Oceanic Crosscurrents and Feminist Ethics

Keun-Joo Christine Pae

The Pacific Ocean, the broadest and deepest on earth, lies between Asia where I grew up and America where I have lived for 20 years. The construction of the term Asian America is unthinkable without it. Geopolitically speaking, my feminist theo-ethics has revolved around the ocean that silently remembers and embodies the history of Asian immigration to the US, as well as America’s wars in Asia, the tourism at the cost of exoticized Asian women, the global trade of cheap female labor at sweatshops along the Pacific Coast, migrant laborers, and endangered oceanic ecologies. 

I often feel that the Pacific Ocean is like Mother God, who continually creates life, holds tears and dreams of all Her creation, and embraces the silenced victims of history. 

My understanding of Asian Pacific American feminist theology is grounded in the Pacific Asian North American Asian Women in Theology and Ministry (PANAAWTM). This 35-year-old grassroots organization has promoted sisterhood among Asian Pacific American women in the church and theological education and produced a critical body of feminist theological knowledge generated by Asian Pacific American women’s analysis of white-hetero-patriarchal-capitalist nation-building and the struggles for liberation from it. PANAAWTM theologies are historically specific and “embodied” as God embodies the hopes and sorrows of people in Asia Pacific diasporas. 

A Distorted Legacy 

In American public discourse, “Asia Pacific” appears as a culturally, racially, and religiously unified region of open borders. But the term fails to grasp the immense diversity among peoples, cultures, religions, and languages associated with the region. The Pacific is often imbued with the “yellow peril” – an unknown fear, danger, and threat to the US. The yellow peril surfaces whenever the US has tensions with Asian countries.1 At the same time, “American Orientalism” perceives Asian Americans as perpetual foreigners whose loyalty is suspect and who can never be fully assimilated, because “Orientalism” has been constructed as barbaric, exotic, alien, and racially different from and inferior to the West.

In actual fact, Asian Pacific Americans (APA hereafter) include long-term permanent residents “as far back as six generations.”3 Hawaiians, for instance, never migrated to the US but became American after the US annexation of their islands. “Asian Americans” first meant those of East and Southeast Asian ancestry predominantly, but “Pacific” was eventually added because the term increasingly included South Asians and Pacific Islanders.4 During the 1960s, a racially conscious pan-Asian identity arose among APAs who shared similar experiences of racial discrimination in the US and political goals for justice and equality. Today, APA should be understood both as a racialized identity and as a political identity. 

“Picture Brides” 

APA women’s history is intertwined with that of men, who started coming to this country around 1763.5 In the 19th century, a large number of Asian men crossed the Pacific Ocean to the US as forced laborers (mostly in Hawaii and California) or as merchants and gold prospectors. Asian women were generally banned from entering the US during this period, but in the early 20th century Chinese and Japanese women were lured to prostitution here. From 1907 to 1924, 45,000 Japanese and 1,000 Korean “picture brides” arrived in Hawaii and California and married native men who were working in plantations and farms.6

From 1790 to 1952, Asians could not be naturalized in the US, although many of them spent their entire lives here. Also, until 1968, when the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 was fully enacted, Asian-American women were few in proportion to men. As the Asian-American population grew in the US, ethnic Asian churches functioned as the community center not only to preserve their respective cultures, languages, and Christian practices but also to promote their political interests. Especially in the early 20th century, Korean- and Chinese-American churchwomen were internationalists who worked for the independence of their home countries that were subjugated by European and Japanese powers. 

America’s wars in the Asia Pacific brought many Asian war brides (mostly Japanese, Korean, Thai, and Vietnamese women) who were married to non-Asian servicemen. Because of their association with non-Asian men, their leadership in ethnic Asian churches has often been neglected. However, these women were the backbone of Asian-American life – they built their communities and churches when only a small number of Asians could legally immigrate to the US. 

Publicly Hidden 

Since the 1965 immigration act, the APA population has rapidly grown across the US. Post-1965 immigrants from Asia are divided into highly educated professionals who have corresponded to a “model minority” stereotype, and those who constitute a critically low-paid US workforce. The former is usually represented by APA churches, as if APAs shared the moral, religious, and cultural values of the Protestantism of middle-class white Americans. The latter ill-paid group, predominantly made up of both US-born Asian and Asian immigrant women, is relatively hidden from the public. 

