I am a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Asian American Studies Program at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL. Previously, I was a Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada Postdoctoral Fellow in the Comparative Religion Program at the University of Washington’s Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies. I received my Ph.D. in Geography at the University of British Columbia at Vancouver (UBC) in May 2014. I served as lead editor on the volume Theological Reflections on the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement (Palgrave, 2016). I teach courses on Asian American history and social movements, social and cultural geography, urban studies, racial formations, and religion in the Americas and Asia. My current project is titled Religious Politics in Pacific Space: Cantonese Protestants and Secular Civil Societies and focuses on how Cantonese-speaking Protestant Christians in three Pacific Rim metropolitan areas — the San Francisco Bay Area, Metro Vancouver, and Hong Kong — engage in public and political activities and call into question the meaning of secularity in the process. I also have interests in the afterlives of post-2008 occupy movements on both sides of the Pacific, as well as in lingering indigenous presences that interrupt settlement in this region. In addition to English, I speak and have a working reading knowledge of Cantonese, Mandarin, and French, and am also able to follow liturgies in Ukrainian and Church Slavonic.
A friend once told me that before I am a geographer, I am a geometer. Writing, after all, is about meter, measuring out the words in syntax and semantics. Essays and stories in this sense are geometries, the measured ordering of words as verbal infrastructures for describing the world.
When I write professionally, I go by my full name: Justin K.H. Tse 謝堅恆. It provides an orientation to what I profess as a writer. My parents named me ‘Justin’ because its meaning is justice. What they did not know at the time is that when I was baptized, it cemented the patronage of Holy Justin the Philosopher and Martyr over me as well. They did, however, name me 堅恆, taking the term established and steadfast (堅定) from the letter of the Holy Apostle Paul to the Church of Colossae (1.23) and making sure it would last forever, or in keeping with Paul’s cosmology, for ages of ages (永恆). From this combination of names – justice in relation to being steadfastly established for an eternal temporality – I understand that being just requires an integrity based on my personal integration with the world as it is actually and eternally constituted. Justice, in other words, is fundamentally ecological: it is about words spoken by lips, hands, and feet that order the world so that what is alive thrives for all eternity, at least in the realm of hope.
Certainly, the name also suggests that the expansive world of Chinese Christianities and their many permutations, as well as their perversions, is where I am from. Integrating it in my work grounds me. It reminds me that I started out in academia by writing about them, or more precisely, the world as they see it. Since that time, I have also written about their neighbours and how they understand the world. In an attempt to stay true to the name I was given — namely in a commitment to the practice of justice — I concentrate on their relation to the world as it actually exists. Moving from experience to ontology while being attendant to the messiness of this ultimately unbridgeable gap lies at the heart of my conception of scholarly work as the integration of praxis and theoria, of conscious practice and catholic knowledge. This, I argue, is the task of describing geographies, writing about how the earth is written.
I also grew up on the Pacific Rim, the region that is said to be integrating markets, governance, and societies from Asia and the Americas, at least in the realm of ideology. Growing up, I got my first taste of what I later called grounded theologies, the ways that approaches to the divine and the spiritual work themselves into how worlds are ordered. I was born in Vancouver in British Columbia and moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in California when I was six weeks old. I was raised in Fremont, not far from where Charlie Chaplin made his first movies, and attended a Chinese Protestant church where Cantonese, Mandarin, Taiwanese, and English members attempted to co-exist. I also attended Moreau Catholic High School in Hayward. Both of these cities are on the East Bay, where my Chinese American father was ordained in the African American Progressive Baptist denomination at Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland. By the time I left Fremont in 2004, the 2000 United States Census recorded that 37% of its residents were Asian American and that the nonwhite population was officially greater than a numerical white minority (47%). I returned to Vancouver in 2004 to attend UBC while living in Richmond, a Vancouver suburb that boasted a population of 43% Chinese by the 2006 Canadian census. There, in 2012, the person whose heart became so fused with mine that we had to build a home together, Jenny, married me.
