Saturday, October 11, 2003

Upcoming posts

For Monday: Phonetic loanwords and scientific education (just one more spinoff from the whole pinyin-bashing thread), and what the push for "Taiwanese language" in Taiwan really means for non-Hokkiens. Posts in initial stages: The Ghettopoly Controversy and Asian-Black Relations.

Confusing "cultural competence" and "diversity"

Check out this opinion piece from the SF Chron which claims that the defeat of Proposition 54 allows us to continue collecting the racial data on our citizens which is so crucial to ... international trade????

The defeat of Proposition 54 is likely to lead to positive changes at the state level ... The California business community will benefit enormously from enhanced international trade opportunities with Asia, South America and Africa, enabled by promotion and emphasis on the state's diversity as shown in the race-concious [sic] data collection.

America continues to promote a shallow diversity --- one supported by racial data collection and the elevation of underqualified minorities to positions of power, one whose content consists solely of Americans of different colors but the same oppositionalist attitude towards the only culture in which they can function as adults. Unfortunately, this is not the kind of cultural sensitivity needed to promote trade with foreign nations and reduce the enormous American trade deficit with Asia. Language skills, an understanding of how to relate to foreign customers, and an unwavering commitment to high quality service are.

But don't count on American society to provide that soon. Just look at Tufts University's latest plan to further water down their foreign language requirement, this time with a plan to let students take Asian-American or Latino Studies courses in place of the final three semesters of the six-semester Language and Culture requirement. Courses in Native American and African American studies were already permitted; see a description of the requirement and the complete list of permitted courses. (Thanks to Lok for the links and explanation.)

Yep, once those Japanese and Koreans know how well-versed our citizens are in Ethnic Studies, they'll take their trade barriers right down and line up to buy our diversity-sensitized American cars.

Newsflash --- government monopoly abuses customers
Public shocked by unexpected downturn in quality of service

Conrad points out the case of Japanese middle-school teacher Hayashida Shinji, given 6 months' suspension after a continued pattern of verbally abusing and beating his students which included a suggestion to a boy with an American great-grandfather that his blood was tainted and that he should kill himself. The student is now suing the teacher and the city for 13 million yen. In general, Japanese teachers, protected by a strong union, receive very light punishment for most forms of misconduct. It's possible, though rather unlikely, that Koizumi's new challenge to the LDP's power (and their traditional constituencies, which include civil service unions) may change this situation sometime in the future.

Wednesday, October 08, 2003

The difference between observation and attack

Proving that your audience is always much wider than you think when you write on the Internet, even if you haven't updated for 8 weeks, my previous entry on Asian Americans and Christianity drew a rather angry response from a passer-by. After rereading what I wrote, I wasn't sure what to think, and felt a bit guilty, especially after seeing DJ Chuang asking:

What is it with people who have such strong opinions + feelings about politics and religion? Hung out with a new friend last weekend, and found it fascinating that both of us were not dogmatic about politics or theology -- he noticed it first.. I thought it was just me all along.. it's not that we don't understand the issues, both of us are quite knowledgeable in theology, and with politics in varying degrees.. can "see" more than one side of an issue, and the complexity of things.. and for me, I don't want to run over people with my opinions or convictions (this isn't to say that I don't have any; maybe I don't have as many as some others; and this isn't to say that I haven't had my moments once a while).. so it felt good to not feel so alone + marginalized for once..

In face-to-face discussion, strongly-held opinions and feelings could cause things to get out of control. But in response to this problem, most people, even myself, don't actually try to be open-minded or control their feelings; instead, they tone down their statements, putting in meaningless and obvious hedges like "Of course, this doesn't describe everyone accurately" (as if any general statement ever did!) and "I'm sure there are exceptions" (when are there ever not). But when you're on the internet, writing a blog, such things are implicit. Most people wouldn't be joining the blogosphere if they weren't at least somewhat open to discussion and correction of their ideas. Maybe that's one of the reasons why I always feel more comfortable discussing linguistics rather than politics: it's hard to get very emotional about your position, so no one is going to insult you for it.