According to American Studies scholar Lisa Lowe of Yale, the specific recruitment of Asian women as a labor force has intensified since the 1965 immigration act.7 Feminized and racialized labor in today’s neoliberal market economy shows that the Asia Pacific is not so separate from the US. For example, the sweatshops of the garment industry in San Francisco and Los Angeles hire immigrant women from those Asian and Latin American countries where US transnational corporations conduct garment assembly work.8 With attention given to Lowe’s work, Kwok Pui-Lan accentuates the importance of the transnational lens in elaborating an APA feminist theology. She encourages APA feminist theologians and churches to reflect critically on the transnational intersectionality of race, gender, labor, migration, and religion.9

Courage and Remembrance 

Metaphorically speaking, the vast Pacific Ocean is a hybridized space where diverse cultures and images of God find their own identities yet without claiming rigid boundaries. Instead they live harmoniously with one another, allowing currents and waves to cross one another without fear of losing their identities. Rita Nakashima Brock’s concept of “interstitial integrity” enriches my own understanding of Asian Pacific American feminist theology that actively remembers the history of APA women marred with violence by European imperialism, war, patriarchy, racism, sexism, and callous capitalism, and honors their courage and activism for justice and peace. 

According to Brock, “interstitial integrity more accurately describes how human beings construct a self in any culture” – this characterizes the story of race (Native Americans, whites, blacks, APAs, Latino/as, and so forth) and immigration on North American soil.10 All of our identities have been (differently) constructed by colonization, then transplanted and hybridized in North America. Brock traces interstitial integrity in APA women’s work for justice since the late 19th century. Instead of splitting ourselves into Asians or Americans, we have worked on both frontiers at once for justice for ourselves, our compatriots, and people in other countries.11 Interstitial integrity helps us stay attuned to life’s fullness and participate in “its ever-changing rhythms and patterns rather than to be starved by unrealized hopes or a thin nostalgic past.”12 

Wisdom Betwixt and Between 

Interstitial integrity infuses also the wisdom leadership cultivated by APA churchwomen. Scholars Su Yon Pak and Jung Ha Kim argue that APA women point to remembering, witnessing, and cultivating wisdom in-between and among various human relationships – in friendships, in intergenerational connections, and among community members and leaders.13 What makes a person wise comes from the “betwixt and between engaged relationships.”14 In interstitial integrity, we breed wisdom, holding together what is seen and unseen, and refusing to let go of either world.15

This wisdom gives freedom and strength to APA Christian women who often become firsts in the church and theological education – the first APA woman pastor, the first APA woman tenured faculty, the first APA woman academic dean, and so forth. When no one has left recipes for us, we create new dishes, bringing our foremothers’ ingredients to the present and borrowing our friends’ cooking skills and spices. Together, we are held in interstitial integrity. Wisdom born out of and nurtured in interstitial integrity empowers us to navigate life’s uncertainties without fear and to build community upon genuine friendships. This is the core of APA churchwomen’s history and its theology. 

Keun-Joo Christine Pae ’03 M.Div. is associate professor and chair of the Department of Religion at Denison University, where she teaches in both the religion department and the Women’s Studies Program. Her research interests include the ethics of peace and war, feminist spiritual activism, US overseas militarism, transnational feminist ethics, and Asian/ Asian-American religious ethics. She is also an Episcopal priest. 


1 Kwok Pui-Lan, “Fishing the Asia Pacific: Transnationalism and Feminist Theology” in Off the Menu: Asian and Asian North America Women’s Religion and Theology, edited by Rita Nakashima Brock, Jung Ha Kim, Kwok Pui-Lan, and Seung Ai Yang (Westminster John Knox, 2007), p. 4. 

2 Ibid. 

3 Rita Nakashima Brock and Nami Kim, “Asian Pacific Protestant Women” in Encyclopedia of Women and Religion in North America, edited by Rosemary Skinner Keller and Rosemary Ruether (Indiana University, 2006), p. 498. 

4 Ibid. 

5 Ibid. 

6 Ibid., p. 499. 

7 Lisa Lowe, Immigration Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics (Duke University, 1996), p. 162. 

8 Ibid., p. 165. 

9 Kwok, “Fishing the Asia Pacific,” pp. 18-19. 

10 Rita Nakashima Brock, “Cooking without Recipes: Interstitial Integrity” in Off the Menu: Asian and Asian North American Women’s Religion and Theology, edited by Rita Nakashima Brock, et al. (Westminster John Knox, 2007), p. 136. 

11 Ibid., p. 139. 

12 Ibid. 

13 Jung Ha Kim and Su Yon Pak, introduction to Leading Wisdom: Asian and Asian North American Women Leaders (Westminster John Knox, 2017), p. 7. 

14 Ibid. 

15 Ibid., p. 8.