Vancouver Sun: Douglas Todd, ‘How has Christmas infused the Chinese culture? Let’s count the ways’

Photo: Handout, Vancouver Sun

I’m happy to be quoted in Douglas Todd’s Saturday article in the Vancouver Sun: ‘How has Christmas infused the Chinese culture? Let’s count the ways.’ As I’ve said in the past, Todd and I come from fairly different philosophical perspectives, but we often meet each other halfway.

Today, I’m quoted on Christmas and Chinese communities. We had a wide-ranging conversation about Chinese cultural practices around Christmas, and Todd was quite insistent that we talk about both Chinese Christians (my area of research) and the secular – or at least, non-Christian – population. Most of my comments were framed around the global cities literature in urban studies. As John Friedman, Saskia Sassen, Michael Peter Smith, David Ley, and Karen Lai have all written in their own way, ‘global cities’ have been conceptualized as ‘command and control’ centres of the global economy that need in their own right to be studied as places, sites where people live and make meaning in their everyday lives, as well as hubs for transnational political networks. You’ll be able to tell very quickly that I’m drawing from this literature as I make my comments.

Photo: Apple Daily

I’m quoted, for example, first on the aftermath of the Umbrella Movement, where protesters largely associated with Narrow Road Church have gone protest carolling in Causeway Bay; members of St. Francis’ Chapel on the Street from the Mong Kok occupation also went carolling in Kowloon. Here’s what Todd says:

Justin Tse, who has a PhD in cultural geography from the University of B.C., says Christmas and its colourful trappings — from lighthearted reindeer displays to solemn church services — are now embedded in Chinese culture in both Canada and East Asia.

Providing just one contemporary example, Tse noted Hong Kong pro-democracy demonstrators were harassed this week by police for singing Christmas carols. The protesters had adapted the carols’ Christian lyrics to their human rights ideals.

In other words, the protesters are taking a global cities phenomenon that is rooted in consumption practices – the commercial enterprise of Christmas – and turning it on its head for democratic protests.

Indeed, while my work is on Chinese Christians, my training in geography has also had me reading around the edges of political economy. In the work of Aihwa Ong and Katharyne Mitchell, for example, cultural geographies go hand in hand with material circulation. In this way, my comments about consumption are interspersed with observations about labour:

Tse, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Washington who was raised in Metro Vancouver, says, “I think most Chinese people in Canada would see Christmas as a time for family and enjoying the lights — and maybe shopping and getting a good deal in Bellingham.”

While tens of thousands of Chinese international students in B.C. fly home to East Asia for Christmas break, Tse says many other ethnic Chinese in the region end up working over the holidays.

What I was trying to do there was to give a sense that there are very material class differences that exist among Vancouver’s Chinese populations. Yes, there is a class of people whose worlds revolve around material consumption. But that venues of consumption are open indicates that there have to be people working, including in retail stores and restaurants.

Todd also had me commenting about Chinese festivities. He notes elsewhere that I am ‘BC-born,’ which positions me as a jook sing jai (竹升仔), a ‘hollow bamboo’ second-generation Chinese Canadian who is made fun of for being uncouth in the ways of ‘Chinese culture.’ The term jook sing jai was redeemed for me by reading some of the classics in Chinese American and Canadian literature, such as Louis Chu’s Eat a Bowl of Tea, Frank Chin’s Donald Duk, and Wayson Choy’s The Jade Peony. Instead of using it as a derogatory term, I embrace it as part of my identity as I discover Chinese traditions. Here’s my jook sing comments on the Winter Solstice:

For the most part, however, Tse and other observers say Christmas has infiltrated the Chinese mindset. Tens of thousands in Metro Vancouver, for instance, will drive around neighbourhoods this week looking for the houses with the most elaborate Christmas displays.

In addition to celebrating Christmas, Tse adds that winter solstice, on Dec. 21, can be “kind of a big deal” for many Chinese people. Translated from the Chinese, the solstice festival is called “Doing the winter.”

As Tse puts it, many Chinese people before Dec. 21st go around asking each other, “What are you doing for ‘Doing the Winter?’”

