Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles by Jennifer 8. Lee

Last week I finished reading Jennifer 8. Lee's fantastic book The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food. In it Lee searches out the origins of various aspects of Chinese food, to discover that many of them are American inventions. Chop suey is unknown in China, and was likely invented here in the States and described as "bits and pieces" of stuff. (Leftovers!) General Tso's chicken has also been radically Americanized. Lee visited Tso's hometown in China, and found that it was unheard of there. The Chinese chef who created the dish was shocked to see how it had been changed. "The dish can't be sweet," Chef Peng said. "That isn't the taste of Hunan cuisine. The taste of Hunan cuisine is not sweet."

The white cardboard takeout boxes are also an American invention, originally used for various kinds of restaurants but quickly became associated with Chinese takeout. Much soy sauce made by American companies is not made from soybeans and is little more than salted water with vegetable proteins. And the "P. F." in the name of the P. F. Chang's China Bistro restaurant chain stands for founder Paul Fleming, who also cocreated Outback Steakhouse.

Fortune cookies, too, have an interesting history - they're originally Japanese and can still be found made by hand in Japan. How did they become Chinese? During WWII, Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps, and many lost everything. Entrepreneurial Chinese restaurateurs filled the vacuum and started producing the cookies as "Chinese tea cakes." Soon they became synonymous with Chinese restaurants. One Japanese American says that he wishes that Americans knew the Japanese origin of the fortune cookie, but he respects the role of the Chinese in refining it. "They marketed it better. They put a better spin on it, and that is how it got world popular and ubiquitous."

Lee argues that Chinese food has become as thoroughly an American institution as baseball and apple pie. Chinese restaurants in the U.S. outnumber McDonald's two to one; there are over 40,000 Chinese restaurants, which is more than McDonald's, Burger King and KFC combined. And the story of American Chinese food is in many ways a chronicle of cultural contextualization. If McDonald's is standardized like Microsoft Windows, Chinese restaurants are open source like Linux. You can find Cajun Chinese food in Louisiana, with Szechuan alligator and soy-vinegar crawfish dishes. In Philadelphia, you can find Philly cheesesteak rolls. [There's an analogy here for the church. Just as Chinese restaurants contextualize and adapt to local environments while staying distinctively Chinese in flavor and style, so too do churches contextualize and adapt while staying distinctively Christian.]

Lee's book also touches on justice issues, like human smuggling and the struggles of immigrant Chinese restaurant workers. Being a Chinese deliveryman in New York City is dangerous, with people being killed for nine bucks' worth of food. Chinese food has been a path out of poverty for many Chinese peasants in search of a better life, but it has also trapped many in usurious debt.

And she points out the cultural optimism of Americans, who always want positive, upbeat fortunes in their cookies. Some restaurant customers get upset if they get bad fortunes, or ask for new ones or even demand refunds. One man loved fortune cookie fortunes so much that he invented a Fortune Album to store and display the little slips of paper. Fortunes have been as simple as "Remember, being happy is not always being perfect," enigmatic as "Buy a door. Sell a door. Open a door. Close a door. Adoor a door. Ignore a door." and nonsensical as "Half a prayer for waking up and using the toilet and the dead animal on the road." (I've kept two fortunes in my wallet for years: "You and your mate will be happy in your life together" and "Wise men learn by other men's mistakes; fools by their own.")

This book was a delight, something akin to Fast Food Nation meets The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy with a flavor of The Joy Luck Club. It made me hungry for Chinese food as well as appreciate the duality of Chinese American identity. I commend it highly.

(P.S. At the very end of the book, I noticed a reference to a name of someone I know from InterVarsity circles who went to college with the author. Small, small world, that I'm just one degree of separation away from her. I managed to find her via Facebook out of the hundreds of Jennifer Lees there! Cool to connect.)

Monday, March 24, 2008

The language of resurrection: He is risen indeed!

After not being able to say "Alleluia" for all of Lent, it was a great joy to be able to celebrate this weekend, "Christ is risen! Alleluia!"

It strikes me how significant resurrection language was in the life of the early church, and not only in explicit references. There are also all sorts of subtle references to Jesus' rising again, particularly in the vocabulary used in the Gospel narratives. For example, in the John 13 footwashing passage I preached on for Maundy Thursday, verse 4 says that Jesus "got up" (NIV, NRSV) from the meal. That verb could be rendered "rises" or "arose." I think that has to be significant. Jesus had descended and condescended to live and dwell with us, to break bread with us. But he rises from the table. He is one of us, but he is unlike any of us. He rises.

