By Hsiao-Lan Hu
University of Detroit Mercy
In recent years I have been made to become increasingly aware of the convergence of my “in-between” identities in multiple regards, as well as the resilience that the ambiguity and undefinability of my identities have afforded me. “Queering” identities can bring about much strength—if the word “queer” is understood as a verb and used to mean “to make strange” and to sever “the notion of identity from any stable reference points.” (1)
Several years ago at the American Academy of Religion meetings I heard a wonderful paper on intersectionality and identity. The presenter did a skillful self-reflective analysis on being a racial and sexual minority with an ambiguous nationality marker. He mentioned that, as a result of his multiply minoritized identity, he changes the ways in which he identifies himself depending on the identities of his interlocutors. What caught my attention was not that he changes the way he identifies himself because, frankly, I do that all the time, as all minorities probably do to a certain extent. What piqued my interest was that he stated that he wanted to figure out the “shame” in omitting some part of his identity, such as his place of origin. I was really struck with his use of the word “shame” because, if anything, my identity is even more complex and minoritized than his—I do not mean this in a “who got it worse” kind of way, but just to list a few components of my minority status in the U.S.:
1. I am one of the very few token representations of “the East” in my institution; the job ad I answered to in fact stated that they were looking for someone capable of teaching world religions, “with specialization in Asian Religions”—as if “Asian Religions” could be an area of specialization, and in the past decade I have encountered quite a number of colleagues who would complain to me about the Asian students in their classes as if I would personally know all of them;
2. I am an immigrant (an “alien” according to my legal documents) in a country that is increasingly anti-immigrant, and I went through a horrendously long process to obtain permanent residence due to the grotesque incompetence of the lawyer hired by my institution. The process dragged on for so long that I had to file extension for my visa three times, and the incompetent lawyer let my extension expire twice. That is, for about seven years I did not know if I would be allowed to stay at my job in this country, and twice I even thought I was about to become “illegal,” and yet the people in positions of power all seemed more concerned with keeping the old white male lawyer’s job than keeping the only person responsible for teaching students about the whole eastern hemisphere;
3. English is my third language (arguably fourth, depending on how one evaluates the difference between classical Chinese and modern Mandarin Chinese), but it is also my primary scholarly language (that is, I seldom write my scholarly work in Chinese), and I very often encounter people (particularly people who are monolingual) who would look at my Asian face and immediately assume I cannot use the language well and either speak slowly and loudly to me, or take upon themselves to teach me the meaning of certain words, or act surprised if I can phrase something in English better than they do;
4. I am a Buddhist scholar of Asian descent surrounded by orientalist Buddhist discourses that devalue what traditional Asian Buddhists actually do in favor of precept-less meditation and philosophical abstraction, and yet my own scholarship happens to lean heavily toward theory and abstraction as well;
5. I grew up in a culture in which religious traditions are for the most part interfused with each other and do not require exclusive identity, and now I am in a sea of people who not only assume a monotheistic framework but assume everyone has one and only one religion;
6. I am from Taiwan, and many people in the U.S. do not even know where that is; I even have a couple of colleagues who still think I am from China after having known me for 11 years;
7. My friends who are Taiwanese or Chinese immigrants to the U.S. perceive me as more American than Taiwanese; quite a number of them actually assumed I was born in the U.S. when they met me;
8. Even in Taiwan I am “in between”—with my father migrating from China to Taiwan after World War II and my mother’s family having been in Taiwan for nearly 300 years, I grew up being referred to as “half taro, half yam” since “mainlanders” are often pejoratively nicknamed “old taro” by “Taiwanese” who identify the shape of Taiwan to be “yam.” I speak Mandarin Chinese to my father and his side of the family and his friends, and switch to southern Fukkien (a.k.a. “Taiwanese”) when encountering my mother’s family and friends; and
9. I have never identified with the feminine gender that was assigned to me at birth, and yet I am not too keen to identify with the masculine gender, either (even though I strongly identified as a boy when I was growing up). For more than two decades now I feel I am of a gender that is between, or beyond, the binary, and for this reason I never feel the label “lesbian” really applies to me because, in my mind, when I were in a relationship, I would still be involved with someone of a different sex/gender.
The point is, my identity is even more complex and minoritized than that presenter’s, and I shift the way I identify myself depending on the identities of my interlocutors, too (at a very high frequency, actually), but it had never occurred to me to associate my identity-shifting with “shame.” And I certainly hate to think that I might be shameless. Intellectually, I do understand that, as stated in a textbook on multiple identities in counseling, “dominant cultural beliefs and values furnish and perpetuate feelings of inadequacy, shame, confusion, and distrust.” (2) Still, emotionally I did not really relate to the emotional distress that propelled the usage of the word “shame” (and my close friends would know that it is very rare for me to be unable to relate to other people’s emotional distress; usually I pick up other people’s emotions before they even say anything). What is going on?
When I was sitting there pondering what was wrong with me, a few things popped into my head. The first thing was my multiple religious identities—as mentioned above and in my SBCS blogpost in 2018 (3), most people in East Asian societies do not think of religious traditions in exclusive terms and can comfortably identify with Confucian morality, Daoist cosmology, Buddhist philosophy, and folk religious practices at the same time. My tendency of not drawing boundaries between religions extends to monotheistic religions as well: a part of my extended family are Christians and I went to their services as a kid without thinking of it as someone else’s religion. However, even at a young age I found that part of my family to be a little “brittle”—it felt like they were trying very hard to protect an identity that was easily breakable, to the extent that they were rather touchy if any other religious tradition came up in a dinner-table conversation (which was particularly noteworthy because the rest of the family went along with their before-meal Christian prayers without any discomfort). Once I thought about my multiple and unfixed religious identities, my other ambiguous identities also came into view. Then it dawned on me: every part of my identity/-ies is either a mixture, or “neither here, nor there,” or undefinable. Every part of my identity is “queer” or “queered.”