The solstice is seen by Chinese people as the first of a string of winter festivals — preceding Christmas and Lunar New Year.

‘Doing the winter’ – 做冬 – is really my jook sing translation. Then again, the act of going around Vancouver looking for Christmas displays can be a real jook sing experience too. I’m just glad that Todd and I got the date right for this year’s Winter Solstice.

Todd also mentions my academic research, combining my master’s work on Chinese Christian congregations with my PhD on Cantonese Protestant engagements with the public sphere. I provided Todd first with a humorous anecdote of many a Christmas potluck I’ve attended at Chinese churches, though I’m sure similar things could be said of Chinese New Year, Easter, Thanksgiving, and baptism and ordination services. He then picks up on my more controversial work on Chinese Christian politics:

Tse’s academic research has focused on the one in four ethnic Chinese in Metro Vancouver who are Christian, typically evangelical Protestant or Roman Catholic.

Their worship services are often conducted in Cantonese or Mandarin. Tse says another noticeable difference about a Chinese Christian Christmas is the food.

A Chinese church Christmas potluck, he says, typically involves stacks of Styrofoam containers full of chow mein and other Chinese dishes. “But there’s always the guy who brings something from KFC or Pizza Hut. And, of course, there’s sushi. It’s all on the table together.”

In his research, Tse has noted that many socially conservative Chinese Christians in Canada are “fraught” over issues like homosexuality.

While Chinese Christians normally oppose homosexual relationships, they’re torn about what to do because they also appreciate their ethnic minority rights are protected in Canada and they can worship in their own way, without state intervention.

While it’s remarkable how Todd makes the jump from Christmas potlucks to homosexuality, I think I see where he’s coming from. Todd is trying to frame this in terms of multiculturalism and the fraughtness of religious freedom in relation to sexual minorities. This liberal framework reminds me that I need to continue to address this ‘fraught’ dynamic as I produce my own academic work on Vancouver’s Chinese Christian communities over the next little while.

Todd ends with a humorous snippet from me on global cities and cosmopolitanism:

For his part, B.C.-raised Tse equates the rise of Christmas among Chinese people with the ascendance of influential “global cities,” whether Beijing, Hong Kong or Metro Vancouver (where the real estate market, at least, he says, is shaped by international forces.)

An imposing Christmas tree dominating a public square in one of China’s megalopolises, or a small one glowing inside a Chinese person’s home in Richmond, are “what you would expect in a global city,” Tse says.

“This is what it means to be open-minded. It’s like saying, ‘Hey, It’s OK to put up a Christmas tree: I’m cosmopolitan.’”

Read in the context of the whole article, I’m happy to have this global cities literature put into conversation with Todd’s other interlocutors. Throughout the article, Todd quotes from Chinese consumers he met at Aberdeen Mall, fellow academics in Vancouver like Pitman Potter, a nationalistic Chinese think-tank that argues that Christmas is a ‘Western invasion,’ and Chinese Christians from Vancouver Chinese Evangelical Free Church who participate in both the religious and secular dimensions of the holidays. In many ways, this is what studying global cities is about – it’s about the everyday practices of people who live in those cities and the contested ways in which they try to make their own worlds.

I’m quite pleased at this article, and I hope that it will demonstrate to the Vancouver public how complex the Chinese populations in Vancouver are. This will certainly open up conversation on what it means to be a ‘global city’ in terms of everyday lives. Especially in light of the dubious white supremacists whose ‘catfish’ activities of self-multiplication are being revealed in other quarters of the news, this article is refreshing for its complexity while providing enough room for discussion about global cities, the Chinese diaspora, and the interconnectedness of consumption, labour, and religion. I am very thankful to Douglas Todd for spurring the conversation forward.

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Vancouver Sun: Douglas Todd, ‘We Must Stand On Guard for Canada’

In the Vancouver Sun, Douglas Todd has given the Canadian public a fascinating discussion piece on the limits of liberal multicultural democracy. I’m quoted in the piece, so I thought I might offer a few critical reflections in light of what Todd says.

