I am not a jook sing because I have a home and am Catholic (‘I give you three years to narrate yourself’ #3)

I am not a jook sing because I have a home and am Catholic (‘I give you three years to narrate yourself’ #3) September 7, 2018
Me and my favourite book in the world – photo by me

This is the third in a series reflecting on what I’ve been doing on the blog. The first and second are here.

No account of the intellectual crisis I have had will be complete without the story of a course I taught in Spring 2017 when I had a meltdown mid-lecture. The topic was Chinese American studies, and I was exegeting a passage from what still remains one of my favourite books ever written, Louis Chu’s Eat a Bowl of Tea. In my previous readings of this book, I had thought that the progression was an ironic one. The protagonist Ben Loy is instructed by his father Wah Gay to go back to China to find a wife because American girls, including the Chinese ones, are what are referred to as jook sing, a ‘hollow bamboo’ in the sense of looking like one is Chinese but not having any idea of what the culture is. Wah Gay does not want Ben Loy to marry a jook sing not only because they have no respect for their elders, but also because they have ‘big belly’ before they get married. Ben Loy goes back to China and marries Mei Oi. Mei Oi’s name translates to ‘beauty love,’ but it is also a play on words because the word mei (‘beauty’) is also a reference to the Beautiful Country, America. Mei Oi comes to be American, I thought, because when Mei Oi gets to America and faces her husband’s problem with erectile dysfunction, she has a kind of sexual awakening, which leads to an affair through which she gets pregnant. The irony, I thought, was that being a jook sing is inescapable. Wah Gay may think that Ben Loy should find a girl who has the proper kind of morality, but any girl he brings to America will become a jook sing anyway.

My reading fell apart because the students objected to the scene when Mei Oi starts the affair that gets her pregnant. It is not a consensual relationship. Mei Oi is raped, and then she rationalizes herself into thinking that it is not rape. As one might imagine in the world of campus politics that are rightly inflamed against sexual assault, I found myself in big trouble for assigning this text. Inside of class as well as in my office hours, my students confronted me, arguing that it was problematic of me not to have considered the problem of feminist agency. I shot back at the time that they were behaving like Protestant missionaries wanting to save Mei Oi from rape and that it was they who were problematic. I still agree with my assessment of them, and our contentious relationship also brought us to a place of mutual respect eventually, but they were right to call me out because it exposed a fundamental flaw in my reading of Eat a Bowl of Tea. Louis Chu does not celebrate the jook sing status at which Mei Oi comes to arrive. Instead, he sees it as a more endemic problem to the community that he is describing, from Wah Gay’s own fantasy projections about a future daughter-in-law to Ben Loy’s sexual dysfunction to Mei Oi’s deeply problematic sexual awakening.

In each of these cases, it is because the characters in Eat a Bowl of Tea do not know who they are that they have sexual and familial problems. When they recover their sense of who they are, they literally recover their agency. At the end, the Chinatown community comes together to fight against Mei Oi’s rapist, Ben Loy resorts to herbal medicine and ancient mythologies of martial prowess to get his manhood back, Mei Oi discovers that she truly loves Ben Loy, and the illegitimate child is legitimized because real Chinese families do not trace their lineage by blood, but literally by the people gathered at table around a ritual meal under a roof. Jook sing is not the solution and certainly not to be celebrated. It is the problem. When I saw this mid-lecture, I melted into a puddle on the floor and dismissed the class. It was epic on the proportions of having to eat my words in the trans-Pacific Christianities course about Eastern Christianities not being important in the exchange of Christian migrations between Asia and the Americas.

Shortly after I had these realizations, I returned to Vancouver. As my spiritual father and I began to reflect on the one-year mark of my chrismation anniversary, we discovered a thread that was similar to my musings that maybe being a jook sing is not so good. It was that, by dint of total accident, I had given up on being homeless, on sitting on the fence above the political fray and swearing that I would not invest myself in any one group’s politics for fear of being caught up emotionally and intellectually. Of course, what had happened prior to that was that I had been a Chinglican in denial of my deep investment in Asian American evangelicalism, so being ecclesial homeless was really a kind of lie. My capacity for self-deception knows few bounds, but I suppose what joining the Eastern Catholic church did for me was to force me to face myself.

Coming home to Eastern Catholicism had consequences and implications. The first was the most obvious: I had found a home in an Eastern Catholic church. But it was an unexpected home, in the sense that it did not seem to be making me more Ukrainian, quite unlike my white Orthodox convert friends who seem to turn into apologists for the Russian World over the course of their mystagogy. In fact, it was in my remarking to my spiritual father that perhaps I had become ‘Ukrainian’ by becoming Eastern Catholic because I was beginning to be more direct and blunt in my speech that we discerned that that was yet another false consciousness speaking. I had already done that with Anglicanism and didn’t need to be doing it again.