Personally, as you can see from the length of this page, I already have a big enough problem with loquacity, I'm not gonna put in more verbal hedging in addition. I'm perfectly aware that my statements don't apply to all AA Protestants or all churches. But they do represent a disturbing trend in the churches I have seen.

I think I figured out my problem ...

Three or four times I've done it now. I start up the blog again, go for at it for a month or two, then give up again. But it isn't because of laziness. Not quite. Usually, my blogging cycle goes something like this:

  1. I read an article that catches my attention and about which I have lots to say that I just have to get out to the world, even if I haven't updated my blog in months and suspect no one will read about it.
  2. I dash off an incredibly long essay.
  3. I advertise my latest work by linking to it from comments on other people's blogs, e-mailing people I think might be interested in the topic, etc.
  4. I get some response. People are reading. I start giving them more to read. It starts taking up more and more of my time.
  5. I get to the point where I'm updating multiple articles every day. I keep my social life going, but barely have any time for sleep, studying, looking for jobs, or other stuff I need to get done.
  6. So I quit for a few months, and then end up right back at #1 a bit later.

So I suppose the solution is to restrict my major updates. Of course, fewer updates will mean less traffic, but then, I guess once every so often is better than every day for a month and then nothing for three months. So I guess my principle will be, major updates on Mondays and not more often, and possible minor rebuttals/additions, acknowledgements, or links & meta-blogging throughout the week. Let's see how long I can keep to this kind of a schedule.

Point of usage

There is no such thing as a "second-generation immigrant." Well, okay, there is. But it's not the kid of an immigrant, unless that kid himself thereupon goes and emigrates from the country of his birth, either to the country of his parents' origin, or yet a third country.

And in any case, I highly doubt there's such a thing as a "fourth-generation immigrant," as I saw recently used to refer to a yonsei Japanese-American.

More on pinyin

After thinking about it for a while, one obvious argument I came up with against my own position on the impossibility of eliminating the use of characters in Chinese, which I haven't seen covered elsewhere, is that Chinese Braille is based solely on sounds, with no reference to characters, and blind Chinese people apparently understand it just fine. (Even more interestingly, for the first several decades of its existence it included no tone marks at all, though that apparently impeded widespread acceptance of the system):

Chinese braille is based on a phonetic representation of the sounds of the language. There are no braille signs for individual Chinese inkprint characters, only for sounds ... In inkprint the characters follow one another without any space between them. Thus the word boundaries aren't immediately apparent. In braille, however, a space is left between words. This is necessary: whereas the inkprint characters provide information about the meaning of a syllable, the braille signs only represent the sounds. In the context of the other sounds of a word, the meaning is almost always instantly clear - provided, of course, that the reader masters the spoken language.

However, I don't know how well Chinese Braille has been received by actual users. Also, there's the problem that Chinese Braille, as a result of its' phonetic nature, is different for every dialect. Virtually all Chinese Braille publications are printed in the national language. Despite the ease of learning and reading the letters of Chinese Braille (especially compared to other systems of reading for the blind, such as very large characters printed in raised type), the fact that all publications are in Mandarin is a significant problem for the rural blind.

As the rural blind are more likely to be poor and not to have advanced very far in their education, many aren't so fluent in Mandarin. Even those who live in primarily Mandarin-speaking areas may have trouble recognizing the pronunciations of Beijing Mandarin. The cost of translating publications into the local dialect and reprinting them, with the publisher fully expecting not to sell many copies, might force them to raise prices to the extent that they'd be out of the reach of many of the poor. Converting from characters to Roman alphabet on a wide scale might make it easier for educational materials to be read, but then at the same time might restrict their availability and raise their cost. It's not obvious that this makes poor illiterates any better off.

