COR 3001: Big Questions: Happiness and Suffering (Core Curriculum, Singapore Management University)

I am very excited to be teaching the Big Questions course that is being rolled out with the newly revised Core Curriculum at Singapore Management University. Each year, the ‘Big Questions’ rotate themes. This year, it’s Happiness and Suffering. I’m told that next year will focus on ‘global and local.’

Some people have asked me how a geographer like me can teach such a philosophical course. I often respond with an answer that I once heard from a prominent feminist geographer as to what geographers do, that our readings are quite ‘intellectually promiscuous.’ Our discipline focuses on the examination of space, what it even is and how that interacts with human agents and non-human actors, so there is an element of theory that is shot through all of our work. I see teaching something like ‘happiness and suffering’ as an opportunity to move from the theoretical to the philosophical, to be invested not only in the applicability of ideas about space but also to test whether how we think about the basic concepts of feelings, affect, interiority, the self, and so on are even sound, even as we are interested in how they come to be deployed in space.

It is in this sense that I’ve articulated my sections of the course to be focused on the philosophical, psychoanalytical, and postsecular dimensions of happiness and suffering. There is a field within academia called happiness studies that I understand to try to measure what happiness is, while alleviating suffering. What I want to do is to locate such discussions in a broader theoretical conversation about the structures of feeling and what Charles Taylor calls a secular age. In some ways, teaching the course in this way is, like all of my other colleagues who are trying out pedagogical pathways into this topic this year, a grand experiment to see whether these ideas will interest students who are faced with a real world in which they’ll have to work and build lives.

Teaching begins soon, so I must sign off on this update and keep up with my preparations. I’m very excited to meet my students.

My final post on Patheos

Today, I wrote my final post on Patheos. As I told the Catholic channel editor Rebecca Bratten Weiss when I resigned a few weeks ago, I am leaving on very good terms. The community of writers on the Catholic channel has been a dream to work with, and I hope that the friendships I’ve made there will last a lifetime and maybe even spin off into new projects. I’ve written my heart out there, literally, in keeping with the words of the original channel editor who brought me there in the first place, the philosopher of education Sam Rocha.

Writing for Patheos has been the fulfillment of an aspiration of mine since I was in graduate school. Then, a few of us started a blog called A Christian Thing hoping to write about how we negotiated the secular academy as persons of faith. We aspired to be a group blog not unlike the Catholic portal Vox Nova, which challenged the neoconservative lines that had become standard in American Catholicism with fresh new voices. We also looked to the conversations that were happening on Patheos, a portal of blogs that seemed to break new ground in allowing persons across religious and theological traditions to write deeply about their faiths, even if it sometimes made for some personal discomfort. As a postdoctoral fellow, I studied with James Wellman at the University of Washington, who also wrote on American religion on his Patheos Progressive Christian blog.

I always wanted to be part of the Catholic channel, though I haven’t always been Catholic. It was suggested to me before I was received into the Greek-Catholic Church of Kyiv that I might consider writing for the Evangelical or Progressive Christian channels, as my practice of Anglicanism might be amenable to both. The trouble was that there are, broadly speaking, three streams of practice in the Anglican Communion — evangelical, broad church, and Anglo-Catholic — and despite getting along with people in all three, my convictions, mostly shaped by my scholarly involvement in the critical revision of the secularization thesis afforded by John Milbank, Charles Taylor, and Talal Asad, tended to be more Catholic, in the sense of attempting to tap directly into how the world is constituted and sustained by the supernatural. A Catholic sensibility presumes that the path to such connection is primarily personal, through the person who at the end of the day is, in a variation of what the ancient monastic Macarius the Great put it in his meditations on the visions of the Prophet Ezekiel, a face faced by others. It is the interrelation with a world that is primarily spiritual that is what is universal in the sense of Catholicism, a sublime connectedness with the divine that is common to all humanity and throughout all creation. After my formal reception into the Kyivan Church, I was also received onto the blog, with the name Eastern Catholic Person.

