The Economics of Asian American Privilege

Students at Monta Vista High School in Cupertino

[also posted at http://breadbeforerice.blogspot.com/2016/08/the-economics-of-asian-american.html]

 Age group competitive soccer in the San Francisco bay area is essentially comprised of two social classes: the affluent, predominantly white families that at away tournaments eat at nice restaurants and stay at expensive hotels and the non-white predominantly Latino immigrant families that bring their own food and extended family to games. At a recent tournament, I made small talk with one of the dads as we attempted to fit into the first group. He’s a middle-aged Russian immigrant and I asked him what he did for work. It turned out he’s a data scientist who works for a large insurance company. He creates data models that predict things like bay area housing price trends.
He in turn asked if I was a programmer. I told him I was a pastor but it was a good guess. He agreed. After all his algorithm had calculated the probability was high. I love immigrant candor.
This question encapsulates why I live in the bay area. Where else do I get mistaken for a software engineer? In the bay area, I can walk into a nice restaurant wearing outdoor performance gear and because the wait staff will presume I’m a stock option baller who works at Facebook or Google or some start-up company with a clever-sounding name that has a tenuous relationship with the product made, I will be seated pronto. They treat me well because I’m a nerd and in the bay area, nerds rule the world. If I lived in some rural town in the Midwest, people would see me and think “Who are you? Why are you here? Are you bringing me Chinese take-out?”
Asian American privilege, in its highest form, exists in major metro areas with a high rate of professional employment, a prestigious university, and a large immigrant population. In my new church, we have white people moving out of the area to quaint places like Shingle Springs, CA and Bend, OR. Educated Asian Americans don’t move to those areas. We have no privilege there. What kind of work would we do? More importantly, how would we eat? Who is going to seat us immediately when we walk in wearing a Patagonia 100% recycled fleece pullover? Who is going to serve Japanese noodle soup that we wait two hours for and then post pics of on Instagram? Where are Asian women going to dine with their white boyfriends? Where are Asian guys going to congregate? That stuff is important to Asian Americans like me.
My wife’s cousin from Taiwan can tell if someone at first glance is an American, including Asian Americans, not based on their attire but by their body language. There’s a difference in posture. We stand up straighter and we strut. We tend to look down on people rather than look up in submissiveness. We take up more space. If you’re a male, it’s called man-spreading. Our facial expressions are more expressive and we use expansive hand gestures. We are louder in public – not just louder in groups but louder in public as individuals. An American is the only person in the world that can be as loud solo as in a group.
I have British-born Chinese friends in Scotland. Their parents were Chinese immigrants (mainly from the Guangdong area) and came over to open restaurants. I observed their body language. When we were in public, it felt like they crept around the margins – not quite fitting in and feeling sort of invisible. That doesn’t happen very often to me in the bay area. When it does, it’s when the white to non-white ratio is worse than 10:1 like at an Irish pub in Los Gatos. And then I’m only invisible because everyone is taller than me. You’ll never see anything approaching a white:non-white ratio of 10:1 in any high-tech company except perhaps in the sales or HR department.
Therefore, body language is a proxy for the degree of privilege you enjoy. The greater the privilege, the more expansive the body language. That’s another metric for Asian American privilege. You’ll see it in the way bay area Asian Americans move. We strut around like we own the place. Because we often do.
Claire Jean Kim, a political science and Asian American studies professor at UC Irvine, writes:
Asian Americans are not, as they are often labeled, a “model minority” whose cultural endowments have allowed them to outstrip other less equipped minorities. However, like whites, they do enjoy a priceless set of structural privileges and immunities, as evidenced by high educational and residential integration and intermarriage rates with whites.
