Asian Americans speak on the assumptions about them

Here’s an excellent article from the journal Religions, by Chenxing Han, author of the article We’re Not Who You Think We Are that I mentioned in the previous post. It features interviews with 30 young adult Asian American Buddhists as they share the type of issues faced and assumptions encountered that I described earlier.  Some of these matters are encountered also by AABs who aren’t quite young adults. The author has summarized the overarching themes revealed by the YAAABs in these interviews into an enlightening and enjoyable read. It includes discussion from 30 “first gen Buddhists” out of 89 interviews conducted by her in 2012-13. It includes interviews of YAABs who grew up in Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Hindu, multi-religious and non-religious families, from a variety of ethnicities – Chinese, Filipino, Indian, Iranian, Japanese, Korean, Nepali, Turkmen, and Vietnamese as well as from multi-racial families which include European, Central Asian and Latino ethnicities.

Abstract

This paper engages the perspectives of thirty young adult Asian American Buddhists (YAAABs) raised in non-Buddhist households. Grounded in semi-structured, one-on-one in-person and email interviews, my research reveals the family tensions and challenges of belonging faced by a group straddling multiple religious and cultural worlds. These young adults articulate their alienation from both predominantly white and predominantly Asian Buddhist communities in America. On the one hand, they express ambivalence over adopting the label of “convert” because of its Christian connotations as well as its associations with whiteness in the American Buddhist context. On the other hand, they lack the familiarity with Asian Buddhist cultures experienced by second- or multi-generation YAAABs who grew up in Buddhist families. In their nuanced responses to arguments that (1) American convert Buddhism is a non-Asian phenomenon, and (2) Asians in the West can only “revert” to Buddhism, these young adults assert the plurality and hybridity of their lived experiences as representative of all American Buddhists, rather than incidental characteristics of a fringe group within a white-dominated category

Why so swayed by visual appearance?

It is understood that there are two Buddhisms in this country.  One for the “people from traditionally Buddhist countries” (call it type A) and one for the “modern” rational, Westerners”, who “bring an intellectual curiosity to Buddhism as we do with everything” (call it type B). 

Never mind if these Asians or Asian Americans have never in their lives previously encountered Buddhism or if some of them might even be scientists. For some people, one look at their Asian face and there’s the illusion of knowing something about their practice – that maybe they are superstitious, that they were “raised Buddhist”, maybe follow some rites and rituals and most of all, don’t really know what the the Buddha actually taught, that their practice is “devotion based”, they are unquestioning etc. There are references to “cultural baggage” in the way Asian communities practice Buddhism. 

Two less-obvious areas  for this that I find quite jarring and to be based on misunderstandings are the veneration of monastics and dāna.

Is the special status of monastics important for the practice of the Dharma? I won’t debate this here except to acknowledge that this is at least a reasonable question to ask.  However, if you are one who thinks that veneration of monastics is irrelevant, is it necessary to ascribe the motives of the other side to be “blind following of Buddhist authority figures that is part of the Asian/(insert country name) culture”?

Or dāna.  I understand if some people are distrusting of giving money or material support as a means of supporting a religious org.  Maybe some people have had negative views from the relationship of certain spiritual leaders with wealth.  Maybe they don’t yet really understand how material support is essential to preserve the teachings.  In any case, there is no pressure on anyone to make dāna.  Then is it necessary to mock the dāna practiced by Asians? To call it blind faith, a practice based on superstition about a future life, to debase it as transactional just because the other person subscribes to the concept of good karma?  I have personally come across this condescending sentiment many times, including from people who are *huge beneficiaries* of this very generosity.

