American Academy of Religion 2019, San Diego: ‘Sheets of Scattered Sand: Cantonese Protestants on the Pacific Rim and the Shadow of Sun Yatsen’ and ‘The Miseducation of Model Minorities: The “Gospel of Schoolvation” in Asian American Studies’

I am presenting two papers at the upcoming American Academy of Religion 2019 meeting in San Diego.

The first is based on my book project, which is in preliminary agreement with University of Notre Dame Press, and is entitled ‘Sheets of Scattered Sand: Cantonese Protestants on the Pacific Rim and the Shadow of Sun Yatsen,’ and will be part of the Chinese Christianities Seminar, as part of our theme this year ‘Exceptionalism in Chinese Christianities.’ We can be found on Sunday, 3:30-5 pm, in the Hilton Bayfront-Indigo 202A. Chairing our session is Christie Chow (City Seminary of New York). I’m looking forward even more to hearing my co-panelists Gideon Elazar (Ariel University, Bar Ilan University) and Stephanie Wong (Valparaiso University) talk about their work. Responding to us is my co-editor on Theological Reflections on the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement, Jonathan Tan (Case Western Reserve University).

The second is based on a side project that I am working on in the field of philosophy of education, which is the discipline with which I converse to develop my teaching philosophy, and is titled ‘The Miseducation of Model Minorities: The “Gospel of Schoolvation” in Asian American Studies.’ The panel is called ‘The 50th Anniversary of the Creation of Ethnic Studies: Asian American Genealogical and Cross-Disciplinary Reflections.’ My friend SueJeanne Koh (UC Irvine) is presiding, and my co-panelists include Teng-Kuan Ng (Georgetown) and Girim Jung (Claremont). The fourth panelist Tian-An Wong (Smith College) is unable to make it, but his paper will be read by Joseph Cheah (University of St Joseph). We will be on Tuesday, 8:30 – 10 am, in the Hilton Bayfront-Sapphire 402.

I look forward to seeing all of my colleagues in theology and religious studies in San Diego!

Claire Dwyer, in memoriam

Claire Dwyer, on No. 5 Road

I wanted to share the words by which I opened my presentation on No. 5 Road while at the recent Se faire une place dans la cité conference in Montreal. My collaborator on the project, Claire Dwyer, passed away in the summer, just as I was moving to my new post across the Pacific from where we had done our project in Richmond, British Columbia. When the illness that took her was in its advanced stages, a few colleagues of hers at University College London had contacted me to be part of a small project honouring her for her promotion to Professor. I was not able to come through for that venture. I also thought we’d have more time with her; she even emailed me from the hospital about our project and had the joy to discover that the last letter that she had written last year while I was on the job market was the one that got me my position at Singapore Management University.

And then, she was gone. I did have the words to grieve, and as I told my colleagues at the time, I did not know how I would find them. But Frédéric Dejean and Annick Germaine invited me to Montreal to talk about our project and said that they would say a few words about Claire. It was this conference that thus forced me to stop avoiding my grief and stare it in the face.

These, then, are the words by which I began my talk. Having said them at the conference, I feel it is only right to make them public here:

I want to begin by thanking the conference organizers Frédéric Dejean and Annick Germain for this kind invitation to speak here in Montreal. I have been on an academic job market journey of sorts over the last few years, so it has been difficult to pin down exactly where I have been: Vancouver, Seattle, Chicago, and now, of all places, Singapore. It is an honour to be brought in from so far, to a place that is almost entirely run en français. I have not spoken French with any semblance of competence since I learned it in a high school in California fifteen years ago. Apologetically, I will have to speak in English today. I do, however, know what people are saying, not just words, but almost full arguments. The problem is that my incompetence lies in retaining what you say. If you ask me what it was you said, I will have forgotten by the time you have uttered it. This means that I can probably participate in some discussion in French. But I will not dare to speak it myself, unless we have another cocktail tonight.

In this morning’s presentation, I come in the memory of my colleague and dear friend, Professor Claire Dwyer. I understand, when Frédéric first invited me, that Claire was supposed to give the talk that I am now about to give. With some shock, we probably learned around the same time that Claire was too sick by late last year to work, much less travel. It is poetic that the final job reference letter that she wrote for me was for my current position at Singapore Management University. I had the opportunity to tell her this news when she emailed me to discuss — from the hospice, no less — our collaborative project on what is known as ‘the Highway to Heaven,’ the stretch of road in the Vancouver suburb of Richmond, British Columbia where there are over twenty religious institutions within three kilometers.