She doesn’t provide support for the first claim. And her second statement contradicts the claim of the first. I agree with her second statement but the adjective I want to challenge is Kim’s contention that Asian American privilege is “priceless”. That’s inexcusable hyperbole coming from a professor because it is simply not true. Privilege is quantifiable and it is bounded. The price of Asian American privilege in the bay area is between $1.5 – $2M. You can come straight from China with a boatload of cash and your suitcases of money will buy you an older three bedroom, two bathroom house in a predominantly Asian (or significantly affluent immigrant) city like Cupertino or San Jose neighborhood like Almaden. For the money, you will receive social cachet and the privilege for your children to go to school with their Tiger Mom-raised peers. This is where the future software engineers of America will grow up. For the same price, you can buy 5-8 decent homes in rural Missouri but you will be utterly priced out of the social cachet market. That’s why affluent Asian Americans live here. The housing may be ridiculously expensive but at least there’s access to social capital. Asian American privilege absolutely has a price tag. Your dollar can buy you privilege here whereas in other places it gets you pennies on the dollar.
Let’s take the economic perspective even further. Consumer demand theory dictates people consume goods and services in order to to maximize utility. Utility is the abstract amount of satisfaction derived from the consumption of a good or service. Given a scarcity of goods and services, a consumer will spend his money in a way that maximizes utility. Now replace “utility” with “privilege”. Privilege is the social status conferred from the purchase of goods and services – specifically, the house you live in (and its surrounding neighborhood) or your occupation. I’m absolutely arguing that privilege can be bought. So with that in mind, here’s my hypothesis:
A consumer will spend his money to live in an area or pursue an occupation that maximizes the amount of privilege he will receive in return.
This explains why ethnic enclaves (or “ethnoburbs”) exist. Immigrants move to an area/neighborhood, bid up home prices, make the schools more competitive, and once a critical mass is attained, the momentum of privilege will shift in their favor. That is what has happened in cities like Cupertino and neighborhoods like Almaden. The homes are ridiculous expensive but Asian consumers understand the privilege their money is buying. It’s privilege that can’t be bought in Shingle Springs or Bend. It’s the privilege of having your kids grow up in an atmosphere of software engineer aspirations and the accompanying pressure to excel in math and science.
It also explains white flight. The author of this article about white flight from “ethnoburbs” like Cupertino and Johns Creek, a suburb of Atlanta, thinks it’s all about racism. She writes:
Somehow white parents’ liberal politics and progressivism do not inform them that the decision to relocate to avoid Asians is racism. They’ve defined the term so narrowly, their own individual acts of prejudice don’t meet it. I’ve been told, on more than one occasion, that Asians possess a sort of primal urge to self-segregate, that they choose to live in clusters, that these clusters of predominantly Asian neighborhoods make whites feel uncomfortable, so they leave. The so-called “choice” to live together ignores the very real social and economic realities of Asians who immigrate to the U.S.
The half-Indian author presumes racism is the motivation behind white flight and yet somehow when we Asian Americans segregate in ethnic clusters, we aren’t guilty of the same thing because racism. And yet if you view privilege in terms of utility and we’re all consumers making rational choices about maximizing privilege, then it all makes sense. It’s not so much about overcoming or expressing racism but consumers acting in their own self-interest. When white people complain about their kids growing up in an over-competitive (code for Asian) environment, what they’re really saying is “The privilege my money buys in this neighborhood has declined because of the influx of Asians”. Of course they’re going to seek more affordable white privilege. They’re behaving as rational consumers.
Racism means privilege costs more when you’re not white but it doesn’t change the underlying economics. On the price spectrum of minorities, it’s cheapest when you’re Asian and most expensive when you’re black. But when you view the world solely through the lens of race, you’re holding a hammer and everything looks like a nail. There are other possible ways to view segregation. So before we start whacking on all the racist nails sticking out, it might help to put on a more pragmatic lens. It will lead us to an important possibility: it may be more helpful to understand segregation in economic terms rather than solely racial ones. At least that’s what my predictive data model says. You can trust me because even though I’m not a software engineer, at least I look like one.

