More Trouble with Cyberspace (and Blog Sphere)

With the proliferation of cyberspace especially with the blossoming of social media, people tend to think that cyberspace is reality.  The fact is, cyberspace sometimes represents reality but isn’t necessarily reality itself.  Cyberspace often represents different facets of reality, even amplifying one facet over other facets.  One facet that consistently gets amplified is conflict.

 

These days, what starts off a full disclosure of a personal perspective turns into a kind of defensive armor that allows people to say whatever they want with impunity.  One popular tact is, “I’m not an expert of X … So, please don’t fault me for my mistakes.”  Another tact is, “If you don’t like this post, don’t share, but also don’t attack me on here.”  This is indeed a problem because such disclaimers aren’t means to free speech but a violation of it.

 

Certainly, some malicious people misread, misquoted and deliberately misrepresented what they read, and such people should shut up.  With the above tact however, the effect moves far beyond shutting up morons.  They in fact create a kind of micro aggressive linguistic hegemony.  It’s a way of saying, “My opinion is more valid and I’m not interested in hearing yours. Why? Because I said so.”  This kind of passive aggressive rudeness does represent the reality we live in. As a minority in the US, I lost count in how many times I heard the phrase, “I don’t want to sound racist, but …” or “just kidding” after a cheap racist joke.  Such subtle realities are there to remind us all that certain people think they have the right to be complete jerks while you and I are jerks for calling them on bing jerks.  In reality, the real jerks are those who use such full disclosures as defensive weapons against critics.

 

The best representation of the above problem is the issue of body shaming.  Selena Gomez the starlet of pop music is known for posting endless pictures of herself either fully clothed or partially nude (bikini pictures) on social media.  Certainly, the jerks come out in droves to congratulate her for being fat, skinny and everything else in between.  While I’m totally against cyber bullying, I get what’s happening.  Whatever we post on there and the theme about which we post will be viewed by the public.  Whether the public opinions are valid, they will be heard.  We simply can’t police the jerks who bully Selena Gomez.  I suppose the easier way is for her (or anyone else) not to post any body picture unless she’s ready for all sorts of reaction.  The same goes for blogs.  There’s only so much we can do to police our own blog space.  Haters will continue to write nasty things regardless of how much we clearly explain ourselves, and they will do so behind the privacy of their own Facebook settings.

 

What can Christian bloggers do?  Well, we like to think of blogging as being about truth because as Christians, we like to think that we own the truth or that we try our best to talk about the truth.  The fact is,  no matter what truth is spoken, someone else can misread and misunderstand what we write.  At worst, the haters will deliberately misrepresent what we write.  At a certain stage, we’ll have to accept the fact that we aren’t going to please everyone and only some opinions are valid.  We simply can’t occupy our time with answering every single critic for the fear of others accepting their warped views.  The fools will follow other fools.

 

With social media, there’s always good news.  People forget easily.  The viral video or blog today will turn to a faded memory of tomorrow.  We can only do what we can right now and let tomorrow worry about itself.  Surely, we should try to write responsibly, but at a certain stage, responsibility for our own action can only get us so far.  This is the world of social media.

Trouble with Cyberspace (and Blog Sphere)

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I’ve read an article recently that complains about the rise of bloggers, especially those who have many negative things to say about the church.  The article is in Chinese. So, I won’t post it here, but it does remind me of a greater problem in blog sphere in general.

 

Opinion is like our bathrooms.  Everyone has one and sometimes it stinks.  The problem isn’t whether it stinks or not but whether the said opinion is true.  Blogs allows us to have an outlet for our opinions.  As a result, everyone can be a writer these days. So long as we know how to open up a blog via WordPress or other tools, we can become  a writer. We don’t need to publish journal articles and books (both of which I also publish).  The trouble with blogs is sometimes we run out of things to say.  Many bloggers, including academics, merely reblog what other people write because they’ve run out of things to say (I’ve seen this on Patheos quite a lot).

 

Another problem with blogging is that everyone can sound like an expert, even though the definition of “expert” ought to be more stringent.  Many blog about all sorts of things with almost no experience: dating, church leadership, making rockets (OK, I made the last one up).  Not every opinion is legitimate, but every opinion has the potential to SOUND legitimate.

 

Another problem with blogging (as well as with Twitter, Facebook or Instagram) is how easy one can gain exposure and fame (or notoriety).  As a result, I’ve known a few academics who haven’t ever done hardcore research work in their area of supposed expertise but have become quite popular due to blogging. This happens even (perhaps especially) with big and famous primarily white (read, Western) blog portals like Patheos.  In fact, many got invited to speak at churches or many religious settings just from blogging or messing about on social media (no, I’m not jealous.  I’m already pretty full with invites for about one to one and a half years out).  They create “impression” of expertise by social media. These are real scenarios.  The complaint of the article I read is real even though it speaks with a bit too much negativity against blogging.