It would be a mistake to think that the blog title made me a sort of representation of Eastern Catholicism. On Patheos alone, there are at least three Eastern Catholic blogs other than mine, such as Henry Karlson’s Little Bit of Nothing, Chase Padusniak’s Japplers and Janglers, and Pete Vere’s Orthodoxy in Communion with Rome, as well as the Pezzulos’ writing on Steel Magnificat about their own forays through Byzantine churches. The name of the blog was much more about being a person who has now found myself in an Eastern Catholic church, much to my own surprise. It took three years to blog through that story and to admit that I really have found my way home.

The reason for my resignation is simple: with a new permanent academic position, I simply cannot do everything. As it is, the blog is going dormant today, the exact date of its third anniversary. It is poetic that when Rocha brought me on, he said he’d give me three years to narrate myself. It is now exactly three years, and I’m done with the narration, there at least.

I am beyond grateful to my channel editor Rebecca Bratten Weiss for being such a stellar editor and for making my transition so smooth. My heart is very full, and in this last week there, I’ve written three summary posts that sum up the themes that have threaded through my writing there: an Asian American racial politics drawn from my upbringing in the San Francisco Bay Area, the unraveling of what I have called the ‘private consensus’ as I have become more engaged with the theoretical practice of psychoanalysis, and my mystagogy as an Asian American evangelical who entered the Kyivan Church while engaging with Hong Kong protests and black feminism. The posts there, as is all my writing online, remain copyrighted, and the rights to them remain mine for future revision, re-publication, and development. I think I might do that eventually. But now I have to focus on my new position, and I depart from Patheos, a portal for which I have always dreamed of writing, with gratitude and a very full heart.

Summer 2019 update

photo by wife

The 2018-2019 school year has wrapped up, and summer is upon us. It’s been quite a year for me. I have a number of things coming through the pipeline, some articles, some book chapters, even a manuscript for a monograph that I’ve been crafting on Cantonese Protestants and postsecular civil societies on the Pacific Rim.

Some stuff has been happening already. A chapter of mine on cultural geography came out in the volume Theorizing ‘Religion’ in Antiquity, edited by Nickolas Roubekas, in which I continue my unlikely defence from my piece on ‘grounded theologies‘ of the legacy of Mircea Eliade as a historian of religion who is a central figure (at least as I argue) in geographies of religion. I gave a colloquium talk at Calvin College’s Department of Geology, Geography, and Environmental Studies on an article I’ve been crafting on Chinese American megachurches in the Silicon Valley. My critical reflective piece on the concepts ‘uniatism’ and the ‘model minority’ that the magazine Patriyarkhat invited me to write has come out, first in Ukrainian translation in the print version in December 2018, then online in English, and now also with footnotes and extended clarifications in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies. I’ve attended four conferences — the American Academy of Religion in November 2018, a very interesting conference on Christian social activism and Chinese societies at Purdue’s Center for Religion and Chinese Society, the American Association of Geographers in April 2018 where I organized and presented an exegesis of Paulo Freire in a session on pedagogy and religion in geography, and the Association for Asian American Studies in that same month, during which I had the honour of organizing an all-star, standing-room-only panel on the historian Gary Okihiro’s provocation ‘Asians did not go to America; America went to Asia.’ We are going to continue the intervention with Okihiro’s work at the American Studies Association later this November in Honolulu, with another panel titled Third World Studies, Not Ethnic Studies, as a conversation around Okihiro’s longstanding argument that the internationalist sensibilities that gave rise to anti-colonial critiques of racial formations caved to liberal nationalist frameworks that led to the siloing of identity in the academy.

As I wrapped up my third and final year as Visiting Assistant Professor in the Asian American Studies Program at Northwestern University, I expanded the scope of my teaching. My course offerings this year ranged the full gamut of my repertoire in Asian American studies: Asian American history, Chinese American studies, Asian American religion, Asian American social movements, Global Chinatowns, and Asian American geographies. But this year especially, I have been drawn more directly into the formal individual supervision of students. In the past, I had taught some directed studies courses, as well as supervised research, on topics closer to my own research interests on Asian American Christianities and their relationship to Asian American studies. But this year, there has been a wide much range of independent studies topics, including Korean dance and ‘the invention of tradition,’ sonic orientalism in popular movie soundtracks, Global China and feminism, research methods in Chicago’s Chinese churches and trans-Pacific theologies, indigeneity and orientalism on the Pacific, the postsecular Pacific, and psychoanalysis and the Pacific. I also had the privilege of supervising my first thesis student Irina Huang, an undergraduate senior in American studies, who wrote a theoretically rigorous piece woven in with personal creative nonfiction essays on how obsessive-compulsive disorder functions in the normative public sphere as a ‘model minority’ of mental illness.