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Why 4Pointes is an Asian American church

Recently sat down to have a chat with Pastor Peter Lim about 4Pointes Church, located near Atlanta, Georgia.

4Pointes Church has a particular aspect that makes it different than most others of its kind. 4Pointes describes itself as an Asian-American church.

Most next-generation independent English-speaking churches that are led or planted by Asian American pastors describes themselves as just a church or a multi-ethnic church. Very few of these churches self-identify as Asian American churches, even though its leadership and/or its attendees may be composed of an Asian American majority.

Listen to our conversation about why 4Pointes Church calls itself an Asian-American church rather than a multiethnic church or community church.

(download m4a audio)

4pointes-church

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The Anamnesis of Ourselves

We Christians can be a forgetful people. We are perpetually future-oriented. This is fine, of course, because so much of the scriptures point to a future redemption, a not-yet reality where roads are gold, lions chill with lambs, and we hang out with Prince, Michael Jackson, and 2pac. But sometimes we don’t remember to, well, remember. And we forget that it was God who always seemed to preface his Old Testament commands with holy, dangerous reminders, invitations to recall slavery, oppression, and ultimately, redemption.

Indeed, when we celebrate Communion, we are also invited: Do this in remembrance of me. But this is a violent kind of remembering: we recall broken flesh and spilled blood, bodily memories relived and then consumed into our own bodies. It is holy when we remember. It is dangerous when we remember.

We who are Asian American also have violent memories of broken families and spilled tears, poured out for the sake of a different kind of salvation. And now we, the children of immigrants, live, study, work, and start families in remembrance of their sacrifice. But this is a silent kind of remembrance, one we are more apt to carry in our bodies than share with our lips. So we carry Korea, China, the Philippines, Cambodia. Which is another way of saying that trauma is incarnational and generational, which is another way of saying that we are a PTSD people. The great temptation, then, of diaspora, of exile, is amnesia. No one was supposed to be torn from the land like that and now, strangers in a strange land, we are faced with an exilic choice. But our forgetfulness stood not only to facilitate our survival but our thriving—the decision was easy. So we forget willingly: ditch the language, the customs, the clothes, and the traditions, all of which made us less attractive and less marketable. But when we forgot we also became less human. We who are the children of the exile must now put the pieces back together, or at the very least sweep the ground for breadcrumbs that can lead us home, whatever that is.

Unfortunately, our participation in the Christian faith only cemented our forgetting. Jesus became the agent by which our stories were often wiped away. At best, they were used as testimonies explaining the evil we escaped. At worst, our histories became tales of the demonic, stories that had nothing to do with God and with which God wanting nothing to do. The future took priority over the past; everything ahead was filled with light and rainbows, everything behind with shadows and abandoned buildings.

Even those of us who wanted to remember have found the language we possess for our forgetting and remembering rather clumsy. Phrases like “cultural and spiritual amnesia” don’t quite capture the complexity here. They imply that, at some point, what we have forgotten will simply return to us once our hippocampuses realize what’s going on. Within this framework, we also assume that there is a clear object of our forgetting, like keys we’ve misplaced or a face we’ve forgotten. But is it possible to remember something that we’ve never experienced? What kind of remembrance can take into account things that may not yet exist in our consciousness, the memories that lie dormant in veins and bones, soil and trees? What is the remembrance that makes us whole?

Robert Farrar Capon describes the theological term, anamnesis, this way:

Anamnesis [is] renewed knowledge, a re-membering, a re-cognition by the grace that raises those whom death has absolved…. He remembers our evil in grace as the only real thing it ever could have been. He takes away the flaming sword between us and our self-knowledge and brings us home to ourselves…. By the grace of [God’s] unaltered knowledge, see even the disasters of your history as the inexorable desire for the highest Good [he] always knew them to be. Nothing, therefore, is lost. Not a scrap of history.

In anamnesis, we are invited to re-member things as they truly are, as they exist in their reconciled state. We are invited to re-cognize the past with God’s hands in it, even if it seems that he was nowhere to be found. In anamnesis, we re-member our broken past, piecing it back together to imagine a more whole, just, honest now, a now that cannot change the past, but one that is inseparable from it, shaped by it, wounded and empowered by it.

