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.