According to an unofficial poll I’ve conducted among my colleagues, most scholars of Asian religions like me (i.e., non-Asian males who spent their teenage years in North America in the 1980s) can credit orientalism with turning them on to their research specialty. I was late to that party, since I moved to the US from Paraguay during elementary school, but only a few years after I arrived, I too came under the spell. My gateway drug was Star Wars, but Karate Kid really clinched it. By the time I entered high school, I was working on my first karate belt, had read both the Tao Te Ching and the Tao of Pooh, and had started my lifelong habit of dabbling in Asian languages.
The Asian stereotypes we were ingesting in the films and popular media of that period were a mixed bag. Many were overtly racist messages we learned far too late were tangibly damaging to Asian Americans. But occasionally, we also were given inspirational alternatives to the conventionally narrow American ways of being we saw all around us. New myths that suggested how practices and philosophies associated with Asian religions might help us to transcend the banality of our everyday milieu. Sure, they were embedded in Hollywood-produced mass-marketed blockbusters, but these subversive messages challenged our status quo. They showed how misfits like Luke Skywalker, Daniel-san, and I could discover our heroic destinies through self-discipline, self-cultivation, and self-discovery.
Looking back, it’s easy to see that our fascination was in many ways simply starry-eyed, romanticized escapism. Surely, the exoticism American society projected onto Asia and Asians — that pernicious racist trope that all things Asian are “not from here” — fueled that enthusiasm. No doubt, the supposed timelessness of “the East” — that fabled land of eternally unchanged wisdom handed down by lineages of sages — also played an important role. We longed to transcend our lot geographically (anywhere but this small rural town!) as well as temporally (anytime but the dreary 1980s!), and a heavily stereotyped Asianness onto which we could project all of our fantasies seemed to fit the bill perfectly.
But, it was also more than just a desire to escape. Deep down, we were also yearning for deeper meaning than the trauma, alienation, and superficiality that defined our lives. As we, like Daniel LaRusso, were mercilessly bullied in school for the slightest hint of individuality, we joined him in his quest for invisible patterns of beneficial energies that could strengthen and uplift us. As it was slowly dawning on us that America was the Death Star of global geopolitics, we embraced Obi-Wan’s vision of an integrated cosmos held in delicately balanced wholeness. As we were relentlessly bombarded with the mantra of the era, that “greed is good,” we suspected that connecting with invisible deeper realities was in fact the most important purpose of a human life.
And, so, we began our interest in Asian religions as orientalists. But, in the decades that followed, like Daniel-san painting the fence or Luke learning to feel The Force, we let ourselves be drawn in and transformed. We became practitioners, deepened our knowledge about history, learned the languages, and slowly disabused ourselves of the stereotypes. We graduated from reading James Clavell’s Shogun to Tokugawa-era ritual texts. Much to our parents’ chagrin, we forewent gainful employment to spend time in Thailand, India, or Tibet. Against all the norms of our upbringing, we put ourselves further and further into debt to study the arcane details of Asian traditions that few other people in our lives could really begin to understand. Slowly, we grew into Asianists.
At the end of that path, we now find ourselves at the front of the classroom, PhDs in hand, with the opportunity to introduce Asian religions to a new generation of American teenagers. Of course, no sooner did we arrive here than we discovered that our classes are filled with mirrors of our younger selves. Daniel-sans and Lukes who are traumatized and alienated. Misfits searching for meaning in the face of the banal, corporatized, superficial status quo.
If this were a Hollywood movie, standing here in front of the classroom would be the dramatic moment of truth in our own epic hero’s journey, our inevitable showdown with the Dark Side of the path we have chosen to walk. As the camera zooms in on our face and the music swells, we now must make the fateful choice. Will we shut down the very avenue of inspiration and self-discovery that so strongly shaped our own young lives? Will we be conventional and stick narrowly to our disciplinary norms and commitments? Will we hide our hearts behind our lecture notes and drown our passion in theoretical postulates? Or, will we risk getting our students a little bit drunk on talk of magic, wholeness, and transformation? Will we dare to speak of invisible and beneficial deeper realities? Can we allow ourselves a little romanticism?
Let me be perfectly clear that here — as in a previous post where I argued that deconstruction is no longer enough— I am not suggesting we altogether dispose of our critical perspectives. And I am not for a moment suggesting that we resuscitate the stereotypes, the racism, or the orientalism that accompanied our own initiation into Asian religions. As academics, we have grown to have the intellectual resources, the cultural competence, and the disciplinary training to do better than that. We know how to allow Asian religions to speak for themselves in our classrooms without exoticizing or white-washing them. We are painfully hyper-aware of our neocolonial positionality.
However, I am suggesting that we need not dedicate every last minute of our class time to deconstructing these traditions into their social, cultural, political, and economic dimensions. I am suggesting that we have other tools in our toolbox, which can serve higher purposes. We could, for example, strategically select primary source reading materials and discussion topics that we think will open up our students’ curiosity and imagination about alternative possible selves and ways of being—i.e., to not just shape their intellect, but also feed their souls. We could also facilitate our students having intimate personal encounters with the energies of the body, the silence of the mind, or the nonduality of consciousness, not just as an afterthought to our rigorous scholarly agenda, but as a core mission of the course. We could use our classes on Asian religions as opportunities to introduce transformative ideas and practices with the explicit intent to inspire healing, to subvert the status quo, and to encourage new dreams to take flight.
Of course, very few of our students will follow in our footsteps and become Asianists like us. But, that should not deter us. For we should always remember the lesson Mr Miyagi taught us when we were young: that all it takes is a touch of starry-eyed romanticism to call forth the broken and the yearning into a meaningful, life-transforming adventure.