Reflections on the Jewel Net

Singing African American Spirituals in a Multicultural Context

Went to Fellowship Church this morning, which I’ve decided is my home church in San Francisco.  Even though it’s not Unitarian Universalist, it embodies the values of UUism, sometimes better than many UU congregations do.  Case in point, this morning I was late and walked up the stairs to the sanctuary while the first hymn was being sung.  It was “No More Auction Block for Me” (#154).  I had to laugh, remembering the first time I ever saw that song in our UU hymnal. I was visiting the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore along with Omi.  Omi is not a UU, is UU-friendly, but has had some less than favorable experiences with how our UU Euro-centric liberal culture approaches issues around racial diversity in general and African Americans specifically.  But since a mutual friend was preaching that weekend, she was there to see/support him. Sitting in the pew with me, randomly flipping thru our hymnal, she stopped - incredulous - at one song.  I looked over to see what the matter was and saw for the first time “No More Auction Block for Me.”  My eyes went wide and I held up my hands as if to disavow myself and repeatedly said, “I had no idea that was in there; this is the first time I’ve seen it in there; we never sing it.”  The idea of a predominantly Euro congregation singing “No More Auction Block for Me” was beyond mortifying.  In contrast, this Sunday morning at Fellowship Church, where the congregation is diverse but more African American than not, the song still felt uncomfortable *to me* but not mortifying.  Especially when Rev. Dr. Blake exhorted us to think of what it meant for formerly enslaved African Americans to be free of being sold as a commodity, free of the lash of the slave driver. 

And that was not the only time during today’s service where the contrast between Fellowship Church and UU encounters with Black spirituals would be evident.  The closing hymn of the service was “Wade in the Water”(#210).  This song was used extensively at All Souls DC when I first joined.  Only we didn’t sing the version in the hymnal. We sang it out of a printed insert and the words were printed as “Wade in duh wadduh.”  Being new to UUism and church and intentional multiculturalism, I didn’t think anything of it…until I invited a friend who happens to be Black to come to church with me and we happened to sing that song.  She was like “Why are they faking an accent?!”  And I was like, “Uh, I don’t know.”  I brought this up with the church’s right relationship committee and a mini controversy ensued between those who felt that it was more authentic to sing the song the way the words would have been pronounced at the time it was created and those who felt that such contrived accents, again in a predominantly Euro congregation, was…problematic. What I noticed was that no resolution happened but we sang the song far less than we used to.  Which is sad because it’s a beautiful song.  So singing it today at Fellowship, I couldn’t help but note that we sang the words “Wade in the Water” out of the hymnal as it is printed, with no contrived accent.  But before singing, Rev. Dr. Blake again put the words in context, explaining that when escaped slaves journeyed towards freedom they often had to cross rivers that were frightening, but the song promises that God would look over their safety by sending an angel to “trouble the water,” blessing it.  And I thought to myself that if the aim was to sing the song authentically, this way was so much more so.

Generation 1.5

Growing up the daughter of Chinese immigrants to the U.S., a core part of my identity was as a “second generation” Chinese American. I was therefore more than surprised one day, while conversing with a fellow daughter of Chinese immigrants, to learn that she saw herself as “first generation” Chinese American. Wha? “No,” I said, our parents are “first generation,” therefore we are “second.” “No,” she countered,” we are the first generation born here, therefore we are “first.” “Then what are our parents,” I asked, “P0?” (We were in high school genetics class at the time, hence the genetics terminology.) Since then I’ve learned that there is a lot of confusion/disagreement around the labels, so nowadays when people ask, I just say “I am the daughter of Chinese immigrants.”

The reason why I’m now thinking about such labels again is because of “generation 1.5.” I had described to a friend the challenges in my quest to find my spiritual roots. The Buddhist and Taoist temples that cater to Chinese immigrants are baffling in that I don’t speak Chinese fluently in the first place and often times they don’t speak my family’s dialect anyway. In contrast, the Western Buddhist groups are unsatisfying, often stripped of any of the cultural practices that I’m seeking to rediscover.  I’m hoping that there are other Asian Americans who are similarly seeking, but afraid that maybe they don’t exist. Immigrants like my parents do not need their cultural practices explained like I do, whereas often times American-born Chinese aren’t interested in what Grandma used to do, looking more to assimilate into Euro-dominated U.S. culture. (That used to be me.) My friend, known for her ability to cut to the heart of the matter, said, “You’re looking for a very specific group of people; you’re looking for generation 1.5.”

Generation 1.5. I’d never heard the term before but immediately it sounded right - the generation that is “too American” to be fully Asian and “too Asian” to be fully American. So I googled “generation 1.5” and found that 1) I was right about being “second generation;” but 2) wrong about what “generation 1.5” meant. It actually refers specifically to immigrants who come over at a young age. But in spirit, generation 1.5 is exactly what I’m looking for:

“Many 1.5 generation individuals are bi-cultural, combining both cultures - culture from the country of origin with the culture of the new country.”