 

We can learn much about the present phenomenon of blogging.  In relation to the church, I think we often fault our pastors for not keeping preaching fresh and relevant. The fact is, many pastors, like many bloggers, have run out of ideas because ideas are hard to come by.  In order to have fresh ideas, one has to be both intellectually and spiritually rich. Having an opinion and a few good ideas isn’t enough.  Having aspiration to be a blogger isn’t enough.  I sympathize with the pastor who runs out of ideas.  Blogging isn’t easy but at least the blogger can take a break if he wants.  Not so the pastor.  He still has to speak every week.

 

I think the article that criticizes those who criticize the church through blogsphere has legitimacy in that blogging can create “impressions” through opinions. Bloggers should be responsible for what they say.  Impression can be false and lasting.  Sometimes, because of our voluminous output about a problem, we cause many others to have false impressions that this problem is bigger than other problems.  More volume shouldn’t be equal to more truth.

 

As for those who want to get popular via blogsphere, there’s real danger involved.  For example, if we are very self-centered in our approach to life and complain about life, we will draw many “likes” and responses.  These blogs actually expose all those who “like” the blog for who they are.  I saw one example of a single (and often dateless) person who often complain about how modern women are hard to deal with and so on.  This blog draws many “likes” but if we look at both sides, dating problem is rarely single-sided. Relationships are complicated.  I’m sure the problem may not only be from modern women.  Yet, with the writing of the blog, the “likes” expose other similar readers who may be equally self-centered.  Of course, the women readers will further notice which readers belong in this single and dateless category and be cautious in their company.  Similarly, someone pointed out to me a Facebook update of an American lawyer who seeks exposure for her “expertise” on China that she has “lost her virginity” (her literal terms) to Global Times by giving an interview.  I nearly spat out my drink.  The very fact she brags about Global Times, a propaganda news machine published by the Chinese government (in the same vein as People’s Daily) shows how little of an expert she really is.  She will be scrutinized for this move by those in the know and whatever opinions she holds will lose credibility.  To those who are complete ignoramuses on China, she may have just found her place in the sun for 15 minutes of fame.  Opinions have consequences.  Media also have repercussion. Blog sphere and cyberspace can be cruel places.

 

The problem of social media is real as it creates easy opportunity for fame without hard work.  I would advise those in academia not to be tempted by this contrived fame.  This applies especially to the next generation of academics who can blog and write well but often without any hardcore research in their own area in real publications.  The fame will backfire.  No serious intellectual can have longevity while avoiding hard work.  Blogging of course is my hobby. So are Facebook and Instagram. I’m under no illusion that my blogs are all quality writing.  They’re but one way to express my reaction and opinions towards so many things related to Christianity and society.  My real work remains publication with legitimate publishers to benefit serious readers.  I hope people don’t abandon this path in favor of quick fame.  Otherwise, we’re just cheap ambulance chasers.

 

Cyber courage, on top of subjectivity and click baiting, does very little for church and society.

Fresh off the Boat Season Finale: Yuppification through the Country Club

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The episode that marks the end of the season is called “So Chinese.”  It’s an episode about assimilation. Jessica has been invited to join the country club.  This is what we call gentrification.  The funniest line comes from a country club member, “Come on, Louis, this club is classy as hell” followed by “sometimes, I just forget that you guys are Chinese” and “you guys are just regular all Americans to us.”  Yeah!  In an ironic twist, Jessica’s responds to this whole overwhelming situation, “Are we Chinese enough?”  In order to make sure the kids remember their roots, Jessica has started a new rule: everyone will now speak Mandarin at home and take off his shoes.  Once Jessica sees that the country club can potentially cause the Huangs to lose their Chinese identity, she has decided against joining.  On the opposite end, Louis is warming to the idea of joining the country club because of all the business opportunities membership creates.  Inevitably, the tension is between ethnic identity and business opportunities.

 

The word “yuppification” is a perfect description of what’s going on with the Huang’s.  “Yuppies” is an old term describing “young upwardly mobile” types.  It’s a perfect word to describe social mobility of the Huang’s though they might not be THAT young.  They’re moving from working class into being yuppies.  The social mobility of the Huang’s is an interesting study because social mobility means different things to different races.

 

For many white folks, social mobility just means rising income.  For minorities like myself and the Huangs, the racial dimension can’t be dismissed entirely.  The initial unintentionally uncomfortable remark by Jessica’s blonde buddy Honey “you guys are just regular all Americans to us.” In such a qualifying statement, the speaker clearly sees us as the “other” because let’s face it, no one would say that to another white immigrant (e.g. Italian, Irish etc.).  No “fresh white towels and hand-shake deals” will ever diminish that.  In many ways, I can understand Jessica’s trepidation in joining just because of that fact, but joining or not joining doesn’t necessarily change the otherness of being Asian.  The solution, I don’t think is in assimilation or ghettoization.

