American Studies Association 2019: Third World Studies, Not Ethnic Studies: A Conversation with Gary Okihiro

This last weekend, I was in Honolulu for the 2019 annual meeting of the American Studies Association. The roundtable panel that I organized was titled ‘Third World Studies, Not Ethnic Studies: A Conversation with Gary Okihiro.’ Its place in the program was on Friday, November 8, 2:00pm to 3:45pm, Hawai’i Convention Center, Mtg Rm 319 B. The subtitle in the program was ‘Re-Building Global Solidarity from Asian American Studies and Native Studies,’ but the general will of our roundtable members, including me, was for it to be changed to ‘A Conversation with Gary Okihiro.’ And so it was.

The roundtable revolved around the provocation made by Okihiro in Third World Studies: Theorizing Liberation that the educational objectives of the Third World Liberation Front in the late 1960s were stillborn and replaced with an ‘ethnic studies’ hegemony that focused on communities of color, not on the conditions of material domination in the infrastructures of what Okihiro terms the ‘social formation.’ Chairing the panel was the historian Ji-Yeon Yuh from Northwestern University. Karen Ishizuka (Japanese American National Museum) elaborated on street gangs as pre-political preparation for the more radical movements of the 1960s, Doug Kiel (Northwestern University) engaged Okihiro’s engagements with what the indigenous scholar George Manuel calls the ‘Fourth World,’ Daryl Maeda (University of Colorado-Boulder) talked about the institutional challenges of Third World Studies as opposed to ethnic studies, and yours truly addressed the methodological contributions of talking about the social formation as opposed to the myopic social scientific gaze on communities.

We had a very lively discussion that broke down concepts of the ‘academy,’ the ‘university,’ the ‘community,’ and the ‘streets.’ But perhaps the consensus was that the best part was that Angel Trazo, a graduate student at the University of California, Los Angeles, drew our panel. Here is her tweet:

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Workshop-Conference: Se faire une place dans la cité (16-18 October 2019)

I am so excited to be preparing to fly to Montréal to be part of the workshop-conference ‘Se faire une place dans la cité‘ from 16-18 October 2019. Frédéric Dejean and Annick Germain have been discussing it for over a year with me, and it’s finally happening, along with a stellar line-up of keynotes by Lori Beaman and Jean-Paul Williame.

I’ll be part of two sessions on 17 October. The morning one is titled ‘Urbanisme, dynamiques spatiales et religions,’ while the afternoon will be ‘Les groupes religieux au service d’une ville inclusive ?’ My understanding is that I’ll speak for about twenty minutes on the research on which I collaborated with the late Claire Dwyer on No. 5 Road in the morning, then on the parts of my book project on Cantonese Protestants in Vancouver in the afternoon.

What is intriguing about this conference is that the presentations seem to be a prelude to a larger conversation that will happen in three-hour blocks. I understand from Frédéric that the delightful challenge for us academics will be to speak practically to planning practitioners. I relish this opportunity — as I told my dean, it’s a bit of a rapprochement — and in doing so, I’ll have to brush up on my high-school French. Frédéric tells me that everyone’s PowerPoint will be mercifully in English. I do not know if I will be brave enough to speak a language I haven’t spoken in years on my colleagues’ home turf.

Many thanks to Frédéric and Annick for organizing, as well as their very competent organizers Louis Raymond and Vincent Létourneau for handling the logistics.

Book Review: Joining the Choir: Religious Membership and Social Trust Among Transnational Ghanaians, by Nicolette Manglos-Weber (in Sociology of Religion)

I’m very pleased to receive word that my book review of the sociologist Nicolette Manglos-Weber’s Joining the Choir: Religious Membership and Social Trust Among Transnational Ghanaians (Oxford University Press) is out in the most recent issue of Sociology of Religion. It was a real pleasure to read, especially since it concerned Ghanaians in the city of Chicago, where I was living when I wrote the review.

Many thanks to Grace Yukich for asking me to do this review, and of course to Nicolette Manglos-Weber for writing such a fun book. By way of a more personal recommendation, friends came over around the time I was moving to look for interesting books to pilfer from my collection and thus lighten my load. Joining the Choir was instantly taken from me by a sister and brother in my own church choir — it is not only the Ghanaians who use this terminology among transnational religious communities in Chicago (mine is ‘transnational’ with Kyiv) — though in the throes of packing, it slipped my mind. A few weeks later, I was at these friends’ house and saw the book. Isn’t this mine? I said, and no one could be sure. But it had been read, so they were sure it was theirs now.

Worldview: ‘Extradition Bill Withdrawn in Hong Kong, But Protests Continue’

I was on Worldview on WBEZ 91.5 FM in Chicago yet again for an interview about the ongoing Hong Kong protests, after the Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s announcement that she is planning to withdraw the controversial extradition bill. This is my second recent interview this month with them; I was on last week as well to speak about the mass arrests of leaders in a ‘leaderless protest.’

I was pleased with how this interview went, though the truth of the matter is that Mondays are my most serious workday, and my greatest hope when I arrived to speak with Jerome McDonnell was that I would at least be coherent. The questions were, as usual, very good, covering a range of topics from the appeals to the American government for support, Joshua Wong’s visit to Germany, the drama around the announcement about the bill’s imminent withdrawal in Legislative Council, and the possible futures of the protests. Jerome’s questions even got me to pull back deep into the heart of the research that consumed me from my undergraduate days and has percolated into the graduate work that fuels my career: the identity politics of the ‘Hong Kong person’ from the 1970s to the present. We also got to speak about protest music; my only regret is that I did not mention the new song being sung as an anthem titled ‘Glory to Hong Kong.’