It can be said that my scholarly interests began early in high school and developed through my undergraduate studies and into graduate school. Perhaps with a combination of my family’s personal difficulties in Chinese churches and the emphasis on exegetical exposition in the education that I received in both evangelical and Catholic schools, I came to see that the connected acts of reading, studying, and writing could be applied to the communities that circumscribed my own life. I developed an interest in writing stories, and it blossomed into a literary magazine called Sea Changes, named for the creative spirit in Ariel’s song in Shakespeare’s Tempest, that I founded at Moreau Catholic. Inspired by the everyday practices transfigured in writing by James Joyce, the erotic meditations on race from James Baldwin and Toni Morrison, and an early introduction to the history of the model minority myth by reading Asian American textbooks in the public library, I then became interested in examining Chinese churches themselves.
This early interest in Asian American studies, practices of everyday life, and grounded theologies became the raison d’être for much of my higher education. After a first-year introduction to histories of culture, epistemological spaces, and geographies of globalization called Arts Foundations at UBC, I declared a major in the History Honours Program, a seminar-based undergraduate education focusing on theories of historiography and topics in global history. In the process of thinking of a larger project on ‘astronaut families’ split between both shores of the Pacific, I wrote my graduating essay on the realist comedy films of Michael, Sam, and Ricky Hui in 1970s Hong Kong and what they had to say about being a man in that time and place. In graduate school, I studied with the urban geographer David Ley to fulfill my dreams of studying Chinese churches and ended up writing an M.A. thesis in human geography on transnational networks in a Hong Kong church in Richmond, British Columbia and how Hongkongers within the community perceived what it meant to make a home and how they interfaced with younger-generation Chinese Canadians as well as mainland Chinese migrants. Continuing my doctoral work in social and cultural geography under Ley’s supervision, I developed the basis for my current book project on how Cantonese-speaking Protestant Christians engage metropolitan civil societies outside of their church communities, involving themselves in issues related to sexuality, urban planning, and democratization. With Ley, the cultural geographer Claire Dwyer (University College London) and I also had a grant from Metropolis British Columbia to study immigrant integration and suburban politics on No. 5 Road in Richmond, a three-kilometer stretch with over twenty religious institutions known as the ‘Highway to Heaven.’
After my doctorate, I discovered that my scholarly work involved much more than issues of identity formation in Chinese churches, especially in Cantonese Protestant ones, and speaks more to how publics are constituted in the Pacific world, especially in unexpectedly theological ways that challenge secular normativities. While I was a postdoctoral fellow in Comparative Religion at the University of Washington, the 2014 Hong Kong Umbrella Movement happened, with tens of thousands of Hong Kong people occupying the streets to protect students who had been protesting for a radically democratic overhaul of the local political system. Developing the theoretical work I had begun in my doctorate on grounded theologies, I edited an online collection of essays at Syndicate titled The Umbrella Movement and Theology, which was then substantially revised in a collection on which I served as the lead editor, Theological Reflections on the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement (Palgrave, 2016). From this work, I learned that my research was not only an analysis of Chinese Christian communities, but also spoke to broader questions of postsecular publics on the Pacific Rim.
Soon after the publication of the Umbrella Movement volume, I was hired as a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Asian American Studies Program at Northwestern University. There, I teach courses on Asian American history, religion, social movements, contemporary issues, and urban geographies, as well as Chinese American studies and an exploration of conservative ideologies in communities of color. Workshopping my scholarship in the classroom, I came to articulate an Asian American political orientation to my study of postsecular Pacific publics that emphasizes the study of everyday lives in relation to governing apparatuses as a path of critique against fantasies of orientalist mapping and settler colonialism. With newfound energy, I am radically revising my dissertation work into a monograph on Cantonese Protestants and the question of the secular in civil society. Following my interest in the Umbrella Movement and comparing it with research I began as a postdoctoral fellow in Seattle, I am also developing a new project on the aftermaths of occupy protest movements on both sides of the Pacific. Further exploring our work on the ‘Highway to Heaven’ has also led to ideas for a third project on how lingering indigenous presences disrupt Pacific Rim settlements.