 

I think many of us who are Asians almost try too hard to assimilate that we just look funny (but not in the slant-eye, dark-hair exotic way).  I think it’s important to know that we aren’t whites. We’ll never assimilate no matter how much we intend to.  Assimilation is a power game of being submissive to a dominate culture that looks down upon us.  Yet, even the assimilated will never been considered “one of them.”  How I’m treated at the customs in various white-dominated countries around the world (e.g. Australia, Canada) on a recent business trip speaks volumes.  Even in my perfectly pressed Hugo Boss suit with matching pocket square from Michael Kors arriving from business class, I got put in a room with the “Chinese” (mostly mainland Chinese) to have my luggage examined because the Chinese are well known to bring in illegal foodstuff.  Never mind I don’t speak with a Chinese accent and I hold a US Passport.  My only trespass is something I can’t change: the color of my skin (or maybe they just don’t like my earring. That’s entirely possible).  Assimilation has very minimal impact on the dominant culture because let’s face it, people don’t change their prejudices very easily.

 

There’s the opposite solution of ghettoization, a term to describe how minorities congregate only “with their own kinds.”  Jessica in the show puts up a Buddha poster to fit the Asian stereotype so that her kids can get a sense of their Asianess.  Louis however says something quite profound, “You know what’s a white thing? Putting up a picture of Buddha.”  Bingo!  After all, Buddhism came not from China but from India, but Jessica’s action is ahistorical.  Her attempt doesn’t take seriously the historical content of her action.  As a result, our ghettoization creates an equally funny look about us.  Our identity is often just another Asian caricature albeit in Asian orientation this time, if we use representative politics of “what typifies an Asian/Chinese/Japanese etc.” In Eddie Huang’s book, he observes that it’s the American-born Asians that are most eager to be Chinese/Japanese/Vietnamese etc.  I find it hilarious that many of my ABC (American-born Chinese) friends love to buy those cheap potteries from Chinatown to decorate their houses in order to show their identity.  It’s simultaneously kitschy and archaic.  Good Chinese pottery doesn’t come from the cheap shop in Chinatown (and yes, I own real and original Chinese classical paintings and I apologize for my snobbishness)!  We aren’t caricatures.

 

The above two extremes of dealing with being a minority makes us equally funny looking in different ways.  What can we do?  It’s best to see our recent past as something that connects us to REAL history (e.g. what about China that actually connects me to her?) and our own narratives (e.g. how have I experienced my own ethnic identity in multicultural America?). Reading history and traveling may connect us to our ethic origin, in the same way some Italians and Irish go back to their ancestral homes to visit relatives in their motherland.  America is a multicultural experiment that makes us all Americans.  Whether people think of us as “Americans” means very little.  We ARE Americans.  Yet, every American has a historical narrative from his or her ancestors that is beyond this young and artificially created multicultural mirage called “America”.  These narratives can fit neatly into the tapestry that is this country.  It’s best to be a hyphenated American because “American” as it is often constructed by the white majority is an idol with clay feet.

 

For all Christians, the relative popularity of the Fresh of the Boat can inform many in the faith community. Although I feel that some of the episodes can be written better, I think the show has the merit to call all believers in faith communities to learn to hear others whose cultures are fascinatingly (and often drastically) different from their own.  The beauty of the gospel should be able to incorporate these cultures into the saving grace proclaimed.  Only then will American Christianity become a true blessing not just to its various members but to the world.  Otherwise, we’re still a religious country club with membership fees and perceived privileges.  An illusion isn’t the gospel.

 

 

Longevity in the Pastorate: April Yamasaki and Her 22 Years of Faithful Service

April Yamasaki is an acquaintance who has served her church for a faithful 22 years.  I want to highlight her blog and her secret of success in her longevity.  If you enjoy good spiritual writing like I do, please do subscribe to her blog.  I’ll let my readers read her blog to figure out her secret to being such a faithful servant to the church.

When I shared April’s blog, many responded.  All are positive.  In a way, April is a rare breed.  The fact we can say that April is a kind of an unsung hero in our age of transient relationships and ministerial work says something about our church culture.  In the past, being a lifetime servant to the church, even one single church, has been the norm.  I was pastored by another pastor who has served the church some thirty years when I was in a different city.  April represents that norm.  Why do we find that past norm the present exception?

I personally haven’t figured it out yet.  I’ve seen a lot of pastors ousted from their pastorates. Others just quit.  Still others move from church to church.  Sometimes, the church is at fault.  Sometimes the pastor is at fault.  Certainly, seminary figures in there somewhere.

From my observation, the pastor and the congregation participate in a dance where they have to relate to each other and get used to each other.  They rarely get the dance perfectly but they keep trying.  That’s our past.  If we look at the climbing divorce rate of our country, people are clearly having trouble maintaining a difficult dance.  Perhaps, in our society, our need to dominate often overpowers our need to connect.  Our self-interest often overcomes our common good.  It’s always been a difficult dance.  Perhaps somewhere along the way, relationships have become more of a transaction where I have to look out for number one and I measure people based on what they can do for me.  I don’t think the problem is necessarily simple to resolve.  It takes both sides to dance.  If one side is out of synch, it’s up to the other side to adjust.  It’s a give and take.  Obviously, April has danced a good and faithful dance with her people. I pray that my students can look at this kind of faithful dance as a real possibility in their own ministries.

Congratulations, April, you good and faithful servant!

Fresh off the Boat: the Funeral for Representative Politics!