I see these interviews as the community engagement portion of my scholarly work. As I told Jerome, the task of scholarship is to describe, not prescribe, so all that I am doing here is to see, to sort, and to say what I see and am sorting. It is an offering, then, for ongoing conversation on these momentous events in Hong Kong. I am thankful to Jerome and the team at Worldview, especially the producer Julian Hayda, for bringing me in yet again, and I hope that I was coherent enough in my description of the problems and prospects at hand to encourage further discussion among the publics who listened and will listen to this segment.

Vancouver Sun: ‘Douglas Todd: Hong Kong protesters turn 1970s hymn into anthem’

I’m very pleased to have been interviewed as part of the journalist Douglas Todd’s piece ‘Hong Kong protesters turn 1970s hymn into anthem.’ My main role in this article is to sketch how the protests in Hong Kong have been using the Jesus Movement chorus ‘Sing Hallelujah to the Lord,’ which I also did with my colleague Melissa Borja on her Anxious Bench group blog on Patheos, and how Christians may or may not be part of the protests in personal and institutional ways.

I like how Todd positions my comments as the lead-in to the story that he really wants to talk about, which is the hundred or so pro-China protesters who picketed the evangelical Tenth Church Vancouver during a Hong Kong prayer rally organized by an inter-denominational and ecumenical group of clergy. Interviewing one of the clergy leaders Samuel Chiu, Todd sketches a broader picture of Chinese Christians in North America — and indeed, Chinese communities in a more secular sense — that are internally divided in terms of transnational politics.

In addition to the Hong Kong interest, this is a developing and interesting story in Vancouver. I’ve written about the senior pastor Ken Shigematsu before as a ‘different kind of evangelical‘ who emphasizes an Asian Canadian sense of social justice and contemplative spirituality, and I’ve also put an article on Tenth into the Brazilian journal Relegens Thréskeia. On this particular issue, Shigematsu has commented on the church’s solidarity with ‘justice issues’ in a non-partisan way, and Fr Richard Soo SJ — the Eastern Catholic priest who brought me into the Greek-Catholic church that has formed so much of my recent musings on the postsecular even while I continue to write, research, and teach on publics on the Pacific Rim — has written an op-ed in the Vancouver Sun about how religious solidarity with Hong Kong is not the practice of partisan politics.

I’m thankful to Douglas Todd for reaching out to me. Our first real conversation took place around my doctoral work on Cantonese Protestants, with a focus on the Vancouver case and their politics around sexuality. Since then, his stories have also engaged my work on the ‘Highway to Heaven‘ in the suburb of Richmond, the everyday lives of transnational Asian youth in Vancouver, and the wider implications of my work for the state of multicultural Canada. There was also a fun piece on the relationship between Christmas and ‘Chinese culture.’ I hope to return the favour for him writing about me — and more importantly, doing so with a constructive and critical eye in not so much giving me a megaphone, but really pushing me to figure out what responsibility I have to publics in Richmond, Metro Vancouver, and Canada that I study — by writing about how he has done the same, as I suggested in that dissertation of mine, for Chinese Christian communities in Vancouver.

Worldview WBEZ 91.5 FM Chicago: ‘Prominent Activists Arrested in Hong Kong’

I am so pleased that my friends on the show Worldview on WBEZ 91.5 FM Chicago had me back on to discuss the Hong Kong protests and the recent mass arrests there. The host Jerome McDonnell wanted to discuss a number of issues with me, including the significance of the date August 31 to the 2014 Umbrella Movement, the (non)ideological stances of the protesters and the issues of (non)representation in a leaderless movement, the ramifications of ‘one country, two systems’ for the question of rule of law, and the future of the protests. My reflection on working through each of these themes is that it was not unlike giving an undergraduate lecture. There were quite a few technical terms that I found myself having to define as I was speaking, including ‘black hand’ and ‘white terror.’

As usual, my interpretations represent no one except for me, and in the context of a rapidly developing story, that ‘me’ is but a snapshot in time. The tentative arguments I make are, if you will, the work of a scholarly observer, and as I’ve clarified numerous times in the past, I have never claimed to be a ‘Hong Kong person.’ I also note that analytical commentary on protests is not the same as participating in them, and my comments are descriptive, not prescriptive. Just as I did as the lead editor of Theological Reflections on the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement (Palgrave, 2016), my aim is to offer analysis based on what we know to be facts, not invented opinions. Needless to say, scholars like me also have minds of our own, so as is always the case, our views do not represent anyone except for ourselves. This understanding is the basis for the academic freedom that enables the dialogue and conversation that helps us to understand the world, instead of imposing on it models, theories, and conjectures that lead more to confusion than clarity. It also means that all errors of judgment are strictly my own and that acknowledging them is how we come together to grow in knowledge.

My previous interviews on Worldview on Hong Kong can be found on their site as well. These include reflections on the third anniversary of the Umbrella Movement in 2017, the trial of the Occupy 9, the legacy of Tiananmen on its thirtieth anniversary, the anti-extradition amendment bill demonstrations in the context of Hong Kong as a city of protests, and the suspension of that bill, with some comments in the last one that date it to what we knew in the news then, as opposed to what we are learning now from Reuters. As always, I am thankful to my friends on Worldview for covering international news with such a critical eye and attentiveness to local specificities, and with everyone else who has followed their own trials and tribulations in the world of public radio, I sincerely hope that their show can be saved.

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.