Nor does the success of Chinese Braille resolve the question of whether Chinese characters or some form of alphabetization would be faster to read. Further, though it may seem like a minor concern, we have to remember that switching to the Roman alphabet would likely make books and publications longer, thus increasing their cost. (Though length of words doesn't necessarily make them slower to be processed, if we believe that research from an anonymous English university which asserts that readers look at only the initial, penultimate, and ultimate letters of a word in order to understand it.)

Finally, various responses to my previous long rambling. Jim of Uncle Jazzbeau's Gallimaufrey liked it but didn't buy it. Adam Morris agrees more, but also points out a hole in my argument about tone marks:

I disagree with him, however, that tones in Chinese should be represented with additional roman characters added into the already complicated mix, and I disgree with him strongly on that. Tones are no stranger to a reader than are accents in French. Most importantly though, tones are bulit-in to the vowel sound of each phoneme pretty completely (consonants from what I can tell are absent of tones, only the vowels get any of the dips or rises) and so are best represented as accent marks above (or below?) vowels rather than as some seperate distinguishing marks on their own.

I guess if your native script which you read every day included accent marks, you might pay more attention to them. American students tend not to, at least in my experience. When reading pinyin aloud, some of them don't seem to read the tone marks at all, except when they come to a word they don't know at all. Instead, they read the letters of a word, then try to match it to a word in their vocabulary just based on the spelling, and then recite the word from memory, complete with their memory of how the tone sounds. (Of course, other students pay close attention to the tone marks while reading because they can't remember at all how the tone of a word sounds).

Worse yet, when they're required to write pinyin including the tone marks, they often get the pinyin perfect and the tone wrong, which is why tonal spelling (such as in gwoyeu romatzyh) might be helpful for them --- you might be apt to forget a little mark, but forgetting a whole letter would be harder. (I wonder if French students pay more attention to tone marks in Chinese than American students).

As for me, out of both the Roman-based languages I read regularly (English and Malay), neither has any additional diacritics, so maybe I'm overgeneralizing my experiences learning pinyin (which I didn't know at all until about a year after I started studying Mandarin) to the rest of the world. Believe it or not, the first few years of my education in Spanish included absolutely no mention of accent marks, so I seem to be stuck with a habit of underestimating their importance and not looking at them unless I force myself to. (My first high school Spanish teacher couldn't believe it. He was completely dumbfounded. For a while he thought I was just completely inept, until he conferred with his colleague and noticed the other girl from my middle school having the same problem.)

Monday, October 06, 2003

The (information-theoretic) Argument against writing Chinese in Roman alphabet

Just when I thought I had nothing more to blog about, I stumble onto the wonderful world of ... linguistics enthusiast blogs (up until now the only one I'd known of was Professor Miyake). After a year of on-and-off griping about Asian American politics, this should provide a welcome break and a new source of inspiration. I'll update my blogroll as I continue to explore.

Anyway, Language Hat puts up a post which sparked a lively discussion about a hot-button topic among foreign students of Chinese: why can't everyone just start using pinyin or something?

The main trouble is, pinyin is not a writing system, it's a transcription system. It goes for that oft-worshipped goal of "one phoneme, one letter," which certainly makes things easier for foreigners who have to read it and learn pronunciations of words from it. But it proves to be absolutely impractical among people who have to write down their own native thoughts in it. The obvious proof that of impracticality is found in everyday life: if pinyin were practical as a writing system for real Chinese people, young Chinese kids who were taught in school how to use pinyin (which, as I understand, they all are) would be using it with each other or at least inserting it in place of difficult characters in their informal communications with each other, and maybe even rebelling against the need to learn those old-fashioned characters. You'd see parents yelling at their kids "write in real Chinese!" and the kids complaining about it. Maybe we'd even have seen widely-supported Romanization mass movements in Taiwan with huge participation from college kids and high levels of interest from natives as an issue of huge relevance to their daily lives as opposed to just being something which politicians wrangle over to get media exposure.

