Cultivating Ethnic and Religious Identities for Chinese Americans

This past summer I continued my readings in social scientific and popular readings of ethnicity, race, and religion. In one popular reading I was introduced to early 20th century Chinese history through the perspectives of nationalists and Christian converts. More than a work of history, it is an invitation into Chinese mythology and the sense of the spiritual that animates the minds of many young people.  

Noted author and artist Gene Luen Yang, a second-generation Chinese American, recently published a two-volume series called Boxers and Saints. Told from two different perspectives, it revisits the Boxer Rebellion of the early 1900s as seen from two young Chinese people, a man and a woman. Boxers, the larger of the two works sets the stage for the events that are retold in Saints. It’s reminiscent of the two-part film series by Clint Eastwood chronicling the Battle of Iwo Jima from the perspective of US forces (Flags of Our Fathers) and Japanese forces (Letters From Iwo Jima). For film fans, both Eastwood and Yang’s works are preceded by the classic film Rashomon directed by Akira Kurosawa.

For those wanting to know more about the Boxer Rebellion, Boxers and Saints is an easy introduction into this pivotal moment in world history. I say “world history” because while it takes place in China, it is very much the story of western imperialism and evangelicalism which prompted these events in the first place. Yang, an educator at heart, ends both volumes with a list of readings that helped shape his understanding of the events he chronicled. My focus in this post is on the work’s significance for Asian Americans, particularly those with a religious background.

Boxers invites us into a world filled with Chinese gods and demigods who inspire and empower young peasant men to resist what they see as an encroaching Western presence in their homeland. Westerners and their foreign religion of Christianity are cast as devils that must be purged from the land, and only the power of China’s old gods can resist them. Saints similarly imagines a world visited by Catholic saints from the perspective of a young peasant woman who is introduced to this religion by foreign missionaries from the west and converts she meets along the way. She is empowered by Saint Joan of Arc to side with the religious Westerners, Catholic and Protestant missionaries and new Chinese converts. Interestingly, from the perspective of the Christians, the Boxers’ violence is not spiritualized as demonic but rather remain an earthly violent force set on killing them. The turn to the saints is for physical protection.

What struck me was the introduction of this spiritual dimension which plays a significant part for both the participants in the Boxer movement as much as the Christians. In typical readings of these moments, the spiritual is irrelevant apart from a few sidebars of the folklore that ran through local villages who encountered the Boxers or the Christians. But for Yang, the spiritual is very much a part of lived reality and whether it is “real” in some scientific sense may be less important than the notion that spiritual characters motivate people to act in heroic, compassionate and violent ways. Such is the power of belief whether Chinese mythology or Western Christianity, at least during this period.

Boxers and Saints accomplishes more than presenting two sides of an event. For readers who are second-generation Chinese American (or know someone who is) and searching for a sense of rootedness, this work highlights a part of the history that they likely have not heard in any course they have taken in school or college. And perhaps it is not told by their family members who are often working long hours to make ends meet. In the contemporary context, without available resources to help young Chinese Americans take hold of their Chinese roots, their ethnicity might signify little if anything. Boxers and Saints becomes an important means by which ethnicity can be socialized for young people. Sociologists note that ethnicity and religion are both social constructions; understanding Chinese identity and Christian identity require materials that describe the origins and meanings for the group’s existence, along with rituals, and relationships with others who help reinforce what one is learning. In this way Boxers and Saints, geared at a younger audience, is one such material resource to help inculcate a sense of being a part of the folk religious Chinese people and Christian Chinese people.

Given the fairly strong presence of Christianity within Chinese American circles (about 30 percent based on last year’s Pew Research Center survey on Asian Americans), the second book, Saints, serves a similar function as Boxers by conveying a sense of rootedness with a faith that perhaps seems distal to their Chinese heritage. Reading Boxers and Saints still conveys a sense that Christianity is not Chinese culturally; it is imported by white Westerners. But it does remind readers that Chinese Christians have been around for more than a century. Wrestling with this reality, and coming to terms with it is an important exercise, and perhaps one that could be done in community for these young men and women.

