Daily Archives: April 14, 2007

Book Review _ Immigrant Faiths

Published by H-AmstdyATh-net.msuDOTedu (February, 2007)

Karen I. Leonard, Alex Stepick, Manuel A. Vasquez, and Jennifer Holdaway, eds. Immigrant Faiths: Transforming Religious Life in America. Lanham: AltaMira Press, 2005. 259 pp. Notes, bibliography, index. $59.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7591-0816-5.

Reviewed for H-Amstdy by Jodi Eichler-Levine, Department of Religion, Columbia University.

Crossing National and Religious Boundaries

Ironically, Immigrant Faiths: Transforming Religious Life in America, an excellent anthology that presents many new models for studying religion and migration in America, displays one of the most classically flawed conceptualizations of “religion” in its title: with the prominence of the term “faiths,” its front cover reiterates the traditional nineteenth-century Protestant focus on religion as that which is believed, a conceptualization that has long since been critiqued, not least by many of the scholars writing within this volume itself. Nonetheless, Immigrant Faiths provides a collection of rich case studies on the dynamics of migration and religious life in the United States. The essays, which come from a range of disciplines including history, sociology, and religious studies, make up a volume that represents work affiliated with the International Migration Program of the Social Science Research Council.

The collection is framed by an introduction from editor Karen Leonard and by broad essays from two of the volume’s other editors, both of whom attempt to assess the state of the field. The opening piece, by anthropologist Alex Stepick, examines how religious issues have affected migration studies, while the closing essay, by religionist Manuel A. Vasquez, assesses how the question of migration has influenced scholars in religious studies; the two studies complement well.

The book’s main body of essays represents a wide variety of work. Chapters by Derek Chang and Danielle Brune Sigler bring an historical angle to the project as a whole. Chang’s piece, on American Baptist Home Missions among Chinese immigrants and ex-slaves in the late nineteenth century, examines the overlap of civic and religious discourse in the group’s activities. Similarly, Sigler addresses complexities of race, religion, and leadership in her biographical study of Charles Manuel “Sweet Daddy” Grace, an immigrant from Cape Verde who founded the Holiness-influenced United House of Prayer for All People.

Transnationalism is another major theme of the volume; it receives strong treatment in Kenneth J. Guest’s “Religion and Transnational Migration in the New Chinatown,” which chronicles how religious communities are part of the complex ways that recent Fuzhounese immigrants in New York relate to their new daily life in America and to their home villages in China.

Although some of the volume’s contributors make a point of unpacking the idea of “religion,” such discussions could have been more nuanced. Stepick, for example, argues that Nietzsche is “dead wrong today, at least for immigrants” (p. 11), an observation that is not really news in religious studies; indeed, as Leonard notes in the introduction, one of the goals of this anthology was to move beyond traditional Western conceptions of religion, taking into account the general demise of the “secularism” hypothesis. For the most part, the volume succeeds in this area; in particular, Ronald Nakasone and Susan Sered’s essay, “Ritual Transformations in Okinawan Immigrant Communities” attends to rich complications in the identities of Okinawan immigrants and argues against faith-oriented conceptions of religion. Similarly, Guest notes that the practices of Fuzhounese immigrants cannot easily be reduced to any singular tradition (p. 150). Even Nakasone and Sered, however, rely upon somewhat older literature in their overt theorizing of religion. It would be interesting to see how various essays in this volume might work in conversation with Thomas Tweed’s Crossing and Dwelling: A Theory of Religion (2006), which was published after Immigrant Faiths went to press.

Another way in which this volume moves beyond older paradigms of religious studies is in its attention to domestic religion and to other non-congregational instances of lived religion. Pyong Gap Min’s “Religion and the Maintenance of Ethnicity among Immigrants: A Comparison of Indian Hindus and Korean Protestants” is particularly strong in this area; similarly, in “The Protestant Ethic and the Dis-Spirit of Vodou,” Karen Richman examines the nuanced varieties of religious practice among the Haitians of Palm Bach country, including “performance events” centered around cassette players with recorded “letters”; she notes how “creative uses of cassette tape and video recorders have resulted in a reconfiguration of the boundaries of the ritual performance space, allowing immigrants to continue to serve their spirits back home” (p. 175).

