Review of At Home in Exile by Russell Jeung

It’s not often that a book comes along that is delightfully written, hilariously funny, and at the same time may change your life.  But At Home in Exile (Zondervan) by Russell Jeung is such a book.  Written as a spiritual memoir, the book traces Jeung’s ancestry, his life growing up as a Chinese-American in the San Francisco Bay Area, and his involvement with a community living among impoverished Cambodian refugees in east Oakland, California.  When the book is not inducing deep belly laughs that draw quizzical looks from across the room, it is causing you to reflect deeply on the meaning of your own experience and commitments.  All this is in light of the book’s reflection of the commitments that Jeung and his friends have made to the poor, not the poor generally as a concept, but to a very specific poor community.

The term “incarnational ministry” and the “new urban monasticism” have been buzzwords in Christian ministry circles for several years now. Jeung shows us what these phrases look like.  Moving into his friend Dan’s cockroach/drug dealer infested apartment complex in 1992, he paints for his readers a picture of intentional downward social mobility.  Jeung, who had graduated from Stanford and was finishing his Ph.D. at Berkeley in sociology, contrasts the Asian American Dream with the lives of his immigrant neighbors and his own immigrant ancestors.  While the contrast of the relative affluence of Asian Americans with the poverty of immigrant refugees is more obvious, Jeung’s deeper contrast lies in the depth of community and spiritual hunger within these two communities. One he characterizes as a life-long quest for the empty promises of consumerism and materialism; the second by the depth of love and support he finds within his immigrant neighborhood.  His rejection of American consumer culture could not be more thorough or more thoroughly articulated.  Jeung meets Jesus, and the joy that the Asian American Dream cannot bring, as he lives among the poor in Oakland.

What surprised me most about the book was its lack of analysis, especially as a book written by a fellow university professor (Jeung is Professor of Asian American studies at San Francisco State University.)  My own instinct in poverty work is to try to understand everything; Jeung, in contrast, lives and experiences.  Rather than analyze these experiences within an academic framework, he instead finds life and existential meaning through them; his book reads more like a testimony than a treatise.

The writing is beautiful, often hilarious. As he describes his relatives who first arrived in San Francisco five generations ago: “When I pictured my grandfather, I saw Fu Manchu. Arch villains were always more interesting characters to me than the good guys because their sinister plots involved warped thinking and elaborate scheming…”  In search of insights from his ancestral Chinese people group in a museum in Hong Kong, the Hakka, he is disappointed to find that the apex of Hakka culinary achievement was a dish literally translated as “Chicken Crap Dumplings.”

At Home in Exile has much for development researchers and practitioners.  The Oak Park Community in which Jeung has played a leading role bought a lawsuit against the slumlord of the apartment complex in which the community lived.  The lawsuit was eventually decided in favor of the tenants, who were then relocated to nicer housing. However, Jeung relates how as the community escaped the worst of the ghetto, the depth of relationship began to break down. Replacing the happy chaos in the ghetto apartment courtyard were children holed up in their new three-bedroom apartments playing video games.

This reflection led me to consider a conundrum in community development work. Many missionaries attempt to simultaneously build community and foster material prosperity among the poor.  However, the pursuit of these twin goals creates opposing forces.  Poverty breeds interdependence. Increasing prosperity allows for greater independence from others, perhaps even from dependence on God.  Fostering a deeper and richer relationship with community and with God, while helping to usher the same people out of poverty may be objectives that push against one another.  One  is likely to be realized at the expense of the other.  At Home in Exile offers no quick solution to this dilemma, but instead offers us a rich portrayal of love and commitment to community and to the poor.

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