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The Change of Asian America and a New Religious Formation

Updated: Sep 26, 2020

Hannah Cho, Ph.D.

“Asian American” is a relatively new term which was first coined in the 1960s. Its usage has since gained popularity. While the term has become familiar to both insiders and outsiders of the members and was adopted in various social rhetorics, it encompasses a unique history of development. Since the emergence of the term, the “Asian American” group boundary has been contested and shifted in both meaning and constituency. Along the course of the transition, various social organizations also emerged based on this larger group rubric. One prominent example in recent years is the emergence of the pan-Asian church. The pan-Asian church, that is, various Asian ethnic groups joined together to form a religious congregation, has become available for Asian Americans as a new religious affiliation option. The pan-Asian church is characterized by a large portion of its congregation consisting of second and later generations of Asian Americans. While the birth of the pan-Asian church can be overlooked as another avenue in the religious marketplace, closely studying this phenomenon can help us understand the shifting culture of American-born Asians and enable ministry practitioners to better prepare for ministering to the ever-changing “Asian American” community.

Having this objective in mind, I will trace the emergence and transformation of “Asian American” in light of their experiences from the early Asian immigration era. I will also reflect how “Asian American” as an avowed identity was constructed and reconstructed over the period in an effort to redress the prior ascribed identity of “Oriental.” Lastly, I will examine how the shift of the term has yielded voluntary social organizations such as pan-Asian churches. As I demonstrate the ever-evolving group boundary of Asian America, I will argue that the category no longer reflects a uniform and monolithic group identity, but is marked by its fluid and hybrid characteristics crafted in reaction to the "racialized" society.

Before Asian America

America, as the nation of immigration, attracted various ethnic and racial groups from across the seas, Asian immigrants were one of them. Upon their arrival, no one considered themselves as Asians. Rather, they came with their national, regional, tribal, and religious identities. The distinct and separate identities among Asian immigrant groups were further influenced by the variations in immigration history, cultural adaptation, acculturation experience, and generations. These experiences vary from group to group and from individual to individual. Despite the heterogeneous nature of Asian immigrant groups, Asian Americans were viewed as homogenous through “racial lumping” from the larger society. Since the founding of the United States, America has selectively defined various groups based on racial categories. Although race per se was not used to classify origins of groups initially, it overlapped with other primary basis such as classes or capitalistic economy in the early settlement years of the United States. For this reason, race has been one of the primary categories employed in various sects of the U.S. society. Eventually this distinction has been a measurement tool for exclusion and inclusion often reinforced by legislation and immigration policies. Such instances are amply found in Asian American history.

The Chinese were the earliest Asian immigrants in the United States attracted by the California Gold Rush and the need for mining and railroad construction labor. As their number increased, they became a “yellow peril” to white workers and white racial purity. To limit their economic success, they were subject to unfair taxation and fines. By the mid 1800s racial hostility and nativism prevailed in society which influenced the loosely formed immigration policy to sharply define U.S. boundaries and to restrict immigrants of color. The Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1875 in order to prohibit large-scale Chinese immigration.

Because the need for cheap labor was unabated, Japanese immigrants replaced the Chinese workers. A large number of Japanese workers settled in Hawaii and the West Coast as they rapidly became a major workforce in agriculture. The nativists once again galvanized their efforts to oppose Japanese immigration. In 1907 the Gentlemen’s Agreement was established between the U.S. and Japanese governments to end Japanese immigration. The Gentlemen’s Agreement also affected Korean immigration after the initial seven thousand immigrants to Hawaii being that Korea was colonized by Japan in 1905.

Asian immigrant restrictions culminated in the passage of the 1924 Immigration Act, otherwise known as the Asian Exclusion Act. While the 1924 legislation affected the number of southern and eastern European immigrants in some extent, it virtually ended Asian immigration.

While other Asian immigrants were barred, Filipinos were able to continue migration because of the U.S. colonization of the Philippines. However, the Tydings-McDuffie Act in 1934 effectively excluded future Filipino migration.

In short, in an effort to curtail immigration from Asia, the U.S. immigration policy aggregated and defined various national groups into a single “bloc of racial undesirables.” Consequently these diverse peoples of various Asian nations, religions, cultures, and languages were grouped and imposed with the label “Orientals,” which embodied inferior and unwanted foreigners. As a result, separate Asian ethnic groups wound up sharing common experiences in exclusion, exploitation, and social injustice in a remarkably similar way.

