Last week, a gunman shot up three spas in Atlanta, taking the lives of eight people, six of them Asian American. Their names were Soon Chung Park, age 74; Hyun Jung Grant, age 51; Suncha Kim, age 69; Yong Yue, age 63; Delaina Ashley Yaun, age 33; Paul Andre Michels, age 54; and Xiaojie Tan, age 49.
These attacks, coming just weeks after several reports were released calling attention to racial violence and harassment against Asian Americans. One report from a group called Stop AAPI Hate listed nearly 3,800 incidents from March 19, 2020 to February 28, 2021 which included verbal harassment, physical assault, shunning, civil rights violations, and online harassment.
While the community currently only makes up about six percent of the population, according to Pew Research Center, by 2055, this may be the largest minority group.
It’s also a community with enormous amounts of diversity. The largest communities are ethnically Chinese, Indian, Filipino, Vietnamese, Korean, and Japanese.
This week on Quick to Listen, we wanted to learn more about the influence of Christian faith of Asian Americans, the US’s fasting growing immigrant group, and the obligations of the church at large to welcome and love them.
Our guest this week is Jane Hong, associate professor of history at Occidental College and the author of Opening the Gates to Asia: A Transpacific History of How America Repealed Asian Exclusion. Her next book from Oxford University Press is tentatively titled Model Christians, Model Minorities: Asian Americans, Race, and Politics in the Transformation of U.S. Evangelicalism. She is currently co-hosting Centering: The Asian American Christian Podcast.
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Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #257
What happened in 1965 in regard to Asian Americans and immigration?
Jane Hong: 1965 is seen as a turning point in Asian immigration. Most of the Asian Americans you see here in the United States today either came or are the children or grandchildren of immigrants from Asia who came under the ‘65 Immigration Act.
Before then, Asian immigration was largely restricted or excluded. Many folks might've heard of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. In the news, there has been discussion of the 1875 Page Law, which targets Chinese women. The Chinese were the first group to be targeted by US immigration laws. Those laws were expanded to include all Asians by 1924. Chinese are targeted first, then Japanese and Koreans, then Indians, and by 1924, all Asians except Filipinos because they're part of the US empire in Asia. Filipinos come under exclusion in 1934, but by the 1930s long-term immigration from Asia is banned. In addition to that, Asians are barred because they are “aliens,” ineligible to citizenship under US citizenship law.
By 1924 and 1934, Asians cannot immigrate into the United States for long-term settlement and they cannot become US citizens. This doesn't change until the period beginning with World War II. Between 1943 to 1965, Congress, which controls immigration and naturalization policy, almost single-handedly begins to repeal these laws beginning with Chinese Exclusion in 1943 because the United States is allied with China in the fight against Japan during WWII. The repeal gives China symbolic immigration quotas and Chinese eligibility for citizenship.
Over the next decade, Congress expands this to other Asian groups. First, it's Chinese, then Filipinos and Indians, then by 1952 Japanese Americans. All Asians can become citizens by 1952, but immigration is still very restricted. That doesn't change until 1965.
The 1965 Immigration Act is still the basis of a lot of immigration policies today. Those family reunification provisions have been a major channel that Asian immigrants and also immigrants from Latin America have immigrated since 1965.
The other piece is the skilled labor provisions. Every year the Department of Labor would make a list of areas where there was a shortage of workers. Using that list, visas would be given to immigrants who have educational qualifications or job skills in those areas.
Engineering and medical professions was a big one. My mother was a nurse trained in South Korea and she came out of the 1965 Immigration Act and brought many more members of my family through the family reunification provisions.
Asian American is a very diverse and huge umbrella category. The argument that scholars and law professors make is the term Asiatic, the racial category, was created by US immigration law. The 1917 and 1924 Immigration Acts created as a category of exclusion; Asiatics are excluded. That's how Indians, East Asians, Southeast Asians are grouped together -- in many ways, because of immigration policy.
What is unique about how some of the first communities—Chinese, Indian, Filipino, Vietnamese, Korean, and Japanese—arrived?
Jane Hong: During the late 1800s to early 1900s, Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, Koreans, Indians, came into the United States largely for labor purposes. Oftentimes there are labor brokers recruiting laborers from Asia to work in many industries like the railroads.
Different groups come under exclusion at different times. The Chinese come first and then because Chinese exclusion happens.
Many US industries turn to the Japanese and they start recruiting Japanese to places like Hawaii. Koreans as well. Once fewer Japanese and Koreans are coming, Indians are coming from India, which is still a British colony at this point.
Indians come under exclusion in 1917 and 1924, the Japanese come under exclusion. Many Filipinos came to the United States during the 1920s and early 1930s precisely because there's still demand for their labor. They're the only group from Asia that has not been excluded, but then they come under exclusion in 1934.
Historians often use this phrase: Asians came to America because Americans first went to Asia. When you think about the waves of Asian immigrants coming during WWII and after, and during the Cold War, a lot of it has to do with US military interventions in Asia. My own family was ethnically Korean. There are waves of Korean migration after the Korean War in the early 1950s.
