Saturday, May 9, 2020

Minor Feelings and Asian American Identity

I have seldom read a book that has caused me to pause so many times to reflect on my life as a racial minority in the United States. This is the reason I appreciate Minor Feelings by Korean American award-winning poet Cathy Park Hong.*

Several days ago, my spouse and I went to a supermarket to buy groceries. To space out the customers because of Covid-19, the store put red tapes 6 feet apart in the checkout lane. As my spouse lined up to pay for the groceries, the white woman in front of him demanded that he moved back several steps further to about 9 feet behind her. Did she do this because he is Asian?

This incident reminded me of the “minor feelings” Hong describes in her book: “the racialized range of emotions that are negative, dysphoric, and therefore untelegenic, built from the sediments of everyday racial experience and the irritant of having one’s perception of reality constantly questioned or dismissed” (p. 55).

Hong grew up in California with immigrant parents, who have worked hard so that their children would have better lives. Her book is not a coming of age story or a story about survival and self-determination. It is an honest reckoning of the psychic life of an Asian American woman struggling to gain her voice when racial identity can box one in.

Hong does not mince words when talking about Asian Americans’ habit of seeking white approval. Before reading the book, I knew that it is not easy to be a poet. But I didn’t know that a poet needs to win prizes and fellowships and be validated by (white) prestigious institutions to make a living or get a teaching position. Yet Hong is tired of writing her life script using the alphabets provided by the white world.

Her ruthless honesty makes her Asian American readers ponder the prices we have paid (or are willing to pay) to be “successful” in a white dominated world. What makes Asian Americans willing to be “the carpenter ants of the service industry, the apparatchiks of the corporate world” as Hong says? Why do we step on each other to become cogs in the money-making machine?

It is difficult to live with the ambivalence, if not self-hatred, one feels about oneself. Hong writes, “Racial self-hatred is seeing yourself the way the whites see you, which turns you into your own worst enemy. Your only defense is to be hard on yourself, which becomes compulsive, and therefore a comfort, to peck yourself to death. You don’t like how you look, how you sound. You think your Asian features are undefined, like God started pinching out your features and then abandoned you. You hate that there are so many Asians in the room. Who let in all the Asians? you rant in your head.” (pp. 9-10).

We are hard on other Asians: we cringe when we hear other Asians speak with an accent or make grammatical mistakes; we frown when we see an Asian woman too fat or wear a dress too short; we burn with envy when our Asian friend gets a coveted fellowship or award.

Hong is merciless in shredding the “model minority” myth. I am surprised and impressed by her willingness to air dirty laundry in the open and pay little attention to cultural taboos. Her mother beat her and her sister. Her father learned to speak in a pleasing way to his customers and clients. In graduate school, she thought writing about Asian identity is “juvenile” and uncool. While many revere the pioneering Korean American author Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, the author of Dictee, Hong traces the story of Cha’s rape and murder. Filial piety is a cardinal virtue for Koreans, but Hong makes no secret of the burden of having to feel indebted to one’s parents all the time.

Living with contradictions and pulled from all sides, Hong finds solace in poetry and literature. The poetic form allows her to conjure up worlds by stretching language to its limits. She introduces me to many authors I have not known before. She pays attention to how narratives illumine realities and fashion lives. In doing so, she invites theologians and religious scholars to be keenly aware of how religious narratives shape our worldviews and aid or hinder our meaning-making process.

Minor feelings is not an easy read. The book elicits many mixed feelings but does not offer any easy resolution. The best thing from reading the book is that it allows you to feel messy, less perfect, anguish, complicit, and not always in control. It is OK to have these minor feelings because relationships are so racialized and we are constantly conscripted to serve the white world. In reckoning these minor feelings, we can better comprehend the depth of precariousness of the lives of racial minorities, despite appearing successful in the eyes of the outside world. It is only then that the long process of racial empowerment and healing can begin.