Political Pan-Asian Mobilization

Although identifying various Asian groups as homogenous based on race was initiated by outsiders who overlooked differences between the ethnic groups, Asian Americans used the very same concept to advance their political and social positions and to readjust their ethnic boundaries. Prompted by the Civil Rights Movements in the 1960s, various Asian Americans agglomerated for the purpose of advancing their group interests. From the mid-nineteenth century onward, Asian Americans continued to be subject to prejudice, economic discrimination, physical violence, and social segregation. In the face of hardship, ethnic community institutions and associations were ineffective in helping their communities. Disenfranchised from the larger society both politically and socially, Asian ethnic enclaves were too confined and limited in resources to sufficiently meet community needs. Furthermore, the mythical “model minority” discourse disguised the reality of Asian American communities. In the 1960s, before the Asian American movement emerged, a seemingly positive success image of Asian Americans seemed to replace explicit racism. News articles began to report the unparalleled achievements of Asians in the United States. For example, the New York Times in 1966 reported “Success Story: Japanese American Style.” In the same year, U.S. News and World Report published an article titled “Success Story of One Minority Group [Chinese Americans] in U.S.” This image of success was publicized because the main body of Asian Americans, such as the Japanese and the Chinese, had achieved middle-class incomes “while presenting no real threat in numbers to the white majority.” As a result, they received a token acceptance from white America, and had been endowed with a seemingly positive title. While the image of success was accepted by the larger American society, in reality Asian American communities continued to struggle with ghetto-related conditions such as unemployment, poor housing, drug abuse, and juvenile delinquency. The assumption that Asian Americans had already obtained economic equality was not an accurate picture of the lives of many Asian Americans. Despite a high percentage of educational achievement among Asian Americans, their annual income was considerably lower than the median annual income of whites. Filipino Americans in California, in particular, earned the lowest income in comparison to blacks and whites. In the face of such social conditions, Asian Americans with different ethnic backgrounds banded together to challenge three common assumptions: first, that Asian Americans are completely powerless in the United States; second, that Asian Americans have already obtained “economic” equality; and lastly, to create a fulfilling, self-defined identity on their own terms.

Broader pan-Asian efforts originally emerged on college campuses. The Asian American Political Alliance (AAPA) at the University of California, Berkeley, was founded by Yuji Ichioka. With the first pan-Asian organization dedicated to social justice, Ichioka wanted to mobilize a group “behind an Asian American banner” to create a pan-Asian identity. He coined the term “Asian American” through which he intended to recognize a similar history and experience shared by various Asians in America. Besides AAPA at the University of California, Berkeley, AAPA at San Francisco State College, Asian Americans for Action (AAA) in the East Coast, the Ann Arbor Asian Political Alliance (APA), and the Bay Area Asian Coalition Against the War (BAACAW) were a few of the many Asian American organizations during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Under the rubric of “Asian American,” these organizations mobilized collaborative efforts in order to emphasized the shared interests of different Asian ethnic groups as a whole that could resist US racism and seek self-determination and community control. Each organization employed different discourses and ideologies, such as a Third World emphasis, anti-war, and US imperialism, strategically creating a broad network with various racial, political, and cultural subgroups. Ultimately, their creative and inclusive articulation in defining this new identity has become an important legacy for bringing change to Asian American communities and race relations in the United States.

Cultural Pan-Asian Networks

Subsequent to the emergence of the Asian American movement in the 1960s, “Asian American” or pan-Asian identity has been employed as a political category of electoral politics, allocation of government funds, and the census. By the 1970s, the term “Asian American” began to gain a common usage not only by government, but also by various professionals and academics, creating Asian American studies programs on university campuses, and publications. While the term is widely recognized by government officials and in professional fields, some scholars view with skepticism the long-term meaning and significance of pan-Asianism. During the early emergence of pan-Asianism, activists who participated in the movement experienced a division among participants in terms of the ideological outlook and practical relations with politics. In addition, ethnic chauvinism, competition for scarce resources, and class cleavages also caused divisions in the movement. As a result, the Asian American identity which emerged out of the movement is viewed as merely a product of the political process, and only active when relevant issues or interests were raised. Such a view is also supported by scholarly research which predominantly has dealt with a politicized Asian American identity. Some pan-ethnic theorists exclusively identify the nature of pan-ethnicity as a political construct for the purpose of establishing a representative category in response to government policies and external threats. It is true that with American Indians, Hispanics, and Asian Americans, the concept of “pan-ethnicity” first emerged in the fight for group rights and racial pride; therefore, a political cause was always predominant. If the Asian American identity is solely defined as a representative category for political or socioeconomic reasons, it would be difficult to assess the long-term significance since only a situational and inconsistent Asian American identity is periodically formed.