Todd’s piece takes its departure from what he describes as the rise of ‘religious extremists’ and what Immigration Minister Jason Kenney calls ‘homegrown religious radicals’ due to contemporary Canadian migration policy. Interviewing Liberal politician Ujjal Dosanjh and the Laurier Institute’s Farid Rohani, Todd finds these liberals of colour are themselves concerned that new migration trends to Canada are bringing more forms of abusive patriarchy within families, opposition to interracial and interreligious marriage, refusal to fit into the unspoken secular sartorial code in Canadian workplaces, and homophobic discrimination. On that last point, Todd reaches out in collegial fashion and quotes me: ‘Both Rohani and Dosanjh are aware of widespread anti-homosexual beliefs among many religious immigrants, which can lead to actual discrimination. And University of B.C.-trained scholar Justin Tse has cited the strong degree to which many Chinese Christian immigrants find Canada’s human rights laws regarding homosexuality “ridiculous.”’ The main point of the article, in turn, is that Canadian liberal democratic values are under strain from these new migrations and thus needed to be guarded more carefully. What’s smart about the article is that Todd seldom quotes from white Canadian public figures; all of the quotes are from people of colour, including me.

In many ways, Todd represents me fairly well. The attitude that Canadian human rights legislation is ‘ridiculous’ is a direct reference to my dissertation, which was cited in the South China Morning Post saying the same thing – that many of conservative Cantonese evangelicals with whom I spoke in Vancouver felt that Canadian human rights legislation was ‘ridiculous.’ That this is what my dissertation actually finds among conservative Cantonese evangelicals in Vancouver means that I feel very well-quoted and thankful that Todd has reached out yet again in a such a fine showing of collegiality.

But because this is a discussion piece, I also feel that I’m allowed to register a bit of collegial dissent from Todd’s conclusions. This is because I think Todd and I, while recognizing each other as colleagues in the public forum, are working on two fundamentally different social projects.

Gérard Bouchard (left) and Charles Taylor (right) listen intently.

While Todd makes the case that Canada has to guard its liberal multicultural democratic values, my project is to interrogate why it is that some migrants — in my case, some (but not all) Cantonese-speaking Protestants — were opposing the very liberal things that Todd wants to guard. I don’t pass judgment; I ask why. This is because the social (and arguably, political) thrust of my academic project is in many ways informed by Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor and his call for mutlicultural societies to practice the ‘politics of recognition.’ What this means is that various communities in the modern world have taken on certain identities that they don’t want to be unrecognized or misrecognized; misrecognition, in fact, can be viewed as an insult. What we have to do, Taylor proposes, is to recognize the other — to get past simple disagreements to understand precisely how the other’s identity is formed and how that othered identity is in fact part of the ‘we’ in this society. Taylor himself has put that into political practice: at a time when controversy erupted in the mid-2000s over head-coverings in Quebec (as Todd notes about Quebec’s proposed Charter of Values, it’s still under contestation), Taylor teamed up with Gérard Bouchard to form a commission to get every voice possible on the record about the practice of multiculturalism/interculturalism in Quebec, including all the nasty stuff people wanted to say about the hijab, niqab, and sundry. The result was a report titled Building the Future: A Time for Reconciliation, in which Taylor and Bouchard painstakingly detail the problems with interculturalism in Quebec, report on every possible voice that they heard during their time on the commission, and propose that what’s needed is an open secularism, a sort of society where religion is not excluded but in fact included in everyday public deliberations.

