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We’ve asked Tim Tseng, a historian and pastor, to guide us Asian American evangelicals through the intersections of Asia America, Asian American Studies and the Asian American Movement and Asian American Christians. This is one interview of five related to Asian America and Asian American Christians.
Why Asian American Studies does not seem to be about Asian Americans
Tell us about your connection to Asian American Studies.
I am a scholar who is Asian American and who has made religious incursions into the field. [Like New Spiritual Homes (1999), etc.] I’ve read their books, I’ve made incursions into the field, but I’m not legitimized by that particular field. I am not officially a card carrying Asian American scholar. And the reason for that is because I did not get my terminal degree in the university context, or in an Asian American Studies context. Asian American Studies tends to be focused on a university context. Seminaries are not really part of it.
Religion [as part of Asian American Studies] is growing. In the last 10 years, there’s been gradually more acceptance of the study of religion in Asian American Studies.
You’re a historian. According to geographer Justin Tse who helped us with our introduction of Asian American Studies, AA101, Asian American Studies is mostly about combatting orientalization. How does Asian American history differ from Asian American Studies?
Orientalization is can be seen as a framework, but historians in general—especially historians of the Asian American experience don’t want to overuse it. Historical methodology tries its best to keep theories at arms length, whether they are social theories, literary theories. We understand them, we do employ them, but historians in general, like a good Bible scholar, let the text speak. You don’t want to do eisegesis; you want to try to allow the text to speak first.
There’s been a remarkable amount of ethnic history that’s been written in the last 20 years that’s actually quite good.
Justin Tse tells us in AA101 that “Asian American Studies is not about Asian Americans but about speaking to Asian Americans.” Asian American Studies seems to be more about sophisticated post-modern theories about orientalization than a reflection of things on the ground for Asian Americans. Can you explain why this is the case?
Asian American Studies [began as] a grassroots movement. It didn’t start in universities per se, but in Chinese and Japanese communities. Often it was led by Christians in these communities. San Francisco State College [now University] is where most people point to when they talk about the origins of the Asian American Movement. San Francisco State was really a community-based school serving poor immigrants and second generation Asian Americans, Chinese Americans in particular. They were basically not a wealthy bunch—note that this was before Asians became the “model minority.” In sum, I would say that San Francisco State was just a part of a wider grassroots movement that was itself the real roots of the Asian American Movement.
In the 1980s, Asian American Studies became more focused on gaining legitimacy in the academic community. It now had to have criteria, scholars, methodology, tenure, refereed journals, etc and a department that was self-sustaining and replicating. When I began my graduate studies, Asian American Studies was moving in that direction.
So today, a lot of people (including many within Asian American Studies itself) are complaining about this move into the ivory tower of academia. Furthermore, [subsequent] post-modern convention and jargon has actually made it difficult to discuss ethical correctness, because it seems to relativize our experiences. Everything becomes so nuanced that it’s very hard to say that economic or racial inequalities are real. The nature of recent writings—even historians have done this—has shifted from looking at Asians as objects or victims of racial oppression or economic injustice to looking at the Asian American subject themselves.
When one actually analyzes the lived experience of Asian Americans throughout history, the racial oppression and economic injustice don’t seem quite as big of a deal. It’s just like us today. We know that we’re not the richest people in the world, but we still live our lives and we still have agency. When you look at their lives historically, yes, we can say that Asian Americans were racially oppressed and economically excluded. But they still made decisions to live their lives as well as possible and to sustain themselves. Because of the direction of the historiography, it sort of led people to conclude that maybe this racialized, this simple duality that orientalism projects might not actually be as strong or real. The framework about oppressor and oppressed came under question.
But if you go too far the other way and suggest that there is no such thing as racial oppression, then Asian American Studies has no basis for existing. If we’re not really an oppressed people, we’re just individuals just trying to get along.
This has harmed Asian American Studies, and that’s why in what some people call a post-ethnic, post-modern context, there’s very, very little desire to re-appropriate the language of the Black Power, Yellow Power Movement anymore. People don’t feel like those speak to their experiences. And as a result, Asian American Studies struggles. It can’t get enough students to take classes with them.
So Asian American Studies scholars are no longer championing the victim/victimized duality as main experience of an Asian American? When would you say that ended?
Oh, it hasn’t ended. Yes, there are many Asian American scholars who would say that racial oppression still dominates. To be fair, many of them have backed off in insisting that this is the only way to think. But they would argue that this racial oppression is a reality and you can’t deny it. I’m in that camp by the way. I do think there is racial and economic oppression—and even gender.
“Asian American” was coined in the late 1960s. It sometimes seems more of a political and demographic term. Many people still see themselves as just or mainly Chinese or Japanese or Filipino or Korean.
It’s a term for political unity as well as political and racial division. The activists argued for these separate racial categories because they needed to have a way to analyze the race problem.
“Asian American” was invented by these scholars?
“Asian American” is a also term that people actually use. In AA101, we learn that the pan-Asian American movement was birthed around the events surrounding Vincent Chin’s death.
That was the beginning of a broader national perspective on Asian Americans.
But in the 1960s and 1970s, it was West Coast, San Francisco, working class Chinese Americans, a depressed Chinatown, and children who felt like they were trapped in Chinatown: the origins were there. And not just in Chinatown, they also began to partner and mobilize with Japanese Americans. It was at least 10 years before Vincent Chin.
Asian American history sounds like its still very new and being revised.
History is always being rewritten; the framework is being negotiated. It’s contested. There are different voices that want to get in on this conversation, especially in the university context. The Religious Studies people are trying to get in there too. It’s contested, and that’s exciting. There should never be a final word.
This is not a strict transcript of the conversation. While preserving as much of the interviewee’s voice as possible, this interview has been edited for clarity.
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