Similarly, in Matthew's account of the stilling of the storm, in Mt. 8:26, Jesus was asleep in the boat but then "got up" to rebuke the winds and the waves. Again, the verb choice there is intentional to evoke the resurrection. Jesus was asleep (as in death) but arises from his slumber to rescue the disciples from perishing. The entire story is a microcosm of the gospel, and the language is meant to foreshadow Jesus' death and resurrection. (I am indebted to my former New Testament professor, Chris Davis, for this insight. I also did a mini-exposition on this passage in chapter 4 of my book Grieving a Suicide.)

Tangent: All this makes me think that a current contemporary Christian song is wrongheaded in its choice of lyrics. The Casting Crowns song "East to West" is a great exploration of the nature of God's forgiveness, but I think they make a poor word choice in the chorus when they say, "I can't bear to see the man I've been / Come rising up in me again." I can't help but think the biblical writers would never use "rising" vocabulary in this instance, because it's referring to the "old man" being raised again (in a bad way), rather than a reference to either the resurrection of Jesus or our being raised to new life with him. I think Christians ought to reserve resurrection language for instances of true resurrection.

At any rate, I'm glad that we are now in a season of resurrection and new life. For all of the cultural dominance of Christmas, the true height of the Christian year is Eastertide. So let the alleluias ring! Christ is risen. He is risen indeed!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The top and the sides of the doorframes

I'm preaching at our church's Maundy Thursday service this evening. My talk is mostly an experiential retelling of the washing of the disciples' feet, as it will lead directly into a footwashing service. But I'm also lifting out one particular detail from the Old Testament lectionary reading in Exodus 12 about the Passover. There, in Ex. 12:7, it says that "They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it" (NRSV). This is somewhat easier to visualize in the TNIV: "Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the doorframes of the houses where they eat the lambs."

Try this. Stand at a doorway and imagine that you are holding a cloth dipped in blood. Then swab the top of the doorframe first, and then the sides, the right and then the left. The top, and then the sides. This should make the sign of the cross.

I can't remember where I first heard this, but I find it to be a fascinating connection. Way back at the first Passover, centuries before the institution of Roman crucifixion, the blood of the lamb was being spread on doorframes in a cross-like gesture. That's just amazing. Like the love of God in Christ. Amazing love, how can it be?

May this Holy Week lead you on a sacred journey to the cross of Christ, and then to the empty tomb and beyond.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

A belated second blogiversary

A few days ago was this blog's second anniversary, and I forgot to mention it. Last year on my first blogiversary, I changed the template, so I'll do that again today, just for a change of pace.

When I started blogging, it was mostly experimental. The blogosphere had recently emerged as a significant realm, and I wondered if anybody would read anything I had to say. My suburban book was about to be released, so I figured it was as good a time as any to start blogging. And since I had nothing better in mind, I went ahead and called the blog The Suburban Christian to parallel the book.

If I had it to do over, I might not have staked out my blogging identity as The Suburban Christian because now I feel a little stuck, like I have to come up with suburban-related posts on a regular basis. Industry colleagues and other authors have said that it's better to go with something that will transcend any particular book, so to have your blog URL/name be your own name, like Margaret Feinberg or Julie Clawson. Then again, Scot McKnight's Jesus Creed blog, while obviously named after the Jesus Creed book, has certainly transcended that particular book. So in many ways this suburban Christian blog has never been merely about The Suburban Christian the book, but about my thoughts and musings as a suburban Christian. Which means that I am now referred to as "Al Hsu, the Suburban Christian," kind of like other people are known as the Sarcastic Lutheran or the Postmodern Negro.

I actually thought about rebooting this blog and moving over to or (both of which I've been cybersquatting on), but it seemed like it would be too much trouble to move all the posts. And a number of folks have bookmarked me at So I decided to stay here and embrace my suburban Christian-ness.

If my blogging has changed over the last couple of years, it's not so much in posting (it's pretty much a regular habit for me to post two or three times a week now), but in other blog reading and commenting elsewhere. I'm afraid I just don't have the time these days to keep up with everything that's out there. I'll still lurk here and there and will occasionally enter a dialogue, but it's all to easy for me to get sucked in to link after link, and before I know it, two hours have passed and I've gotten nothing else done. So I apologize for not commenting and interacting as much as I could. I still try to comment back on this blog and answer questions when posed. Thanks again to everybody who reads this blog! I appreciate it.