In many ways, that’s what that section in my dissertation on Cantonese evangelicals in Vancouver calling Canadian human rights legislation ‘ridiculous’ is trying to do. To stop at that assertion of ‘ridiculousness’ is to cut the project short right at the beginning. If you read the dissertation (yes, it is publicly accessible), you’ll find that my question then goes to why these Cantonese evangelicals thought that Canadian human rights legislation tended to be ‘ridiculous.’ As the South China Morning Post succinctly quoted me in May, it’s because the sort of rights-based legislation around sexuality (hate crime bills, same-sex marriage, transgender rights, etc.) went against a certain vision of a ‘rational, orderly society.’ As I discovered, this wasn’t so much a ‘culture’ thing — ‘Chineseness’ was frequently invoked and qualified by my interviewees — but a performative agenda that understood best practices in civil society to be the creation of private, family-based economic units in which the second generation could be trained to become productive, private citizens in Canada. This means that sexuality is only the tip of the iceberg; other issues that contributed to what they might call the ‘irrationalization’ of society included the legalization of marijuana (medical or otherwise), harm-reduction drug treatment (some spoke of methadone; a few contested halfway houses in their neighbourhoods; most spoke of Vancouver’s inSite safe-injection program), the Anglican Church of Canada’s embrace of religious and sexual pluralism, and the building and expansion of casinos. The Cantonese evangelical public activism that propels this vision is certainly not un-Canadian; it is Chinese Christians wading into the fray of the partisan debates around what it means to be Canadian. That is, the fact that it is a socially conservative, privatized understanding of Canadianness does not make it un-Canadian; it makes it part of the debate around how Canada should be constituted as a nation.

My dissent, then, from Todd’s otherwise excellent, provocative discussion piece is that Todd seems to be portraying new immigrants, including the Chinese Christians that I studied, as bringing their religiously-based homeland politics to contest our hard-won liberal, multicultural, democratic Canadian values. But as my dissertation clearly states, the reasons that some Cantonese evangelicals thought that their rational, orderly vision of society was under assault tended to be modern and secular. It wasn’t a sort of backward homeland politics being imposed onto Canadian values. After all, this sort of politics of privatization comes from the need not to protect ‘culture,’ but as a business strategy in a globalizing world. This sort of rationality may be ideologically ‘conservative,’ but it is rooted in a very modern version of how society should operate. It may be theologically informed (as I argue elsewhere, what isn’t?!), but the reasons given for this rational, orderly society sound rather more to do with the very secular goal of maximizing private participation in the market economy. One may not agree with this sort of vision for a ‘rational, orderly society,’ especially one so rooted in the politics of privatization. But one cannot disagree that it is a vision.

In other words, I’m collegially dissenting from Todd’s piece because I don’t think that Canadians need to stand on guard for liberal, democratic, multicultural values. Instead, what’s more needed is a recognition that the ‘other’ is one of us, locked into the deliberations of democracy of which we are all a part. Contrary to Todd’s interview with Tung Chan in which Chan says that we need to ‘educate’ people and then let them go their merry way, this public deliberation is itself educative. It’s because it’s in deliberation — public, honest, open, and even heated deliberation (like the Bouchard-Taylor Report) — that we realize that the solution is never ideological entrenchment, but openness to the other as fellow citizens, persons even. Talking softens us. What perhaps needs emphasis is not so much the part of the national anthem to ‘stand on guard’ for Canada. It’s rather that if this is indeed ‘our home and native land,’ well, then, it is ours together. We need to keep talking.

Postdoctoral Update, March 2014

It has been two months since my SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Washington has started, and I think now is a good time to publicly take stock of the work that I’ve done so far and then look ahead into the future.

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A major part of the first three months of this postdoctoral fellowship (January to March) has been, is, and will be devoted to teaching my course, JSIS C 254, on American religion. Depending on who is speaking, friends and colleagues with whom I have discussed this course tell me that I am perhaps the most fortunate and/or blessed of new teachers: the students participate without my prompting, seek me out during office hours, and genuinely care about the material. We have successfully journeyed through the development of an Anglo-Saxon Protestant consensus in early American religion and explored the rise of a liberal consensus in twentieth-century America. We have also just recently completed a unit on the politics of race in American religion and are now starting a final unit on American fundamentalism.

I will do a more comprehensive reflection on the course when it is completed in late March. What I want to do here is to sketch the ways that teaching this course has shaped my research. As I’ve stated in previous posts, the two objectives of my postdoctoral fellowship are 1) to develop my doctoral research into publications and 2) to embark on new postdoctoral research on younger generation Asian American and Asian Canadian Christians.

Much of what I’ve done over the last two months has helped me to clarify what exactly my research is about and what philosophical and theoretical trajectories I find myself engaging as I prepare for a round of empirical work for my postdoctoral project.

