July 19 2024

Teaching Asian American Religions and Religiosities: Guest Editor’s Introduction

by Jonathan H. X. Lee, San Francisco State University

A white truck in a middle of a parade carries a yellow sign in its bed that reads "Sikh Society of Madison WI." Two American flags are on each side of the sign. A Sikh man wearing a dastar (turban) walks next to the truck and waves to the crowd

According to the 2012 (revised and updated in 2013) Pew Research Center report, “The Rise of Asian Americans,” Asian Americans are the “fastest-growing racial group in the United States."* Asian American religions and religiosities can be taught as stand-alone courses or as a part of other courses such as World Religions, Transnational Religions, or American Religious History, among others. Religious studies and Asian American studies are both inherently interdisciplinary and multi-methodological disciplines. Both disciplines pay careful consideration to emic and etic boundaries, and while Asian American studies explicitly promotes and condones experimentation with personal experience in research and teaching, religious studies can also do so, though that is not usually the norm. Moreover, many of the articles in this issue, working at the intersection of Asian American studies and religious studies, face pedagogical issues that are also present in religious studies classes more generally. They deal with the question of how to understand the lived religious experience of someone from another culture (or even someone else from one’s own culture) as well as how to minimize the defensiveness and resistance to learning about realities that challenge students’ own privileges and/or assumptions. To do this, the authors herein advocate a variety of innovative pedagogies, ranging from service learning to other forms of experiential learning, inductive and scaffolding approaches to pedagogy, and the use of media and the arts in distinctive ways. For teachers who wish to incorporate dimensions and elements of Asian American religions and religiosities in their syllabi, this issue offers a number of considerations and recommendations.

Asian American Studies Matter(s)

It is important to note that the history of Asian American studies as an academic discipline is relatively short: forty-five years. Asian American studies was born on March 20, 1969, when a settlement was signed at San Francisco State College (now University) to establish the country’s first and still only School of Ethnic Studies (now the College of Ethnic Studies). This was one of the results of the Third World Liberation Front strike that began on November 6, 1968. This legacy informs Asian American studies’ raison d'être—its pedagogy and research—inside and outside of the classroom.

Asian American studies is founded on the dual principles of self-determination and social justice. Asian American self-determination is expressed—individually and collectively—from the demand of Asian American subjectivity: knowing Asian Americans through history, art, literature, social sciences, and education, but also as subjects of research. Early on, there was a penchant for Marxian revolutionary class critique in Asian American studies, and the new field ignored questions of religions and religious beliefs. However, the quotidian experiences of Asian Americans revealed a deep enchantment with religion. The study of Asian American religions and religiosities gained momentum in 1996 when Amerasia Journal published the first special issue on Asian American religions. Eighteen years later, the legacy of that first special issue is incontestable: The field of Asian American religious studies has grown as indicated by the incorporation of the Asian North American Religion and Society Group at the American Academy of Religion and the development of Asian Pacific American Religions Research Initiative, not to mention the growing single-authored and edited volumes dealing with Asian American religiosities.

Since the birth of Asian American studies, matters of subjectivity have been central to Asian American lives both inside and outside of the academe. For instance, a common topic of discussion in my Vietnamese, Chinese, Cambodian, and comparative Southeast Asian American studies courses at San Francisco State University is identity. In particular, many Asian American youth express frustration with their inability to articulate clearly and decisively their entanglement with existential questions about their subjectivity with regard to their ethnic, national, religious, and cultural self-awareness. Asian American students must also reconcile their identity against popular racialized stereotypes of Asian Americans as “model minorities” who are math and science wizards, or Asian American women as submissive yet hypersexual dragon ladies, or Asian American men as submissive and asexual or effeminate. As teachers and students who study Asian religions in America, one must temper the inclination to Orientalize the subjects and their religiosities. This perennial tussle with self-awareness, being, existence, and form are central matters of subjectivity: subjectivity mattered then, it matters today, and it will matter in the future. The study of Asian American religions and religiosities offers fertile ground for explorations of Asian American subjectivity, which continues to be a primary concern for Asian American students who grow up American.

Besides the focus on Asian American subjects, Asian American studies provides a model to examine different constructions of the “Oriental” as a means to recognize larger systems of power and hierarchy. It is grounded in postcolonial methodologies, discursive analysis, and allows the observed to become observers. More importantly, Asian American studies is founded on a social justice praxis that celebrates scholars who are also activists. It provides a theoretical and methodological approach for emancipatory teaching and learning that puts voices of historically marginalized subjects at the center of study and starts with the premise that education is political by nature. At this juncture, critical consciousness is possible; as Kathleen Weiler says, coming to a realization of “consciousness of oppression” requires a commitment to end oppression (1991, 454).

