Jumping across time and space and traversing religious practices, the essays in this forum present glimpses into the diversity and complexity of Asian American religious life. Our venture into the multiverse that is Asian American religions is an opening through which to discern identity formation and community building, as well as patterns of prejudice and discrimination, offering new perspectives and enriching knowledge about different ways of being. Such a lens also helps to critically assess Asian American religions as significant threads in the fabric of American life. The study of Asian American religions becomes “everything, everywhere, all at once” and can expand our awareness of the many worlds that Asian Americans inhabit and represent.
The sheer diversity of Asian American religions, however, can be daunting and often raises the question: Does the center hold? In Everything Everywhere All at Once, the film from which this forum’s title draws inspiration, Evelyn’s journey through the multiverse is chaotic. She discovers a web of possibilities and feverishly jumps from one form of existence to another. At times, viewers can detect a breakdown and disintegration of world(s). By the end of the film, however, Evelyn finds her purpose and power and brings the multiverse into alignment. Given the multiple worlds that Asian American religions represent, one might ask: What holds these macrocosms together? What is the purpose of this field of study? What is the coordinating principle behind the apparent chaos of such varied religious lifeways and multiple social realities?
Since its emergence in 1968, the term “Asian American” has been heterogenous, evolving, and under constant negotiation—in terms of top-down, institutionalized categories (e.g., Asian Pacific Americans or APAs, AAPIs, or AANHPIs, used by the White House, Congress, government offices, and the census) and simultaneously from insider grassroots efforts, student activism, and community-driven politics. The multi-ethnic and multiracial clustering of what is meant by and included in “Asian America,” then, offers an opportunity to critically reckon with self-determination, intentional community-based coalition-building, intercultural intimacy, moral responsibilities, and the historical imbrication of the diverse communities and overlapping formations of Asia, Oceania, and the Americas.
While inroads have been made in the areas of political recognition, census categorization, popular representation, and academic research in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, such has not been the case in terms of religious belonging. Since the 1800s, many Americans have repeatedly and systemically perceived Asian American adherents of non-Christian traditions as moored to foreign nations through their (“cultural”) practices and rituals. For example, the phrase “the Heathen Chinee” entered public discourse in 1870 with the publication of a satirical poem by Bret Harte; the phrase subsequently became a popular racialized trope in the late nineteenth century, contributing to not only the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 but also anti-Chinese animus, hate crimes, and vigilantism. Historians such as Beth Lew-Williams and Michael Luo link the concept of the “alien” in modern America to repeated acts of Chinese exclusion and expulsion: at least one hundred and sixty-eight communities forced Chinese residents to leave by force or threat in the mid-1880s. Kathryn Gin Lum further illuminates how the stereotyping of Chinese people as heathen, pagan, and immoral occurred not only within economic and political discourses but also in American Christian rhetoric (e.g., at an 1877 address to the General Association of Congregational Churches of California). She links this dehumanization to the massacre of 10 percent of Los Angeles’ Chinese population in 1871 and the 1885 massacre of at least twenty-eight Chinese miners in Rock Springs, Wyoming. In American Sutra, Duncan Ryūken Williams highlights how, during World War II, Buddhism was deemed incompatible with American values. Because many considered Buddhism to be alien, suspicious, and at odds with American traditions, government officials (from the White House to small-town mayors) and intelligence agencies targeted Japanese American communities for surveillance and eventual incarceration.
This pattern of religious animus continued into the new millennium. Sikh American activist, filmmaker, and author Valarie Kaur details the religious and racial profiling that occurred in 9/11’s aftermath, when “Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Arab, and South Asian Americans were beaten, chased, shot, and stabbed, and our homes and houses of worship were set ablaze, in thousands of acts of hate across the country.” The Protestant-Catholic-Jew framework outlined by William Herberg in 1955 persists as the dominant model of religion(s) in the United States and continues to obscure Asian American religions that fall outside of this tripartite structure, as contributors Melissa Borja and Funie Hsu discuss in their respective analyses of Hmong immigrants and Asian American Buddhists in the contemporary period.
The conception of non-Christian as other remains steadfast in the US mindset. Various scholars in Asian American and Pacific Islander studies, such as Vinay Lal, Joseph Cheah, Khyati Joshi, Melissa Borja, and Haunani-Kay Trask, have analyzed how “Asian religions” (specifically, Sikhism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Hmong, respectively) and Native Hawaiians (Kanaka Maoli) have been perceived as engaging in traditions and practices that are exotic or superstitious—if not evil, criminal, or heathen. In Joshi’s 2006 analysis of the othering of non-Christian religious groups, she explains that the experiences of Indian Americans and “the racialization of Hinduism, Islam, and Sikhism renders those faiths theologically, socially, and morally illegitimate in the popular eye.” Further illuminating this deeply rooted ideological divide, Jaideep Singh’s analysis of “American Apartheid” in the twenty-first century details how racialized religious minorities face “recurring manifestations of intersecting racial and religious bias,” including “ongoing hate violence directed at members of these minority communities and their sites of worship, and public opposition to the construction of sacred sites by non-Christian, Asian American congregations.” In Reverend Laura Mariko Cheifetz’s reflection on Christian influences in the March 2021 Atlanta shootings and orientalist stereotypes used in evangelical curricula alongside her own personal experiences with racism, she writes, “We are not fully human, with loves, religious beliefs, fears, families, shortcomings, hopes…For those of us who live and love in this country, and are told we are never fully American, the violent act feels familiar…. We know this is who this country is, and who we are to it: the perpetual foreigner.” Thus, the racialized trope of “alien” spiritual practices contributes to the stereotyping of Asian Americans as second-class religious citizens and outsiders even today.