Some Chinese are coming as refugees because US State Department projects were anti-communist Chinese. We all are familiar with post-Vietnam refugees from Southeast Asia. That migration wave takes off in the 1970s because that's when the war ends in Vietnam and the United States admits many South Vietnamese beginning in 1975 and continuing into the 1980s.
It even passes legislation, the Refugee Act of 1980, to accommodate refugee migrations from not only Vietnam but also Cambodia and Laos, including groups like the Hmong Americans who worked with the CIA during the Vietnam War. You see an overlap between refugee migrations after 1975 and post-1965 Asian immigration.
You have this initial migration of refugees after 1975, but then once those folks had become permanent residents or US citizens, they are then able to sponsor family members under the 1965 Immigration Act. Pieces of legislation can sometimes work together as well.
What’s the connection between the growth of new churches and the emergence of a distinctly pan-Asian identity?
Jane Hong: Before the 1960s, there is some understanding among different Asian ethnic groups that they all share something in common. For example, you know, during WWII Japanese American incarceration, other non-Japanese Asian Americans were also targeted for violence.
You have many stories of Chinese, Filipino, Korean Americans in places like California being beaten up because people thought they were Japanese.
There's a larger historical understanding, even among disparate Asian American groups, that they could be racialized as sharing something in common, but in terms of Asian American groups working together, there isn't a lot of that.
There are moments of inter-ethnic solidarity. The moment is the 1968 Asian American movement. It begins in the Bay area of California in places like San Francisco State University, University of California, Berkeley, but there are also movements in New York City, Chicago, and other parts of the country where you have largely Chinese and Japanese Americans, but also Filipino Americans and some Korean Americans coming together to fight for ethnic studies at American universities and the chance to learn about their communities and histories in the classroom.
Asian Americans during the late 60s were also working with other racial groups: African Americans, Latinx Americans who are also fighting for ethnic studies and also fighting for solidarity. The Third World Liberation Front might scare some people, but it was a multi-racial movement where you had different groups opposing the war in Vietnam, but also fighting for ethnic studies at American universities.
Asian American clergy in mainline churches in particular bring this kind of pan-Asian sensibility into churches and seminaries.
In the early 1970s, if you have Asian American clergy and these different mainline denominations campaigning for Asian American caucuses. The argument was Asian Americans have particular concerns and needs that aren't being met by the overall denomination.
I've done some interviews with folks who were involved with a group called FACE, the Fellowship of American Chinese Evangelicals in the 1970s. What are their spiritual needs? What are their church needs? That's a conversation that's been going on for quite a long time. There are other churches like Evergreen Baptist Church in Los Angeles that have a somewhat pan-Asian congregation demographic even before the 1990s.
Which communities are coming from countries with a strong Christian presence and which ones are encountering Christianity for the first time after they immigrate to the US?
Jane Hong: Helen Jin Kim at Candler School of Theology at Emory has a book forthcoming about connections between US and South Korean evangelicalism. Many Korean immigrants have encountered US Christianity before immigrating.
David Yoo, a historian at UCLA, writes about the kind of prominent role that Presbyterian missionaries in particular, but generally American missionaries, had in Korean migration to the United States. Koreans first came to Hawaii from 1903 to 1905 and the labor brokers were missionaries and the children of missionaries.
There were close connections between plantation owners and American missionaries in Korea. Many Koreans do become Christian once they arrived in the United States because Korean immigrant churches are such central places of community.
They're just major sources for the communities in general. I grew up in a Korean immigrant church, so I've seen firsthand how important they are in terms of community building and helping new immigrants find a place.
During the 60s, 70s, and 80s, you have many ethnic Chinese coming from outside of mainland China. Many of them have been exposed to Christianity and many of them tend to be evangelical, but not all. Asian American Christians oftentimes have their denominations. For example, KPCA, Korean Presbyterian, and Asian American Christian Fellowship, which Japanese Americans created. It’s a church group active on many West Coast college campuses alongside InterVarsity and Cru.
This internal diversity is difficult in many ways to generalize to larger history, but it's important to look at specific communities.
To what extent do you see Asian Americans growing up then leaving the churches that they were raised in for often majority culture, multi-ethnic spaces, versus leaving the church altogether?
Jane Hong: I saw many Asian Americans who had grown up in the Asian immigrant church become even more committed to their faith during college. I was part of a Cru fellowship in college and an InterVarsity fellowship when I was in grad school.
I know firsthand the great community that can be built in para-church organizations. So if they don't leave the church altogether, where do they go? Some sociologists study this phenomenon very closely. Some Asian Americans go to white-majority churches. Then you have many Asian Americans who go to increasingly pan-Asian American churches.
Sharon Kim and Rebecca Kim are sociologists who found that for many Korean Americans who leave the Korean immigrant church in the 90s, many of them go to Korean American churches: second-gen, maybe third-gen Korean American congregations.