As I wonder about this kind of attitude towards Asians, an episode  comes to mind that not all people of color are the same in this context.  I was at a retreat where a young Latino man was on a scholarship (I appreciate the center for making that effort), for which he offered thanks to the center.  There was one other older latino man attending (let’s call him Edward).  Later, when we were all doing dishes in the kitchen as part of the chores, the young man remarked how grateful he was to see Edward there because it made him realize that someone like him, a person of color, could also practice meditation and that it’s not only for white people.  Most of the people present thought the remark made perfect sense but one person pointed out that it was never supposed to have been the preserve of people of European descent or some activity invented by them. In fact, until quite recently, the Dharma had always been practiced and preserved by “people of color”.

Yet the young man was not totally off.  He had deduced that the community is predominantly white and is led by white people.  People of color walk into that space with diffidence and uncertainty, wondering if they do belong.

The kind of people of color that had been practicing and preserving the Dharma are of course, not the kind that the community was making an outreach to.  There is membership focused outreach to African Americans and Latinos. There is sometimes also a welcoming, at least in lip service, of native American practices or Middle Eastern wisdom and not to mention any number of European philosophies, whereas the only practices to which I hear a discouragement or avoidance of is on something from a type A congregation and not really much outreach to Asian Americans for membership. It’s as if the type B communities are open to evolving in many different directions except the direction of the type A.  

This would all be kinda honest if type B were a community where Asian communities are explicitly excluded.  You know, just block type B groups out of your mind and move on.  But they claim to be communities which are inclusive, universal etc. When in reality, for all the show of trying hard to bring in people of color (and to some extent, they are trying – with races other than Asians), they really aren’t.  Type A communities are more clear and open about it: e.g., this is a Thai temple, you can expect to encounter Thai language and culture, foods, religious practices and monks ordained in Thailand.  Anyone is welcome to attend, but such and such is the practice here.  But type B does not claim to be a white-centric place, which is the reason we all wander in.  Then we are showered with messages of welcome and inclusion while the more subtle signs simultaneously tell us there is a certain mainstream here, that there is a certain dominant culture, that we can only belong if we integrate into this dominant culture.  The culture is not going to be flexible for us, it’s we who have to change.  In other words, no different from many workplaces or some other spheres of American life where white culture is dominant and normative and others are, well, fringe.  In other words, a place that operates with a rather narrow view of who is really American. 

Perhaps this concern about becoming a type A community is what drives the force field that many Asian Americans experience as they try to approach type B sanghas, where in paper, based on their own outlooks, they feel they might find a more natural spiritual home. 

Am I late to the discussion?  Maybe so given the attention that leaders like Larry Yang and several writers have pointed out have brought to the matter.  I also know that the leadership of several communities are making an effort to make changes to include people of color.

This is a hard post to write because things are not clear cut, provable.  On the one hand, I see some leaders in the predominantly European American Buddhist community* exert themselves to change the white dominance of the space and make it open to all and on the other hand, I see a number of members behaving as if to say “This is a white space” and not a space for all Americans by simply bringing their assumptions about other races right into the Dharma circle.  

In fact, as I write this, I find in my own mind a softening of the irritation in my own mind in the way Asians are perceived in type B sanghas.  On the one hand, I see type B sanghas partly defining themselves by saying what they are not – they are not Tibetan Buddhism or Thai Buddhism. They are not the Catholic church, not Christianity etc. Their distancing from Asian roots of the tradition is part of that negation. Unfortunately, that does not make them universalist and welcoming: they are not as clear-eyed about what they ARE permitting themselves to be – predominantly white, middle-class, politically liberal.  And people who can check off these three boxes of self-view have a different experience when they walk in and different ability to take ownership compared to the discomfort felt by those who don’t check all three.  But like many things – the fact that it’s not intentional is not sufficient reason to not wake up, acknowledge, understand, react, fix.

Writing about it is also hard because of being perceived as creating divisions where none exist. For example, I sent Funie Hsu’s and Chenxing Han’s articles to someone about this kind of thing in Dharma communities, only to get a reply that these articles are full of identity politics.  Well, that’s a bit interesting, isn’t it?  The nonchalant putting down of people of color is not identity politics, but speaking about it is? Right in the midst of a decade where people are occupying positions of high power by riding/inciting race-based identity, fools still see only the pointing out of such reliance on identity as “identity politics”.