To varying extents, this applies to generations 1.0 and 2.0 as well. My dad, having lived now many more years in the U.S. than in China, is more “American” than even he realizes. And I, despite having tried to reject the culture of my ancestors as a kid, nonetheless picked up Chinese ways whether I wanted to or not. We are all, to varying extents, combining both cultures to make something that encompasses all of our experiences, without having to choose/reject one of the two. Generation 1.5.

It's Spring Festival! Happy New Year!

Every late Jan/early Feb when the New Year of my ancestors comes along I face a mini-dilemma - what to call it?  I agree with folks who argue that calling it “Chinese New Year” is Sinocentric and ignores the millions of Vietnamese and Koreans who also celebrate this day. But calling it “Lunar New Year” presents its own problems as there are other lunar calendars - the Jewish one comes quickly to mind. Plus the Chinese calendar is luni-solar, not purely lunar. (Yes, I am a geek.) Then I think, well it IS Chinese New Year. The reason why it’s celebrated in Vietnam and Korea is because of Chinese imperialism. And then I think, well… maybe we don’t want to remind folks of that.

The other problem is that every time I call it “Chinese New Year,” or even “Lunar New Year,” it reminds me that I’m putting a qualifier on it, reinforcing that the day that comes about a dozen days after the winter solstice is thenormative New Year and any other is an add on that some people celebrate to be “ethnic.” Still, I just kept alternating between “Chinese New Year” and “Lunar New Year” because what else could I call it?

Was sharing some of these thoughts on facebook when someone made a very obvious (in retrospect, and yet I never thought of it despite all my ruminizing) suggestion - call it what it’s called in Chinese - Spring Festival. And, she added, “that would make it more ethnically neutral as well.” YES!! Makes sense to me! After all, Jews do not call their new year “Jewish New Year;” they call it Rosh Hashanah. No Chinese person living in China would say “Chinese New Year;” that would be absurd. So from now on, I am still going to wish folks 新年快乐! (Happy New Year!) when the time comes around, but I’m no longer going to refer to it as “Chinese” or “Lunar” New Year. It is 春节, Spring Festival.

"I go to church for pie."

That was the title of and the highlighted quote from a recent HuffPost piece talking about new approaches to church that included Unitarian Universalism.

To be fair, I did not watch the video so maybe there was more to it than that. But the reason why I didn’t bother past the teaser is because I had the same reaction that I did many years ago when UUism was first described to me as “you can believe anything you want.” I thought, “That’s nice, but why would I join a group for that? I can believe anything I want by myself.” And I can get pie pretty much anywhere; why would I go to church for it? If that’s the only thing at church that’s drawing people, that’s not enough of a draw. And if pie is not the thing that’s really drawing people, then why aren’t we talking about that instead of pie.

Bibliography: Kat Liu

UU Buddhism Is Foreign to Me (2013) - in Buddhist Voices in Unitarian Universalism, edited by Sam Trumbore and Wayne B. Arnason (Boston: Skinner House)

What Will We Be and For Whom? (2010) - in A People So Bold: Theology and Ministry for Unitarian Universalists, edited by John Gibb Millspaugh (Boston: Skinner House)

Immigration as a Moral Issue Resource Guide (2010) -

Bio: Kat Liu

Namaste.  I am the U.S-born daughter of Chinese immigrants, growing up with Chinese Buddhism and folk traditions inside the home and Christianity and civic religion outside, including five years in a conservative Lutheran school.  I began adulthood as a neurobiologist, and worked as a postdoctoral fellow at SUNY Stony Brook. It was at Stony Brook where I first stepped foot in a UU congregation, and where I first encountered the field of Religious Studies (altho those two events are not related).  After realizing that I preferred chasing uncertain answers to big questions over certain answers to smaller questions, I moved to DC to pursue Religious Studies at Georgetown. There I discovered All Souls Church, Unitarian and that's when I truly "found religion," becoming a committed UU. Unitarian Universalism is a religious tradtion where my Buddhist and Christian influences and the rational inquiry of science can co-exist side by side with other traditions, and where we commit to work together towards a more just, more multicultural soceity, towards Beloved Community.

In the years since my "conversion" into UUism, it's become apparent to me that UUism doesn't always live up to our high aspirations.  The cultural diversity that we speak so fondly of is not necessarily lived in the reality of our congregations.  Moreover, in large part due to our being dominated by converts such as myself, we UUs have difficulty defining who we are and what we're aboout.  This website is an attempt to address those issues in a constructive way.

Influences and Interests
socially-engaged Buddhism, liberation theology, process theology, Taoism, interfaith dialogue, multiculturalism, environmental justice, art and activism, community gardening, resisting colonialism and capitalism

Board Member, UU Ministry for Earth
2013 Fahs Collaborative Fellow for Cross-Cultural Spiritual Practices


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