Of course, we never see this happening, which should tell you something. In fact, you almost never see two native Chinese using pinyin to communicate with each other except when restricted from using characters by technical limitations, as in, when including Chinese terms in an academic journal or popular magazine whose printer can't handle Chinese characters. Chinese people who absolutely need to write an email to another Chinese person but find themselves at a public computer without Chinese input capabilities will either write in English no matter how bad, figure out a way around the access restrictions on the public computer so they can isntall a trial copy of NJStar, or wait until they're back at their own computer. Pinyin never even crosses their minds. Native Chinese don't even like using pinyin that much for typing; last I checked wu bi zi xing, four corners, or other shape-based systems were more popular. I personally use cang jie despite the wide availability of phonetic input systems both in Mandarin, which I'm not good at, and in Cantonese and Hakka, which I speak rather more proficiently.

The Vietnamese have already found out that one phoneme, one letter is a pain in the ass to read. People complain about it a lot and at great length. (Of course, the Chinese-derived habit of putting a space between every syllable rather than using spaces to divide lexical units doesn't really help either).

So what's the another option besides spelling all similar-sounding words exactly the same regardless of their meaning? Well, one option is to try to encode more lexical information in the spelling, by introducing redundancy: offering many different ways of spelling the same sound. This is precisely what English does in spelling individual words like "through" and "threw" differently, or, more relevant to syllable-poor Chinese, disparate word roots like the "cum" sound (no snickering from the peanut gallery, please) of "income" or "outcome" and the same sound of the unrelated "succumb" (I think I'm stealing this example from Pinker's The Language Instinct, but I'm not sure).

But unlike a romanization system such as pinyin, the creation of this kind of alphabetization which combines meaning and spelling isn't usually done ex nihilo. Asking a committee of linguists to come up with such a system means asking them to jump over the millenia of using the Roman alphabet in the West and the hundreds of years of evolution it took English vernacular writing to organically evolve mechanisms for distinguishing homophones, developing different ways of indicating sounds, creating different spelling rules for distinguishing similar-sounding word roots and combining them together in all sorts of different situations. And the number of homophones in Chinese dwarfs that in English, making it a truly massive engineering problem.

(Just to make things even more difficult, as a point of practical usage it's probably a good idea not to include tone marks in any prospective Roman spelling of Chinese, but come up with some other way of encoding the tonal information in the spelling. Why?

First, tone marks are small and hard to distinguish. This may not seem relevant to us in the computer-filled developed world with Kinko's-quality professional printing accessible on every street corner, but in poor countries, mass-market book publishers skimp greatly on ink and paper quality, resulting in many smudged characters, especially after the book or magazine was left sitting on a shelf in a humid room for a few months. This isn't too much of a problem in written Chinese, because surrounding characters and subject matter combined with the general shape of a smudged character provide so much contextual information that you'd probably be able to guess, especially if you're a native speaker. But if you're relying on tone marks to distinguish words which are otherwise spelled the same, you're going to end up squinting until you're blind trying to read blurry diacritics

And second, at least in present systems, tone marks, being written above rather than next to letters, disrupt from the one-dimensional visual flow of writing. If your eyes glide over a word just looking at the letters, because the tone marks are too difficult to distinguish, but then you can't catch the meaning of the word just from the letters, you have to disrupt your smooth progress to glance back at the tone marks. This slows down reading speed, quite significantly if you have to do it a lot. I seem to recall that some African languages whose Roman-language orthographies initially included tone marks eventually ended up dropping them entirely after a while.)

