Okay, so I never do this. This is a book review. I don’t even like to read that much, especially Christian non-fiction, but here I am…writing a book review.
Anyways, Andrew and I finished reading At Home in Exile by Russell Jeung, a person Andrew admires greatly for his life of service in East Oakland. Russell is a professor of Asian American studies at San Francisco State, but his life consists of much more. [Fun Fact: Andrew was actually named in the Acknowledgements, but that’s definitely not why I read this book.]
At Home in Exile is Jeung’s spiritual memoir. He shares his family’s heritage and stories of his time living at the Oakpark Apartments, a low-income housing project in the “Murder Dubs.” Even though he was a “typical” Asian-American “predestined to continue the path of upward mobility,” (27) he lived in an inhabitable apartment complex with America’s marginalized underclass where many residents were refugees or undocumented immigrants, below the poverty level, and without a completed high school education. While it was obviously an uncomfortable place to live in, Jeung was able to see how the poor are blessed and a blessing. Jeung doesn’t just tell stories though. He connects his own family’s Chinese-Hakka heritage of displacement and his grandparents’ stories of refugees resettling in America with his work with the families at the Oakpark Apartments to the Christian’s call to be “foreigners and exiles” on earth while we wait for Jesus’ return to peace and justice.
Although I’m a Christian and aware of the evils of worldliness, I regularly find myself idolizing the “upward mobility” that is so ingrained in many Asian Americans. But every chapter of Jeung’s book convicted and challenged me. I found myself repenting of consumerism and of how much I have been complicit with the common narrative that Asian Americans so often buy into.
Jeung’s memoir also reminded me of the sacrifices my immigrant grandparents made for our family so we could live in nice houses and go to good schools. I was reminded of some of my “uncles and aunties” from my home church who fought for and still fight for affordable housing in San Francisco Chinatown. As a San Francisco Bay Area native, it was especially convicting to read stories about people who live only 15 minutes away from me. While I’m still trying to figure out how I can personally serve and show hospitality to the poor and marginalized, I was reminded to love and pray for them. It’s the least I can do as I pursue more tangible avenues of service. Jeung really encouraged me to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which [He] ha[s] carried you into exile [and to] Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, [I] too will prosper” (Jeremiah 29:7).
One of the most interesting points Jeung makes in his book is that despite winning a housing lawsuit for new homes, the win was bittersweet. Housing conditions improved and it seemed that “God’s goodness and justice had prevailed,” but as people’s improved living conditions led them to seclude themselves into their own private homes, he “feel[s] like [he’s] lost the community that gave [him] so much joy, meaning, and friendship” (141) when all they had was each other.
I also think it’s important that readers know that life in East Oakland is still hard. Even after 20 years, he still struggles with his purpose in Oakland since he says there is “little to show for [their] efforts” (179). The church youth director was killed by a driver who was high on crystal meth and alcohol. His daughter was mugged and moved out of state to live with other family. Even though he feels called to East Oakland, he still questions “to what and for what?” (179).
If you don’t have time to read it, these are some of my favorite parts.
- “The American economic system and the logic of immigration into this nation-state created communities of individuals whose main affinity was their consumption pattern. Likewise, I was predestined to continue the path of upward mobility and a blessed show of status.” (27)
- “How can middle-class Americans, especially those of us in the suburbs attain this solidarity with the poor? … Identify with the struggle of the poor. I do so by reclaiming my Chinese heritage and appreciating the sacrifices of my ancestors in China and in America. By living among those in low-income communities, I have come to see the pernicious effects of structural injustice and inequities on their lives. And by longing for God’s kingdom of peace to come and by hearing his Word spoken to the poor, I develop this solidarity.” (50)
- “As much as urban Christians might develop a neighborhood, they also gentrify and displace the poor. Christian elites – like myself- employing Keller’s model often find ourselves in the contradictory position of wanting to identify deeply with the poor, but complicit in a system of economic and cultural domination.” (86)
- I learned to compete at Stanford, but I didn’t learn to be compassionate.” (166)
- “Surprisingly, food isn’t identified as one of the primary love languages, yet that’s probably how 1.7 billion Chinese show their love. Even God uses food as a love language; he invites us to his banqueting table and offers Jesus as our daily rice.” (175)
- “I chose to be with the people I loved… I am only saying that love for others is a strong reason to do anything and provides a helpful guide in decision-making.” (186)
Jeung is a great storyteller with a voice that is inviting and honest. If you’re an Asian-American Christian, you’ll finally get to read a book that truly embodies the feelings of being “in between” and I’m confident you’ll be encouraged to see a different Asian American Christian narrative. I especially enjoyed Jeung’s description of Asian love languages. If you’re not an Asian-American, it definitely gives some great insight into Chinese-American culture, and even Asian-American Christian culture. Nonetheless, it’ll challenge and convict you.