Asian American Christians also experience second-class religious citizenship and the persistent stigma of foreignness. In this forum, contributor Kathryn Gin Lum’s discussion of Uchimura Kanzō illuminates how “white Americans continued to see converts from other cultures as different” in the 1800s. Although Asian Americans are revitalizing American churches and some have risen to leadership roles within evangelical communities in the twenty-first century, many continue to view Asian American Christians—while “reformed” and “recognizable”—as American religious subjects that are “almost the same, but not quite” (in postcolonial theorist Homi K. Bhabha’s apt phrasing). This entrenched difference forestalls religious inclusion and belonging and contributes to Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders still being overlooked, ignored, or underrepresented in scholarship, research, advocacy, and leadership pipelines.
How can we expand the limited perception of Asian American religion and spirituality? Foregrounding the heterogeneous ways that Asian Americans see the world and their varied moral outlooks is one approach to changing dominant perceptions. Asian American stories that speak of community resilience, creative transformations, and psychic survival in response to the struggle and suffering wrought by discrimination and misperception need to be integrated into the stories we tell of American religion.
Some headway is being made in challenging the hegemonic narratives that exclude Asian Americans from US belonging. For instance, in the popular realm, Evelyn’s story in Everything Everywhere All at Once has been recognized as a human story: she navigates moral choices and reckons with life’s possibilities across the multiverse. Her story is universal, yet also steeped in a context that is specific and, to many (non-Asian Americans), unknown, as contributor Kathy Chow notes in her essay on the film. For our purposes, the critically acclaimed movie is instructive as it not only represents Asian American “nones,” who do not officially affiliate with or regularly practice any religion, but also spectacularly illuminates Evelyn’s rich subjectivity rooted in the real moral and material challenges of one Chinese American immigrant woman’s life.
The Asian American film that best serves as a metaphor for our conclusion, however, is Minari, Lee Isaac Chung’s widely acclaimed 2020 drama, which was nominated for six Academy Awards. Minari follows a Korean American family’s move from California to rural Arkansas in search of opportunity and a fresh start. Loosely inspired by his own family’s move to the Midwest, Chung quietly reveals the Yi family’s struggles as the protagonist Jacob (Steven Yeun) seeks to establish a fifty-acre working farm on “the best dirt in America.”
The Yi family’s Christianity is interwoven into the narrative. Yet the film’s story of faith exceeds the usual markers of church, prayer, and ritual. The main symbol of survival and hope is found in the film’s title. Described as a “poetic plant” by Chung, “minari” (mi = water + nari = vegetable) is an edible herb that is a familiar vegetable (namul) in the Korean diet and is also known by various names such as pennywort, water parsley, Java water dropwort, or Chinese celery in English. Jacob’s mother-in-law Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung), who migrates from South Korea to help care for her grandson David (Alan Kim), explains that the plant functions both as food and as medicine. She recognizes the fertile creek bed—away from Jacob’s farm—as an optimal place to grow minari, plants the seeds she has brought from Korea, and prompts her son-in-law to cultivate the herb to sell. “Minari is so good for you,” Soon-ja tells her American grandson. “Anyone can find it, eat it, and be healthy.” After Jacob’s harvest is destroyed by a fire, he and David return to the creek to discover a thriving patch of minari, which they harvest—the elder Soon-ja’s gift.
The story of Asian American religions—especially among the first generation of immigrants—is reflected in Chung’s poignant narrative. Like minari thriving on damp ground, these sacred practices and religious communities require different growing conditions while simultaneously demonstrating resilience. Communal rituals and practices in family homes, (Buddhist) home-temples, (Christian) house churches, (Sikh) gurdwaras, (Hindu) mandirs, (Islamic) mosques, and the like are sources of life and spiritual wellsprings for Asian American ethnic communities. Asian immigrants transplant and nurture these practices and religious sites in the United States through collective and often interracial effort. These precious resources are often outside of the mainstream: hidden away, unrecognized, or obscured. Yet they sustain and revitalize amid disaster and struggle. Stories, however, are not enough; storytelling must be coupled with a critical lens to fully apprehend the social forces and prejudicial views that account for the biases, discrimination, and in some cases violence that remain very much part of reality for Asian American religious subjects.
In parallel, this forum and the scholarly work of the Asian Pacific American Religions Research Initiative (or APARRI) over the past two decades illustrate and analyze how Asian American faith communities flourish on American soil. Employing interdisciplinary approaches and creative (hybrid) epistemologies, they uncover a rich past and thriving present. As Jonathan Tran cultivates a “mixed ecology” by combining constructive theology, critical race theory, and digital ethnography in his recent book, Asian Americanist scholars of religion and Asian American practitioners contribute to a transformed religious ecology that can diversify American religious landscapes and research on American religions. These combined efforts showcase the wide array of Asian American religious lifeways and plumb the depth and richness of Asian Americans’ faith practices and spiritual commitments. This forum provides a glimpse into this epistemological endeavor. Together, the featured essays interrogate who can be truly “American,” how we determine such belonging, and in a fundamental sense, who is properly or legibly “religious.”