On the one hand, a politically constructed Asian American identity seems short-lived and only emerges sporadically; on the other hand, Asian American identity, based on shared cultural bonds between various Asian American groups, has developed as one of the most salient identities since the 1990s. Recent studies reveal that a cultural Asian American identity, rather than a political one, is most commonly shared by second and later generations of American-born Asians. In contrast to the identity which is generated by outward, social, and political causes primarily asserted by activists and leaders of Asian communities, a cultural pan-Asian identity emerges out of social networks to simply seek comfort and companionship based on a common feeling of a shared culture and of a common experience as racial minority groups. According to contemporary research, this cultural Asian American identity is most salient within private and social networks.

Sharon Lee and Marilyn Fernandez, in their research on marriage patterns among Asian Americans, report the substantial increase in Asian interethnic marriages. These marriages occur across the Asian subgroups caused by demographic changes as well as a growing sense of pan-ethnic Asian identity. Mia Tuan, in her narrative of the Asian ethnic experience, also describes that their openness to dating other Asian Americans is both a cause and an effect of the intense boundary shift that is taking place as Asian ethnics are coming to embrace a panethnic identity. As distinct ethnic and cultural patterns weaken and a more generalized Asian American culture develops, individuals are less likely to focus on ethnic differences and instead, recognize the similarities linking their experiences. Importantly, those similarities are grounded in their common experience of being treated as a distinct racial group in the United States. Nazli Kibria, in her study on forty-eight Korean Americans and Chinese Americans, believes that their shared culture and worldview are fundamentally about their racialized experience. She states that “Second-generation Chinese and Korean Americans believe that a unique “Asian American” culture and community emerged out of a central experience and identification with the United States, one that those who had not grown up elsewhere did not fundamentally share.” At the same time she argues that “ “Asian American” is seen by those who are encompassed by it as not simply an externally imposed category but a signifier of community, a shared culture and history.” By “shared culture,” many Asian Americans refer to similar values that they share with other Asians. Although these values are not exclusive to Asian Americans, three values are mostly highlighted: education, family, and work ethic. These values which are held by many Asian Americans are often explained by a reference to the cultural traditions influenced by Confucianism. One of Kibria’s interviewees said:

My friends were Japanese, Chinese. Of all the Asian groups, Koreans, Japanese, and Chinese have the most in common [In what way?] Everybody gets us mixed up; they can’t tell us apart. [That doesn’t happen with a Vietnamese or Filipino?] It can happen, but it’s less likely, especially if you’re talking about Asians looking at each other. It’s much easier, I think, to tell a Korean from a Filipino person than Chinese. It’s also that there are common roots for Koreans, Japanese, and Chinese if you go way back. Like our writing is from the same family. And the cultures are based on Confucianism.

Similarly, Lisa Lowe recognizes a distinct “Asian American culture” which is primarily formulated through the practices that are “partly inherited, partly modified, as well as partly invented.” Based on the fact that the pattern of pan-Asian consciousness has been displayed from political to the voluntary associations in their common culture, the Asian American identity has come to be beyond an institutional label for political means for second- and later-generation Asian Americans. Newly developed Asian American culture has redefined their ethnic boundary and they developed “Asian American” as their personal and valid identity.

This phenomenon challenges the traditional assimilation theories. Robert Park and Ernest Burgess provide an early definition of assimilation: “a process of interpenetration and fusion in which persons and groups acquire the memories, sentiments, and attitudes of other persons and groups and, by sharing their experience and history, are incorporated with them in a common cultural life.” Based on this definition, Park and Burgess assert the inevitability of the eventual disappearance of an ethnic group as a separate entity and the evaporation of distinctive values. A group adopts the unitary social system of the host culture and blend into the network of social, political, and cultural values that are not ethnic specific. Further, in Park’s theory of “race-relations cycle,” of “contact, competition, accommodation, and eventual assimilation,” assimilation is the final stage as an inevitable outcome for minority groups to ultimately merge in.

Another assmilationist Milton Gordon argues that minority groups’ adoption of the “cultural patterns” of the larger society, such as acquisition of the English language, dressing, emotional expression, and personal values, is inevitable. Gordon also argues for the catalyst role of “structural assimilation” which can lead to a more complete assimilation. He argues that once minority groups enter into the social cliques, clubs, and institutions of the larger society at the primary group level, “all of the other types of assimilation will naturally follow.” (Italics original) This theory suggests that eventually the minority’s separate identity will disappear. The limitation of Gordon’s account was that his theory was based on two ethnic groups without taking into account the members of different ethnic minorities or the multigroup nature of American society.