Monday, March 17, 2008

St. Patrick's Day and Holy Week

Today's convergence is rare; St. Patrick's Day won't coincide with Holy Week again until 2160. So let me use the occasion as an excuse to post Patrick's most famous prayer. The Breastplate of St. Patrick is often trimmed down to just the final stanzas, but here is an older translation of the full text:

I arise today, through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity, through belief in the threeness, through confession of the oneness, of the Creator of Creation.

I arise today, through the strength of Christ's birth with his baptism, through the strength of his crucifixion with his burial, through the strength of his resurrection with his ascension, through the strength of his descent for the judgment of Doom.

I arise today, through the strength of the love of the Cherubim, in obedience of angels, in the service of archangels, in the hope of the resurrection to meet with reward, in the prayers of patriarchs, in prediction of prophets, in preaching of apostles, in faith of confessors, in innocence of holy virgins, in deeds of righteous men.

I arise today, through the strength of heaven; light of sun, radiance of moon, splendor of fire, speed of lightning, swiftness of wind, depth of sea, stability of earth, firmness of rock.

I arise today, through God's strength to pilot me: God's might to uphold me, God's wisdom to guide me, God's eye to look before me, God's ear to hear me, God's word to speak to me, God's hand to guard me, God's way to lie before me, God's shield to protect me, God's host to save me, from the snares of devils, from temptations of vices, from every one who shall wish me ill, afar and anear, alone and in a multitude.

I summon today, all these powers between me and those evils, against every cruel merciless power that may oppose my body and soul, against incantations of false prophets, against black laws of pagandom, against false laws of heretics, against craft of idolatry, against spells of women and smiths and wizards, against every knowledge that corrupts man's body and soul.

Christ to shield me today, against poisoning, against burning, against drowning, against wounding, so there come to me abundance of reward. Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left, Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ when I arise, Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me, Christ in the mouth of every one who speaks of me, Christ in the eye of every one that sees me, Christ in every ear that hears me.

I arise today, through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity, through belief in the threeness, through confession of the oneness, of the Creator of Creation.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

On role playing and creating culture

The New York Times ran an article, "Geek Love" by Wired senior editor Adam Rogers, about last week's death of Gary Gygax. If you know that name, you probably played the Dungeons & Dragons role playing game as a kid. Yes, I'll confess it - I played D&D in the early '80s, starting around 6th grade, before moving on to James Bond role playing systems. I also loved the "Dungeons & Dragons" Saturday morning animated cartoon, with the ensemble cast of archetypal characters, each with their enchanted artifact: ranger (bow), thief (cloak), barbarian (club), cavalier (shield), magician (hat), and acrobat (staff). I loved the concept of the TV show, with its fantasy alternate world and the "quest to return home" theme. I even wrote a short story in high school using this template, casting my friends as the main characters.

[Geeky tangent: It occurs to me now that Sheila the thief, with her invisibility cloak, parallels Sue Storm in the Fantastic Four not only as an invisible girl, but also as the older protective sister to a younger brother teammate (Bobby the barbarian). She also predated Harry Potter's invisibility cloak by a good fifteen years. And I'll even admit to having a crush on her, despite the fact that she was merely an animated character. Sigh.]

I gave up D&D because my mom was convinced it was evil and had occult ties. After going to a Bill Gothard seminar that preached about the dangers of D&D, I sadly tossed all of my D&D paraphernalia into the trash.

But as the New York Times article notes, D&D and the fantasy roleplaying motif has thoroughly permeated our collective consciousness:
We live in Gary Gygax’s world. The most popular books on earth are fantasy novels about wizards and magic swords. The most popular movies are about characters from superhero comic books. The most popular TV shows look like elaborate role-playing games: intricate, hidden-clue-laden science fiction stories connected to impossibly mathematical games that live both online and in the real world.
Rogers traces the ripple effects of D&D in influencing and shaping contemporary gaming culture, technology advances, and even Google and Facebook. He writes:
Mr. Gygax’s genius was to give players a way to inhabit the characters inside their games, rather than to merely command faceless hordes, as you did in, say, the board game Risk. Roll the dice and you generated a character who was quantified by personal attributes like strength or intelligence.
By creating and popularizing the role-playing phenomenon, Gygax enabled players to take on characteristics and moral alignments and play out scenarios that gave them a sense of adventure, mission and purpose. There was mystery, challenge, intrigue and drama. Of course, most of us adolescent D&D players eventually grew up and left the role-playing world behind. Real life has enough drama of its own. But on occasion, we might still escape into some role playing or gaming world, such as Heroclix or LEGO Star Wars.

