Association of Asian American Studies, 2015: Evanston, IL

I was glad to be able to attend the Association of Asian American Studies in Evanston, IL in April 2015, which was taking place concurrently with the American Association of Geographers in Chicago. I presented a paper in a session organized by Russell Jeung (San Francisco State) that mostly consisted of research projects that Jeung himself had organized to reorient the study of Asian American ‘secularity.’ My co-panelists included Seanan Fong (Harvard), Helen J. Kim (Harvard), and Alice Liu (Ohio State).

My presentation focused on ‘The passion of Hak-Shing William Tam: California’s Proposition 8 and the Secular Ironies of Asian American Privilege.’ The abstract is as follows:

Dr. Hak-Shing William “Bill” Tam has not been a sympathetic figure in Asian American studies. Castigated for being one of the official proponents of California’s Proposition 8, the legal and journalistic wranglings around Tam’s socially conservative stances on sexuality have been discussed as attempts to impose his private religious morality onto secular public space. This paper argues precisely the opposite. A closer examination of Tam’s rationale for vehemently opposing same-sex marriage suggests that his social conservatism is rooted in the secular trope of the model minority. Indeed, Tam’s central contention, I will show, is that same-sex marriage is the vanguard of an attempt to undermine heteronormative Asian American families that he conceptualizes as vehicles for social mobility through education in the hard sciences. This conception of the private sphere is a secular one, relying much less on a theological tradition than on the defense of a perceived socio-economic ideology of upward assimilation. This call for even the conventionally religious to be understood as secular opens up the conversation about how Asian American secularities might include the studies that have been criticized as privileging Christianity in Asian American religious studies.

I’m very thankful to Russell Jeung for pulling this panel together. It is always good to be among friends and colleagues doing compelling scholarly work. I’m also very thankful for session attendees like Brett Esaki (Georgia State) and Jonathan Lee (SF State) for their comments and for their personal support of my scholarly endeavours.

Book Review: Ellen Wu, The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origin of the Model Minority

I’m happy to announce that I’ve got a book review of a very good book in the newest issue of Amerasia Journal. That I am announcing that I have a book review in a new journal issue means that this announcement is in fact a chance to rave about this new book. And rave I shall.

The book that I reviewed is Ellen Wu’s The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority.

If you have not read this book already, you must. It is a magnificent historical account of how Japanese Americans and Chinese Americans were in fact part and parcel of the construction of the model minority ‘success story’ myth after the Second World War. It provides rich institutional histories of organizations like the Chicago Resettlers’ Committee, the Japanese American Citizens’ League (JACL), Chinese News, and the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA). It is a complicated history, combining policy structures with community activism and the agency of individual actors. It accounts for both ideologically conservative and progressive strands among Asian Americans. It opens up theoretical questions about American liberalism. It is — dare I say it — a tour de force.

I want to especially thank Arnold Pan, the Associate Editor of Amerasia Journal, for making this book review happen. The journal issue is titled Asian American Religions in a Globalized World, a topic that is of immediate interest to me. When I asked him last December whether Wu’s book was taken for review, he told me that if I could give him a one-month turnaround, then I could be part of this special issue. This review was the first thing that I published during my postdoctoral fellowship, and I honestly feel so privileged to have started by reviewing such a good book. While some might consider book reviews part of the tedium of academia, this particular book review was a real treat (in fact, I am bold enough to say that I consider most books that come across my desk as gifts, not a grind! – but this one really takes the cake!). I think it’s also appropriate that this review ended up in this particular special issue. With her questions about liberal ideologies of assimilation and community structures, Wu opens up many possible avenues for theorizing Asian American religion.

This book will be of wide interest to many. As I say in the review, Wu is walking in the footsteps of giants like Yuji Ichioka, Him Mark Lai, Lisa Lowe, Henry Yu, Kandice Chuh, and Madeline Hsu. Read it. And read the special issue.

Winter/Spring 2010: Update on Ph.D. Happenings

The Winter 2010 term has drawn to a close, so much so that it’s a shame to call it the Winter Term all the way into late April!  The Spring 2010 term is just beginning.  It is time for an update.

I have taken two directed readings courses this term.  The first was with Henry Yu (UBC History) on Asian Americans in Global Context.  The course began with the classic texts of the Asian American movement: Sucheng Chan’s Asian Americans: An Interpretive History and Ron Takaki’s Strangers from a Distant Shore: A History of Asian Americans.  The course focused on an intellectual history of the Asian American/ethnic studies political movement.  It then branched out into the historical periods in which an Asian identity in American, Canadian, and Australian contexts were formed: in the labour migrations in the classical capitalist economies of the nineteenth-century, the political context of Cold War constructions of “Good Asians” and “Bad Asians,” and in the contemporary setting where Asians are regarded as the “model minority.”  We also explored issues such as gender, sexuality, and religion.  The final product of this course is a course syllabus that we design for undergraduates to introduce the issues of ethnic studies and Asian Americans.  My syllabus begins with an exploration of personal positionality, enters the issues by framing a narrative of the Asian American experience, and then tinkers with that narrative by exploring Asian bodies in colonial and post-colonial spaces.

The second course was with David Ley (UBC Geography) on Geographies of Religion, Secularism, and Social Theory.  The course was designed around my writing of a paper that would explore, critique, and provide new entry points into the geography of religion.  The paper has evolved into an exploration of two ways the geography of religion has been done: first, through the Berkeley school of cultural geography’s emphasis on the imprint of religion on the cultural landscape and second, through the new cultural geography’s critique of the Berkeley school and re-emphasis on the practices that make sacred spaces sacred.  I also engage thinkers on secularity such as John Milbank, Charles Taylor, and Talal Asad and introduce the notion of a grounded theology to guide ethnographic work on geographies of religion and their intersections with fields that don’t look sacred at first glance.

These two courses are leading into what looks to be a very busy (but productive!) spring and summer 2010.  I have just finished a very successful conference presentation and paper presentation in Washington DC and ten days of intensive field work on the Highway to Heaven (see my previous post) and will be finishing these papers that I’ve just mentioned.  My spring review with my committee for my first year of the Ph.D. will be in mid-May.  I have taken three courses thus far: 1) cities in the Asia-Pacific region, 2) the politics of Asian America and Asian Canada, and 3) geographies of religion, secularism, and social theory.  I plan for these three courses to form the basis of the three comprehensive fields I will be examined in for my comprehensive exams in Fall 2010.  These exams will develop professional competence in these fields that will be useful for future teaching and research.

What to look out for in the Spring 2010 term:

  • A field course with Henry Yu on cultural spaces in two post-colonial cities: Singapore and Vancouver (10 May-18 June).  I am a group leader for several undergraduates doing field research.  My group will likely work on religion and the city.
  • Pacific Worlds in Motion III: Mobile Identities: a graduate student conference on Pacific migrations (2-5 June)
  • A reconnaissance trip to Hong Kong where I plan to do some grounded preliminary research on evangelical social and political activism in Hong Kong.  There will be more on this in forthcoming posts; if you would like to see me in Hong Kong, we can make arrangements! (19 June to 13 July)
  • A forthcoming paper in Population, Space, and Place based on my MA work on a transnational Hongkonger church in Metro Vancouver, British Columbia.

This academic vocation is indeed busy but very rewarding, both intellectually and personally.  I am thankful for a Ph.D. program with so much rigour that is contributing not only to my academic formation but my personal growth.  I welcome dialogue on any of the issues I’ve raised in this post (and in previous posts): I am always looking for ways to sharpen these ideas in community, whether academic or not!