Anamnesis captures my family’s history, its brokenness and beauty, and reminds me that God has been there all along. God was there when my great-grandparents escaped to the hills to run from soldiers during the Cultural Revolution, God was with them in the village, on the boat, at Angel Island, in Chinatown, and God is with my grandparents now as they nurse the traumatic wounds of the immigrant experience. And God was with my family when we learned to forsake that history for a chance at survival.

The immigrant experience has always, without exception, meant death. Often it is not a literal death (though sometimes it is), but to tear oneself from the fabric of home is a kind of death. Displacement is a form of death. The loss of culture and language, whether in America or Babel, is a form of death. Anamnesis, unlike our cheap ways of remembering, does not overlook this pain. It does not rush to solutions or forgiveness or celebration. It isn’t afraid to run its hands over the wounds or to trace the path made by scars. At the same time, though, we, the people of Resurrection, have not capitulated to death. Instead, in the anamnesis of our stories, we dip our hands into it without fear, touching the wounds as excruciating, elegant reminders that redemption is real:

Jesus’ Glorious Wounds are the perpetual sacrament of the remembrance, of re-cognition of evil as good. They are the Cross and the Passion as the Resurrection holds them.

Though the Asian American experience is not uniform, as our friend Fred Mok is quick to point out, all of our families have a story, and the road is always paved with grace. So when I say that we need a kind of remembrance for things that we aren’t even aware of, I mean that anamnesis is an invitation to dig, to ask our parents and grandparents what home looks like, what growing up felt like, what their hopes and dreams were when they were torn from the land. It’s also an invitation to study Asian American history and discover that there is language for all this beauty and brokenness, and that good folks along the way have put up signposts in the wilderness. Ultimately, anamnesis is an invitation to see our Asian American histories and identities as wonderfully, reverently, unapologetically beautiful. It is an invitation to see Jesus in the mirror and to believe, against everything the world has told you thus far, that he calls you good.

Anamnesis is also deeply communal; our re-membering is not just to piece together our identities within ourselves but to participate in the reconciliation that Jesus brings between communities. In this respect, it isn’t just about my history, but it’s also an invitation into the re-membering and rejoining of histories that are, at first glance, not mine. Because we know that before the Lamb, in the re-cognition of history, all of our divisions, all the ways we have harmed one another under the assumption that some people just weren’t as valuable as others, will be revealed as the lies they have always been. Anamnesis compels me to re-member my relationship with the Other, recognizing that it is impossible to inhabit my full humanity until my brothers and sisters inhabit theirs. More specifically, I mean that Asian American flourishing cannot be separated from Black and Brown liberation. And our stories are inextricably linked in the anamnesis of American history. And it is this re-membering of communities that stands as a threat to the systems that continue to oppress, the Empire that profits from our forgetting, the currents of white supremacy that sweep our stories away beneath its heavy undertow.

__________________________________________

My church was founded in 1880. Just a few months ago I discovered that in the same year, California passed its Anti-Miscegenation Laws that outlawed interracial marriages between a white person (woman) and any “Negro, Mulatto, or Mongolian.” This law mirrored many others around the country that prevented marriages between whites and blacks but California’s had the specific goal of cutting off its Chinese American population. Of course, two years after that, America passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, letting us know, just in case there was any confusion, that we definitively did not belong here. No one has ever mentioned this at church. No one has ever connected the dots for us or said, hey, this was the social context in which our church was birthed, the soil from which we sprouted forth. Perhaps this was for our survival. Perhaps it was just easier this way. But 136 years later, we are deeply, desperately in need of anamnesis, the kind of remembrance that brings healing to the ways in which our church has been wounded by systemic racism, the kind of remembrance that reunites us with black and brown communities as we fight for this city. We need the Holy Spirit to help us piece back together our stories of resilience, power, and survival in the face of evil.