Boxers and Saints extends beyond the Chinese American community as well; second-generation Asian Americans have fairly diverse networks relative to whites and blacks. For those who have friends in the Asian American community, this work can help introduce a perspective that is altogether new as well. It invites non-Asian Americans to consider what it might mean to be both Chinese and American (read: Western). In particular it asks us to think about what it means to be rooted in a culture that is animated by a pantheon of gods rather than one God? With that in mind, what might it mean to encounter the god of foreigners particularly in the midst of geopolitical turmoil involving exploitation? As Chinese immigration continues steadily through the 21st century, successive waves of second-generation Chinese Americans will continue to face these same questions of identity be it religious, ethnic or both. Boxers and Saints could prove a useful tool in helping individuals and groups understand their place in the world, and their place in history.


The March on Washington remembered

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington from which we gain many of our most iconic images of that era and the Civil Rights Movement. Thousands have arrived in DC today to remember that moment. Here is a youtube clip of Martin Luther King’s speech:

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And here’s a link to catch current coverage (as of 2pm EST):

nbcnews coverage

President Obama will give a speech approximately at 2:45pm. It might be interesting to compare and contrast King and Obama’s speeches, to understand better what has changed and what has stayed the same.



Race Talk in Colorblind Churches

In the wake of the weekend verdict over George Zimmerman’s shooting and killing of Trayvon Martin, my Facebook page was ablaze as various news outlets repeated the same story and as some friends expressed shock and a few fear. In the midst of this a colleague asked her friends for their reflections on how churches in America ought to respond to this moment that clearly bespeaks of the continuing racial divides in our nation. She sent us to noted progressive evangelical Jim Wallis’ reflections as a conversation starter. It got me thinking that I had left tabs open to several blog posts from noted Protestant Christian clergy, so I took it as an opportunity to synthesize the comments with Wallis’ post to start.

Wallis’ words are engaging as always. He joins some Christian bloggers in using this moment to speak directly about the anti-black racism in our nation, and how Christian can work against it. What focused my attention was his solution, the importance of multiracial churches, churches that have no more than 80% of its congregants reflecting one particular racial group. From here, Wallis contends, white and black parents can speak with one another, learn from one another and ultimately stand with one another against systemic injustices that are targeted against some but not others. Noted conservative evangelical John Piper echoed the same point in more theological language of “reconciliation.” His point is the same as Wallis; reconciliation requires some kind of exchange where individuals and groups address a grievance and restore a broken connection. Such an exchange presumes a preceding relationship, and for many Christians the relationships at church take precedence. Hence for racial reconciliation to be effective, multiracial churches must be part of the solution.

While I advocate the importance of racial diversity in our churches, I am not confident in their efficacy to raise the kind of awareness that many are calling for. Sociologist Korie Edwards observed a predominantly African American church as it tried to transition into a multiracial church.  Her observations were telling: even when African American Protestants led the church and were the larger numerical group, the culture of the church conformed to the new members who were white. Rather than an equitable exchange and compromise among both (or all) groups, inclusion of whites in non-white congregations often results in acquiescing to their perspective and cultural assumptions.

This results in colorblindness in matters of structural racism, while still maintaining the veneer of diversity. That is, a lot of churchgoers like the idea of diversity these days, just so long as we agree to “focus on Jesus” and remain silent and ignorant about injustices that affect people of color, women, sexual minorities and other vulnerable groups. So we can look like a racial mosaic while never really understanding that our fellow church members don’t experience their day-to-day lives the same way.

But again I want to support the importance of these churches because these form the largest voluntary organization in the US, and sadly the most segregated. Frankly, if we were to take Wallis’ idea to heart, American Christians have more opportunity for interracial interaction in the workplace and in some neighborhoods as well, much more so than their churches at present.

