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Asian American Studies Professor is At Home in Exile

Russell Jeung invites homeless children living in a garage to come to his home for tutoring
Russell Jeung invites homeless children living in a garage to come to his home for tutoring
Photo by Joyce Huang

By Louis Chan
AsAmNews National Correspondent

A new memoir At Home In Exile takes place on the mean streets of an Oakland neighborhood known as Murder Dubs.

The neighborhood is as the name implies. It’s a violent prone and most robbed neighborhood in the most robbed city in the nation–Oakland, California.

It’s also home of San Francisco State Asian American Studies professor Russell Jeung whose memoir was just released by Zondervan.

“A major section of my memoir shares my family’s Asian American story,” said Jeung. “I’m fifth generation Chinese American, and my great great grandfather migrated after the Hakka-Punti Wars in the 1860s. So everything Asians have faced in the US–economic exploitation, racial segregation, mass removal, political disenfranchisement, ghettoization, and under-employment–my family has undergone.”

In a way, Jeung has subjected himself and his wife Joan and three children, to self-imposed ghettoization.

Russell and Joan have dedicated much of their lives to working with the poor and the refugees of Southeast Asia.

Living in their neighborhood was a conscious choice.

“Outsiders don’t really understand the dynamics of a community or earn the trust of local residents,”he said. “By living in a neighborhood, one experiences firsthand the issues of that neighborhood. So I understand and relate to the pernicious effects of racism, poverty, and inequality in a very real, concrete way. It affects my family.”

The Jeungs are a family of Christian faith.They are active members of New Hope Covenant and a big part of the book is sharing their faith and how it has touched their lives.

“My faith was the primary reason I moved there (East Oakland). Few folks, even those who call themselves progressive, choose to identify with a low-income community and live there. I wanted to learn from the community.”

Neighborhood boy finds a heroin needle
A young neighborhood boy finds a heroin needle. Photo courtesy: San Francisco Chronicle

Doing so is not without his risks. He admits to fearing for the safety of his family. He’s battled drug dealers who have in turn threatened him. He says that fear motivates him to work hard to make his community a better place.

A part of the book touches on the exorcism of a girl whose family approached him for help.

“I didn’t do much, except to drive the family to Long Beach for them to purchase a headdress necessary to offer to her ancestral spirits. She’s fine, and doesn’t recall the incident at all–even though she was in that state of possession for a few days.”

Russell Jeung and his family are honored by the Karen Refugee
Russell Jeung and his family are honored by the Karen Refugee Church. Photo by Joyce Huang

For those who might be offended by his book’s religious bent, he bluntly says “don’t read my book. If you’re an American Christian, then you should really fear my book because I want to challenge the Church to be less hypocritical. I want us all to be challenged to be more loving, to live more justly, and act more mercifully.”

Another large part of At Home in Exile focuses on what you might expect from an Asian American Studies professor, being Asian American.

The name of the book addresses being considered a foreigner in his own country. He spends a part of the book addressing his exilic identity as a “stranger and foreigner” addressing major societal issues of our day-poverty, racism and persistent inequality.

“I try to put a personal face on the effects of being an Asian in the US. We’ve also experienced racial privilege–benefiting from governmental policies such as the GI Bill, living in middle class neighborhoods, getting into good schools. Since Asian Americans occupy a unique space in America’s racial hierarchy, I think we have a particular vantage point to view race relations, economic inequality, and current issues. I try to offer a unique Asian American Christian perspective to our national discourse.”

The book is available in paperback at zondervan.com. Jeong will be speaking at the Chinese American Historical Society in San Francisco Chinatown on November 12 at 1:30. The event is free with paid museum admission.

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