So every Sunday when we meet, we have an opportunity to perform the subversive act of telling the Truth of our Story, the story of an exilic people and a God who has never left or forsaken. Every Sunday is the Great Reminder: Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Keep it dangerous. Set it apart as a day of Truth in a thunderstorm of lies. Jesus also invites us, “Do this in my anamnesis…” because this kind of re-membering came at a high cost. A broken body, a pool of blood, a traumatized people. Every Sunday we stand at the foot of the cross where scattered pieces are strewn across the ground and we are invited to remember, to kneel down and mourn, pick up each piece one by one, and begin.

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Face Palming The Force Awakens’ Identity Politics

daisy-ridley-and-john-boyega-as-rey-and-finn-in-star-wars-the-force-awakensSpoiler alert. I’ve read many film reviews of latest Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens, but my friend Jonathan’s critique is brilliantly written but funny and incisive especially in regards to the farcical nature of its diversity politics:

The lack of Asian characters in the first Star Wars films didn’t prevent me and my brother from enjoying the story, admiring the characters, collecting the toys, and re-enacting the epic lightsaber battles in our living room when we were young children. It was always the story of Luke, Han, and Leia that captured our attention. No amount of “diverse casting” can fix horrific writing and bad story-telling. I don’t see any Japanese crying that they can’t relate to Naruto because he looks more Danish than Japanese. And I certainly don’t hear any African-American men complaining that Dragon Ball Z’s overabundance of Asian-looking characters is a hindrance to their aspirations of one day achieving Super Saiyan-level strength. In the West, it seems “diversity” has now just become another item to check off on an every-growing list of criteria for socially acceptable media. But realistically, who among us is really so pedantic about such things like the proportion of races in each film such that we desire “equitable representation” over actual substance? Again, how is this anything other than making slaves of ourselves to a ridiculous idea?

Diversity for the sake of diversity is not the gospel. We do not find worth in having a contrived role in a polyester world. Jesus, whom we would now regard as a white man, died on our behalf as a perfect representative of all humanity. The disciples were also twelve white men. Jesus’ breakthrough on behalf of women and Gentiles came in the context of actual alienation, oppression, and marginalization. Skin color matters not because it brings out the full range of the visible spectrum but because there is an embedded history of injustice that accompanies our heritage. Fighting injustice certainly isn’t about asserting the superiority of woman over man in the manner Rey disparages Finn and how she is able to perfectly wield light saber the instant she picks it up. Likewise, Finn is the prototypical bumbling male who needs to be rescued by the female heroine.

I celebrate the ascent Jeremy Lin because he is a real person. He, by his own admission, is not a perfect basketball player. I identify with him as a Christian Asian-American man who is flawed and faces adversity like the rest of us but has managed, through the providential grace of God, to enjoy worldly success that most of us will never achieve. His story is real. But when I watch Star Wars, the storytelling is hampered by the CGI diversity in the same way a Michael Bay blockbuster attempts to distract us from the absence of plot with loud and vivid explosions.

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Reparative Therapy and the Asian American Church

Summary: Making gay people straight is not the most important goal. Brian Hui (pronounced “Who-E” – one syllable) and I riff on the helpfulness of treatment efforts that aim to change a person’s sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual. We talk about celibacy and its relationship with the gospel. Lastly, we segue into how Asian American’s cultural emphasis on family and belonging can help heal the mismanaged sexuality we all suffer from. Plus: a seemingly random connection with Weight Watchers.

No catchy intro music and it took us 5-8 minutes to warm up but we did our first podcast!

Happy New Year!

 

Related Links:

Mark Yarhouse’s popular book  on homosexuality

Christopher Yuan’s website

Robert Gagnon’s website 

Mark Yarhouse’s blog

Notes: 1) I highly recommend Christopher and his mom Angela Yuan’s memoir – cover above. It is ridiculously good and touches on some of the ideas we talk about in the podcast. 2) My upload speed at church is SO slow and it makes me sound like I’m a call-in guest and not the host. I will be working on this.