In principle, the problem of assigning different, easily-recognizable spellings to every single Chinese word, in a way which tries as often as possible to make the spelling of a given character the same and spell different characters out in different ways, could be solved by computer. In fact, that would be an interesting homework assignment. But the trouble is, once you've created the system which is easy to read, you also have to teach people to write it (since your whole purpose in switching over to a Roman alphabet was to allow illiterate peasants and foreigners to record their thoughts without wracking their brains to have to come up with an obscure character for a common spoken word). And it's going to be a pain to write, making English spelling look like Hawaiian, because of all the multiple cases with crazy exceptions and once-only irregular spellings that were needed to distinguish two homophones whose root characters were otherwise easily distinguishable when spelled, in every context except that single one.

And worse yet, from an information-theoretic perspective, you're in deep trouble at this point, because people make spelling mistakes all the time, and your system doesn't handle noise well, unlike Chinese characters. Consider this: when writing in characters, if you miswrite one, you're either going to come up with

  1. a non-existent character;
  2. a character which exists but is nonsense when taken with the characters next to it as a lexical unit;
  3. a character which exists and forms a word when taken with the characters next to it, but that word doesn't really make sense in the current context; or
  4. a character which has the same sound as the intended character, and with surrounding characters forms a word which makes sense in the current context.
  5. a character which has a different sound from the intended character, and with surrounding characters forms a word which makes sense in the current context.

In cases (1) and (2), the reader can tell that there's been a mistake, and so starts wracking his brain for the correct possibility. Based on the sound or the general shape of the incorrectly inserted character, he usually can guess what the writer meant. The reader who is paying attention can usually resolve the ambiguity in case (3) as well. When case (4) happens, the altered word is often so close in meaning to the intended word that it doesn't affect the document, so you're only really in trouble if you're writing something that's going to be picked over with a fine-toothed comb in a court of law. And in my personal experience, case (5) is exceedingly rare among native speakers. On the whole, meaningful characters in a given context are usually visually distant from each other, and characters which look very close in appearance have very different meanings.

Alphabetic systems in general lack this level of redundancy. In English we can deal with incorrectly spelled words and the occasional letter or word deletion analogous to cases (1) and (2) above, but we rely on the fact that there are almost no two homonyms which both sound the same and would both make sense in the same context, and that altering a letter in most words turns them into non-words or grammatically out-of-place words rather than other words which would make sense in the present context, in order to avoid having to deal with cases (3), (4), and (5). But a Chinese spelling system as described above wouldn't have this kind of advantage, especially without tone marks present: you'd likely be using up every possible way of spelling every given syllable that exists in Chinese, meaning that letter deletions, insertions, or alterations would almost always turn one intended word into another real word rather than easily-detected nonsense.

A poster Mr. Kerim Friedman makes an interesting suggestion, a sort of happy-medium between abolishing the characters and sticking with the present system:

There is one person who came up with an ingenious idea for reforming Chinese writing which I actually like. It would entail the use of radicals and romanization together. This seems like an ideal system - the radicals would give you a sense of the meaning (fire/water/beast/etc.) and the phonetics would give you a sense of the pronounciation....

His system would also seem to have the advantage of higher redundancy. But combining radicals with roman letters, at least to my eyes, looks rather ugly (though of course, aesthetics should be a secondary concern, in reality, people pay a lot of attention to them, and as a result the world is a better place, or at least a place easier on the eyes). Maybe the solution is to create a new alphabet which could be written in place of the phonetic component of existing characters and still create a visually-appealing gestalt (and rework existing characters which aren't of the radical-phonetic type so that they are written this way). Though of course it will still mean memorizing a rather larger number of symbols than a pure alphabetic system, especially if you want to avoid the use of tone marks.

Asian-Americans and Christianity

Hi. Sorry, this blog is still pretty much dead, (or maybe it'll revive again for a few weeks if I can think of new stuff to say; but for now I'm pretty much bored with documenting the hypocrisy of Azn-American aktivism over and over again). I'm just posting here so as not to overrun GNXP's comments section with my usual multi-paragraph off-topic rambling full of interesting but irrelevant anecdotes and speculations.