Nothing about my identity is ever fixed or sharply delineated, and somehow that signals to me that nothing needs to be a fixture of my identity; I never have a stable, monolithic, exclusive identity to latch on to, and I do not feel the need to do so. Every part can submerge, not because I feel ashamed of it, but because it is irrelevant in the context. Conversely, every part can emerge prominently depending on the function needed at the moment. For me, shifting identity is as natural as conversing in English with my colleagues and students, and then switching to Mandarin Chinese mixed with Taiwanese when calling my mother and my brother. Conversing in English does not necessarily mean I am ashamed of my background in Mandarin Chinese or Taiwanese (although it could be the case when I am in the presence of certain obnoxious people who happen to be Chinese or Taiwanese). It is as natural as thinking in Daoist terms when I practice qigong and yet behaving according to Confucian codes when I meet with my elders. It is as natural as being theory-oriented in my scholarly work on Buddhism and yet doing chanting and prostrations in more traditional Buddhist spaces.
How does all this relate to teaching, or queerness, or religious affiliation?
Elsewhere (4) I have written about the affirmation and empowerment that Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara can provide. In Chapter 25 of Kumārajīva’s (Chinese name: Jiu-mo-luo-shi鳩摩羅什 [344-413, or 350-409]) translation of the Lotus Sūtra (Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra), the Inexhaustible Mind Bodhisattva (Bodhisattva Mahāsattva Akṣayamati) asked the Buddha why Avalokiteśvara travels around in this world, how Avalokiteśvara teaches the Dharma for the sake of the living, and what sort of skillful means Avalokiteśvara has. The Buddha replied that Avalokiteśvara would spontaneously assume 33 different forms, depending on the need of the being, in order to teach the Dharma for them. That is, the great Bodhisattva of Compassion performs the identity needed in order to serve a greater function, i.e. teaching the Dharma for the purpose of alleviating suffering. Identity-shifting is done not to avoid certain identities, but to serve the need at the moment. All teachers know and do this: sometimes in order to draw students into the material, we assume the voice of the author or play the devil’s advocate. I use the collective “we” in class when talking about social issues in the U.S. even though I am not American and for years did not even know if I would be allowed to stay in the U.S. I suit up and put on a tie when teaching about the performativity of gender. I deliberately turn up my nerdiness when teaching Religions and Sci-Fi. In classroom, we perform and shift between certain identities, not because other identities are shameful and need to be hidden, but because certain identities seem much more effective in teaching the material and serving the function needed in the classroom.
The Bodhisattva’s ability to shift between multiple identities comes from having transcended the delusional ego-self, and from not being attached to any particular identity. Non-attachment needs to come first. Or does it? Can having multiple or queered identities foster a degree of non-attachment to any particular identity? For the most part in my teaching career I need to cover multiple religious traditions in the same course, and very frequently students only tune in when it is about their religion and seem to have a mental block when it is about religions unfamiliar to them. In my own experience, as well as the experiences of some friends, usually the students with “in between” identities are more receptive to unfamiliar religions—students who come from interfaith families and have the experience of dual or multiple belonging, students who are not Christian but went to Catholic elementary and secondary schools, students who have lived overseas in a different culture for an extended period of time, students who are first- or second-generation immigrants and speak two or more languages at home, students who have been steeped in an “eastern” practice for the better part of their life (such as having practiced karate or jūdō since childhood), students who are gender and/or sexual minorities and have never felt they fit into either of the boxes in the binary sex/gender system, etc. In fact, these students often seem to feel inspired or even empowered in learning about diverse religious traditions. I was told, for example, that queer students in a course on LGBTQ religious experience love to learn about the theological resources in religions that are not their own. Granted, having multiple identities does not guarantee attenuation of attachment; one can cling to multiple identities as tenaciously as they cling to only one, and in so far as they equate themselves with those identities, omitting any of them feels like hiding something out of shame. However, my experiences with students (and with myself) suggest that people who have been “in between” and who have had to shift identity depending on the need at the moment are more comfortable with being presented with different ways of thinking. Their own ambiguous identities instill a certain degree of flexibility with regards to identities or affiliations, and they find diversity to be a resource, rather than a problem or a hindrance. Students who did not have ambiguous identities but took a course that required immersion (such as a religious studies course that requires a visit to the establishment of a different religion, or a language course that is keyed to the cultural context) also tend to be more receptive. Exposure to possibilities allows more possibilities.
A line in the Heart Sūtra that says, “Without attachment, there is no fear.” Without lodging one’s identity in a “stable reference point,” one does not need to fear that particular “stable reference point” may/will crumble or change shape or shift location. Human beings do not have Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara’s ability to assume various forms, but we can cultivate the ability to be comfortable with dislodging identity from any stable reference point and to perform multiple identities. Exposure to diversity allows more flexibility and higher tolerance of undefinability, and cultivating more identities equips one with more tools, which will come in handy when any one of the “stable reference points” becomes unstable. “Queered” identities afford one with resource and resilience.
(1) Iain Morland and Annabelle Willox, “Introduction,” in Queer Theory, edited by Iain Morland and Annabelle Willox (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005), 4. See also Robert J. Corber and Stephen Valocchi, “Introduction,” in Queer Studies: An Interdisciplinary Reader (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), pp. 1 and 8-9.
(2) Tracy L. Robinson-Wood, The Convergence of Race, Ethnicity, and Gender: Multiple Identities in Counseling, 3rd Edition (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson, 2009), iv.
(4) Hsiao-Lan Hu, “Buddhism and Sexual Orientation,” in Oxford Handbook to Contemporary Buddhism, edited by Michael Jerryson (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2016), 662-677.