Teaching Asian American Religions and Religiosities

Central to the issue of subjectivity in both Asian American studies and religious studies is finding a way to open students’ eyes to another person’s experience. While this can be seen in all the articles in this issue, four of them advocate particular forms of experiential learning to do so. Emily S. Wu, framing her pedagogical strategy in terms of Judith Berling’s work in Understanding Other Religious Worlds (2004), provides an example of community-service learning in which students collect oral histories from Chinese American elders in a California fishing village. This method connects Asian religious perspective with social justice, utilizing an experiential pedagogy that gives students a first-hand experience of Confucian religiosity. It also sensitizes students to issues of power and hierarchy because the experience demonstrates the American privileging of Western worldviews and conceptions of social ethics. Similarly, Joanne Doi involves students in an emotional pilgrimage that not only opens up the experience of Japanese Americans, but also creates a praxis of social justice and requires students to reflect on their own subjectivities. Her course, America’s Internment: Theological Pilgrimage to Manzanar, provides students with a powerful high-impact learning experience that merges faith, practice, and subjectivity. In this context it is impossible not to confront the injustices and discrimination faced by Asian Americans and reflect on issues of power, hierarchy, religion, and race in America.

Another method for experientially introducing students to religious experiences within Asian American communities is Linh Hoang’s assignment that sends students to observe Asian American religious communities and places of worship using ethnographic methods and geographical information systems programs. Working in groups, Hoang’s students gather data from the sacred sites as well as demographic data on the composition of the area. In this way they learn to understand the lived, religious Asian American experience of place. His students are also able to analyze and discuss religious pluralism at the intersection of class and race. Finally, Ronald Y. Nakasone, a Buddhist cleric-scholar and artist, reflects on teaching the art of sho (calligraphy) in a Buddhist art and aesthetics course. In teaching the sho, Nakasone provides students with the experimental learning moment as they pick up the brush and experience creative mindfulness through free-flowing ink. As he writes: “Through the experience of writing, students enter into a living tradition through its traditional pedagogy.” Through this process, students gain insight into the experience of sho-artists as well as an understanding of Buddhist religious worlds. 

Music and film are other art forms used to provide windows into subjectivity. Brett J. Esaki shares how he teaches Asian American religiosity through a close analysis of contemporary Asian American music such as hip-hop. For example, he provides an analysis of Denizen Kane’s piece, “Han,” which he notes, “begins with the sounds of Korean shamanism, then over this music [Denizen Kane] discusses his grandparents’ immigration traumas, then it abruptly transitions to jazz bass and his words increase in intensity to a scathing critique of current Korean American realities.” His comparative approach using African American materials with Asian American materials articulates and analyzes Asian American subjectivity, revealing complex dimensions of religious and cultural hybridity.

Meanwhile, both Rabia Kamal and Jaideep Singh advocate the use of films to open students’ eyes to the lived experiences of Muslims and Sikhs and to generate a discussion about media stereotypes and issues of race in America. Rabia Kamal reflects on teaching Asian American Islam, including the religious racialization of Muslim Asian Americans, in the racially and politically charged atmosphere of post-9/11 US society. Kamal employs films to highlight the complexity of subjectivity among Muslim Asian Americans and to deconstruct Orientalist images of the Muslim “other.” She also provides students an opportunity to deconstruct the Oriental image through the production of their own short film that documents subjects in the community. This gives agency to subjects and accords them voice. Similarly, Jaideep Singh uses film to demonstrate the racialization of religion in America. Singh recommends particular films and readings to engage students in a discussion of the social costs of Sikh American lived experience that come in the forms of discrimination and hate crimes. Beyond this, he advocates generating broader discussions on White and Christian hegemony and the effects of such hegemony on religious liberty in American society. 