Anyway, this topic has been bouncing around in my head for a long while, possibly longer than anything else on this blog, but I was finally inspired to take on the gargantuan task of trying to write coherently about it by Razib's entry about the candidacy of Bobby Jindal for governor of Louisiana, and, specifically, his conversion to the dominant Catholicism of that state:

[Jindal's] possible victory points to a mode of assimilation for new non-white minorities, especially ones who are economically successful ... I am all for assimilation, but I'd be lying if I didn't say that Christian conversion as a path to acceptance kind leaves me a bit unenthusiastic ...
Jindal is not my vision of the brown future. First, he's married to a brown chick, which doesn't foster the emergence of a Jeurasian class. Second, as a secular humanist, I'm a bit suspicious of religious traditionalists and their cosmic vision, though as a conservative & Republican I acknowledge their place of primacy on the American Right. Just as secularized Jewish intellectuals lost their Jewishness without becoming Christian, I envision the absorption of Western values & outlook by non-white non-Christian immigrants without necessarily becoming Christian.

Godless sees Jindal's candidacy as wholly beneficial, but I'm not so sure, simply because, whether Mr. Jindal wanted it or not (and I suspect he did), he is now a role model for young South Asians who want to break the "Model Minority" image and gain a voice in politics. His moves will be watched and imitated. If he represents the forefront of any kind of trend towards conversion to Christianity among US-born South Asians, then I'm not particularly sanguine about what that means for assimilation or for evangelism. Why? Because I've already seen what evangelical Protestantism has done to the US-born East Asian community: it actually decreased identification with either the ancestral culture or the mainstream, thus fostering the precise kind of oppositionalism and feeling of being "trapped in between" which hinders both their ability to contribute to and relate smoothly with the rest of the country (which includes the ability to spread the Gospel), or their chance to gain a middleman advantage from their ancestry.

For reference, I suggest you read in its entirety Carrie Chang's excellent article "Amen. Pass the Kimchee." To quote some relevant sections:

For Asian American students who are inundated by stacks of literature from a host ofracial and cultural organizations the minute they walk onto campus, the appeal of evangelical groups is clear: unlike purely ethnic clubs, which promise only schmoozing and skin-deep connections, religious groups take racial politics to the higher plane of salvation. They promise to bridge the gap between students of Chinese, Japanese and Korean backgrounds with a message of universal love. Where the two-dimensional slogans of racial politics fizz in secular organizations, campus church groups have been able to give a distinctly spiritual twist to the amorphous term, "Asian American."

With their universalist aim, Asian-American churches have brought together not only East Asians (and the occasional Southeast Asian) of different ethnic backgrounds but of different levels of Americanization: FOBs, FOB-wannabes, adoptees, and more --- kids who are all over the chart on various axes of assimilation. And it assimilates them not into mainstream American culture, as so many Americans think of their church doing for pagans, but rather, it assimilates them into church culture, and often, a culture specific to the given group of believers. What are the contents of this culture? Keep reading:

Distrust of authority, whether that means anyone over 30 or a majority white culture, often breeds a subculture of discontent. For Asian Americans turned off by the superficiality of racial politics on campus, the discontent translates itself into a spiritual forum that retains an ethnic character and yet removes itself completely from the dialogue of race and protest. Ironically, a religion borne to Asia by Western imperialism now manifests itself in a resistance to cultural assimilation in America.

Many of the more outlandish quirks of the Asian-American subculture which has sprouted up in recent decades, such as the popularity of listening to music whose lyrics you can't understand, going on study-abroad programs only to speak English all the time and associate exclusively with other exchange students, the wearing of very narrowly-defined styles, colors, and brands of clothing, the massive cliquing together at college and the fear among some of hanging out in a white clique and being accused as a sellout, and the calls for the development of a separate dialect, can be seen as an attempt to easily distinguish one's self with as little effort as possible from a mainstream which one distrusts as a result of some past experience. Actually turning into FOBs and would be going too far for most: they need an identity and they need it fast (usually, so it'll be ready by college orientation week).