First, I am seeing much more clearly that my work on Asia-Pacific and Asian American Christians ties in intimately with what might be called the liberal tradition. As I’ve said before, liberalism is not the opposite of conservatism. It is instead a philosophical and theoretical tradition that emphasizes the formation of public overlapping consensuses while upholding both rational argument and self-interest. I developed an interest in how liberal ideologies become geographies during my doctoral research on Cantonese Protestants and my argument that they were upholding a theological form of secularity. I realize increasingly that the implication is that while conservative Cantonese Protestants decry the liberalism of mainline Protestants and secular civil society, they themselves have emphasized to me (rightly so!) that they themselves should be considered ‘liberal’ as well for their focus on rationality and self-interest.

In other words, I am clarifying the centrality of interrogating the liberal tradition in my ongoing research agenda. My teaching in American religion has clarified for me the trajectory of how an American consensus was formed and the contributions of Protestant theology to the formation of a liberal tradition in America, one that has come to tentatively also include Catholics and Jews, as Will Herberg would say. On the same token, my recent readings in Asian American studies have also emphasized the connections among religion, racial formations, and liberalism. In the forthcoming issue of Amerasia Journal (40, vol. 1), I reviewed Ellen Wu’s phenomenal history of Chinese and Japanese American collaborations in the making of the model minority stereotype, The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority Myth. (This review will get its own post when it is out.) The major theme that I picked up in Wu’s history emphasized how American liberal ideologies produced a politics of assimilation, repeatedly framing issues in Chinese and Japanese Americans around integration issues. While Wu doesn’t talk much about religion, her book, combined with my own teaching on liberalism in American religion, brought clarity as I authored the encyclopedia entry on ‘Christianity’ for the SAGE/AAAS Asian American Society Encyclopedia, which I am pleased to announce has been accepted by the editors. My entry focuses on how both Protestant and Catholic threads in Asian American Christianity revolved around the question of assimilation for Asian Americans and that this is why the place of Christianity in Asian American communities is often so contested. Finally, the work around the Asian American open letter to the evangelical church has helped me to see the centrality of liberal ideologies in Asian American evangelical communities and has made me wonder openly about how such liberalism has managed to produce a ‘private consensus’ in American religion.

To the end of exploring the connections between liberalism and Asian American religion more thoroughly, I have a set of publications on which I am actively working that will be sent out over the course of this year. These articles, as well as a possible book manuscript, will develop my doctoral work on Cantonese Protestants and my postdoctoral work on younger generation Asian North American Christians around these theoretical formulations. This is possible because as a geographer, I am no stranger to dealing with what might be called grounded liberalisms. Indeed, when David Harvey published Social Justice and the City in 1973, he meant it to be a philosophical intervention that revealed the grounding of moral philosophies in concrete urban spaces, and he spends much of the book dealing with the insufficiencies of Rawlsian liberalism in urban geography, so much that he has to propose a Marxist way forward. By the time that David Livingstone wrote The Geographical Tradition in 1993, the notion that philosophy and theory were integral to any geographical research project was already the common consensus in the discipline. I’ll be using the resources from my home discipline, then, to address these philosophical concerns in publications that I will submit this year.

Second, I am finally coming to admit that while I have billed my research as focusing on Protestants, the truth is that both my doctoral and post-doctoral research is as ecumenical as it is evangelical, for Roman Catholics are inextricable from the Protestant story. It is thus more fair to say that I research Asia-Pacific and Asian American Christians for the simple fact that I have always included both Protestants and Catholics in my story, just as I have always sought to integrate liberal, liberationist, and evangelical voices in both my research and in my networks. In my doctoral research, I found that Catholicism was more integral to my Protestant story than I had anticipated. My research in the San Francisco Bay Area suggested that the push by some mainline Cantonese Protestants to pursue social justice as an ecumenical effort in fact stemmed from the success of the very successful ministry of the Paulist Fathers at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco’s Chinatown. While Chinese American Catholics and Protestants went quite separate ways after the 1970s in North America, that was precisely the time that they were being drawn together in Hong Kong. Democracy movements as from the Golden Jubilee Incident in the 1970s, the Tiananmen Incident in 1989, and the post-1997 protests for universal suffrage, migrant and labour rights, and religious freedom were all ecumenical efforts. Such ecumenism is calling me to revisit my data for the presence of Catholics throughout my research in San Francisco, Vancouver, and Hong Kong. Indeed, I included research interviews with Catholics in San Francisco, Vancouver, and Hong Kong; at what was perhaps one of the highest points of my research, I was allowed to interview Joseph Cardinal Zen twice in Hong Kong! As it is, my research has never been exclusive to Protestants. Catholics show up in my dissertation. They need to be explicit in my research.