It occurs to me now that in the Gygax vs. Gothard smackdown, Gygax ultimately triumphed. Why? I think because whereas Gothard and other conservative Christians defensively attacked D&D out of fears of Satan worship, Gygax and D&D created an appealing world and fascinating narrative that people could enter into. It was participatory, and it also created community. Rogers notes, "You needed at least three people to play — two adventurers and one Dungeon Master to guide the game — so Dungeons & Dragons was social. Demented and sad, but social."

In short, Gygax created culture, whereas Gothard merely condemned culture. Gothard did not create a compelling alternative to D&D - he merely argued that it was evil. Whatever one might think about his perspective, the larger issue for Christians is whether we will create compelling, dramatic narratives and stories for people to participate in, or if we only react against what other people create. Andy Crouch's forthcoming Culture Making argues that Christians cannot change the culture by condemning it, critiquing it, copying it or consuming it. The only way to change culture is to create more culture.

(BTW, a few years ago Christianity Today observed the irony that Christians were up in arms about Harry Potter but seemed to give a pass to Lord of the Rings, whereas Tolkien's work might actually have more occultish elements and ripple effects than anything J. K. Rowling has written. Mickey Maudlin wrote, "If you want to condemn a work for what it has inspired, then turn up the heat for Tolkien. While neither Tolkien or Rowling has ever encouraged people to mistake their magical worlds for the real one (in fact, both have made quite the opposite point), many fans have voluntarily entered Middle Earth. It would be hard not to link the occult-friendly role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons to the influence and popularity of Lord of the Rings, which has provided the imaginative landscape for much modern fantasy.")

At any rate, the NY Times also ran this flowchart/map with the article. See if you identify.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Planned obsolescence and perceived obsolescence

Annie Leonard's animated online video The Story of Stuff is a concise summary of the process by which things are manufactured, distributed and disposed of, and all of the problems along the way. Producers and retailers externalize the true hidden costs (environmental impact, labor abuses, etc.) so they are pretty much invisible to the consumer. Thus at point of purchase our decisions are personalized in terms of "How does this product benefit me?" and "Am I getting a good deal?" and not "Who manufactured this item? How were the workers treated? Were the raw materials derived responsibly and sustainably or not?" Those kinds of issues are not front and center on store shelves.

I especially appreciate Leonard's observation about the difference between planned obsolescence and perceived obsolescence. Planned obsolescence occurs when companies manufacture items that are intended to be disposable or produced so cheaply that they are probably going to wear out and need replacing in short order. A few months ago Ellen and I replaced the set of steak knives that we'd received when we got married ten years ago. Those knives were described as not needing to be sharpened, and actually you couldn't sharpen them because the subtle serrated-ness of them would be wrecked if you tried to sharpen them. It occurs to me now that this may have been an intentional ploy for planned obsolescence - once the knives get dull, you have to toss them and buy new ones because you can't sharpen the old ones.

Perceived obsolescence is less of a structural thing but every bit as intentional by manufacturers and producers. It's the seasonal changes of fashion that tell you that your big clunky computer monitor is not as cool as the thin flatscreen version, or that certain kinds of shoes or clothes are in or out this year. From a personal discipleship standpoint, most of us have more control over this second dimension than the first; we may not have much influence over producers, but we can rein in our own desires. But the two are related. If we shop for more durable, quality goods that are more likely to last longer, then we will also keep using them over longer periods of time, regardless of whether they still seem fashionable or not.

Our family still has only one cell phone, a prepaid one that we got six years ago or so. It looks clunky and archaic - no cool color screen, no web browsing or MP3 playing, no camera. At a recent conference I noticed how everybody else seemed to have cooler phones, especially iPhones. But my old phone still works perfectly fine for making phone calls, and I really don't need all the other features. And $20 every three months or so feels a lot better to me than getting locked into a $60-per-month plan.