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“Go read the book” is the cliche suggestion for people who watch movies of books.  I suppose this could well be a great suggestion for what Eddie Huang, the author of the Fresh off the Boat, said this week.  In an interview, Eddie expresses his dissatisfaction of the show not representing his life well enough, and at a certain stage.  I’m going to respond to Eddie’s comments and those who comment on Eddie’s comment in this blog, not just as an Asian American but as a Christian pastor who cares about Eddie as a person (in the book) than his perceived representative role for Asian Americans (Eddie went to a Christian school and was forced to convert against his conscience).

 

Eddie is right to insist that the show should represent some sense of reality.  Many would appeal to artistic license.  Since Eddie seems to take his own experience so seriously, perhaps, his concern should be addressed.  I think the problem is genre.  The book resembles a long rap in narrative form.  The genre of comedy doesn’t adequately address Eddie’s sometimes funny and sometimes not-so-funny experience as an Asian American (AA henceforth).  Some of the stories of continuous racist bullying, trying to be a tough guy in a predominately wealthy white world and trying to fit in resemble part of my childhood.  Other experiences of sometimes abusive (but also sometimes strangely supportive) parents don’t fit my experience but perhaps fit some of my AA friends’ experiences.  Those were the kind of experiences that got me real hot under the collar.  As important as those tales are, they didn’t really make it into the show other than that one simple line by the black kid, “Chink!” The book also talks about wonderful Chinese food and Eddie’s innovative design of street wear.  Other just plain dark experiences such as hustling drugs and getting into serious troubles with the law will not make it on primetime.   Most of the book can’t make it into a sitcom because the sitcom doesn’t fit the genre of the book.

 

A lot of the response to Eddie’s complaint is, “Eddie, it’s a freaking TV show. You should expect THAT.”  Some talk about the medium of television or entertainment media in general. Some think that Eddie’s comments will kill the AA show that has received good reviews from audiences of different races.  I think the common threads with these comments are two: the medium of comedy and representative politics.

 

The medium of comedy is problematic in that Eddie’s book not only strikes a funny bone but also a pressure point (yes, as a martial artist, I just went there) as far as its content goes.  You can’t simply put a comedy spin on something like that, no more than you can put a comedy spin on American Sniper.  Sitcom is probably the very worst medium on an autobiography. As far as the book is concerned, I would love to see a movie made about Eddie’s book, but in our recent past, the only drama on AA life that succeeded is the Joy Luck Club.  Things aren’t hopeful.

 

I want to talk about representative politics for a moment.  We must first start with terminologies.  The very phrase “fresh off the boat” is very AA.  Most whites I know have no idea of what this phrase means until the show.  It can be used disparagingly and sometimes quite smugly by second-generation AA’s towards fresh immigrants, as if speaking English and dressing like “an American” somehow makes them better.  Surely, someone would object to my portrait of second-generation AA’s, but I’ve seen this quite a lot throughout my time as an immigrant here.  The attitude is no more different than white Americans laughing at the accents and of fresh Mexican immigrants. In many ways, many AA’s have adopted the discriminatory attitude of their white friends.  “Fresh off the boat” ensures that WE (the English-speaking ones) aren’t like THEM.  The phrase has representative politics written all over it, except the show doesn’t represent what “fresh off the boat” really meant either.

 

IF Eddie’s parents are truly fresh off the boat, they would speak Mandarin Chinese or Taiwanese to Eddie.  After all, what Chinese person speaks in English to his kid?  The real fresh off the boat immigrants would speak in their native tongue.  Instead, Louis and Jessica, the parents of Eddie, speak in reasonably good English with a hint of Chinese accent (Jessica’s Chinese accent is improving every show).  The show should be called “Been a while since I’ve been on that boat”.

 

In my observation of AA life, at least in Chinese-American context, there’re at least two kinds of fresh off the boat immigrants.  The first kind are the kind we don’t talk about much because they don’t fit the model minority myth. These are the blue collar workers who are honestly trying to make ends meet.  They don’t drive around in BMWs or Mercedes. Instead, they drive used clunkers because that’s all they can afford. Their kids don’t go to good school districts and have to pack their own lunch. This is the lost AA we sweep aside.  The second kind of fresh off the boat immigrants are the highly privileged ones.  These aren’t like Louis and Jessica who also started working for little in a family business.  Louis and Jessica have risen from the more grass root beginnings to middle-class respectability. I’m talking about the other kind of AA, the privileged AA.  These arrive at our shore with boatload of money (yes, I also went there with the metaphor), ready to buy up anything and everything in real estate with cash. They may not speak English well, but their lifestyle is the envy of every middle-class schmuck.  They drive around in everything above the grade of BMWs.  BMWs are for their kids.  These are the “crazy rich Asians”.  I don’t think most Americans know that this type of Asians exist.  They represent the dope, fresh and swag (yes, I also went with rap terms due to my children’s influence) in HK and Korean cinemas.  They drive McLaren’s and Lambo’s.