But many of the above require money and at least a certain base of knowledge and connections which wouldn't be available to certain people. The Asian-American church fills the gap for them which would otherwise be left unfilled by either a mainstream church filled with white people or a clique filled with coethnics. How? It provides an easily asserted and free ethnic identity completely divorced from the actual constraints of knowing about your ancestral culture: just keep the name of Jesus Christ on your lips, and go only to church-sponsored social events. The members of the church have their own culture, and will be quite eager to teach you its norms and habits so that you can wear them on your sleeve and advertise your membership to others. As long as you don't party too much or start quoting the Quran, you won't be ostracized from their culture, as you might from other Asian or Asian-American cliques.

And what does that culture promote? Most notably, the mentality that Christians, specifically one's own congregation, are under attack from all sides, both by the allegedly heathen and sinful customs and values of Asian cultures such as saving face or burning incense for your ancestors, and by the cesspit of mainstream entertainment and society, which young Asian-Americans often like to identify as "white entertainment" and "white society," because they see themselves represented in it so little and dislike or deliberately ignore the role models, even of their own co-ethnics, which it provides for them. Thus, Christianity provides the perfect excuse for those pre-existing Asian-American tendencies of disassociating from non-co-ethnics as well as for not making any effort to learn about your ancestral culture: both could lead you to temptation to turn away from the church. Assimilation, especially in terms of entertainment choices and friendships, becomes equated with sin. But for those who are already assimilated in the larger ways of language, personal habits, and cultural custom, and who might see adopting more of those as sinful, they're left with the option of emphasizing their non-assimilation in other areas in order to distinguish themselves from the mainstream.

In the case of Asian-American evangelicals, the extent of that non-assimilation usually amounts to belief in Jesus Christ and their ethnic appearance which they see as closely tied to that belief, because almost all the other members of their congregation are of that same ethnicity. Often, the ethnicity, even more than the belief, becomes the strongest marker of membership in the culture. Outwardly Christian behavior could be easily imitated, but race couldn't be; it's the real proof that you're not a member of that corrupt mainstream AKA white society. But it's the intersection of ethnicity (with the attendant common experiences and pains that may result from being assumed to be a foreigner) and shared belief that provides a stronger sense of community than simple shared ethnicity or simple shared belief could.

(<papist self-aggrandizement and gloating> I tend to wonder how much of this disidentification with the mainstream is the result of a congregationalist mentality which emphasizes close personal ties and the creation of a sense of community among a specific group of believers who meet and see each other often. when that group of believers is all of one race, due to their pre-existing proclivity to avoid mainstream institutions, the two tendencies feed off of and amplify each other to produce an "us vs. them" mentality. In otherwords, maybe it's only a Protestant problem, which won't arise among converts to Catholicism. It would be rather ironic if it were the case; the Catholic Church, which is often accused of having an anti-assimilationist agenda at a national political level, may be doing far more at a personal and neighborhood level than the traditional bedrock American religion at promoting personal relationships and a sense of unity between Americans of different races, precisely because of its emphasis on standardization of worship and membership in a worldwide body rather than in a specific group of worshippers. Except, Protestant churches seem to be doing a better job than Catholic churches at integrating Latinos ... but then that's way outside the scope of this entry. </papist self-aggrandizement and gloating>)

John Kim, a lanky junior in a Tommy Hilfiger shirt, is also a seeker, although what he'sseeking may not be quite what the group's leaders have in mind. "It's really hard to meet an Asian woman who isn't a Christian these days," he offers as his reason for coming, though he's quick to add guiltily, "I do pray sometimes."

The cliquishness and distrust of outsiders which the Asian-American church promotes without actually expressing revolutionary sentiment against that society, manifests itself in personal relationships. More and more young Asian-Americans, especially males, may turn to a church to meet potential co-ethnic mates, because it provides an environment in which they don't have to worry about Evil Whitey stealing Yellow Bedfellows. Their kid grows up in the Asian-American church, and the cycle begins to repeat itself again ... unless someone knows how to break it.