Do I sound angry? Maybe, maybe not.  I’d like to be spared the burden of having to not sound angry. I’m stating the facts and experience for anyone who cares to see/hear what another’s experience has been.   Do I speak for all people of color? No, but I can speak for one – what that one has directly seen/heard. 

As to how all this appears to Asians, I plan to post a paper written by Chengxin Han that captures these feelings and experiences over a broader section than just one person’s.

* I called it European American Buddhist community above. I’m not sure what else to call type B since I’ve already expressed why I don’t want to call it:

a. “American Insight” (since the Burmese/Thai/Sri Lankan groups ARE American too).

b.“Convert Buddhism” (since many members consider Asian Americans who are also new to Buddhism to not belong there).

c.“Scientific/Intellectual” – because well, I totally reject that Asians are not that or that “westerners” have some kind of monopoly on that.

The “westerner” Dharma community

To elaborate on the last post, let me start with the frequent use of words “we westerners” or “in our western culture” by some Buddhist teachers in North America.  The teacher is sitting up in the teacher’s seat and s/he frequently talks about something like “given our western upbringing” without realizing (I hope it’s unintentional) that this term does not include everyone.

What is unclear is whom this word includes and whom it excludes.  People have differing opinions of the boundary, but one thing is clear: white folks definitely don’t have to wonder whether they are included. Others may have to.  And guess who is the most likely to have to wonder? The people whose heritage is from the very place that the speaker was trying to draw a contrast with – Asia.  So if the conversation and the community is about “us westerners”, Asians have to wonder.

How about using the word “we Americans” or “our (American) culture instead? This is a rather objective statement of nationality or the geography in which we operate.  Yeah, it makes sense that maybe an Asian master’s story of growing up playing with friends in the paddy fields, catching frogs together in Vietnam or Thailand is something that people in America cannot exactly relate with.  But then imagine if you talk about growing up with green bean casseroles, milkshakes, clam chowder etc – that might not be necessarily the experience of all your fellow Americans in the audience. Understand that if someone grew up in Chinatown or if their parents were cooking Japanese at home or sending them to Carnatic music lessons, it definitely wouldn’t fall under the speaker’s definition of a western upbringing, but it WAS an American upbringing  and it wasn’t necessarily a Buddhist one! 

If the impact on Asians isn’t intuitive yet, think about the opposite. Who is an easterner in the Buddhist context? 

To convince yourself even more that this is exclusionary and I’m not just imagining it, think about this – go to any traditional Chinese/Burmese/ Thai/Japanese/Vietnamese Buddhist congregation (a majority of members would be Americans – whether of 1st, 2nd, 3rd or greater generation). Would you expect to hear the Dharma teacher talk about “us westerners”? So why would an assembly that purports to be open to all these people use those words?

There is, in some Dharma circles, a subtle resistance to using American as a self-descriptor, preferring instead to use Westerner (more on that in another post), but folks, please be aware that we feel excluded.  Isn’t it amazing that the person may be thinking they’re being super inclusive using a term that includes Norwegians, Austrians and other non-Americans, but may make their own countrymen and countrywomen, sitting right next to them, feel excluded?

I can sort of understand and empathize with where it comes from.  A lot of those who did us the favor of bringing the teaching and setting up meditation communities spent years in Asia in the Cold War era. Some of them are heroes to me. Imagine you’re an American living in a culture where you are an outsider. There are fellow seekers from Europe, Australia etc (mostly white). You are distinct from the local population. The local population treats you all the same, you are white foreigners to them and distinct from themselves.  It’s natural that as you form friendships and connections, you want to self-describe using words that would include all of you. An identity as a westerner is more inclusive in that context than say, identifying primarily as British or Italian.  But now, decades after the teachers are back, when America’s demographic make up is quite different, as Americans of all races are seeking the teaching or are sought by communities, is it wise to embrace the term westerner and avoid the term American or North American in describing a collective “we”?