*Cathy Park Hong, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning (New York: Random House, 2020) Kindle edition

Thursday, April 30, 2020

The COVID-19 Pandemic and Sino-American Relations

The COVID-19 pandemic is a wake-up call to look at the world we live in and the global forces that are shaping it. Joerg Rieger, Distinguished Professor of Theology and Director of the Wendland-Cook Program in Religion and Justice at Vanderbilt University, points out that the U.S. is ill-prepared to face the pandemic because we have not learned the lessons from the Great Recession in 2008 by addressing growing inequity at the hands of financial capitalism. Indeed, when the market and stock indexes reached record highs in mid-February 2020, it was difficult to forecast the market’s sharp decline and volatility because of a tiny virus that has brought the world to heel.

The pandemic shines a spotlight on issues of race and class in American society. In the early days of the pandemic, celebrities and sports stars could get tested for the virus, while ordinary people with symptoms could not. Though professionals and white-collar workers can stay at and work from home, service workers and other low-income earners cannot. Staying at home is a luxury for them. While the coronavirus does not discriminate along racial and ethnic lines, black and brown people are affected disproportionally because of poverty, ill-health, and a general lack of medical support in their communities. Additionally, Anti-Asian racial incidents are on the rise, exacerbated by President Donald Trump’s labeling the coronavirus the “China virus.”

The COVID-19 pandemic spread at a time of tense Sino-American relations amidst trade wars and political and military realignments in the Asian Pacific. This tension has made global solidarity in combating the novel coronavirus more difficult and challenging. In 2003, when SARS reared its ugly head, scientists in Canada, Hong Kong, and the U.S. collaborated to hunt down the virus. But the blame game between China and the U.S. during COVID-19 has created obstacles in scientific collaborations and the procurement of necessary medical supplies and resources. The pandemic shows how much the world is interconnected, from the production of face masks to travel and migration.

The U.S. has shown itself to be slow and ill-equipped to face the COVID-19 pandemic whereas China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore, having learned from the SARS and other previous epidemics, were spurred to action swiftly. Trump’s botched response and the government’s lack of preparation have been deadly. As the U.S. became the epicenter for the virus, the rush to get face masks, ventilators, and other basic medical supplies highlighted the lack of government coordination. Rapid responses to the pandemic have been hindered by a market-driven health care system, the lack of universal health care, and no provision of paid sick leave for many workers.

Many commentators have compared the Chinese communist system to the American democratic system to assess which nation is better equipped to handle the pandemic. But there is no time for finger-pointing or the blame game. Christine Loh, a former undersecretary of the environment in Hong Kong, argues that it is simplistic either to attribute China’s success in controlling the virus to authoritarianism or to blame America’s failings on democracy. She argues that the divergent ways that China and the U.S. have responded to the crisis have much more to do with resources and capacities at hand, cultural and societal values, scientific understanding, political ideologies, and their decision-making structures.

The Chinese government did not warn its citizens or the world of a likely pandemic at the beginning of the outbreak in Wuhan, China. Had early warnings been made, many lives would have been saved. Similarly, President Trump played down the severity of the impact of the virus until March and does not want to follow the strategies used by Asian countries to contain and mitigate the crisis. He is halting U.S. funds to the World Health Organization for 60 to 90 days, accusing the WHO of being both “China-centric” and slow in responding to the crisis.

The d├ętente between China and the U.S. has sabotaged global efforts to combat the coronavirus. Countries should not be forced to side with one of these superpowers in order to receive help and resources. When the pandemic is over, the world will need cooperation between the two largest economies in the world for concrete actions to bring about economic recovery. The lives and livelihoods of so many people are at stake.

We cannot forget the valuable lessons we are learning from facing this pandemic: namely, that we depend on each other for survival. Without solidarity with one another and with the least among us, we will fall short in responding to the looming crisis of climate change which will devastate human lives and our habitat on a scale that is hard to imagine. We must commit ourselves to building just and sustainable world systems for we can ill afford to go back to life as usual.