At the same time, there is plenty of attention to more public religious practices, including Marie Friedmann Marquardt’s “Structural and Cultural Hybrids: Religious Congregational Life and Public Participation of Mexicans in the New South” and Thomas J. Douglas’s “Changing Religious Practices among Cambodian Immigrants in Long Beach and Seattle.” The overlaps of civic and religious life emerge throughout the book, as in Marquardt’s description of a “human-sized paper mache replica of the Statue of Liberty with a huge red question mark wrapped around its body” (p. 198), which had been made and used by one congregation’s youth in public protests; this anecdote illustrates the question of how immigrants’ religious identities are performed in the public square, and how their identities as Americans are performed within church buildings. Questions of civic life and national (or transnational) identities were thus a recurring theme, one that was highlighted in the volume’s framing essays and that should come to the fore more explicitly in future work in this field, particularly in light of the major protests concerning U.S. immigration policy in May 2006, and given the continuing post-9/11 challenges facing many immigrant communities.

As other reviewers have noted and as Leonard acknowledges, it is unfortunate that the book does not contain any case studies on Muslim immigrants.[1] Likewise, although this was specifically a volume tilted towards the “new” religious communities entering America, more transhistorical comparisons with studies of Jewish, Irish, Italian, and other earlier waves of immigration would have provided a deeper conversation. A few of the book’s authors, notably Stepick and Min, do employ such comparisons, to good effect.

Some of the ground not covered here has already been taken up in Religion and Immigration: Christian, Jewish, and Muslim Experiences in the United States (2003), edited by Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad, Jane I. Smith, and John L. Esposito, also published by Alta Mira Press; these two volumes might complement one another well in a classroom setting. Similarly, Making Muslim Space in North America and Europe (1996), edited by Barbara Daly Metcalf, provides strong work on the Muslims who are missing from this volume. Overall, Immigrant Faiths is a valuable and timely collection of essays, with nuanced case studies and assessments of the flexibilities and complications of immigrant religions; it will be useful in the classroom and the library alike for scholars of religion, migration, and American Studies.


[1]. Sarah Stohlman, review of Immigrant Faiths: Transforming Religious Life in America, ed. Karen L. Leonard et al., Sociology of Religion 6.3 (2006): 334.

Copyright (c) 2007 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at hbooksATmail.h-net.msuDOTedu.

Book Review _ Consuming Citizenship: Children of Asian Immigrant Entrepreneurs

Published by H-ChildhoodATh-net.msuDOTedu (December, 2006)

Lisa Sun-Hee Park. Consuming Citizenship: Children of Asian Immigrant Entrepreneurs. Asian America Series. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005. xii + 169 pp. Tables, notes, bibliography, index. $19.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8047-5248-0.

Reviewed for H-Childhood by Melissa R. Klapper, Department of History, Rowan University.

Status and Sacrifice

Lisa Sun-Hee Park’s sociological study of the children of Chinese American and Korean American immigrant small-business owners takes as its departure point the challenge facing second generation members of the “model minority.” While they are expected by both their families and American social imperatives to acculturate into “good Americans,” both their families’ cultural and economic structures and an unstated yet still deeply felt American racism make such acculturation difficult to secure. Park argues that Chinese and Korean American children resolve this conflict through consumption of American cultural prescriptions for achievement as well as material goods. They attempt to secure social citizenship by following injunctions to work hard, to parlay advanced education into economic security, and to purchase markers of upward mobility that can be publicly displayed, such as luxury cars and homes. Only this kind of outcome can repay their parents’ many sacrifices and demonstrate their claim to the American success story.

In order to explore the experiences of Korean and Chinese American children of immigrant entrepreneurs, Park conducted a series of in-depth interviews with more than one hundred adolescents and young adults and their families. She visited her subjects in their homes and workplaces, visiting several different regions of the United States. All the families she investigated were beneficiaries of the post-1965 U.S. immigration reforms that for the first time in decades allowed significant migration from Asia. The majority of the adolescents and young adults grew up in families that owned small businesses. These businesses functioned as the economic, social, and familial focal points of their lives. Park convincingly demonstrates the critical role played by family businesses in the experiences of her subjects. As a result of their parents’ entrepreneurship, Chinese and Korean American young people began to work early, spent little time with their families outside their places of business, and served as literal and figurative translators for their parents. They also developed commitments to repaying their parents both by surpassing them in educational and economic achievement and by buying them goods that would make their sacrifices appear worthwhile.