I see the theological interests that can be derived from this empirical research as closely connected with the philosophical concerns that come from my discussion of liberalism. As I showed in my grounded theologies piece in Progress in Human Geography, theological thinkers (both Protestant and Catholic, and beyond the purview of Christianity, by all means!) can be read as honorary geographers because they are primarily interested in how theologies can be grounded in space. My postdoctoral research is causing me to revisit a variety of Protestant and Catholic thinkers from across the theological and ideological spectra to erect a theoretical framework that is fair to the empirical findings.

What you can expect, then, is that there will be a series of publications around my more ecumenical findings from my doctoral project, as well as a commitment to discovering ecumenical collaborations and contestations in my postdoctoral work. I suspect that most of my readers think that I focus exclusively on Asian American conservatives. They would not be wrong to think that social conservatism and the grounded theologies of family values politics takes up a significant chunk of my research agenda, but I expect that they will be surprised as I start publishing on ecumenical partnerships and progressive democratic movements this year. In addition, my emphasis on my research focusing on both Catholics and Protestants will mean that there may be some Catholic publication surprises in the works as well, including some publications targeted for Catholic Studies audiences.

Third, I am discovering that I need to publicly acknowledge my debts to what Cornel West calls ‘the black prophetic tradition.’ By the black prophetic tradition, I refer to a tradition of liberation critique and performative praxis that African American communities have contributed to the public rethinking of racialization in the public sphere. In many ways, these are personal debts that I have discussed when I have written about my personal history, especially my family’s ties to the African American patriarch, the Rev. Dr. J. Alfred Smith, Sr. However, I have seldom discussed how much I have long been influenced by the work of James Baldwin (since high school!), so much to the point that I am in fact teaching Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time in American religion as a book that brings together the poles of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X in the black prophetic tradition, much as the academic corpus of James Cone does. In addition, with the emergence of theologians of race like Brian Bantum, J. Kameron Carter, and Willie Jennings, it is much easier to theorize connections between secularization and the geographical politics of race in modernity.

My thinking on race and religion again ties back with my ecumenical interests and my concerns with liberalism. If grounded liberalisms and theologies contribute to placemaking, then in the same ways do racialization and the myriad struggles for racial justice also produce geographies. These spaces have been documented by geographers, and I plan to emphasize that more strongly in my work. Again, this realization about the centrality of race to my work will show up in publications, both in theoretical contributions in my reading of key texts on race in a geographical way as well as in empirical explorations of how my doctoral and postdoctoral projects highlight ongoing problems of orientalization, including self-orientalization.

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All this is to say that my plate is quite full, and I am quite happy about that. I will be presenting some of this emerging work at various conferences this year, and I will use this blog, as usual, to make announcements about those. Publications are also in the works, as well as teaching syllabi. I look forward to the work ahead of me during this postdoctoral fellowship, and I hope that my colleagues, my readers, and indeed the various publics to which my work may have relevance will find my scholarship helpful and constructive.

Exponential and the Open Letter

It has been one week since the Asian American Open Letter to the Evangelical Church was released on Nextgenerasianchurch.com.  I am one of the original signatories and part of the planning committee for this open letter.

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Because I have been on vacation over the last two weeks, I apologize for my delay in blogging about this important event, as well as an article in the Vancouver Sun that featured some research that Johanna Waters and I did on transnational youth between Hong Kong and Vancouver.  This post will cover my involvement in the publication of the open letter.  A forthcoming post will focus on the Vancouver Sun article.