If anything, I became more Cantonese. This, we began to reflect, was not false consciousness, whereas the Ukrainian thing might be, and the Anglicanism definitely was, if not the Asian American evangelicalism too, come to think of it. The thing is that I was actually raised Cantonese. I grew up speaking the language, eating the food, drinking the soup, learning the martial arts, hearing the stories, watching the television, and being educated in its everyday sensibilities. I did not realize that I had to learn English until the first day of preschool when I couldn’t understand a word that the teacher was saying. As a little kid, I had to translate body parts and foods and customs from Cantonese to English in order for them to be intelligible. To give a crass example, I spent the better part of kindergarten wondering what English speakers called a penis. For me as a Cantonese speaker, it was a jer. I did not know how to say it in English. One day, on the school bus, I worked up the courage to ask a guy I later discovered was Filipino and probably was therefore not the right English speaker to ask what it was by pulling down my pants. He recoiled in horror, exclaiming, Ew, that’s your privates! That didn’t sound right, as my parents had also told me that I was attending a private school and I had spent so long there without being able to learn how to talk about a jer in English. But perhaps a jer was the plural of private, I reasoned. It wasn’t till much later that I read the word penis in a book and pronounced it pennis like tennis. English, I can safely say, is not my first language.

But to be Cantonese is to be part of a geography, and that is something that has not been fully realized in my life either. I am, for example, not from Hong Kong. I am not even from San Francisco. I’m from a quiet city called Fremont, I went to church in Hayward and later to a Catholic school there too, and when I went to college, I moved to where I had been born many years ago, but had never lived: Richmond, British Columbia in Metro Vancouver. There, I embarked on a nine-year educational journey that finished with marriage and a doctorate in geography. During that time, I had a whirlwind tour of every possible permutation of Cantonese evangelicalism and the fantasies of its younger people in fitting into a broader normatively white evangelical mainstream, and this took me quickly through the flirtations of evangelicals with postmodernism in the ‘emerging church,’ New Calvinism, Anglicanism from all three ends of the realignment, and a kind of Asian American/Canadian intentional community type of church.

Over this period of ecclesial hopping, a number of people understood my traveling through all of these communities as an intellectual journey because I could always out-theologize my detractors. But the truth is that usually there was a girl involved, so I am not above saying that I was basically doing theology with my dick. It’s why the Josh Harris stuff about kissing dating goodbye was so enlightening and dismaying at the same time during this era of my life. Eventually, not only did I get married to a Cantonese woman that I always call a classic Chinese beauty in the style of the modern urban sophisticated scene, but I also wrote three academic theses that form the crux of the career I have now: my undergraduate honors thesis was on what it meant to be a man in the Hong Kong comedy films of the Hui Brothers in the 1970s, my master’s was a reading of the transnational geographies of one Hong Kong Protestant church where I worked, and my doctorate was on the political engagements of Cantonese Protestants with the civil societies of Vancouver, San Francisco, and Hong Kong.

I spent the summer of 2017 feverishly narrating that Cantonese journey and what it had to do with me joining an Eastern Catholic church. I began with the usual disclaimers. The first was that I had really screwed up in that trans-Pacific Christianities course by denying the importance of Eastern Christianities, and as a kind of humorous divine retribution, I had developed a devotion to Holy John of Shanghai and San Francisco, the ‘Wonderworker of the latter times,’ as the Russian Church Outside of Russia puts it. The second was that I had found myself in an Eastern Catholic church because of the Kyivan Church’s solidarity with the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong in 2014.

But there were some problems with that account, and I wanted to work through those too. I was indeed not from Hong Kong, or even San Francisco’s Chinatown, and yet somehow I found myself in solidarity with the Umbrella Movement and developing a renewed sense of what it meant to be Cantonese. To me, the essence of a Cantonese spirit could be encapsulated in a phrase that I translated badly (and got called on by my Cantonese friends) as the air of righteousness, but not in the sense of putting on airs (this is why it was a bad translation), but in the sense of qi, hei, breath, essence. To be righteous in the Cantonese sense was the opposite of being jook sing because the idea is that you have to know who your people are and then make sure to do right by them. In fact, people who are jook sing almost always fall into the vice of being without the air of righteousness (mo yi hei) because they don’t know who their own people are and therefore always don’t see that their actions have consequences for everyone else. I didn’t want to be that kind of jook sing jerk, so I accepted that I was in fact Cantonese. It was worth writing through the jook sing meltdown, though; what happened, I later learned, was that someone who was somebody I was supposed to have known in a previous life forwarded the posts to her songwriting friend, and before anyone knew it, Julian Saporiti had written a song titled ‘Jook Sing Cafe.’ I got to hear it performed live in a house concert; never had I ever thought that my personal intellectual struggles would give birth to such exquisite music.