She was also well-loved in Singapore, especially at my university — Singapore Management University — where we are informally forming a small hub of cultural geographers of religion, with our president Lily Kong and my colleague Orlando Woods also there. Lily and I especially have tried to work through our grief together. I recently told her that I did not know how to grieve Claire. How do I even begin to grapple with the person who came all the way from London to Vancouver to mentor this kid in qualitative research methods because our department did not have such a course and then proceeded to work tirelessly to make sure I grew up and got a job that I could hold? I learned how to do research through this project on No. 5 Road. In fact, I even met the woman I married on the Highway to Heaven while doing this project. I do not know how to grieve Claire, and I hesitate from saying that this presentation in her memory is my public expression of grief because I do not know if that would cheapen it. But I am spending all of this time at the front of my presentation commemorating her because it was she who was supposed to give this talk. I hope her spirit is here. It would give me some confidence. In comfort, Lily told me that this is why we must hold our loved ones closer to us now, always.

Still, three months after the news, I am now here, on our behalf. In fact, the last time I gave this presentation, it was also in Montreal, in St Joseph’s Oratory. I find that it is poetic that I get to revisit Montreal with this work, holding Claire in my heart. I certainly hope that my performance will not be as disappointing as the last time.

Memory eternal, Claire. With the saints, grant her rest, O Christ. Memory eternal.

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.

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.

Association of Critical Heritage Studies – what does heritage change?: Montreal 2016

I’m so happy to have been invited to Montréal to give a presentation on behalf of the collaborative project that Claire Dwyer (University College London, Geography), David Ley (UBC, Geography), and I have been working on since 2010. Our joint project revolves around No. 5 Road, a 3-kilometre stretch of road in Richmond, British Columbia, known as the ‘Highway to Heaven’ because it is home to over twenty religious institutions. So far, our project has yielded a working paper for Metropolis British Columbia (our funders) and a peer-reviewed article in Social and Cultural Geography. This is heads-up that there is more coming down the pipeline.

The conference at which I am representing our team is called the Association of Critical Heritage Studies (ACHS); their theme for this year’s 2016 (from June 3 to 8) meeting in Montréal is ‘what does heritage change?’ David was contacted by Luc Noppen, one of the organizers for this conference who put together a very interesting session titled ‘Heritage and the New Fate of Sacred Places/La patrimoine et le destin des leux sacrés.‘ Luc said that he had heard about our project from various places; we have indeed been presenting snippets of it at various conferences, such as the American Association of Geographers in 2011 and 2012 as well as Metropolis Canada at a policy symposium and their national conference. I was also once on the radio about it. Luc offered to fly one of our team over to Montreal, and after some discussion, the more junior member of the team (me!) got to go.

It will be interesting to be at a conference on critical heritage. I usually associate critical heritage with my friend and colleague Lachlan Barber, who is Assistant Professor of Geography at Hong Kong Baptist University, and when I think of critical heritage, I think of Lachlan’s dissertation on Hong Kong heritage politics, something that I have been thinking a great deal about in light of the origins of Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement. Lachlan is in fact here at this conference talking about Hong Kong. But I won’t be talking about Hong Kong. I’m going to be talking about Richmond. Oh, all of my favourite things…

As I peruse the program, I’m finding that there are a good many sessions on religion at this conference. There is a session on Saturday, for example, on ‘Religion as Heritage – Heritage as Religion?‘ On Monday, there will be an all-day session at the historic church of Saint-Michel de Vaudreuil titled ‘Beyond Re-uses: The Future of Church Monuments in a Secular Society/Au-delà de la conversion: l’avenir des églises monumentales dans une société sécularisée.’ On Tuesday morning just before the session in which I am presenting, there is yet another round on religion as heritage at Concordia University. I’ll try to be at most of these sessions and will be definitely be brushing up on my high-school French when the Francophone presentations happen. Maybe I’ll try to sneak into my schedule a few Asia-Pacific sessions too, especially Lachlan’s paper.