And yet, I suspect that even in our neighborhoods, our schools, and our workplaces, there is still limited conversation on matters of racial injustice. If my guess is right, our everyday discourse is individualistic at its root; each of us, in theory, is only responsible for our own outcomes. Even when we are in a group, a team, a business, a church, the default attitude seems to be individualist. This way of thinking and seeing the world is so taken-for-granted that many bristle when someone makes mention of anything systemic. It feels artificially injected somehow to bring up talk of racial inequality. So if Wallis’ point is that multiracial churches are key because they allow for conversations among Christians across different racial groups, I would say, let’s look at all the other contexts that different Americans should be having these conversations, in theory, and ask why aren’t we having more conversations outside of church?

To be sure, African Americans, Christian or not, are having these conversations. And the shared sentiment of lament, moral outcry speaks to me as a sociologist: the patterns of interpretation are so consistent and racialized. Compare the reflections from Wallis and Piper with theologian Reggie Williamscampus minister Sean Watkins, and Wheaton College professor Shawn Okpebholo. While not an ideal setting, their posts have helped bring their voices to my mind when I have no one in my network at my place of work who echo a similar sentiment.

While there’s no study out there I know of that can document whether this can work, I suggest that the key is to dialogue within deep relationships that engage the mind, the emotions, and the body. I picture this: coworkers in the breakroom talking about anything but work; one of them mentions this “thing he read in the news the other day” which seems, from his perspective, like racism. Repeat this scene on a semi-regular basis, and perhaps someone might speak up and say “yeah something like that happened to a friend of mine last week.” At first some coworkers will find this unbelievable, exceptional, and dismiss it off hand. But if the stories keep coming in, and different coworkers speak up as well, then we are witnessing a conversation that brings structural racism into the fore. Regular exposure to this kind of structural awareness may nudge more people, churchgoer or not, to reconsider the notion of colorblindness.

For multiracial churches to promote structural awareness, they have to raise the community’s consciousness away from the trappings of individualism both in its beliefs and in its practices as an organization. Frankly this is a very difficult road to travel and requires more commitment intellectually and relationally than most people want to give to a congregation. Churches may have the advantage of more opportunity for relationship building than the workplace, but few have the wherewithal to create real deep relationships that demand giving up “me time” for the sake of getting to know others who face struggles that are completely foreign to one’s experience. It’s not surprising then that many churches emphasize “me and Jesus” Christian individualism. And if a church emphasizes “us and Jesus” Christian collectivism it can still suffer from colorblindness, even when the church is noticeably diverse. All you need is a community culture that does nothing to promote deeper engagement with others beyond a hearty handshake and hymns sung in unison for 60 minutes once a week.

Beyond the challenges facing a typical congregation that would like to have richer relationships across racial boundaries, we should consider the education of the clergy themselves. To what extent is their theological training in any way equipping their worldview to think in terms of structures (apart from the church)? I suspect that today’s seminaries too often describe racial difference in paternalistic tones or in a tourist-y/ buffet-style understanding of culture. It’s this thin understanding of culture that can create a church that has a sense of “we-ness” and still be oblivious to systemic inequalities. Of course it’s important to know that some traditions worship differently; it’s more important to know how these traditions reflect the way blacks and whites have lived in American society as sociologists Jason Shelton and Michael Emerson explained.  Understanding the historic role of systemic racism in cultivating theological traditions and practices is a first step that seminaries can take in creating structurally-aware multiracial churches.

For now, perhaps we can heed the suggestion of Eugene Cho, a pastor in Seattle:

Can we just take some time to hurt and mourn with many of our Black brothers and sisters?
Can we take some time to hurt with many Black churches and communities?
With our black friends, co-workers, and neighbors, can we commiserate with them – however limited we may be in that commiseration?