 

Where does the typical AA fit?  Actually, there’s a third kind of fresh off the boat that fits in the middle. These are the future AA’s who just got off the boat to study for an advanced degree. I say “future” because they haven’t had their citizenship yet, but they will soon when a high tech company hires them after their masters or PhD’s.  They speak “OK” English but not without an accent.  They sound a bit more like Louis and Jessica except Louis and Jessica aren’t here to study for an advanced degree and they aren’t too fresh off the boat.  The people who evolve into Louis and Jessica with their advanced degree and the ever so slight Asian accent are what AA’s call the 1.5 generation, with the 1st generation being very fresh off the boat and the 2nd generation being fully English-speaking.  In fact, my wife and I are probably a close 2nd gen with a 1.5 generation traits.  In fact, Louis and Jessica are probably more like 1.25 since they still have loads of Asian hangups that are the vestiges of their fresh off the boat experience.

 

The above is the simple caricature (and that’s exactly what it is) of groups of AAs we can call fresh off the boat, and none of that fits very well with the name of the show.  Among many AA Christians, the above dynamics aren’t even on their radar screen because they’re unaware the the present immigration issue today will become the AA issues of tomorrow. What am I saying?  I’m saying that representative politics are inaccurate. The way things are discussed among AA Christians is inadequately short-sighted.  The ideologies we create about what the show can do for AA is a hopeful caricature.  We so want to discuss this show in terms of what it “can do” for AA’s but at a certain point, when we realize that it can’t do what we hope, we abandon our ideals for convenient acceptance by wider society. So, is the show to bear the burden of AA or not?  I find no clear answer from the dialogue among AAs because many of us still speak in terms of representative politics. However, we experience where the politics fall short over and over again because Eddie isn’t our representative.  He’s one guy who deserves to have his story told, but sadly, it’s told in an inaccurate way in an impossible genre. In some ways, the TV version of Eddie’s life has become a punchline simply because of its genre that produces the inaccurate caricature.  Eddie has the right to call out the problem.  As an AA with a Christian pastor’s heart, I do not care for the objectification of Eddie to be our cause.   Neither do I care for the objectification of Eddie as somehow our representative. Even less do I feel like Eddie is doing a bad thing by killing off a show that is supposed to bear the burden of greater AA media exposure.  EDDIE IS A PERSON.  As a person, he has the right to say, “I refuse to be caricature and misrepresented in a show based on my book.” Eddie deservers his personal dignity.  Have our activist selves become so calloused by our ideology that we fail to see Eddie with a real person who has a voice?  Have we as AA’s objectified Eddie into our ideology?    If so, we have failed in a big way and have become the very thing we fight against, the objectification of Asians.

 

Accurate representation, on the individual level, is necessary and even needed.  Accurate representation, on the corporate level (i.e. the show has to represent the Asian American family), is impossible; it is dead.  Of course, Eddie has every right to demand better representation of his life.  The trouble with everyone else talking about the show is that we’re talking about representative politics for the AA experience (whether adequately or inadequately).  The two are different matters.  The show can’t represent us as a whole, but it should represent an individual like Eddie adequately.  That’s why at the end of the day, I’d always say to people who talk in disfavor (and sometimes dismissively) about Eddie’s concern merely in favor of the good of this show does for AA’s, “You wouldn’t say the same thing if the show is about YOUR life.”  Are we really willing to sacrifice Eddie as a person to our ideological Eddie who can carry our cause? Is that a pastoral or even Christian thing to do? Inevitably, representative politics (politics of ideologues) cheapen the seriousness of the racial problem.

 

Let’s say I’m writing this blog for Christians and church ministers.  How often do we assume the people we don’t habitually meet are much like the people we see on TV?  Probably more often than we realize.  If we care about reality, we have to connect with real people without assumptions while looking at each person as an important individual first.  Without doing so, we objectify and caricature people into things.

 

From observing the dialogue about the show, I do know one thing: representative politic is dead.  Ultimately as a Christian AA, the issue mustn’t be just about activism.  The issue is pastoral. Someone show Eddie some love!  I hope he finds a different entertainment genre to express the fuller meaning of his work.

Fresh off the Boat: Very Superstitious?

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This episode deals with the number “4”. The show starts with Jessica working to sell a property for her real estate firm, owned by former rival Ashley.  Her boss gives her the task to sell a  house on 44 West 44th Street.  Only a small problem surfaces: the number “4” in Chinese sounds like the word for “death”.  In Huang household, they aren’t allowed to pronounce “4” even in English.  Louis, the rational man (great stereotype), proclaims, “Every generation gets less superstitious”.  I suppose he means that every generation becomes less superstitious as westernization takes over.  In real life, the matter isn’t that simple.

 

 

Contrary to the stereotypical mystical, mysterious, mythical and superstitious oriental, the number “4” deserves more explanation than that of the show.  “4” sounds like death in the Chinese language, especially in the Cantonese language.  Behind such a superstition is the entire phenomenon of the Chinese language that has nothing to do with superstition.  “Death” is something no one wants to talk about, not even if you’re white and western.  More important than this obvious unpleasant, unavoidable and unspeakable fact of death is the tonal nature of the Chinese language.  Unlike the western languages, Chinese languages can have anywhere from five to seven tones (or maybe someone can correct me and tell me there’re more).  Since Chinese is a tonal language, its cultural expression of concepts come not in the pronunciation but the tone of the character.  To merely see “4” as a superstition misses part of the point.  The point is that in every culture, there’re taboo words or symbols.  “4” symbolizes the tonal expression of the Chinese culture.  The concepts are in the tone.  To have too much fun with the number “4” is just a social faux pas.

