Sze-kar Wan didn’t meet his grandfather until he immigrated to the U.S. from Hong Kong at age 15. Yet the extraordinary story of his grandfather’s life, in China and the U.S., has influenced Wan’s own life immeasurably.
“I’m a first-generation immigrant,” he said. “My grandfather’s life story became a part of me.”
At the age of 8, Wan’s grandfather, Bing-gyue Hom (“Bing” to all who knew him) was kidnapped along with his younger brother. The brothers were separated, and Bing was sold to a family.
“There were no adoption agencies in China then, so if you wanted a boy, you bought one,” Wan said.
When his adoptive family’s father died in the U.S., Bing was forced to travel – “literally, on a slow boat from China” – to work in the U.S. as the family’s provider. When he disembarked in Seattle, he had lost his eyesight. He eventually made his way to Baltimore, where he washed dishes in a Chinese restaurant and taught himself English as well as braille. He ultimately found work with the Maryland Workshop for the Blind making handicrafts. He remained blind until his death in 1995.
“Here was a Chinese boy, with no education, no language and no eyesight, who somehow made a life for himself,” said Wan. “He never complained and was always very optimistic and extremely kind.”
Bing later returned to China to marry, but went back to the U.S. to work again, leaving his wife and daughters in China. The Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited women, even family members, from entering the U.S. During the Japanese occupation of China in WWII, his wife and daughters frequently hid in the cemetery to escape marauders.
Bing’s story is just one of many stories in the Wan family tree that are wrapped up with world events of the past century: the Chinese Exclusion Act, WWII, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. Wan says that heritage informs his faith, his scholarship and his politics.
“I think I’ve always felt that I had more of an emotional investment in world events as a result,” he said. The hardships and prejudice his family encountered connect him deeply to his favorite Bible passage, Galatians 3:28: There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus (nrsv).
“That verse represents what I think Christianity is or at least should be,” he said. “It’s true, the verse may not be as innocent as we think. But it represents who I am and what drives my scholarship and my theological convictions.”
Wan says he identifies as a Chinese American Christian – and all three identifiers are equally essential. While his Chinese heritage is important to him, he is thoroughly American.
“To me, America is not an ethnicity,” he said. “America is a concept, a principle, maybe even a prototype of people of different ethnicities and religions living together.”
Research Leave in Taiwan
Currently, Wan is on research leave at the National Chengchi University in Taiwan, where he continues work on his long-term project, a commentary on 2 Corinthians, to be published in the Illuminations series by William B. Eerdmans. Recently, he finished a book on Romans, to be published by Bloomsbury of London. Both works include examinations of ancient and modern political theology.
The stay in Taiwan has given Wan and his family an up-close view of how the island country has managed the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools delayed reopening in February by two weeks, and large gatherings were canceled. Otherwise, businesses remained open and life went on almost as normal. A few of Wan’s speaking engagements in Taiwan were also curtailed, but most went on as scheduled.
As of May 28, Taiwan, a country of 24 million, had chalked up 45 consecutive days with no local infections and only seven total deaths from COVID-19. Non-citizens have been barred from entering the country since mid-March, and returning citizens are required to quarantine for 14 days. Luggage and all articles of clothing are thoroughly disinfected at the airport as one passes through immigration. In public, everyone wears facemasks and practices social distancing.
“Taiwanese don’t have this irresponsible notion of freedom as some do in the U.S.,” he said. “As a result, so far, the country has managed the virus very well.”
From his temporary home base of Taiwan, Wan has been watching with grave concern as the Chinese Communist Party recently unveiled plans to assert greater control of Hong Kong with a new national security law. Last October, he organized a symposium, “Hong Kong Protests: A Messianic Movement?”, that featured Dr. Lap Yan Kung, professor of Theology of the Chinese University of Hong Kong Divinity School. That triggered fierce objections from Chinese students at SMU that left Wan wary for the safety of himself and his family.
Wan is also keeping a close eye on the rise of Christian nationalism in the U.S., especially among white Evangelicals. Wan grew up in an Evangelical church himself, attended an Evangelical seminary and spent two summers doing evangelistic work in Boston’s Chinatown.
“I was going around the neighborhood … making public announcements in English, Cantonese and my native Hoisanese,” he said in a March sermon via Zoom to First Baptist Church of Newton, Mass. “I am still very proud of that work. But the capitulation of American white Evangelicals to rightwing politics has produced a frightening form of nationalism that is partly based on racism and partly based on Christianity.”
He’s particularly alarmed by images of angry people “armed with guns and God, threatening violence on anyone who advocate isolation and face masks on account of the coronavirus.”
Wan believes Christians today must confront this question: “What is it about Christianity that makes it possible, even acceptable, to threaten the existence of others – even those who profess the same faith and worship the same God, let alone those who do not call themselves Christians?”
Paul, Romans, postcolonial studies, second Temple Judaism
Paul and empire, postcolonial studies of the New Testament, Philo and Hellenistic Judaism, Neo-Confucianism
Book on His Nightstand
Wan is rereading Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism. “What I find interesting is that Germany in the 1920s was one of the most democratic, socially and scientifically most advanced countries in the world, and yet someone like Hitler could take power using democratic means,” he said.
Fantasy Dinner Party
Wan would invite C.S. Lewis, George Orwell and Aldous Huxley. “I think that Lewis, the Christian apologist, in conversation with Huxley, a humanistic mystic, would make for a very interesting conversation,” he said. “And I’d ask Orwell what gave him the insight about the future. He wrote his dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, in 1949, yet he had wonderful insights on how autocrats might use democratic instruments to build an authoritarian regime, as we’re seeing in China and maybe in the U.S.”
Wan and his wife, an architect, have twin girls, age 4. One impetus for the sojourn to Taiwan, he said, was for his daughters to learn Mandarin – which they seem to be doing very quickly.
Wan has been making linguine with clams often lately. “The girls love clams, and they’re very good and cheap in Taiwan,” he said.