The experience of second and later generation Asian Americans reflect a more complex picture of “assimilation” rather than the simplistic pattern once used to depict European immigrant descendents. Because of the lack of race factors in traditional assimilation theories, their use is inadequate to describe the experience of people of color. For Asian Americans, like other people of color, race has been a key factor in understanding the context by which they negotiate affiliations and identity in the United States. Although the majority of American-born Asians are highly acculturated and educated, their status as a racially defined group continues to be viewed by the mainstream society as different and foreign. In the case of Asian Americans, structural assimilation does not necessarily lead to “all of the other types of assimilation” as Gordon hypothesized. Although many Asian Americans participate in various institutions of the mainstream and they are not segregated or removed from the dominant society as in the earlier immigrant experience, they lack acceptance as a racial minority group.

Instead of following a linear and simplistic assimilation pattern or maintaining an ethnic specific identity, the second and later generations of Asian Americans have negotiated and created a new group boundary as an alternative of assimilation. Asian Americans are drawn to other Asian Americans who share a similar experience and find comfort in a “third space” which reflects their unique experiences as a racialized minority in the United States.

A Third Space: The Pan-Asian Church

The Los Angeles Times on March 8, 1999 reported on emerging pan-Asian churches:

Some Southland congregations break the mold, courting other ethnic groups rather than staying insular to preserve culture. Scholars see a blueprint for the region's future. Newsong and churches like it are becoming the first truly pan-Asian churches in the country, drawing a mix of second-, third- and even fourth-generation Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and other Asians, whose Americanized upbringing and Christian faith bind ethnically diverse backgrounds.

Newsong has been the most prominent and successful case of the pan-Asian church that has branched out to a number of sister churches throughout Southern California. Other representative cases of pan-Asian churches in Southern California include the Garden Christian Fellowship in West Los Angeles, Evergreen Church in San Gabriel and Rosemead, and Lifesong Community Church in Chino.

The similar trend in Northern California is also reported. According to Russell Jeung, pan-Asian churches in the Bay Area increased from one to five from 1989 to 1993. By 1998 an estimated two hundred churches in the area had congregations with a majority of Chinese or Japanese American members. Twenty-two of these were specifically identified as pan-Asian, accounting for 10 percent of the ethnic Asian churches in this region. With its dense Asian population, California has been the most viable area for pan-Asian congregations. However, this phenomenon has risen in other parts of the United States. On a website that introduces pan-Asian churches in the United States, ninety-nine churches are listed under this rubric.

Jeung attempts to articulate three contextual factors that have attributed to the birth of pan-Asian congregations. First, it may be caused by demographic shifts within the Asian American community and their churches. For instance, Japanese American churches have a shrinking ethnic base due to the low rate of Japanese immigration. Therefore, the churches needed to widen their target beyond their own ethnic group. Second, generational conflicts within ethnic churches eventually encourage American-born Asians to create their own churches. American-born Asians tend to choose a pan-Asian church to be free from any cultural baggage. Third, pan-Asian congregations had already adopted either an Asian American identity or a pan-Asian social connection prior to a church affiliation.

The emergence of pan-Asian churches challenges Will Herberg’s theory of the “triple melting pot” which proposes assimilation based on three religious traditions: Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish. Herberg theorizes that second generation European immigrants abandoned their ethnic ties and customs in order to assimilate into the mainstream society. Herberg asserts that by the third generation immigrants have fully adapted to “the American way of life” although religious divisions continue to exist. In this transitional period, ethnic identity is replaced by religious identity. Contrary to his theory, Asian Americans use religion as an important venue through which they secure both ethnic and religious identities without subsuming one or conflicting with each other.

Recognizing the importance of both ethnic and religious identities among Asian American congregations, the senior pastor of Evergreen Baptist Church- Los Angeles attempts to articulate about the nature of a new Asian American subculture and the need for specific ministries that cater to Americanized Asian Americans that are beyond the reach of most existing churches. He states:

[T]hey are comfortable in neither immigrant churches nor in the so-called American churches dominated by European Americans. We must open our eyes to the existence of those who see themselves as a combination of both Asian and American, people who, if they were asked, would refer to themselves as Asian Americans as much as they would call themselves Chinese Americans or Vietnamese Americans or even Eurasians. These are what Wagner would call the Marginal Ethnics, and they will not be reached in meaningful numbers through anything less than new multi-Asian and/or multi-ethnic ministries.