* First published as a blog on the Wendland-Cook Program of Religion and Justice Website at Vanderbilt University.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Why I Like Worshiping at Candler's Cannon Chapel

Rev. Dr. Teresa L. Fry Brown
Worshiping at Cannon Chapel is one of the things I like most in my life as a professor at Candler School of Theology of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, USA. In the past two years as a visiting professor, I have attended chapel frequently on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

During the week in which we celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and legacy, I listened to inspiring sermons by Baptist minister the Rev. Dr. Damon P. Williams and by the Rev. Dr. Teresa L. Fry Brown, Bandy Professor of Preaching at Candler. They demonstrated the power of the word and deeply moving and engaging black preaching styles. Dr. Fry Brown, who belongs to the African Methodist Episcopal tradition, used Psalm 27 as her text. When she linked the suffering of African Americans to the beginning of the psalm, “The Lord is my light and my salvation-Whom shall I fear?” she provided a new context for me to listen to the words of the Psalmist with new insights.

Bishop Karen Oliveto spoke at Candler
Then this past week, Bishop Karen Oliveto, Bishop of the Western Jurisdiction, Mountain Sky Episcopal Area of the United Methodist Church (UMC), came to visit the school and preached about how God’s table is open to all. As the first openly gay bishop in the UMC, she asked us to think about whether the church is “united” or “untied.” Her message was especially important for our GLBTQIA students, who are pondering about their future ministry and vocation in a church that is in the process of splitting over the issue of human sexuality.

This morning Dr. Andrew L. Prevot, an African American Catholic theologian and associate professor of theology at Boston College, preached about the Beatitudes, focusing on the verse, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). He said many people think that we have to wait to go to heaven to see God. But we need to train ourselves to see God in this world. This can only be done if we can see with mercy and compassion. The message was particularly poignant, coming from Dr. Prevot who suffered from many eye problems as a child. He used to carry a card of Saint Lucy and frequently prayed for his eyesight when he was growing up.

Just within the short span of two weeks, I have experienced preaching from four different traditions as well as gospel music, Catholic chants, and evangelical hymns. These worshiping experiences opened me to a spiritual world that is vibrating, inviting, and full of grace.

From left: Dr. Antonio Alonso, Dr. Andrew Prevot, and me
As an Anglican, I am used to following the set liturgy in the Book of Common Prayers. I have not experienced different kinds of ecumenical worship on a consistent basis. My faculty colleagues and students, led by the Rev. Dr. Khalia J. Williams, Assistant Dean of Worship and Music, have put their soul and energy in planning for these worship services. These services and the weekly evensong offered by the Episcopal and Anglican Studies at the school have enriched my spiritual life and sustained my academic pursuit. They provide a supportive and welcoming environment for me to explore the hidden face of God that has yet to be revealed.

As a theologian, I consider theology and spirituality as deeply integrated, partly because I come from a Chinese background. The neo-Confucian philosophers in the medieval period debated about the relationship between knowing and doing. I am firmly with the camp that emphasized that knowing and doing should go hand in hand. I so admired Dr. Prevot’s sermon because he demonstrated that one can combine vigorous theological thinking with the deepest longing for God.

Candler’s worship also challenges me to think about how we can live into God’s realm, embracing differences in race, language, custom, class, gender, and sexuality. It is not easy to study together; it is even harder to worship together. I, for one, can’t clap and sing and move my body. For others, it is so natural.

As I was thinking about this, I remembered the address given by Dr. Rebecca Chopp, who was once a professor at Candler and Emory University’s Provost. In her convocation address, she used the theme of abiding to talk about our faith and loyalty. Coming to seminary and divinity school, she said, provides an opportunity for us to listen to abiding of other people, and to learn to dwell in our own abiding.

Abiding means a sense of belonging and community. In our time of rootlessness and isolation, when we have to check our mobile devices so many times a day to stay “connected,” the opportunity to sing, move, worship together enables us to experience the epiphany of God’s grace.

Without drinking from the spiritual wells of our many traditions, it will be much harder to live in community, to honor difference, and to work together to change the world. Prophet Micah exhorted us “to do justice, and love mercy.” Both justice and mercy can only be nurtured by sustainable practices.* Worshiping together is one such practice to help us see each other as God’s beloved.

*I am grateful to my former student Julian Reid for this term. He mentioned this in the context of discussing how to integrate what we have learned in divinity school and in our different ministries and vocations.