  • Pacific Worlds in Motion III: Mobile Identities: a graduate student conference on Pacific migrations (2-5 June)
  • A reconnaissance trip to Hong Kong where I plan to do some grounded preliminary research on evangelical social and political activism in Hong Kong.  There will be more on this in forthcoming posts; if you would like to see me in Hong Kong, we can make arrangements! (19 June to 13 July)
  • A forthcoming paper in Population, Space, and Place based on my MA work on a transnational Hongkonger church in Metro Vancouver, British Columbia.

This academic vocation is indeed busy but very rewarding, both intellectually and personally.  I am thankful for a Ph.D. program with so much rigour that is contributing not only to my academic formation but my personal growth.  I welcome dialogue on any of the issues I’ve raised in this post (and in previous posts): I am always looking for ways to sharpen these ideas in community, whether academic or not!