Minimizing Tensions Surrounding Sensitive Subjects

As we all know, religion is a sensitive area for our students and the additional discussion of race can create a threatening environment. Some authors in this issue explicitly address that problem and provide pedagogical strategies for diminishing student defensiveness. Thien-Huong T. Ninh, like the other authors, attempts to introduce students to a particular subjectivity—in this case the lived experience of Vietnamese Americans as part of a transnational community. Also like other authors, Ninh is intent on countering student assumptions about what it means to be transnational. At the same time, Ninh is aware of the threatening nature of studying something so unfamiliar to students so she advocates an inductive approach. Beginning with narratives, including hers as a Vietnamese Catholic, Ninh moves students to a stage of questioning, and then points them to theoretical arguments about migration and transnationalism, ending with a macro-level analysis. She writes, “This inductive approach, from personal experiences to macro-level analysis, is especially effective when teaching about theories and concepts around emotionally and politically charged subjects such as race, ethnicity, religion, and immigration in Vietnamese American lives. Students feel less threatened or targeted because they can evaluate the concept through a story that is concrete, real, and personal.” Brett Esaki’s scaffolding method for teaching Asian American music and religion is likewise consciously designed to minimize defensiveness and build confidence. In his essay, he explains a four-stage approach that moves students from the familiar to the less familiar. The approach also provides an academic base from which to analyze pop culture that avoids the traps of students being too dismissive of something they consider obscure, too protective of something they relate to, or too judgmental of something “other.”

Rabia Kamal, like Thien-Huong T. Ninh, emphasizes narrative, using films such as A Son’s Sacrifice and New Muslim Cool to shift students away from a defensive position based in stereotypes and reapproach a conversation about Asian American Islam (or Latino Islam, in the case of New Muslim Cool). One can also see this emphasis on narrative in the oral histories collected by Emily Wu’s students, in the narratives of Japanese Americans encountered by Joanne Doi’s students on the Manzanar pilgrimage, and in the film Jaideep Singh recommends, Divided We Fall: Americans in the Aftermath. Narrative and inductive or scaffolding approaches can help alleviate tensions in courses devoted to sensitive topics of race, power, and religion.

Traditional in-class methods from course construction to research assignments can also cultivate student sensitivities to hegemony and social justice. Dean Ryuta Adachi notes that while Asian American studies has been critical of Christian hegemony and Christianity’s role in imperialism and colonialism, the religion most commonly practiced among Asian Americans today is Christianity. This tension should be explored rather than ignored, and Adachi calls upon scholars who teach courses on American Christianity to include a focus Asian American Christianity and for those scholars who teach courses on Asian American studies to incorporate Asian American Christianity. He highlights the need to integrate these topics rather than confine them to units, and he advocates assigning research projects to uncover the historic figures in Asian American Christianity whose stories have not reached the academy. 

Importantly, these teacher-scholars do not avoid discussion of themselves, but rather use their own subjectivities as teaching tools. As already mentioned, Thien-Huong T. Ninh includes her own personal stories as a Vietnamese Catholic among the narratives she provides. Jaideep Singh provides personal narratives about his grandfather in India, while Joanne Doi explores her own identity as a Japanese American whose parents and grandparents were affected by immigration, detention, and redress. Emily Wu reflects on her own position as a transnational person, and Ronald Y. Nakasone delves deeply into his own relationship with his Sensei during his own study of sho.


While all the authors in this issue of Spotlight on Teaching are Asian American, and many teach and research from faith traditions that bridge their professional and private lives, they teach from principles on which Asian American studies was founded forty-five years ago: self-determination and social justice. Although some of my Asian American colleagues may disagree with me, I submit that teaching and learning about Asian American religions and religiosities is not limited to Asian American teachers and students, as long as the content remains faithful to the founding principles of self-determination and social justice, both individual and collective.

* For a general overview of Asian American religious demographics, see the Pew Forum: “Asian Americans: A Mosaic of Faiths

Jonathan H.X. LeeJonathan H. X. Lee, PhD, is an associate professor of Asian American studies who specializes in Southeast Asian and Sino-Southeast Asian American studies at San Francisco State University. He is the program cochair of the Asian American religious studies sections for the American Academy of Religion, Western Region (AAR/WR) conference. His work has been published in Peace Review: A Journal of Social Justice, Nidan: International Journal for the Study of Hinduism, History & Perspective: The Journal of the Chinese Historical Society of America, JATI: Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Amerasia Journal, and other national and international journals and anthologies. He is the editor of Cambodian American Experiences: Histories, Communities, Cultures, and Identities (Kendall Hunt, 2010) and coeditor with Kathleen M. Nadeau of the Encyclopedia of Asian American Folklore and Folklife (ABC-CLIO, 2011) and Asian American Identities and Practices: Folkloric Expressions in Everyday Life (Lexington Books, 2014). He has published widely on Chinese, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Chinese-Southeast Asian, and Asian American histories, folklore, cultures, and religions.


Image: "Sikh Society of Madison Wisconsin" (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by AmyEAnderson