From journeys through Asian American evangelicalism and the Anglican Communion, I have come home to an Eastern Catholic church. I encountered Eastern Catholicism while engaging in solidarity with the Umbrella Movement and have written through my mystagogical education on a blog on Patheos Catholic titled Eastern Catholic Person. In so doing, I realized that it is in this church, known as the Greek-Catholic Church of Kyiv, that I began working out my politics of justice more fully, integrating my participation in its Byzantine liturgical life with its implications for social justice, liberation theology, anti-colonial psychoanalysis, anti-racist education, and human rights. The other realization from these insights is that being part of this church has made me more fully integrated with my practice of Chinese Christianity as a spirituality of the heart, a practice of sisterhood and brotherhood, and an impulse for justice at the order of everyday life. It has not, in other words, made an adopted ethnic Ukrainian out of me, although it has made me increasingly interested in the relationship between my work on postsecular Pacific publics and questions of orientalism in the European Union, the theological dimensions of Ukrainian nationhood, and the fantasies of a so-called ‘Russian World.’ Moreover, it has cemented my explorations of a variety of conservative ideologies, their dialectical relationships with liberal and radical imaginaries, the attempts to implement conservatisms of all sorts in the world, and the effects of conservatism in terms of racial formations and spiritual ways of being.
The word to describe the spirituality that I rediscovered in the Kyivan Church is the Chinese term 感動 (Mandarin, găndòng; Cantonese, gamdung), the stirring of feelings. To speak of affect and emotion is to talk at the register of the heart, to know the world by sensing it from a bodily centre and to discern the spirits from the centrality of my being. It is from this spiritual praxis of the heart in my church home that I therefore engage the world in ecumenical and diaconal ways, seeking to build a common life with all who inhabit this earth from a posture of service. I am a member of two temples in our church, the Eastern Catholic Church in Richmond, BC and St Mary of Egypt Eastern Catholic Mission in Chicago, and often write about a justice-oriented educational collective that has formed among members of our church across temple communities that informally calls itself the Kyivan Psychoanalysis Study Group.
At the level of everyday life, this means that I eat, sleep, pray, write, teach, talk with people, and sense the world at the level of the heart. Moving from practice to theory is in this way not compartmentalized in my academic life, but is fundamental to my way of living. Scholarship, in other words, is not just what I do. In time, I hope that I will also be able to say that it is how I love.
Awards, Fellowships, and Scholarships:
Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Postdoctoral Award, 2014.
Edgar Wickberg Prize in Chinese Canadian History, Chinese Canadian Historical Society of British Columbia, 2012.
Pacific Century Graduate Scholarship, Province of British Columbia, 2009-2013
Four-Year Fellowships for Ph.D. Students, University of British Columbia, 2009-2013.
Ph.D. Tuition Award, University of British Columbia, 2009-2013.
Go Global International Learning Programs Award, University of British Columbia, 2010.
Joseph-Armand Bombardier Award of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, Master’s Award, 2008-2009.
Graduate Entrance Scholarship, Department of Geography, University of British Columbia, 2007-2008.
History Students’ Association Award, University of British Columbia, 2006-2007.
TREK Excellence Continuing Scholars’ Award, University of British Columbia, 2006-2007.
TREK Excellence Continuing Scholars’ Award, University of British Columbia, 2005-2006.
Undergraduate Scholars Program Award, University of British Columbia, 2004-2005
American Association of Geographers
Canadian Association of Geographers
Association for Asian American Studies
Chinese Canadian Historical Society of British Columbia
American Academy of Religion
Society for the Scientific Study of Religion