An awkward Asian American intellectual reflects on being a missionary exile in East Oakland
Russell Jeung’s new book is called At Home in Exile: Finding Jesus among My Ancestors & Refugee Neighbors. An alternate title could have been "Nerdy Asianz in the Hood".
Make no mistake about it - Russell Jeung is a nerd. He absolutely fits the model minority stereotype. How to tell? Exhibit A: When you graduate from world-renown Lowell High School in San Francisco, get a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Stanford University, and then later obtain a PhD from UC Berkeley. Check those boxes for Jeung. He now works as a sociology professor at San Francisco State University.
I met Jeung for the first time at his book launch. Exhibit B: When you are decidedly unimposing physically. Jeung doesn’t wear glasses but his look fits the nerd mold. He is rail thin and doesn’t appear to do any strength training. His body language is awkward and although a fluid public speaker, had trouble speaking into the mic.
After graduating from Stanford, instead of taking the high-speed on-ramp into a Silicon Valley tech job, his journey takes an abrupt left turn off the freeway. Jeung didn’t spend a week in the hood, like the typical urban “missionary". He didn’t spend a summer or even a year.
He lived in the Murder Dubs of East Oakland for twenty years.
The neighborhood surrounding 23rd Avenue and International Boulevard in Oakland has been the epicenter of the city's drug dealing and violent crime since the 1990s. I didn't notice any drug deals happening when I parked in the neighborhood but I was nervous about my car being broken into. I was also surprised by how many people in the the neighborhood were of Asian descent.
Jeung’s perspective of the hood is neither patronizing nor glamorous. He comes from a place of humility. The hood taught him about life, the gospel, and justice in a way that suburban existence could not. He recounts life at the Oak Park Apartments as an incredible learning experience. The Cambodian refugees living there taught him profound lessons about hospitality and community. The lessons did not come easy. Jeung recounts an instance when his laptop was stolen by a neighbor and he attempts to buy it back from a shady character named Roach:
Wanting to catch my enemy, I reported this information to the Oakland Police Department. They said I should arrange a meeting time, and then they would wiretap me under my clothes. I could obtain a verbal confession from the thief, and then they would swoop in for the arrest. As this was the stuff of television cop shows, I was all in. I arranged a meeting time and place with Roach and got my cash payment in mint condition, small denominations. Then I contacted the sergeant of OPD Robbery Division, reporting that the “eagle has almost landed.” The sergeant checked, and then informed that the electronics technician was away on vacation. “Jeez,” I thought, “no wonder no one ever calls the police.” pg. 47
Exhibit C of nerdiness: When you say the “eagle has almost landed” to a police officer. This kind of geek humor occurs throughout the book. The humor underscores an important theme in the book - the marginalized view government institutions with well-founded suspicion. Governing authorities tend to benefit the privileged and being poor is more about powerlessness and alienation than simply a lack of financial resources.
Jeung also discusses his Chinese ancestry. He writes:
I feel slightly proud about being Chinese in the United States, because I was different and unique. But then I thought about it. There are about 1.4 billion Chinese in the world. What’s so special about being one of every five humans on earth? Perhaps I stood out because I was Chinese American, an overseas Chinese. Yet that’s not a unique status, either. There are 47 million others just like me. That’s not special Disney material at all. pg. 54
Exhibit D: When you cite global statistics regarding your ethnicity. And yet this ambivalence about ethnic identity resonated with me. I want to feel special about my Chinese heritage but it doesn’t feel very special given the numbers. Undeterred, Jeung researches his family’s history and discovers his Hakka roots. The Hakka are an ancient Chinese tribe who were known for being “ rebels, nomads, and pirates”. He recounts some fascinating history of discrimination against his ancestors in Monterey, California. His comments at the end of this chapter are helpful and inspiring to me:
Unlike Americans, who value egalitarian relationships, the Chinese recognize the hierarchical nature of relationships that have uneven power dynamics. Since it is easy for those with power to become paternalistic or patronizing when they serve others, we must learn Christ’s humility and self-emptying. . . When doing ministry, our joy and strength cannot be based on our own success or power. We receive these gifts only when being guests of the King and recognizing our limitations while in exile. pg.115
In 2000, Oak Park Ministries, the advocacy group Jeung helped found, won a lawsuit to revamp their dilapidated apartment complex. The apartments were rebuilt and many of the kids received their own bedroom and yet the renovations (fencing, security gates, and lighting) changed the atmosphere and culture of the apartments. Jung reflects candidly:
Whenever I get together with Oak Park youth, we fondly recall the old days of pandemonium and rue the new Oak Park. Our story of community organizing for justice didn’t necessarily have a happily-ever-after ending. We obtained justice, but lost a bit of community. pg. 141
In line with Jeung’s themes, Disney fairy tale endings are for the movies. In the pursuit of justice, we can fall prey to idealistic notions of success. That’s not the nature of urban ministry and the reality of a broken, fallen, sin-cursed world. We can deceive ourselves with metrics indicating we’re making a difference and I deeply appreciate Jeung’s willingness to face truth at the expense of his ego.