So maybe Christians can embrace obsolescence as an expression of Christian stewardship and countercultural social protest. If my khakis look older and worn, it's probably because I got them at a thrift shop for $3 and don't care a whole lot about impressing anybody these days. So what if my 1995 Honda has a crack in the windshield? It still works, right? As long as it keeps the rain and the bugs out, it's fine. The less we worry about whether our stuff is in style or not, the less we'll be held captive to consumer acquisitiveness.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Evangelicalism: Where the action is?

At the National Pastors Convention last week, a certain theme kept popping up in conversations. People who had not previously identified themselves as evangelicals were claiming the evangelical label, and people who might no longer be really evangelical continue to play to an evangelical base. And self-identified non-evangelicals are talking about the importance and cultural power of evangelical Christianity. It seems that whether people are coming or going, evangelicalism is where the action is. Outsiders coming in or insiders getting out still necessarily define themselves in relationship to evangelicalism.

Some of this is probably sheer numbers. Christian authors of all stripes, whether fundamentalist, mainline, conservative or emergent, generally sense that the largest Christian book-buying audience are evangelicals. Even people who are reacting against evangelicalism's issues (and are eager to bolt) still reach out to evangelicals (who may feel similarly disaffected). There's also been a mini-trend in recent years of general trade New York publishers starting or acquiring evangelical divisions in order to reach evangelical readers. They look at the success of authors like Rick Warren and Joel Osteen and want a piece of that action.

I could be wrong about all this, ensconced as I am in the evangelical subculture. Of course, some of the fuzziness is that there are different kinds of evangelicalism - some folks are theologically evangelical while ecclesiologically mainline, or perhaps sociologically evangelical while doctrinally elsewhere, or whatever. And evangelicalism often needs to be qualified; people talk about Reformed evangelicalism or progressive evangelicalism. Or it might be better as an adjective than a noun, to talk in terms of evangelical Episcopalians or evangelical Methodists or whatnot. But even if the grass is always greener (wherever you may be located), it seems like evangelicalism is still pretty dominant and inescapable. What do you think?

A related observation. I've been following the various emergent conversations and authors for some years now with varying degrees of interest and investedness. There's much to applaud, but I have cautions as well. (As is true of practically any movement! We're all a mixed bag.) But my guess is that the majority of readers of emergent-ish books and participants in emergent conversations are Christians who are rooted in evangelical or mainline churches of some particular tradition or another, with some degree of discontent and dissonance who are hoping for renewal and reform from within. For these folks (clergy and laity alike), the emergent conversation is an opportunity to apply fresh thinking to their established church contexts. A smaller percentage are completely independent or unchurched, or in startups or church plants that are unaffiliated with some kind of denominational tradition.

There are pros and cons either way. The entrepreneurial startups have the opportunity to do new things, explore new horizons and pioneer new ways of living Christianly. But there are dangers of potentially reinventing the wheel and being disconnected from (and unaccountable to) the larger church. On the other hand, those seeking renewal and transformation from within a particular tradition (like Presbymergent, Anglimergent, Luthermergent and Submergent [Anabaptist]) might face more challenges of institutional inertia, but they might be more anchored in their identity. I think of these groups like kites on a string, able to fly because they are connected to a base. I worry a bit that completely independent groups can be like flyaway kites or helium balloons that might go wherever the winds take them.

At any rate, these are random musings that occurred to me last week while at NPC. For the record, I self-identify as evangelical (an evangelical Anglican in particular). Even though perceptions and misunderstandings of evangelicals can be problematic, as the book unChristian has highlighted, I still tend to think that the word is more helpful than not.

Monday, March 03, 2008

I Have a Voice - Down syndrome awareness

I'm now back in the office after being out last week, and I'm swamped with piles of stuff so I don't have much time to blog, but let me just post this YouTube video that a friend forwarded to me. It was produced by GiGi's Playhouse, a Down syndrome awareness center based here in the Chicagoland area. Our family goes to GiGi's Playhouse Too (which is slightly closer to us), and Elijah always enjoys going there and interacting with other kids and families. In an era when increased prenatal screening often leads to termination of pregnancies just because kids have an extra chromosome, GiGi's is doing great work to demonstrate the value, worth and humanity of people with Down syndrome. Anyway, roll the video . . .