I think about people like Corey Edwards, the sociologist at Ohio State who talks about how sometimes multi-racial churches don't necessarily fulfill all the promises of a multi-racial congregation.
I've seen that just this past week about many churches’ responses to what happened in Atlanta. These are things that many Asian American Christians continually think about: Where are you going to go to church? Who do you want your church community to be?
What are some ways that you see white, majority-culture churches not speaking to the pains and frustrations of Asian Americans effectively?
Jane Hong: As an Asian American, at many of these majority culture churches, you often feel invisible. Maybe leadership does recognize that you're different, but there's not much attention given to the differences that you bring.
Those differences aren't just cosmetic. It can come down to things that impact your walk as a believer. What does ministry look like when not everybody is the same as you?
How do you minister to people who are different from you in ways that don't otherize or stereotype them, but ways that are respectful and loving? That’s difficult for any organization, but I would argue that for churches and Christian organizations, that's not an option, it's an imperative.
One of my pastors refrained from naming race racism, or racial anything, as the motivation. There were people responding to his Facebook thread arguing about what role race played and citing the authorities in Georgia who said this wasn't about race.
As a believer you know Asian Americans were in pain. As someone who is also connected to Korean American communities, I also was reading US media and Korean media, which, were reporting eyewitness accounts from Korean language speakers who reported that the shooter was yelling about how he wanted to kill Asian people as he was shooting people at these different spas. Even if you're not a Christian, even if you're an Asian American connected to these communities, it makes you feel like you don't matter and that people don't value your life or your community.
I was reminded of this quote. During the Vietnam War, there's a famous quote by the head of US military operations in Vietnam, where he says the Oriental doesn't put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient. Many historians have written about how US military officials and policymakers wrote about Asian people during Vietnam, during the Korean War, during the Cold War, during the Pacific War, during World War II. This idea that Asians don't value life that much. The implication was since Asians don't value life that much, Americans don't have to value the lives of Asians that much. When I read about our context, I can't help but think about this history.
In my class, we discussed in 1953 US military pamphlet issued by US military authorities in Japan, right after the occupation of Japan ends. The pamphlets said “So you want to marry a Japanese girl,” and we've been talking about war bride migrations during WW II and the Cold War. It's a religious chaplain who writes this pamphlet. He asks if you bring your Japanese wife to the United States, won't your neighbors perhaps think that she was a prostitute when she was in Asia? Will it not affect your families?
There is also this gendered history of the hyper-sexualization of Asian women. It ties back to US military interventions in Asia, the camp towns, the red-light districts, and also the sex work that emerged around these military encampments.
Do you see anything that suggests that self-identity has changed and the eagerness to speak as Asian Americans is shifting?
Jane Hong: There are generational shifts. Part of it is social media and technology, like the channels that allow Asian American voices to speak to broader audiences of people. Conversations around race in America have also shifted in large part because of Black Lives Matter. As a scholar, I follow all of the conversations about Critical Race Theory.
I'm familiar with these conversations happening in particular Christian evangelical spaces, but the broader conversation in America has opened the door for lots of other communities of color to speak out as well.
One of the things I was struck by after the Atlanta shooting last week was one of the Korean American women who died, Hyun Jung Grant has two sons in their twenties. One is named Randy Park. He's 23 years old. He not only talked about his mom, how she loves sushi, how she loved to dance, but he also humanized her, which I thought was incredibly important.
He's this kid whose mother has been murdered. He found out about it from someone else that she worked with. He didn't find out about it from the local authorities. It’s so common for women like Hyun Jung Grant to die and nobody knows her story because she doesn't have access to English language media.
But because she has a 23-year-old son who's was born here, raised here, and can use social media, he was able to share about his mom. What I found fascinating was Randy Park spoke directly to the family of the shooter and he said, “Don't you think you bear responsibility for this?” I thought that was an amazing moment where I couldn't have imagined happening even 20 years ago where this young Asian American would have access right to national media outlets.
I have found a lot of encouragement in the solidarity that I've seen on social media, the number of people who've reached out and who've acknowledged that this is a crime, a massacre that's affected the Asian American community.
In what ways are pastors encouraged to speak on justice issues themselves or encourage their parishioners to do so?
Jane Hong: I've grown a lot of sympathy for pastors and church leaders, regardless of race. I am beginning to understand just how difficult it is for pastors, who are guiding people who have wildly different worldviews in the same congregation.
One pastor spoke out more forcefully about the racial dimensions of Atlanta and there was pushback from diverse folks within his congregation, which is a multi-racial congregation including some Asian American folks, which I found interesting too.
However, I think most Asian American Christians have been very quick to recognize the racial dimensions of Atlanta, even if people don't necessarily agree on exactly what the racial implications are. I think there is wide widespread recognition of that.
How might listeners pray for Asian American Christians right now?
Jane Hong: First, for protection for Asian Americans’ physical safety. I would also ask people to pray for themselves and also for their churches to think about what are ways that we can all move forward together, in ways that recognize our racial and ethnic diversity, but in loving, but honest ways that honor God.
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