Chapter 5 is my favorite. It’s a story of nerdy Asian American courtship and parenting. This is Jeung’s first impression upon meeting his future wife, Joan (pronounced Joe-Ann):
Instead, I opened the door to a magical scene as if The Lord of the Rings had been set in East Oakland. In front of me, I gazed upon an elfin creature - if you can picture a Korean American female elf - with the sweetest, most delicate heart-shaped face. . . After the Oak Park community met Joan, members gathered and formed the Fellowship of the Ring. They recognized that I had been a bachelor far too long, and the fellowship initiated a collective quest to convince Joan to marry me. Such a venture was quite perilous, and many hearts has already been broken in vain attempts to secure such a ring. pg. 152-153
Exhibit E and F of geekiness: When your first impression of your wife-to-be evokes a scene from Lord of the Rings AND when your friends deem you incapable of wooing a woman on your own and form a team to aid you. On early dates, he talks about getting into arguments with Joan about how to shuffle a deck of cards - Jeung prefers the riffle shuffle because it “more elegantly and efficiently randomizes the cards”. This guy is too much.
I love how he talks about Asian American parenting, particularly the obsession with our children’s education. This is the sacred cow of overachieving Asian American parents. It’s a controversial topic in their New Hope Covenant Church community. Oakland has two distinct socioeconomic areas - the flatlands encompassing East Oakland where the student population is overwhelmingly low-income and the hills where the schools boast wealthier families and higher test scores. Panda Dad Jeung and his Tiger Mom-ish wife compromise and send their son to a higher performing flatland school. He also discusses the journey of how he and his wife fostered two Bumese teenage girls into adoption. All of this discussion centers around the theme of our shared identity as exiles - we belong neither here nor there - and therefore, to sink deep roots as we invest in and love the city and its exiles (Jeremiah 29).
In the end, Jeung is the exception that proves the rule.
He is a nerd only because of his intelligence, awkwardness, and education. But I know hundreds of nerdy Asians including yours truly and he resembles none of them where it counts. At the core, a nerd is fearful, passive, and insecure. Jeung does not check those boxes. Two attributes stand out about him:
Humble courage: Urban ministry requires a sense of adventure but it takes an entirely different category of courage to embed yourself in a marginalized community for twenty years. It requires humility to come as a guest - in the posture of a learner - and to recognize your impact will not be immediate, broad, or widely recognized. You die to the idealism and walk in simple obedience to love your neighbor. You may experience more of the gospel first-hand than what you impart to others.
Self-awareness without self-loathing: I used to hate being Chinese American. I hated feeling out of place in the US and out of place in Asia. Even today, the awareness of being a cultural exile tempts me to resent my ethnic identity. I see that among my peers. We don’t quite know what to do with our Asian-ness. It’s so easy to hate on our immigrant parents and their backward cultural values. But Jeung’s memoir points to the truth of the gospel: that every culture has redemptive elements. Let us therefore celebrate the gospel values we have inherited from both Asian and American cultures. In this, there is a Spirit-filled self-awareness that is not self-loathing.
At the book launch, when asked who the intended audience of the book was, Jeung replied it was primarily for the Asian American church. He explained we’re often perceived as bridge builders but bridges are trampled on. He wrote this spiritual memoir to highlight how our unique cultural perspective plays a vital role in the American church. Our value of community and humility against the backdrop of an individualistic and self-promoting society make us the destination rather than the means.