I continue to be active in my public engagements as well. The journalist Douglas Quan interviewed me for a very interesting piece last October on Richmond’s ‘cultural diversity policy.’ I have also been invited by Worldview on WBEZ 91.5 FM in Chicago four times over the last school year to offer scholarly analyses of Hong Kong, its tradition and practice of protests, and the recent blow-ups about the incarceration of some figures from the Occupy Central and Umbrella Movement occupations in 2014 as well as the controversial extradition law.

In terms of service, one role that I have taken on over the last year is to be program co-chair of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion. Reading through the abstracts and thinking about organizing the program has given me new insight into what we do as social scientists of religion. I am glad to be working with our president Elaine Howard Ecklund and my co-chair Ryon Cobb as we expand the diversity of our organization, especially for the conference in St Louis this year in October.

Finally, my biggest and most exciting announcement is that I have just started work as Assistant Professor in Humanities (Education) at Singapore Management University. In addition to teaching courses in the School of Social Sciences, my major role there is to offer the Core Curriculum, a program that seeks to engage students across the school with the big concepts that are fused throughout our contemporary world. This year, the theme will be Happiness and Suffering, which I will teach, along with my colleagues, as a philosophical, psychoanalytical, and postsecular exploration of these affects, emotions, and orientations to the world. As an academic, my work is to write and to probe the complex phenomena common to our shared inhabitation of the earth, so it obviously goes without saying that my published views anywhere are in no way to be associated with my employers, as if academics could fully agree on anything anyway. Indeed, my convictions about all academic work — whether under the pillar of research, teaching, service, or community engagement — is that it should all be a springboard into a larger discussion in which all participants are strengthened through engagement, never the final word on any topic. I am thrilled to ‘let my work grow up,’ as I heard one senior academic once describe to a junior colleague, in this intellectual community, and I look forward to spirited engagements and enthusiastic conversation here.

AAR 2018: ‘Orthodoxy in solidarity with the Umbrella Movement: the backdrop of Chinese politics for evangelical and Eastern Catholic cooperation in Vancouver’

The American Academy of Religion is meeting in Denver this year. It is shaping up to be a productive time for me, with meetings dotting my schedule across committees and other professional chats. I find that these discussions are a big part of the joy of going to a conference like this, especially because everybody is here. I started coming to this conference when I was still in graduate school as a geographer. I think I still am one of the fewer geographers here, but I feel like I’ve gotten over the initial hangup of not knowing how to engage religious studies from my disciplinary background. Perhaps it is a sign of integration.

Apart from being on the steering committee of the Chinese Christianities Seminar, I also presented a paper in its Saturday session on ‘Crossing Ecclesial Boundaries’ in the Convention Center, Room 204, in the 1 pm session. Here was the abstract:

Eastern Catholic Church Richmond, a small temple in the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church in British Columbia, has an outsized reputation in both the global Ukrainian public and local Chinese Protestant networks as a ‘Chinese mission’ worshipping in a Byzantine tradition in communion with the See of Rome. Empirically, this church’s multiculturalism, and its smallness of numbers, reveals such claims to be exaggerated. In this paper, I explore how the temple gained this reputation by tracing the participation of its pastor Fr Richard Soo SJ in solidarity events with the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement, during which Chinese Protestants in Vancouver came into contact with the church. My central argument is that what enables that theological boundary-crossing is the imaginative backdrop of Chinese politics, a transnational imaginary through which conversations about social justice in Vancouver can be discussed with some distance. In this sense, the ‘Chineseness’ of the temple is not about its ethnic identification, but its political practices. This paper contributes to the study of Chinese Christianities by proposing that ‘Chineseness’ is not about ethnicity, but about the political locus of China as a material and imagined site in which Christians across ecclesial boundaries collaborate to stage civic interventions.

It was an interesting experience presenting a paper where I myself am the key informant, and we had an intriguing discussion across all the papers about the phenomenon of ‘conversion’ in Chinese Christianities. I feel that the field is growing fruitfully. It has been an honour to be part of it.