My involvement in the Asian American open letter began when Religion News Service’s Sarah Pulliam Bailey contacted the group of us who had blogged about the Rick Warren ‘Red Guard’ fiasco and said that she had obtained information about an orientalizing incident at Exponential, a church planting conference that was incidentally being hosted at Saddleback Church but had no connection to the actual church itself.  Kathy Khang has provided a rundown here of what happened.  The gist of things is as follows: the Rev. Christine Lee, a Korean American Episcopal priest and assistant rector at All Angels’ Church, New York, tweeted that she had seen a skit at the conference where a white pastor used an orientalizing accent, but when she reported her concerns, her comments were brushed off.  This tweet was shared by Asian American writers Kathy Khang and Helen Lee, who proceeded to write the open letter.  Sarah Pulliam Bailey directly obtained the story from these tweets.

My comment to Bailey was that this second incident demonstrates the necessity for why the conversation must remain public.  I said: ‘It is worth observing that it has almost been 10 years since ‘Rickshaw Rally,’ and there are prominent American evangelical publishers, conferences, and pastors who still use Orientalizing imagery’. What I was doing was to place this incident in a historical trajectory that dates back to the Asian American evangelical campaign to pull ‘Rickshaw Rally’ from Lifeway Publishers’ Vacation Bible School publications in 2004. I am thankful that the open letter also uses this trajectory, because the concerns of Asian American evangelicals focus on whether they in fact have a place in American evangelicalism, especially if prominent pastors and publishers feel free to orientalize them despite a decade of protests. (It would be a worthy academic history project to check if there is activism that predates this decade, and whether those activists are connected to the ones at present.) As I have said repeatedly, each of these incidents were public, which makes a public response to them, including one via the press, extremely appropriate.

Over the week after Bailey’s article was published, the planning committee for the open letter gathered signatures. Exponential also issued a public apology after gathering a group of Asian Americans to talk about the skit, at which the story is that Jeya So’s story about her past of being bullied as an Asian American resonated with the conference organizers. I signed the letter to indicate my public support for this public response to these public cases of orientalization. The signatories comprise people gathered from diverse points on the theological spectrum. It is worth noting that this is a letter to the evangelical church and thus includes those conventionally labeled the ‘mainline’ and those whose theological orientations are ‘liberal’ and ‘liberationist.’

The idea now is to keep this conversation about the place of Asian Americans in American evangelicalism–and indeed, in American religion–public.  Indeed, the letter indicates that this is not so much a letter that goes on an attack, but rather, it is an invitation to a public conversation. As some noted to me, the letter struck them as conciliatory, and I agree; it should not sound a note of aggression.  Instead, it signals that while private conversations are necessary, like the one that led to Exponential’s informed apology, they are insufficient. If a decade has passed since Rickshaw Rally, then this conversation about race and orientalization must be had with American evangelicals in a public forum, one whose openness provides some accountability for actual change to happen.

This public conversation is in turn not a niche conversation. It is good for our public sphere. In a social and political situation where evangelicals are themselves the subject of public discourse, this conversation fits within key debates that are being had in American civil society, especially regarding the intersection of faith and politics. The openness of the open letter is one way to enter into this conversation because it interrogates whether the word ‘evangelical’ in our public discourse is inclusive of Asian Americans. If it is not, that would be curious indeed, given the observations in the social science of religion that Asian Americans are a quickly growing group of evangelicals and have historically been part of key American Protestant conversations. This open letter is thus an invitation to a broader conversation about American religion, especially because American religion concerns every person in the American public, and if that’s the case, then it is an imperative to know what we’re talking about when we talk about ‘evangelicals,’ including the fact that there are many Asian Americans who are very much included in that term.

UPDATE: Those interested in how these initial thoughts turned into reflections on how ‘the private consensus is unraveling’ should read my post on Religion Ethnicity Wired. Admittedly, the framing of the ‘private consensus’ and its undoing in this blog post is limited to American religion. My postdoctoral framework for the concept has to do with the Pacific Rim.