What this meant in practical terms, however, was that my journey into telling the truth about myself, including about the home that I was in, was literally making me more Cantonese. This development made little sense to most other people watching from the outside, who had written me off at that point as having become Ukrainian. I did find the stories of the Greek-Catholic Church of Kyiv inspiring, as well as many of the pieces of Kyivan folklore and theological narratives that I learned, but if there was any meaningful way in which I related to my Ukrainian friends, it was in sharing a common experience of being colonized and having folks around us deny that that was happening because someone else somewhere else always had it worse. In this way, I wasn’t becoming Ukrainian; I was learning that a Cantonese experience of the world has some deep similarities with a Ukrainian one, and as I reflected, this truth of the world gave me insight into Sam Rocha’s concept of folk phenomenology, the way that ordinary folks experience the world. In fact, I observed that just as I found myself in deep solidarity with my Ukrainian friends over our shared experience of colonization, I also discovered great similarities between being Cantonese and Sam’s sense of being Tejano, in the sense that how we love is forged over food. In many ways, this sensibility is also how I relate to my Korean friends and colleagues, whose histories of being colonized by both Soviet and American powers are strangely similar to the history of Ukraine.

The deep lesson I was learning by writing through my admission that I was Cantonese after all was that experiencing universality – indeed, being Catholic with a capital ‘C’ – came precisely from the sense of being home in who I am and who my people are, not in this wishy-washy jook sing sensibility of emptiness that I had imbibed both in Protestantism and in my studies in the contemporary secular academy. To experience the universal was not a kind of white people thinking, contrary to popular notions; instead, I had become Catholic by embracing the particular, and I had renounced this sort of fancy-schmancy living in the tensions and the margins and interstices homelessness as what it actually meant to be white in the sense of being non-particular and culture-less. The funny thing is that my Protestant friends began at that exact time to complain that I allegedly did not care about the ‘Body of Christ,’ which for them seemed to be more of an idea than a material fact. Caving to their demands, I wrote three pieces on the blog that concerned my developing view of Protestants at a distance: one on Eugene Peterson and all the Protestants who always seemed to be emerging but never really emerged, one on how Josh Harris’s kissing dating goodbye was inimical to the actual experience of falling in love, and one on how Richard Mouw represented a kind of white evangelical apologetic for Chinese state authoritarianism.

I am still quite pleased with what I did there, but my problem in these pieces was also to be overly respectful of the world that I had left because I so badly wanted Catholicism and Protestantism to each represent two ecclesial homes. In so doing, I failed to give voice to what I was really protesting in Protestantism, which is that I really had come to think that its rootlessness, its endless searching for a community of the purely faithful, and its practical embrace of ecclesial homelessness as a result was not the path to holiness that its practitioners so often touted. That took me another year to articulate as a kind of postmodernism that had infected my childhood ecclesial home, or perhaps it had been there from the beginning, and I had not known it as a child. Postmodernism in its original sense as coined by Jean-François Lyotard has always seemed to me as more of a description of the state of public spheres in late capitalist societies where the barometers of truth have completely eroded as capital has made everything sacred melt into air, to use Marx’s classic dictum, and it is not exactly a good thing. It basically gives a name to a post-truth and post-fact society, which means that the greatest icon of a postmodern age is Donald Trump and his outlandish lies in his public statements. This kind of world is a cynical one, and the fruit of that seems to be that most of my intelligent Protestant friends always end up mistaking cynicism for holiness. As a Catholic – irrespective of ecclesia sui juris (though my being homed in the Kyivan Church amplifies my critique) – I have to protest that this kind of Protestant homelessness does not exactly lead to sainthood.

