Looking for New Space

10 Aug

A constant theme I sensed flowing through the plenaries, presentations and caucusing during the APPARI conference this year was problem of place.  Whether it was through their own personal experiences or through scholarly discourse, people were searching for a safe place to identify themselves ethnically, culturally and politically.  This theme became evident on the very first night.

During the opening plenary, we saw three generations between Roy Sano, retired UMC Bishop and Stephen Yamada, and his cohort Joshua Joh, college and high school students respectively, talk amongst each other about contrasting strategies for securing a place to fully be oneself.  Bishop Sano remarked the tendency for cross-cultural types to see themselves as “neither/nor” when it comes to being acculturated to different social environments.  He, on the other hand, preferred to regard himself as “both/and” able to in his particular situation, adapt to both the Japanese and American cultural worlds. Similarly, Stephen and Joshua acknowledged the ability to adapt to both American mainstream and other ethnic cultural worlds, but also revealed the preference not to do so.  Instead, the objective they struggle to attain is to inhabit a cultural world where they can fully be themselves.  They seek a kind of “third space” where acquiescence and social isolation are not so necessary.

This elusive search for new cultural spaces, so well articulated by these young men, became a theme I observed in the sentiments of many in this conference. When it came time to reading papers, I heard some like Samuel Perry at University of Chicago wondering if there was space for Asian evangelicals to do more culturally adaptive fundraising.  I heard Hanna Kang from Irvine discuss Asian Young Adults looking to transfer skills developed in an evangelical context to the Episcopalian Church because there is an overabundance of underused “space”.  During the last panel, Peter Cha and Soong Chan Rah grappled with the emergence of new evangelical ethnic churches.   Cha discussed his work with second generation returnees to ethnic churches who are nevertheless uncomfortable with the traditional status quo and desire to carve out a territory in which ethnic enclaves become socially inclusive and active in their religious life.

My hunch is that in these various anecdotes we are witnessing the emergence of a kind of cross-cultural America.  People may be intentionally seeking it.  They may unwittingly be falling upon it.  Or in some cases they may be deliberately trying to avoid it.  Yet more and more people are finding themselves at cross-cultural intersections in American ethnic and religious life that are difficult to avoid or erase.  New things are being forged here, old things are being contested.  What I love about APARRI is that there is a convivial group of scholars genuinely trying to map and then understand this new phenomenon.  When we talk about racial and ethnic groups in America, the terms that readily come to mind are oppression, marginalization and discrimination.  Increasingly though, these negative terms are giving way to more constructive endeavors like hybridity, liminality, double and triple consciousness.  My hope is that these ideas will continue to be discussed in varied and wider circles.

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