October 2018: full website update

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Photo credit: Julian Hayda

It has been too long since I have updated this website — two years, in fact. Since that time, much has happened. I am still Visiting Assistant Professor in the Asian American Studies Program at Northwestern University, still churning out the scholarly publications and presentations. In the haze of all of that work, I have forgotten to update this website and all of its parts to be synchronized with what I have been doing and what I have accomplished. To compensate for that forgetfulness, I have acquired my own domain name and fully updated the site.

My hope is that I will continue to be able to update this site with what I am doing in my scholarly life, as well as with calls for papers and other interesting news that should be circulated. Links in the pages on publications, presentations, teaching, service, and community engagement have been posted to the announcements of their occurrences, with apologies for not being able to reflect on them as deeply as I have done in the past. I hope to be better about this in the future.

Finally, the sections about who I am and what I do have been fully updated. Needless to say, they are fully copyrighted, so I am not very concerned about revealing a bit of what is happening in the workshop. I offer it therefore for perusal with the hope of generating some critical conversation as I continue to work on executing it.

Ching Feng: ‘A Tale of Three Bishops: Mapping the Ideologies of ‘Chineseness’ and ‘Asian Values’ in the Global Anglican Realignment in Vancouver

Having recently received copies of the full journal issue of Ching Feng: A Journal of Christianity and Chinese Religion and Culture (vol. 15, issues 1-2) where I published ‘A Tale of Three Bishops: Mapping the Ideologies of ‘Chineseness’ and ‘Asian Values’ in the Global Anglican Realignment in Vancouver,’ I read it again. In all sincerity, I think I liked it.

With that liking comes the courage to share. Perhaps the scariest thing for a scholar is to be evaluated by the communities that first gave us life, but we also must not, I am reminded, take from the community without giving back by making the scholarship part of the commons for all of us to enjoy. I must share it and did so on my Facebook, and again here on this website, which has not been updated for some time. I have in fact promised it to a number of people who have been interested in it, some of whom are even named in the piece because they were either interviewed for it during my doctoral work as far back as 2011 and 2012 or because they are named in documents and books. That amount of persons is too many to count, and while I could have sent them all an email copy, I figure that if there was ever a time to use social media and a blog to spread it, it is now. I will not tag them so as not to single them out, but I look forward to their responses when they read it. Perhaps they will even reply to my social media posts, or they might seek me out via email at jkhtse (at) northwestern (dot) edu.

‘A Tale of Three Bishops’ is my attempt to parse out the Anglican realignment in Vancouver since the late 1990s. I argue that with all the talk about Anglicans splitting over sexuality issues, what is more salient in the Vancouver case is ideologies of the ‘global city’ and the concepts of ‘Chineseness’ that spin out of that urban economic fantasy. I think this is the most fair way to describe a fracture in which folks on all sides have their own stories to tell about a side they don’t like. I try to portray each of them in their own words, as the only stake I now have in this Communion is an ecumenical one, as an ecclesial outsider from the vantage point of my Eastern Catholic church and in my professional work as an Asian American geographer of postsecular Pacific publics. I hope that this work presents a modest but worthwhile contribution to the fields of Global Christian studies, Chinese Christianities, and the integral part that the Anglican Communion continues to play in the work of what the theologian Paul Murray calls ‘receptive ecumenism.’

I am thankful to everyone who went on the record for this when it was part of the doctoral dissertation and now is much expanded from the three pages in the doctorate to the published peer-reviewed article it is now. As I say in the piece, I consider myself friends with folks on all three sides, and I hope that our friendship is magnified, not diminished, by the publication of this piece. Indeed, a memorable line from one of the reviewers said that I was able to resist the temptation to editorialize and speak in the terms of conspiracy, preferring instead to write from the perspective of the participants themselves. While I am honoured by that affirmation, all errors of judgment are of course my own, and my gratefulness belies an openness to criticism, correction, and ongoing conversation with communities and persons whom I have loved for very long and continue to love with a full heart.