I did not have the spiritual maturity to articulate all of that last year, but I did have the capacity to struggle with a concept that one of my students from that terrible class on trans-Pacific Christianities, Eugenia Geisel, managed to pick up on: what I was calling the everyday supernatural. What we meant by it was a kind of riff off of Henri de Lubac SJ and his Lacanian student Michel de Certeau SJ in the sense that le surnaturel describes not so much a kind of divine intervention from a different spiritual sphere, but is really about the way that material reality is constituted as kind of metaphysically spiritual ontology and therefore experienced in everyday life despite the attempts of modern secular institutions to colonize it. These ontological reflections formed the basis for why the members of the Society of Jesus who had educated Eugenia and through whom I encountered the Byzantine spiritual director who became my spiritual father could practice the discernment of spirits. Objectively speaking, the spiritual world was the external world, but its workings could be discerned through subjective experience because we as persons live in that spiritual world, encountering its forces and personalities in a personal way. In fact, it probably was a good thing to enter into the struggle with this concept with Eugenia because she herself had struggled over a year to put out the seven pieces on my blog that recounted her pilgrimage to Kraków in the 2016 World Youth Day. The results were a yearlong series of meditations on this spiritual ontology through her encounters in Poland with the Black Madonna, Bl. Jerzy Popieluszko, St Faustina Kowalska, Bl Albert Chmielowski, St Maximilian Kolbe, and two pieces on Pope St John Paul II. In fact, over beers that summer, she joked to me that she would be the kind of person to leave lipstick on an icon after kissing it. I remarked that since I had called her my blog’s Latin Catholic Person for her many contributions, perhaps she might start her own blog titled Lipstick on my relics. We set up that WordPress site right then and there in the pub.

It happened to be the Dormition Fast at that time, so I seized the opportunity to put some of the discussions that Eugenia and I had had about the everyday supernatural into print. Of all my students former and current, Eugenia is probably the one who understands the most about what I mean by Catholic school being a home for me even though I was a Protestant. In fact, this is why she insisted later on that I had to see the film called Lady Bird, which I did and by which I was reduced to tears because I resonated so much with the experience. She also literally bore witness to my homecoming into Eastern Catholicism by taking the train from Seattle in 2016 to attend my chrismation; because of this, we don’t even call her a Parishioner-at-Large at the temple, as we consider her to be a parishioner, period. Having walked on my journey – including during my flirtation with the Latin Church because I had been very taken by the application of Catholic social teaching in the Polish Solidarity Movement and through the Black Madonna of Częstochowa – Eugenia also had a front-row seat into me calling the Most Holy Theotokos my ‘Mom,’ a term of endearment that had stunned even my spiritual father with its affectionate excess. I always joked that I’d need to be psychoanalyzed for my outlandish devotion to the Theotokos as someone who grew up Protestant, and the funniest thing is that in the summer of 2017, I produced fifteen posts over the Dormition Fast that provides all the content that one would need for such an exercise.

Aside from describing my personal and mysterious encounters with the Mother of God over the course of my life, what I found myself doing in the series was to say much more forcefully than I ever had before that the Kyivan Church was my home. I think I scared some people by recounting how I played around with both Latinradical feminist, and pagan ideas, but overarching arc of what I was doing – at least I realize now – was to give an account of the weird feeling of feeling a kind of supernatural motherhood over me even though I was raised as a Protestant to discount those feelings. This was the everyday supernatural par excellence, and I had found it in a church that I knew to be true, but also not in a triumphalistic way because as a church – and in solidarity with other Byzantine churches – we know the experience of colonization all too well. In working out my journey through Catholic school and into rediscovering Catholicism as an adult, I came to discover that the ways that made sense of how I understood the Theotokos were in the terms of the Kyivan Church: as an Immovable Wall, as being raised to new life in the central feast of her Dormition, as the champion leader of mental formation and intellectual wisdom, as articulated in the Akathist. I also tried working out my more Protestant ideas, such as the relationship between the Theotokos and what I had critiqued as the ‘private consensus’ of thinking that all social institutions are fundamentally private, the issue of women’s ordination as why Protestants thought I could not be a real feminist, and the problem of church scandal for the ‘children of the New Eve.’

As I review these posts, I am struck by strong of a statement they make together about a theme I did not know I was harping upon, which is that to be Catholic is first and foremost to have a particular home through which universal metaphysical truth – the supernatural constitution of the world and the relationality of ordinary people – is then encountered. Although my journey has taken me through the various highways and byways of Protestantism, the currents of secular academia, and a flirtation with the Latin Church, my home is the Kyivan Church. This is the real reason that Sam is wrong about me one day probably joining the Latin Church. Perhaps he discovers the Catholic quality of the supernatural through his home church, but mine is just as Catholic as his. In fact, I know it to be so because being in the Kyivan Church has not forced me to convert to a Ukrainian ethnicity, but has in fact made me more truthful about the Cantonese ways in which I was formed. I am not a jook sing because I have a home. I am not a homeless Protestant. I am Catholic.

At this stage in my blogging, I finally felt that I had begun to narrate myself in the sense that I was revealing to the public what my home was in all of its complexity. However, just as before, I drew exactly the wrong conclusion – that there was a necessary gap between intellectual work in the academy and being fully part of this home. It took me yet another cycle of blogging to get myself back on track, one that took my career through such extremely perilous straits that I am surprised as I sit here that I am still an academic.

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