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Saved by My Refugee Neighbors

Oak Park Santas 2-1

Here’s my essay recently posted on Christianity Today’s “This Is our City” series.  It offers snippets of our twenty years of urban ministry in Oakland, about which I’m writing a spiritual memoir. You can read the story here.

This is an excerpt about my Mien neighbor:

Faithfulness over Effectivenesss

While it is tempting to romanticize the kids and our communal life, the city’s violence born of inequality and structural racism has worn on me.  Over 2,000 individuals have been murdered during my time in Oakland and I have witnessed my share of shootings.  Even when we organized our neighbors and won a housing lawsuit that rebuilt Oak Park, the new apartment layout unintentionally eroded our sense of community. I had to move because of federal rental guidelines, and the families preferred to remain inside their enlarged units.

When the issues of our city appear too daunting, I likewise retreat and focus on my own personal life, where I have some semblance of control. After leaving Oak Park, my wife and I purchased a home two blocks away, and we built gates to keep out the city’s dangers. But, fortunately, our refugee neighbors continue to knock at our door to teach us kingdom values.

When we got our house, I borrowed a rototiller and cleared weeds in our huge yard. After an afternoon of hard toil, I gave up; all I had readied was a small plot 5’ by 10’.   The next day, I was surprised by a small, turbaned lady sitting up in our apricot tree, like Zaccheus.  Yien Saelee, a grandmother who is Iu Mien, was hacking branches.  She had seen that the lot was empty and came to start a garden with my permission. I agreed, but doubted her strength to do the work.

To my surprise, though, she returned with two other grandmothers, each armed with only a small machete, and cleared the entire yard.  They planted the Native American Three Sisters– corn, squash, and beans—and soon, my family received locally grown, organic vegetables to meet our daily required vitamins.

Yien later joined our church’s “Young Family” cell, which paradoxically came to include five grandmothers.  As we shared and prayed together, I learned more of her story.  During the Laotian Civil War, she had lost three sons—child soldiers fighting with the CIA—and her husband was assassinated.  Moving to our Oakland neighborhood as a refugee did not make her life much easier; she remained poor and constantly felt fatigued.  Her step-parents’ spirits tormented her such that they made searing burns on her arms.

After being resettled in Oakland, Yien became a Christian when God revealed himself in a dream to her.  Since then, she claims, “My heart is light now because I no longer have to bear the burden of the spiritual world; it was too heavy.”  Not only did she pray for us and support her own local Mien church, but also she regularly taped gospel songs to be sent to Laos.

In spite of their advanced years, Yien and her fellow grandmas collect aluminum cans and hawk their produce to supplement their scant disability benefits that were almost cut by welfare reform. Her sense of social justice isn’t about asserting her rights, but taking responsibility for others.  Always chipping in for our water bill, she states simply, “I’m happy for the opportunity not to starve.”

When my father passed away, Yien, her back bent from osteoporosis, took the time to stand with my family in our grief.  Despite our communication and cultural barriers, her unceasing prayers  and faithful presence comforted me.  Growing up with privilege, I came to expect to make my mark and to effect social change in Oakland.  Unfortunately, our neighborhood has not been transformed despite our church’s best efforts.  If anything, its persistent poverty reflects the growing inequality in our nation.

Yien models for me another way to make one’s mark.  The servant who is faithful is the one who enters the joy of the master. The persistent widow who prays boldly is the one who receives justice.

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Notice any missing voices?

May is Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month – a celebration of Asians and Pacific Islanders in the United States. A rather broad term, Asian-Pacific encompasses all of the Asian continent and the Pacific islands of Melanesia (New Guinea, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Fiji and the Solomon Islands), Micronesia (Marianas, Guam, Wake Island, Palau, Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Nauru and the Federated States of Micronesia) and Polynesia (New Zealand, Hawaiian Islands, Rotuma, Midway Islands, Samoa, American Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu, Cook Islands, French Polynesia and Easter Island). See the latest statistics about this Asian American demographic published by the Census Bureau.

In juxtaposition with the sections on this popular website called Huffington Post. What do you notice?

huffpost-sections

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