Vancouver Sun/The Search: Chinese evangelicals for Trump

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Photo: Nick Procaylo/Vancouver Sun

Well, friends, it’s hit the fan. The Vancouver Sun‘s religion and diversity columnist Douglas Todd has published a piece of mine titled ‘Law and order, stability and prosperity: Chinese evangelical Trumplicans in Metro Vancouver’ – or as they shortened it, ‘Chinese Christians for Trump’ – on his blog, The Search. The photo is one that they’ve had on file for about three years; it was taken by photographer Nick Procaylo at Richmond Public Market when Todd wrote a story about my doctoral work on Cantonese-speaking Protestants engaging Vancouver as a civil society. The post is about a certain ideology associated with voting for the United States’s Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump that is circulating among – of all places – Chinese evangelicals in Vancouver.

The comments are still rolling in, and as I suspected, this little 700-word discussion piece is not only causing a discussion, but I’m probably going to get into a little bit of trouble for it too – not legally, financially, or materially, but ideologically. I used to be afraid of such trouble, but then I started reading Slavoj Žižek, and now I know that whatever trouble I get into, I will never be in as much trouble as him.

In fact, the takeaway quote from my piece is from Žižek’s recent book Trouble in Paradise: From the End of History to the End of Capitalism (p. 19, if you must know). Žižek has gotten into so much trouble for using the late long-time Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew’s catch-phrase ‘capitalism with Asian values’ to describe a more efficient, if not totalitarian capitalism that is uncoupled from a democratic civic polity, and qualify it as he might to say that it has nothing to do with ‘Asian people,’ he’s caught quite a bit of flak for it.

Some wish that I had qualified which Chinese evangelicals I was talking about when I attributed the support of Chinese evangelical Trumplicans to ‘capitalism with Asian values.’ The trouble, of course, is that I did:

  • ‘I don’t have the quantitative survey instruments to determine exactly how many Trumplicans there are among Chinese evangelicals in Metro Vancouver, but I’m pretty sure that most of them (an estimated 16% of the 400,000 or so Chinese Canadians counted in Metro Vancouver) can’t vote in the United States.’
  • ‘But what I don’t have in terms of statistics, I do have in social media posts.’
  • ‘I am told by both this woman and a financial planner in Richmond – and others still, for that matter…’
  • ‘Of course, such comments indicate that these Chinese evangelicals come from a particular class of people with wealth to protect (raising questions, of course, about whether there’s room in the religion for Chinese people who don’t have wealth to protect). But for this particular class of ethnic Chinese migrants, stability was why they moved to Canada in the first place. (They wanted to get) away from, say, the possible political upheavals of the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty, or the strangely personal dialectical politics of the market socialist mainland.’

In other words, the contingent of Chinese evangelicals propagating this pro-Trump material is by and large a wealthy class of persons that fled from Hong Kong or China in order to protect the stability of their capital from specific geopolitical processes. What I am saying is that these networks of ideological propagation are specifically Chinese evangelical because they tend to be run by such persons in association with an evangelical Protestant ideology (but often dissociated from the church, because they’d never want the church to get involved in politics).

Because I researched Cantonese-speaking Protestant engagements with Vancouver’s civil society, I have been part of the public that these ideological informational networks address for quite some time. An interesting turn over the course of my research has been a slow transfer of this material from email lists to social media platforms, especially Facebook. It is surprising how much of this material is sourced from conservative United States sites; I wrote about Trump, but I could have gone much deeper into their opposition to Black Lives Matter and their sharing of material meant to defame Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

When Douglas Todd and I spoke with each other about this phenomenon, it became clear that this was a fascinating turn for a network of people that had historically participated in Vancouver‘s civil society and were generally concerned about Canadian politics. Indeed, I have written and spoken quite a bit before about how I think that all of this participation on the Right is an investment on the part of Cantonese evangelicals into becoming Canadian. But what was striking to Todd and me was that the concern from this population was really about Trump in an election in which they could not participate in any meaningful material way.

Todd suggested that I write a short piece exploring this ideological phenomenon. What you see on his blog is what he got.

I’d like to thank Douglas Todd for this opportunity. I also want to thank my friends in Metro Vancouver for helping me keep my ear to the ground. Last but not least, I want to thank the various Chinese evangelical Trumplicans who have voiced their ideological takes on Facebook; it is because of them that this piece was written.