 

 

If we compare the simplistic explanation of the Chinese superstition of the number “4” with the way superstitious numbers occur in the West, we’ll surely find that the West often is more and not less superstitious in this regard.  Think about “13” the unlucky number and the combination of Friday and 13.  That’s an unpleasant thought.  Many explanations go into why these are unlucky numbers but none of them explain too well what the superstition is about.  It’s simply an unfound fear.  At this stage, we probably should at least remove the blindfold over our seemingly rational eyes to see our own western superstitious being worse in some ways because there isn’t even a linguistic phenomenon associated with it.

 

 

I’m writing this post for Christian readers.  I think it’s important to know a culture and language before assuming anything about a culture.  What we do know about superstition is simple.  Superstition is just a way to explain otherwise unexplainable fears and realities.  How we express that isn’t simply superstition.  How we express it is simply cultural.

 

 

Another implication of such a show is that we can so easily have blind spots.  Many of us assume that the “other” (those who look, speak and live differently from us) is more superstitious.  Many of us tend to think of ourselves as superior and intelligent, much more so than the “others” anyway.  We should always remover the beam from our own eyes so that we can see whether there really is a splinter in the “other’s” eyes.  Cultural blind spots die hard, but die they must.

 

 

Oh, the story has a happy ending.  Jessica sold the house with the number “4”. Who’s afraid of “4”?

My Christian Times Interview on Yoder’s Trespasses

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Soon after the breaking news of the apology from Mennonite denomination on John Howard Yoder’s trespasses, HK Christian Times conducted an interview with me.  Since the interview has to be cut short due to word count, here’s my full response to all the questions.

1) What do you think about the present apology of the Mennonite denomination? What impact does it have in the US?

Since this has been an open secret in American Christianity, the response hasn’t been overwhelmingly shocking.  Most people would say, “It’s better late than never.”  His suspension of ministerial credential in the early 90’s already acknowledged all of his trespasses, but it’s harder to get rid of his academic credentials unless academic institutions also follow strict guidelines of sexual harassment.  During that period of American history (back in the 60s to the 80s), sexual harassment policies were in their infancy.  At the very least, the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries discussed the inconsistency of his writing and his life and whether they should still use his work back when all this happened. The delayed apology does lessen the pain of the victims, but I would say that they had taken the necessary steps within the church denomination to deal with the situation way back when all this broke (especially after victims threatened to protest). I think the final step of apology is necessary and should’ve been done sooner.  The delay is definitely a problem because it isn’t just about defrocking him from his ministry to keep him from victimizing more women in the future but apologizing to his victims of the past to bring them closure.

2) Yoder used research about sexual ethics as an excuse to vicitmize women and have sexual relationship outside of marriage. What do you think about this and what kind of environment would create this sort of ethos?

First, let’s make a clear separation between just having sex outside of marriage and sexual harassment.  We mustn’t mix up the two.  I believe the latter is more serious and harmful than the former.  You know a lot of famous public figures, Christian theologians even, are dire failures when it comes to keeping their marriage bed pure. Paul Tillich was a well-known philanderer.  Karl Barth’s relationship with Charlotte von Kirschbaum who had assisted his work indicates also another failure of his marriage with his wife Nelly Barth.  These failures however involve willing participants.  Many public figures easily attract women because of their appeal and charisma.  This however isn’t the same as what Yoder did.  Yoder did far worse. Second, let’s look at what Yoder did.  His life is a string of sexual harassments against women who might not have been willing participants (many weren’t).  We’re moving from mere sexual relationship outside of marriage into the area of sexual politics and power.  While the extramarital sex has roughly equal partnership with the two participants, sexual harassment has a one-sided power in favor of the predator.  Yoder was a serial harasser.  He was a predator.  His trespasses had nothing to do with just sex outside of marriage. His trespasses involve abuse of his power against the oppressed.  He had used his profession as his vehicle to satisfy his fetish.  The academic guild that enabled him to do this has created a power structure against the victims.  i call this star-power exceptionism.

3) Yoder wrote about the Politics of Jesus.  Dr. Vincent Lau sees him as someone great in creating a radical and alternative community such as the Sojourners Community.  How should we treat his work now that we know about his trespasses?

While the politics of Jesus had sided with the weak, Yoder has created a power structure that has sided with the strong, namely himself being a very famous scholar.  In practice, I wonder if he truly understands the very core of his own interpretation.  We all have blind spots, but his blind spot is more glaring than most.  His life is the demonstration that when we wish to judge the splinter in our brothers’ eyes, we need to ask whether we have a beam because the splinter and the beam are both wood but the degree of harm very between the two. I find it emotionally tough to separate the man from his work.

4) What suggestions do you have for sexual victims? What about the lessons we can learn from this situation?

