As an ESL teacher, I spend several hours a week individually tutoring a first grader named Thomas. I started working with him because his mother, who was taking adult ESL classes at the community college I was volunteering in, approached me with concerns about his ability to acquire English reading and writing skills at the same pace as his peers, namely because he only uses English at school while his peers use English at home as well as school. In communicating with his parents, Thomas knows how to speak Cantonese, Taishanese, some Mandarin (from Sunday Chinese school), and of course English. I usually have Thomas read picture books to me, practice writing sentences and spelling words, or work on school work that his mom can’t help him with. Though from my perspective, he is a bright kid with a very active imagination and a good mind for actively learning what he is interested in, all his mom seems to see is a troublesome, naughty, unstudious child, characteristic of the troublemakers (especially guys) that are usually in every class.In line with his mother’s concerns, when he doesn’t enjoy what he is learning, he becomes stubborn, apathetic, and sometimes even silly in terms of not taking the study materials seriously. I try to make the books we read and the activities we do fun and interesting by shaping them in the form of games, rewards, and storytelling, largely based on his own interests. I treat him like a little brother and his mom treats me as her son. I rarely go home after a tutoring session (usually late afternoons) empty-handed in terms of a nicely packaged tupperware of whatever she has cooked for dinner that night. I see so much of my own youth in terms of family cultural dynamics and diversity of linguistic exposure in Thomas’ life, and that is what motivates me the most to spend time working with him.
So in having set the context, I was reading a book with Thomas on how polar bears and penguins would never meet because they live on opposite ends of the world. Essentially, they were learning about the North and South pole, the Arctic and Antarctica, and the wildlife in each region. I don’t remember how we transitioned from this topic to the next but Thomas ended up asking me, “Do you love God?”
Some Buddhist writers have an unquenchable fascination with Western Buddhism. Perhaps it’s due to a flaming sense of entitlement, zealous evangelism or cultural elitism. Regardless, I unfortunately seem to have an undying fascination with these people.
Barbara O’Brien addresses Stuff White People Like, a blog and book by Christian Lander, noting that “Lander mentions Buddhism as a popular choice.” She then writes that “[w]hile Lander’s description of western Buddhists is exaggerated, I think it reflects how most westerners view western Buddhists.” But Landers was writing about white people, not Western Buddhists.
After all, Western Buddhism isn’t white—or is it?
I’m going to take the amateur linguist in me for a spin. C.N. Le’s blog post on Asian Nation last Thursday was perceived as ridiculously offensive, even racist, by a number of White bloggers. I walked away from this post with different conclusions, perceiving no racist finger pointing, and instead a strong affirmation of the very same sentiments I occasionally experience at multicultural Buddhist retreats. In spite of heated back-and forth-comments, which have made liberal use of the terms racist, racism and white privilege, I believe further discussion is necessary. How did we come to these different conclusions from the very same words?
There are about 1.5 million Asian American Buddhists in the United States. Or at least, that’s my estimate. My confidence interval is pretty big, but I feel certain enough to start tossing this number around from now on. This figure keeps the data and assumptions of the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, but adjusts them to address discrepancies related to the U.S. Census, linguistic preferences of Asian Americans and geography (i.e. counting Hawai‘i and Alaska).
In past posts, I observed that the Pew Forum severely underestimated the size of the Asian American community (by about 56%!), and I also investigated what it meant to exclude Buddhists in Hawai‘i. I even tried out my own deliberately-flawed estimate. But there was one issue that I left off until now: language.
It’s 7:15am in Cambridge, Massachusetts and I’m sitting in the Peet’s Coffee off Brattle Square waiting for some friends to roll out of bed and come grab some breakfast with me. In the meantime, I thought I’d throw up a post about a semi-recent collection of poetry by Wisdom Publications: The Wisdom Anthology of North American Buddhist Poetry (2005).
As you might guess, I decided to view this book through the lens of the Asian Meter. How many Asian American Buddhists met the bar for inclusion in this work? I wasn’t surprised to find out that the Wisdom Anthology, at 17% Asian American, fell right in the middle of the other publications that I’d reviewed (The Best Buddhist Writing, 19%; Buddhadharma, 17%; Shambhala Sun, 11%; Tricycle, 8%). But rather than harangue the Wisdom Anthology, as I’ve done for the other publications, I think this is something to be celebrated. Specifically because a quotient of 17% is infinitely more than a certain Buddhist anthology published by Shambhala many years back: Beneath a Single Moon.
