Note: Making Paper Cranes is a weekly engagement with Mihee Kim Kort’s New book . . . uh, . . . Making Paper Cranes: Towards An Asian American Feminist Theology. Mihee handles complicated things gently. Also, she’s deadly in the low post.
I went to seminary with Mihee, and I was surprised to read this in her book: “I remember avoiding these [liberal] courses and viewing the [theology] department with a sort of desperate fascination.”
Mihee recalls the warnings she received from the well-meaning elders of her home church, alerting her to the pagan dangers of “flaming leftist notions about women’s liberation.” I, too, received warnings like this, and nobody embodied leftism, feminism, and liberation more to me than Mihee.
Now, I was a neophyte of the purest order, the product of Hellfire pentecostalism become hand-wringing evangelicalism become shoegazing emergence. The conventions of mainline protestantism were as foreign to me as haggis. So I had no reason not to assume that the Asian woman knocking people over in flag football games and striding confidently into theology lectures was a lefty feminist in Christian clothing.
It tickles me to read the chronicle of Mihee’s flirtation with feminism. Men from church stock such as produced me have a suspicion of feminism drilled into us early and thoroughly. Who knew women do too? And who knew that many Asian women are nurtured on a unique distaste for it? Mihee quotes Pandora Leong:
my experience suggests that within the subculture of Asian women, I am also fighting a cultural consciousness that favors a duty to society over the spirit of independence. Individualism may have been a Western male value, but at least it was a Western value. White feminists only had to democratize it; as an Asian feminist, I must introduce it. Asian society places a premium on social order and the advancement of the community.
For Mihee, Asian American feminism “must counter two levels of patriarch by giving voice to individual experience.”
Here’s what strikes me about this. So much of the discourse that pulses through “educated” cultural circles (including mainline denominational gatherings) takes aim at “individualism” as an insidious force that has eroded a communitarian sense of responsibility to one’s neighbor. Yet, Mihee is holding up an experience, shared by many Asian American women, in which that communitarian sense often muzzles the individual voice, to the detriment of one’s neighbor.
Ragging on individualism, then, is not enough. It seems those of us in the “dominant” culture need to be more clear about the kind of individualism we oppose, even while we look for ways to accompany our brothers and sisters who are working to cultivate a more holy individualism for their communities and, I daresay, for the church.
How do we do that?