Besides counseling and a healing community for the victim, I have no suggestion. I’m no expert in sexual crimes.  The church needs to learn a lesson though.  However, these unfortunate events haven’t always taught the church any lesson.  In our Chinese churches, there’re known sexual predators who are still ministering.  I’m not talking about failures in marriage. Those we can solve by repentance, counseling and even restoration.  I’m talking about something more serious.  Would we put molesters of children in close proximity to children? Would we make them creche workers?  No, so why are we allowing sexual predators against women to work in close proximity to women? Besides the very public events of sexual harassment, I’ve known some hidden ones where churches refuse to investigate their star speakers all, even if the churches have been told about the problem, because such speakers “bring people to the Lord”.  It isn’t just an individual failure. It’s a systemic failure of power structure protecting against itself.

Fresh off the Boat: License to Date?

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The show subtitled License to Kill is fantastically funny. I already summarized part of the plot from the previous blog post. I’ll talk more about it in this blog post. Little Eddie, the older boy with swag, has been trying his best to date Nicole, the pretty “girl next door”. The cheerful father Louis gives Eddie the simple advice to find out what Nicole’s interested in so that he can gain her heart.

 

One day, Nicole and Eddie found themselves in detention because Eddie found out that Nicole has been put into detention and he deliberately gets himself in there to be close to her. The conversation ensues that Nicole let out the most non-Asian value statement that she doesn’t need school anyway because she’s going to beauty school. One thing led to another, Eddie finally finds what interests Nicole: beauty school. Before we know it, Eddie is over Nicole’s place and getting henna tattoos on his arm and earring in his ear. This is just not Eddie the Asian swag king. Soon enough, his buddies notice the earring (I think the earring is pretty cool though). This is where the dad steps in. The dad reminds Eddie that he needs to figure out how to find common interest and retain his own identity.

 

In many ways, this little innocent episode of puppy love has a lot of profound implications for society and even church. The first implication of this episode is how value systems are so different between people when they come together. IF they’re from a different race, the complication gets worse. As an Asian, I can see the shock of most Asian parents when they hear that Nicole is going to forgo the university education for beauty school. Now, there’s nothing wrong with beauty school. In fact, my wife’s niece works for Vidal Sassoon. Forgoing a university education is a big deal however. Value systems are often different perspectives that people hold very dearly to. These systems may not be inherently moral or immoral, but the high value people ascribe to such systems can give it a hint of morality.

 

The second implication is anecdotal. The show whitewashes the severity of interracial dating in that area of the world. I think the show does so because it’s a sensitive and potentially offensive subject that doesn’t fit the comedy genre well. Although I didn’t grow up in Orlando, I grew up in Florida. My own experience tells me that it’s incredibly difficult for an Asian male to date people of a different race because of simple racism. Now, I’m not saying just because you date someone of a different race, you’re no longer racist. There’re people who are unaware of their own racist tendency even though they’re open to date people of a different race. Here, I’m talking about something much more straightforward. Back when I was a kid living down there, people simply don’t date people of other races. The precise reason why the show whitewashes this problem shows that just having a show about racism doesn’t eliminate the possibility that the show itself is unwilling to address racism directly. When I lived down there, I’ve been told to “stick to your own kind”. I’ve had black friends marrying white women whose families refuse to endorse the marriage and attend the ceremony. The list can go on, but that’s the Florida I knew. Perhaps things have changed, but I’m fairly sure that the time period of the show still has a lot of racial tension down in Florida. Such is the irony of show business because after all, it’s trying to get as many viewers as possible. If the show is being too “judgmental”, then it no longer entertains. This begs the larger question of whether comedy is indeed the best way to address serious issues. We shall wait and see.

 

The third implication is on dating relationships. Eddie who chased Nicole loses himself in the process. I’m very happy to see the father jumping in and giving fatherly advice. In many ways, the best teachers about relationships are parents. I know many parents who find talking to children about dating and sex to be awkward, but either way, the children will get their information somewhere. If parents don’t give them advice, they’d be getting advice from equally inexperience peers. The dad in the show does show good role modeling for Eddie who eventually has a more positive outcome to his pursuit of Nicole. These days, the parents’ roles are changing and quite often, the parents are the butt of the joke in comedy shows. I’m glad in this instance, the dad acts as a good role model to Eddie and his advice is practical and sound.

 

The fourth implication is also about dating. When we look at Eddie and Nicole, we can’t help but seeing a relational transaction. Eddie goes to great length to get Nicole’s affection by trading his swag in for henna tattoos. In our churches, many of young people who want to get married often complain that the church or whoever isn’t doing enough to help them find the mate. I want to push back on that complaint. No one can help anyone find the ideal mate. No one can even give general advice on relationship that will “work” 100% of the time. It’s up to each individual to figure out that courting someone is a transaction. It isn’t necessarily going to be fair transaction all the time. The pursuer might have to give up something to land the prey, so to speak (certainly, I don’t like using hunting metaphor but hunting is what most beginning dating endeavors look like). At a certain stage however, the transaction becomes more and more even. Perhaps, each party might be willing to give in 50% and so on. Yet, that’s a long way from marriage. The road to marriage is this kind of tricky dance. Eventually, the giving to each other will arrive closer to 100% because marriage is about 100% commitment to each others need, thus making the transaction ideally even. I should know because my wife and I have been married close to a quarter of a century. We’ve had our moments and certainly, we don’t always give 100% each other 100% of the time but we both know that 100% is the ideal we’re shooting for. This little episode shows that every couple should understand what stage of relationship they’re in. For those single people who don’t ever think they can give 100% to another person, they’re going to have a hard marriage.  There’s nothing your church can do for you, no matter how much you complain.  Little Eddie has a long way to go.  Nicole might even have a longer way to go.