I previously blogged that the numbers in the Pew Study severely underestimated the size of the Asian American community. They don’t hide this fact, either. Their number is roughly 30% to 40% smaller than the 13.2 million Asian Americans that the U.S. Census published for the same time period. (Hapas excluded. I know, it’s unfair.) According to the Pew approximately 675,000 Asian Americans were Buddhist in 2007, but this number is far too small.
How small is too small? Let’s put these numbers into perspective. If there were only 675,000 Asian American Buddhists in 2007, that number would be less than if we said that Buddhism was practiced by a mere 20% of all Americans of Southeast Asian heritage and a token 5% of all Americans of East Asian heritage. And I’m not even counting multiethnic Americans here. That number is too small.
One thing I carried away from this past election cycle was that in certain parts of the country, people refer to their ancestry as “American.” This juicy tidbit about American demographics was gleaned from Nate Silver‘s highly influential blog, where he wrote:
Recently, the Census Bureau has begin to ask for an ethnic classification in addition to a racial one (e.g. “Cuban”, “Lithuanian”). However, about seven percent of Americans decline to check any of the boxes that the Census Bureau provides, and instead write in that they are simply “American”. As you can see, this practice tends to be highly concentrated in certain parts of the country, especially the Appalachian/Highlands region:
To be perfectly blunt, this variable seems to serve as a pretty good proxy for folks that a lot of us elitists would usually describe as “rednecks”. And for whatever reason, these “American” voters do not like Barack Obama. That is why he’s getting killed in the polls in Kentucky and West Virginia, for instance, where there are high concentrations of them.
So what does this have to do with Buddhism? Nothing.
But coincidentally, the other day, Rev. Danny Fisher posted a link to an article over at elephant journal, where Waylon Lewis defined the term Dharma brat in a way that made my heart skip a beat:
One day I visited with Ben Moore, a fellow “Dharma Brat” (child of American Buddhist parents).
So what then does it mean to be an American Buddhist?
Ever since I started making my Asian Meter graphs (here, here and here), I’ve been trying to find a good measure of the proportion of Asians in the Buddhist American community to use as a sort of benchmark. I’ve used two percentages: 32% from the Pew Forum and 80% from David N. Snyder. Both are flawed estimates, but here I’ll just focus on the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life’s Religious Landscape Survey (the “Pew survey” for short).
For the past week I’ve been mulling over two percentages that the Pew survey provided. There is the widely circulated number that 32% of Buddhist Americans are of Asian descent (and not hapa). You can find this in Tricycle‘s Fall 2008 issue. Then there is the less commonly known number, which is ostensibly the flip-side of the first, that 9% of Asian Americans are Buddhist. The problem is that these two numbers don’t add up.
I realize this must be getting tedious. There is so much more to life than counting the Asians in Buddhist publications. I continue to do this count for two reasons. First, I’m learning how to use Microsoft Excel, and these numbers are fun, simple and original data to work with. Second, there is so much that I learn when I plug these numbers into the charts! For example, it never would have hit me that Tricycle had fewer Asian writers (proportionally speaking) than either Shambhala Sun or Buddhadharma. That bar graph really speaks to me. (Update: I also do this because I think someone should find out what the numbers say.)
The Best Buddhist Writing data was still lying around on my antique laptop, so I dug it up and dropped it into an Asian Meter graph. Three points jumped out at me. First, there is the obvious fact that even when it comes to The Best Buddhist Writing, the Asian quotient is still under-representative. Second, there are more Tibetan writers than all the other Asians combined. The third point is something that I only discovered after looking at the graph and comparing what I was seeing with the number I had written down in my previous post on these books.
This is a boring post, beware. It took a while for the local Borders to stock the most recent issue of Buddhadharma, but they finally did. I am going to just bite the bullet and subscribe to these magazines online. Somewhere, a tree spirit is heaving a spontaneous sigh of relief and doesn’t know why.
Anyway, I now have the third piece to plop into my Asian Meter. I also moved things around a little and added some detail to the graphic. Voilà!