It turns out that the session in which I am presenting on the fate of sacred places is being hosted in a site that has some special meaning for me. On Tuesday afternoon, we’ll be in a conference room at St Joseph’s Oratory. This parish – really, a minor basilica in its final form – was founded by the first canonized saint in the Congregation of Holy Cross (CSC), St André Bessette. CSC tends to be known in secular circles for the University of Notre Dame (which I have not attended) and in Roman Catholic circles for Family Theater (which I do not watch). However, CSC does many other things as well in Catholic education, including running the high school that I attended in the San Francisco Bay Area, Moreau Catholic High School (MCHS), which is named for the order’s founder, Blessed Basil Moreau. Moreau was an educator, and he imparted to his order a philosophy of education with which I continue to resonate: ‘We shall always place education side by side with instruction; the mind will not be cultivated at the expense of the heart’ (Circular Letter 36). If there was anyone who embodied what that kind of education looked like in practice, it was St André, the illiterate doorkeeper who had St Joseph’s Oratory built in the first place. Widely known as a healer who lovingly embraced everyone who came to meet him at the door, St André shows us what the cultivation of the heart in education is: we are educated so that we can come to understand ourselves in relation to others as persons who can look each other in the face with love. One of my closest mentors at MCHS, Fr Harry Cronin CSC (we cofounded a literary magazine there in 2003 called Sea Changes), in fact wrote a play recently about St André called ‘The Lesson of Wood‘ that compares the simple carpentry of Jesus’ earthly father, St Joseph, to St André’s building of St Joseph’s Oratory. St André’s body is still at the Oratory, which means that not only will I get to visit this man who embodies everything I know education to be, but he will be within earshot of what I have to say at this critical heritage conference.

And what will I be talking about in the presence of St André’s relics? SHIT.

Yes, you read that right. Shit. As my students in cultural geography will know well – as well as those who have attended my more recent guest lectures – shit is becoming a bit of a technical term for me. I’d like to say that my new fecal interests were developed by reading the new materialist turns in critical theory, but if I were to be honest, it was because of a previous incarnation of the talk that I’m giving at this conference. I developed the thesis of this talk for a policy symposium with Metropolis BC and Embrace BC – that dialogue on No. 5 Road was really more about infrastructure than interfaith topics – and one item that seemed to make an impression on the audience was my discussion of sewage on No. 5 Road. Because of that, I was promptly invited to Comox for a panel the next month by the Community Justice Centre’s Bruce Curtis. As Curtis introduced me, he declared to a crowd of mostly older, respectable Vancouver Island folks, ‘Justin is going to tell you about SHIT!’ That is the scene that sticks with me now as I make my way through the new materialists, their more-than-human geography disciples, and their theoretical foes who, like Slavoj Žižek (my personal favourite), are equally scatological.

In any case, here’s the abstract for my talk next Tuesday:

Interfaith and intercultural dialogues frequently have an air of immateriality about them, focusing usually on abstract concepts in an effort to reach an idealistic overlapping consensus. The coexistence of over twenty religious institutions on No. 5 Road in Richmond, British Columbia, known as ‘Highway to Heaven,’ provides a remarkably grounded contrast. While this spectacular landscape appears on the surface to be fertile ground for abstract interreligious conversation, our findings from interviews conducted with the City of Richmond and the religious institutions suggest that the religious institutions often conceptualize their property as private, working together only to solve infrastructure problems related to parking, sewage, agricultural land, and the city’s proposals to rework the roads surrounding the area. Advancing an approach to the study of interreligious dialogue in contemporary sacred landscapes that focuses on the material and the mundane, we argue that there has been a shift in the conception of faith communities in relation to their property that has centralized private ownership as a practice of faith for these institutions. We therefore advance the critical study of religious institutions in Canada by showing that religion is not so much a matter of ideological identity as it is related to practices related to land that may have more in common with the secular than previously thought.

That looks tamer than what I think I am going to deliver. What has given me more courage is that I have discovered that I will have thirty minutes instead of my usual twenty. I am sure I could use that to (if I may) talk more shit, especially to sketch out some shitty theory – now that I indeed have a stake in this debate about shit between the so-called ‘new materialists’ and their theoretical foes (as all cultural geographers do, I would argue).

St André Bessette, pray for us indeed. Or as Moreau writes in the same Circular Letter I quoted above, ‘Even though we base our philosophy course on the data of faith, no one need fear that we shall confine our teaching within narrow and unscientific boundaries. No; we wish to accept science without prejudice, and in a manner adapted to the needs of our times. We do not want our students to be ignorant of anything they should know.’ I can only pray that my excremental presentation will be true to this sacramental spirit, which imbues the place where I will deliver it.

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MONTREAL MATERIALIST MADNESS!!

I am thankful to the Highway to Heaven team for tolerating this scatological turn in my scholarly endeavours. I am also thankful to Luc Noppen for so kindly inviting me to this conference. As always, we thank our funders Metropolis BC, who also enabled us to hire the best transcriber who exceeded our hopes and dreams, Airra Custodio. I am looking forward to the hilarity that will inevitably ensue as we discuss heritage this week.