While he recognizes this group with common characteristics, he also views this group as fluid and plural. The group is homogenous in the sense that they are “marginal ethnics,” and at the same time, heterogeneous in that they consist of various ethnic heritages. Because of the coexistence of the homogeneity and heterogeneity within this group, pan-Asian churches attempt to be creative and flexible in ministering Asian Americans without discounting particular identities among congregations. Historically ethnic-based churches in the United States. have been active agents in “play[ing] a part in the symbolic-cultural integration” and coping with and adapting to a new environment. Pyong Gap Min reports that for Korean immigrants, ethnic churches serve as the most important organization in maintaining social interactions and cultural traditions. Even for earlier immigrant groups such as Europeans and Jews, Catholic parishes and synagogues played crucial roles in preserving their group system and identity. Consequently, religious institutions have served as a vehicle to maintain and reproduce ethnic identity among ethnic groups. Likewise, pan-Asian churches recognize the importance of ethnic identity. Although what ethnicity means to Asian American congregations may be expressed in limited ways due to their acculturation, members are encouraged to forge and live out their sense of ethnicity within the arena where various cultural practices and symbols crisscrossing. Kathleen Foley, in her case study of Evergreen Baptist Church, reports how Asian American members stressed ethnicity, especially when it becomes a matter of raising children. According to Ben, a member of Evergreen:

I think they (his children) will be Asian American in terms of learning how to be very considerate and polite, that is real important to me, and a high value for education. I would like them to be able to take off their shoes when they come inside the house. They will definitely learn chopsticks at an early age.

Although the ethnic identity of Asian American members may be viewed as symbolic and, like Ben expressed above, in terms of values and simple practices, they maintain a sense of distinctive identity. As Foley concludes, while members of Evergreen are not going to pass on the “type of Asian culture,” of their parents, they have concrete ideas about their own “type of Asian culture.”

To heighten the sense of ethnicity, pan-Asian churches make intentional efforts to incorporate cultural elements into worships. For example, Newsong Community Church incorporates different cultural forms and expression of praise music to vitalize cultural hybrid characteristics within the church. By incorporating such practices, the pan-Asian church can be the home for a creative community that provokes a sense of ethnic identity that is personally meaningful and valid.

In this regard, it is contrasted to other multiethnic churches that believe ethnic differences are considered a source of division. Helen Ebaugh and Janet Chafetz observed two mulitilingual/multiethnic churches in Houston and found that the churches discourage ethnic food or music in order to avoid any divisions among the different ethnic groups. Instead, the churches reinforce “American” culture as a neutral basis. Consequently, some resent that their ethnicity is subsumed.

In the case of the Mosaic Church in Pasadena, California, the researcher Geraldo Marti reports that ethnicity is not an important aspect of the church although it is more ethnically diverse than any other multiethnic church in the United States. The church believes that talking about difference is divisive; therefore, the church makes no attempt to institutionalize diversity within the church. Instead, Mosaic adapts a “colorblind” attitude, which Marti calls “ethnic transcendence.” Consequently, ethnic dynamics or advocating for social justice such as racial reconciliation cannot be dealt with openly. Contrast to these models of multiethnic/multiracial churches, the pan-Asian church has become more than a comfort zone in which various Asian Americans are connected. They are a place of self-definition and empowerment as a congregation celebrates their new identity.

Conclusion: Toward Cultural Hybridism

Asian America has gone through different phases within the changing political and social landscape. Within the social context that is highly racialized, various Asian origin groups were viewed racially homogeneous. However, the members of the ascribed group resisted and readjusted such an imposed boundary and legitimatized it as an avowed identity.

As the boundary of Asian America has shifted over the years, so have the pan-Asian constituency and culture, representing its fluid and plural nature. While racialized experiences and general Confucian Asian values are the most highlighted elements that contribute to “common culture” among Asian Americans, their particular ethnic identities are equally emphasized. Because the array of ethnic identity among acculturated Asian Americans covers a wide range and is symbolically expressed, reproducing a sense of identity has been hybridistic and subjective. The surging number of interracial marriages and interethnic marriages particularly challenges traditional pan-Asian networks that used to be dominated by East-Asian Americans. In this trend, the emerging pan-Asian church is also undergoing changes in its culture and demographics. As mixed racial Asian Americans, as well as Southeast and South Asian Americans, begin to identify with the pan-Asian category, pan-Asian churches are expected to expand their racial and demographic make-up.

Such a wide spectrum of pan-Asian constituency challenges the prior understanding of Asian Americans as a static, closed, and monolithic category. For this mixed and wide range of cultural identification, Asian America can be characterized as a sphere of cultural hybridism. Instead of shedding their distinctiveness or differences in order to blend into a dominant society, Asian Americans have reinvented a new hybrid cultural form through racial and cultural identities within their unique social network.

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