For us – as Christians – if our Black brothers and sisters in Christ are hurting…If they are truly our brothers and sisters in Christ; And if we are truly the Body of Christ as we profess…can’t we just shut up, listen, and mourn with them? Can we possibly try to listen, hear, and capture a glimpse of why they are upset, concerned, anxious, worried, and even fearful?

The Social Construction and Comfort of Soul Food

Did you know that “gumbo” is “okra” in the Bantu dialect of the peoples in southern and central Africa? That’s just one of the tidbits I learned from this fascinating new documentary which I would encourage university libraries to carry and for faculty to use in the classroom. Soul Food Junkies chronicles the social history and contemporary experience of consuming foods originally created by African Americans from slavery through emancipation, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Era through today. It’s a fascinating journey for anyone who learns effectively through visual and experiential means, and it can be an effective tool to help students understand the way race works in the structures of our society both historically and in the present.

Use of food as a way to introduce cultural diversity is more difficult than it sounds. On the surface few would pass up the opportunity to explore new flavors, colorful plates, and unfamiliar ingredients. But the deceptive problem occurs when we leave the discussion of food and culture to our consumptive likes and dislikes. Instead, the use of food needs to be more instructional: what are the origins of these dishes? How is this cuisine tied to the history of the US? How are social structures and inequalities reflected and how are they relevant today?

Soul food is one example of what sociologists describe as material culture, the physical components of a group that signify values, norms, and social conditions of a group. An instructor can help students better understand the impact of migration, the context of reception of new people groups, and how those people groups adapt to their new surroundings. Okra for example was a vegetable common to many Africans who were brought to the US as chattel slaves. Obviously taking what food they could would be a source of comfort during the harrowing journey across the Atlantic and the brutal conditions of slavery in the American South. Through soul food, we can learn that the meals of most slaves consisted of the remainders of crops and the scraps of meat product like chitterlings, a word originating from the European Middle Ages to describe the less desirable parts of pigs consumed by peasants. Given the absence of education for the majority of slaves, it comes as no surprise that this term would eventually be called “chittlins”. More so, the fact of the low quality of the food given to chattel slaves speaks volumes to the value accorded to this people group. What is a source of sustenance for the oppressed is the afterthought of the oppressor.

With emancipation little changed in the dietary patterns of freed blacks due to institutionalized segregation. With little access to the resources of southern whites, southern blacks made do with the foods they were accustomed to prior to their liberation. After the Civil War, African Americans were politically equal to whites, but in the South, state laws, first called the Black Codes, and later the Jim Crow laws defined the social boundaries that ensured that federally protected equality would have no bearing on the day-to-day lives of whites and blacks. Clearly aware of this inequality and their very survival day to day, it should not be a surprise that soul food retained its comfort significance.

The Civil Rights Movement, whose crowning achievement, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, was recently gutted by the Supreme Court, augured new hope for African Americans. New hope called for celebration, and a new sense of empowerment and pride in one’s people. “Soul food” received its name around this time when various elements of African American culture suddenly had “soul” attached to it to distinguish itself from the spiritual emptiness of white-dominated mainstream society. But just as progress appeared in the political realm, the economy changed once again, and African American socioeconomic conditions fared no better than before the 1960s. Jobs that required little education were exported to developing nations and were replaced by service sector jobs which paid very little and demanded little physical exertion. The stress of not being able to make ends meet in addition to sedentary work increases the health risk put on by soul food consumption. Moreover as America remains highly segregated spatially, the availability of healthy food options grows scarce where poverty is concentrated. So even as the documentary showed the possibilities of healthier soul food, such potential may only be available to higher income African Americans.

Through the use of the Soul Food Junkies documentary, one can teach about the ways in which social structures in American society have a racial inflection that has had forward repercussions on African Americans today. The meaning of soul food is inextricably tied to the history of African Americans, and thus an important part in the education of all young Americans. With new visual education like Soul Food Junkies and mindful teachers everywhere, we can introduce new students (and not a few older ones too) to the social history of race in US society and what it means for us all today.