Fresh Off the Boat: License to Sell?

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The Taiwanese-American family is adapting nicely to their Orlando neighborhood. It’s time for the mom Jessica to venture out towards something she seems to be quite good at.  Since she has found out that she could easily sell a home through the combination of her charm and her pushy ways, she has decided to get her real estate license.  However, something always gets in the way of achieving their goals for this family. This time, it’s a harmless conversation Jessica has with this seemingly harmless woman at the licensing office.  The woman claims to be the real estate agent of the year with a lifetime achievement of selling some 300 homes.  Upon hearing that gigantic number, Jessica bolts from the office to eat her comfort food, an ice cream sandwich.  Not wanting to feel shame, she goes home pretending to have gotten her license only to have her lies uncovered by the neighborhood big-mouth Honey.  Her husband found out about this and confronts Jessica.  Her excuse is that she can never be good enough to be the best and if she encourages the children to be the best at what they do, how can she be their example?  300 homes are a lifetime away.  She can’t possibly beat 300 homes.

 

I’m unsure whether the show is trying to portray the Asian culture’s perfectionist tendency or just a general fear of failure that plagues just about every culture.  I suspect it’s a bit of both.  This picture analogizes any new pursuit. In Christian communities, this could involve serving in a new area volunteering in something that we’ve never tried before.  Many of us want the safety of our own lack of effort.  Success is not as desirable as the lack of failure.  We may be afraid of what others think about us if we fail.  We may be afraid of what we think of ourselves if we fail.  We want a nice, neat and undisturbed life.  In our churches, we often talk about people having the right talents or gifts doing the right services.  Sometimes the adverse result is that people are so afraid to fail that they fail in the worst way to discover what they’re capable of.  I think that’s the same feeling that plagues Jessica.

 

What does it take for people to venture into something new?  It takes grace, grace towards others and grace towards ourselves.  We need to extend grace towards others who fail, and at the same time, we need to confront failure in measurable ways.  We need to extend grace to ourselves.  We must remember that one thing is even worse than failure, and that is the lack of effort.  We must understand that success and failures are only by degree.  Neither define who we are, but they also teach us who we are.  In a healthy community, people extend grace towards failure. A healthy individual also learns to accept success and failure not something over which to gloat or to mourn but as life lessons granted by the Creator and the faith community.  Neither success nor failure is permanent, so long as we learn something from both.

 

For Jessica, the story has a happy ending as she overcomes her hangups and easily passes her licensing exam.  At one point, I was also wondering if her English is good enough to pass the exam, but surely, she was smart enough and passed with flying colors.  I wonder if our faith community will have such a happy ending.

Fresh Off the Boat: the Risk of Talent

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One of the most hilarious scenes of the FOTB episode is when the waiter Mitch quits the restaurant.  The dad of the show decides that he has to hire a new worker.  We have applicants of all kinds including a vegetarian.  Finally, they found a guy to help waiter the place. This guy is a handsome and intelligent cowboy who can charm customers by trick lassoing chairs. The place thrives because of this new hire.  This new waiter is also full of great ideas but this displeases the father who owns the restaurant.  Meanwhile, the incompetent Mitch comes over to visit.  The reason why Mitch quit in the first place is because he was hired by a rival restaurant for a bit more pay, but soon, he finds out that the new place is not what he likes. So, he visits to see if he can have his old job back.  His first job upon coming back is to fire the competent cowboy for the owner.

 

When laughing at this entirely ridiculous scenario, we may ask why the dad wants to fire the handsome, loyal and competent cowboy in favor of the homely, disloyal and incompetent Mitch.  The answer is simple.  The cowboy is doing his job too well.  Instead of seeing the cowboy as an asset, the dad sees him as a threat. He’d rather have the lousy Mitch than the brilliant cowboy.  The show demonstrates the hardship of being in charge.  Healthy leadership doesn’t require the leader to know everything and have all the ideas.  Healthy leadership appreciates the superior talents in the subordinates.  This talented cowboy generated a lot of new customers because of his brilliance. He brings success. All good ideas don’t have to come from one source.  They don’t even need to come from the top.  At the end of the day, leadership requires character.  Leadership isn’t all about talents and great ideas.  It’s about the character that allows for great ideas by others and giving credit where credit is due.  The dad didn’t do this and his restaurant will once again stumble along with the silly Mitch who can’t even keep from knocking things over while trying to do his job.

 

Good ideas grow in an environment created by generous leaders with character.  That’s the bottom line.

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