It shows up in translations too.  I have seen the words of several Thai, Burmese teachers translated into English, in books, Facebook or websites, with prefaces describing the translation work as “so that the teaching can be available to westerners”. I get it, people in traditionally Buddhist countries, of course, have  a certain familiarity with teachings that foreigners might not. Some amount of different explanation is needed for foreigners. But that is needed for all foreigners, not just westerners.  At the monastery in Myanmar that I know and love the most, the largest contingent of foreign meditators comes from Vietnam, the most supportive and enthusiastic community is from Malaysia, a large number comes from Korea. There are yogis from Japan and India, Indonesia. Some of these countries do not have any significant Buddhist population at all. And some of them have Buddhist traditions (Japan, Korea, for example), but of a flavor quite different from the country of the master whose work is being translated. For people from many Asian countries, the English translation is their sole access to the master’s teaching too, but they have to pick up the book and find the unnecessary commentary that it is for western students.

I haven’t yet touched upon the not so subtle putting down of Asian Buddhism in some of these circles, just talking in this post about how the inadvertent and insensitive use of certain language can be excluding of Asian Americans.   

Are Asians welcome in certain American Buddhist circles?

American Buddhists are racially pretty cool and inclusive, right? Or at least many individuals in Buddhist circles imagine themselves to be.   Yet, many Insight and Zen communities created in America which are purportedly open to all Americans end up being very white – a fact which sometimes prompts some reflection and embarrassment and to others, it’s just … normal.  I’ll speak more about the Insight community as it’s the style rooted in the strand of practice that I found myself the most attracted to and follow today. 

In an admirable step, many of these communities are actively trying to combat this with outreach to minorities – black and latino folks were told that they too can practice the Buddha’s teaching.  That didn’t quite do it as people still found it a rather white space and many minorities didn’t feel comfortable. Then, in centers that are retreat-focused, came the realization that it’s difficult to be in a predominantly white space if you’re living the legacy of slavery or colonial brutality, for example (we all are, regardless of which side of the perpetration your ancestors were on, but that’s a matter for another time). People of color retreats came up, many of which are taught by teachers of color. Further other issues were imagined/discovered – such as the fact that minority communities may not be able to afford fees – scholarships become available.  One center in New York City (with its retreat space upstate) provides free bus rides from the city to retreat location for people-of-color retreats. Social justice and activism itself is a focus area.

These measures have had some success, but the fact remains that these spaces are disproportionately white.  I wish to speak about the possible reasons for this. I notice the much more lukewarm enthusiasm for Asian Americans. Why? – I wonder.  Most spiritual organizations are happy to grow and Asian Americans seem like a natural constituency. For one, even if Asian American individuals themselves had nothing to do with Buddhism earlier, they are more likely than other groups to have come across some Buddhists in their life and are least likely to think they are stepping into something scary, weird and unknown. Many might even have had parents or grandparents who are Buddhist.

Yet, it seems that there is a feeling in some Insight communities that “our Buddhism” is different in some way.  That “we” follow our own thing. Making sure to stress that this is not the Buddhism of your family’s ancestry. This is “our” space. That stuff is “over there in those ethnocentric temples” (Thai, Burmese, Chinese etc).  There are many gestures, large and small, that sanghas (I use the term loosely here) do which eventually makes Asian Americans go away, go to some center more peopled either with those of their own ethnic make up or at least of other people who may not feel a sense of belonging or maybe lose enthusiasm for the Blessed One’s path altogether. 

I myself feel that there are few aspects of American life where I am made more aware of my race and color than in Buddhist circles. I realize that, to many white fellow Dharma practitioners, this is almost unbelievable. Spiritual circles are where people are at their best, right? How it is possible?

I contend that there are deeper causes for this than many realize – that holding POC sessions is not going to solve this.  This is one of the themes I shall explore in this blog. I shall also contend that some of the outreach attempts are counterproductive.