The theme of sacrifice appears repeatedly in this study. Virtually everyone Park interviewed referred to his/her parents’ sacrifices in making the difficult decision to migrate, working so hard, and, in some cases, giving up professional accomplishment in Korea or China to secure a better future for their children. In one interesting chapter, Park explores the ways in which the children recast their parents’ migration narratives into an American mold by adopting familiar elements of rags-to-riches stories or Western tales of rugged, iconoclastic heroes. Yet there are other sacrifices as well, though possibly not as apparent to the people Park interviewed. It seems that many Chinese and Korean American young people feel such an obligation to repay their parents that they sacrifice their own dreams and desires. Nearly all the interview subjects had either gone into medicine, law, and business or were preparing to do so; these were the professions they assumed would have the greatest possible earning power and were therefore the only options open to them. Following their own interests at the expense of economic potential would disappoint their parents and inhibit their ability to repay them with either cultural or economic capital. As Park notes with a wink, “Apparently, it is not so impressive to tell the neighbors that your child decided to become a sociologist” (p. 110). Parental expectations clearly impose a kind of family discipline that some of the children could identify but few were willing to challenge, having been inculcated from the earliest ages that the ultimate success of their families would depend on their educational and economic achievement. Because many, though not all, of the subjects lived in tightly knit ethnic neighborhoods, family discipline was further reinforced by the cultural expectations of the community. Park also argues that the label of “model minority” exerts its own influence, as the willingness of American society as a whole to accept Asian immigrants depends heavily on the same kind of educational and economic attainment that Chinese and Korean immigrant families require of their children.

Perhaps inevitably, the children have a mixed reaction to these expectations and particularly to the small businesses that are supposed to provide the launching pad for their success. Many resent having to work so many hours in family businesses, often at the expense of time spent with peers. They regret the fact that they have little family time outside the business and compare their own families unfavorably with the “American” families they encounter in the media. They cringe when they see their parents act in a servile manner to appease customers. Since relatively few of the businesses are very successful, though many are stable, they express astonishment that their parents continue working so hard for so little reward. On the other hand, many of the children, especially young adults who by going away to college achieved a measure of independence, acknowledge their parents’ success in building businesses out of nothing. They point out that they did have family time at the businesses, though not the kind of leisurely family time they might have liked. Few seem troubled by the fact that they were not paid for their work in the family businesses, since they received allowances and money for whatever they needed. They openly admit to manipulating their parents by claiming they needed more time and money for school-related activities.

Park’s explorations of this ambivalence highlight the most engaging part of the book, the voices of the Korean and Chinese children and young adults themselves. The book is peppered with quotes from the interviews, and by subtly focusing on a few people so that the reader comes to know these individuals, Park makes good use of what were clearly meaningful encounters between sociologist and subjects. This feature of the book is particularly important in enlisting the reader’s confidence, since by her own admission Park did not seek a scientific sample of interview subjects. When Sky speaks at length about her adolescent experience of realizing she was the lone Asian amid her group of white friends (p. 50), or when Robert confesses his near panic at his parents’ dreams of retirement, which include his marriage to their best friends’ daughter and all of them moving into a big house together that Robert’s good job will enable him to purchase (pp. 125-126), the book comes alive. There are enough similarities among the various narratives sampled throughout the book to help support Park’s conclusions about the family structures and coming of age experiences of the children of immigrant entrepreneurs.

Where the book is somewhat less successful is in the application of a variety of social theories to lived experience. Park wants to make connections between social citizenship and consumption, but it is never entirely clear how these theoretical categories relate to the experiences she describes. For example, although she demonstrates that Korean and Chinese children seek high status, high-paying careers, the extended metaphor she employs about immigrant children “consuming” a particular brand of the American dream falls flat. It may be that the relative brevity of the book prevents her from exploring the theoretical basis of her project; as it is, though, the book suffers from some of the usual problems of lightly revised dissertations in insisting on a theoretical overlay that does not add as much as it could to what is certainly an interesting topic within the sociology of immigration.

Still, there is a great deal of interest for historians of childhood and immigration in this book. Focusing on both Korean and Chinese populations allows Park to discuss the construction of an “Asian” identity, an issue that was also part of the experience of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century immigrants from Japan, China, and Korea. It is fascinating to speculate on the process by which the most feared and loathed populations of turn-of-the-century immigrants became models of achievement for post-1965 immigrants and immigration policy. All the conflicts over language, acculturation, education, and work that faced turn-of-the-century immigrant children resurface, though slightly altered, in the experiences of the children of Chinese and Korean immigrant entrepreneurs. The development of adolescence in the earlier part of the twentieth century was shaped in part by the experiences of immigrant children; by the late twentieth century, what Chinese and Korean young people resent most of all is the impingement of their family structure on their own experiences of adolescence. Then and now, constant cultural negotiation is a central feature of immigrant children’s lives.

Copyright (c) 2006 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at hbooksATmail.h-net.msuDOTedu.