What is assimilation?

This is an aside to a post I'm working on right now about Asian-Americans and Christianity: what exactly does it mean to be assimilated? People often like to speak of "assimilation" or "Americanization" as a simple binary variable, or maybe a position on a single axis, but in fact, there's many different ways in which one can be assimilated --- it's a vector in n-space. And notably, East Asian-Americans on the whole tend to be assimilated in some ways which traditionally indicated or were used as a proxy for guessing at social integration into the mainstream among white ethnics 80 years ago (such as in language, living situation/home ownership, income, and religion), more of a fusion in other areas (personal habits, entertainment and food consumption), and highly distinguished from the mainstream in the rest (politics, identification, and racial composition of friendships).

Maybe some areas of assimilation are not as crucial to holding together a polity as we thought they were way back in 1920, when all the immigrants were poor, there was still a distinction between "corner boys" who hung out with their co-ethnics and "college boys" who flew with the WASPs and achieved the American Dream, and there were not yet such things as satellite TV, 10-10-345, or study-abroad programs for their kids. And conversely, maybe some areas of assimilation that were ignored back then because they seemed to come naturally, need to be looked at more closely today, to prevent the rise of the kind of oppositionalism, separatism, and distrust of the mainstream we're so familiar with in other communities.

  • Language: Your Chinese/Korean/Japanese ancestral language? English only? One better than the other? Taking classes to try to recover it? "This is America, why should I bother?" Can't speak either one well but know the language of a third country like Costa Rica or Malaysia where your ancestors were hanging around for a few generations before coming to the US? And not just the language itself, but the style in which you speak it: gangster-wannabe? valley girl? prepster?
  • Identification and attitude towards assimilation: 1.5 generation? 2nd generation? "I'm born here but I don't consider myself an American?" Fresh off the boat? Pretending to be fresh off the boat? "What the fuck do you mean where am I 'really from,' I'm American?" Chinese-American, American-Born Chinese, Overseas Chinese? Gyopo? Yonsei? Nikkei?
  • Living situation: Three generations of your family stuck in one house in your ethnic ghetto? Or in some other ethnicity's ghetto? Apartment in the city? House, 2.3 kids, and 1.2 pets in a cul-de-sac?
  • Politics: Not your positions on issues, but rather, how race affects your positions, your arguments, and your view of those who disagree with you. Would you vote for a candidate just because he's the same ethnic group as you? The same race? Would it influence you at all? "Por La Raza todo, fuera de La Raza nada?" Would you call him a sellout because of his stance on immigration? On affirmative action? On bilingual education? On racial profiling? On tax increases?
  • Entertainment/food consumption: Hong Kong TVB series, subtitled anime, or Friends? Sing along to Jay Chou, hum along to Hikki but don't know what the lyrics mean, Linkin Park, or Jars of Clay? Pearl milktea or Starbucks? Hot water or cold water? Dimsum, Dimsum but pass on the chicken feet and the congealed pig's blood in favor of pork buns, or McDonalds? Karaoke or the movies?
  • Personal values: Gotta save face? Care about passing on your ancestral language to the kids? In favor of interracial dating? Opposed? In favor? In favor when it's you but opposed when it's a girl you want?
  • Personal habits: What kind of gesture do you make to tell someone to "come here"? How do you move your fingers when you count? What arm motions do you make when you talk about swinging back and forth?
  • Racial composition of friendships: All white with a few tokens like the suburb you grew up in? "My friends look like the United Nations?" All FOBs from your own country? All 2nd-generation AAs? All black people?
  • Religion: Vaguely Taoist? Catholic? Muslim? Episcopalian convert? Jewish convert?

Hardly an exhaustive list, but I should have put it up long ago ...

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