Exploring Double Consciousness with Professor Carolyn Chen

by Bettina Chang
photos by Andrew Lo

On Thursday, February 19, at the end of my Sociology of Religion class, my professor said thank you and her 30 students gave her a big round of applause. No, it was not yet the end of the quarter, but we were nearing the end of her third trimester—Professor Chen’s due date is March 3.

At the start of the quarter, I was so excited to be in one of Professor Carolyn Chen’s classes again that at first I didn’t even notice that something was different. Of course, I was also sitting in the back of the classroom, so my view was obscured in a way that it never had been in our last class, which was an intimate gathering of five. But sure enough, she was standing in front of the classroom, six months pregnant with her first child, and hadn’t seemed to slow down a bit since last time I saw her.

My first class with Professor Chen was an Asian American studies course about modern immigration to America. During that class, I learned that she was a second generation Taiwanese American. What a coincidence, I thought—I’m a second generation Taiwanese American. In fact, over the course of the next few weeks, I gradually realized that Professor Chen knew more about my life story than I did. Her research has centered on ethnic communities (especially Taiwanese-Americans!), race, religion, and immigrant experiences. All of these issues are addressed in her 2008 book, “Getting Saved in America: Taiwanese Immigration and Religious Experience.”

In our small, five-person class, not only was I able to learn a lot from and about Professor Chen, but I also became more curious about the rest of her life, and how she’d gotten where she was—a successful, published, almost-tenured sociology professor at Northwestern University, about to have a child. Fortunately, because of TaiwaneseAmerican.org, I had a legitimate reason to interview her and ask her the questions I’ve always wondered about.

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Full name: Carolyn Ester Chen
Chinese name: “Wen-ling, but I don’t usually go by it.”
Family background: “My parents came here in 1967, so they were pretty early immigrants. They went to Pittsburgh first, because my dad was doing his medical residency. What my dad did was very common; about 70 percent of medical students at the time were going abroad for training.” (She smiled at me here, knowing that I had learned this statistic in class last year. Most people can’t quote statistics asked about their family history—Professor Chen can.)
Hometown: Hacienda Heights, CA
Currently living in: Chicago, IL with husband Dylan Penningroth, another professor at Northwestern.
Greatest joys in life: “Spending time with my family, being out in nature, or just beautiful spaces.”
Favorite foods: “I really love a good bowl of noodles, like za-ziang mian or ‘da-mi’ [gan-mian]. Just to be able to have it for lunch—it’s so easy in Taiwan, you can go to any street corner it’s there. It’s one of the things you can get in Hacienda Heights or the LA area, and something I really miss here.”

So, Professor Chen, how did you get started in sociology?
“I studied sociology as an undergrad, but I didn’t necessarily think I’d go into it as a profession. In between college and grad school I took a year off and was thinking about what I wanted to do. There’s certain things about academia that appeal to me in terms of a lifestyle choice. It’s intellectually challenging and creative, and I have autonomy over my time and my mind… Sociology offered me the tools to study [religion and ethnicity], and more.”

Did you always want to go into academia?
“Being an accountant, optometrist, a doctor—but not a demanding-hours doctor—these were the things that were floated around as options for me, by other people but not by myself. Then you go to school and your mind is opened and you’re curious in a certain way, in other subjects. You know what I mean. Then it’s hard to make a living looking at people’s eyes, or budget, or teeth.”

As a daughter of immigrants, I definitely understand what you’re getting at. So, how did your parents feel about your career path?
“There’s a contradiction, or paradox, among immigrants in that they’re risk takers, but they cling to security and are risk averse in certain ways. So much of their hopes, dreams, and aspirations are on the upward mobility of the second generation. To Americans [getting a PhD in sociology] is not unconventional, they’d say it’s being secure and offers high status, but from an immigrant perspective it’s not so conventional. I think we had some disagreements, but in the end they developed confidence and they’ve come around. I’d never say they strongly objected to it.”

Not only are you a Taiwanese American like many of our readers, you’ve also studied our community extensively. Has your researched influenced your personal life, or the way you think about it?
“W.E.B. Dubois talked about looking through a bifocal lens, or having a double consciousness… for someone who is religious and studies religion, that’s what it requires of them. Similarly, this goes with being aware of one’s own ethnicity and the ways that larger structures influence one’s life and the choices one makes. As a sociologist… you take a step back and see if it really is our culture that makes us hardworking or smart—you have to think twice when you study this. You see the context of certain things like generational tensions. You take the culture gap of experience and study it, rather than just experience it.”

Now that such a major body of your work is published, what are you working on now?
“Something you might notice at elite universities now, is that a disproportionate number of students in Christian student groups are second generation Asian Americans—Why do we see this pattern? Bible studies were predominantly white 20 years ago—what’s going on there? There’s some story about race and ethnicity, not just religion. You see similar patterns not just for Christians but South Asian Muslims and among East Asians. You don’t see the same kind of religious fervor among, say, Latino Americans in the second generation, and you certainly don’t see it among white American students. I’m editing a book and working a paper in this project.”

“For my second project, I’m interested in how alternative health practices are sources of spirituality for Americans today, yoga being one of them. I’m studying spirituality outside of conventional religious organizations, and how it’s shaping the landscape of American religion.”

So you must be doing a lot of fun yoga fieldwork, right?
“Now that I’m pregnant I haven’t been doing as much, but I have been enjoying it. This was a new thing for me, but once I started getting into the fieldwork, I got into the yoga too. Now, while it’s supposed to be relaxing and so forth, sometimes it’s become work for me, so it doesn’t have quite the same effect.”

Let’s talk about the baby—is it a boy or a girl?
“I don’t know yet—it was my decision to not know. My husband was like ‘okay,’ and people felt like I should know, but I didn’t want to. I just want it to be a surprise. I’ll find out soon enough, and I don’t believe that girls need to wear pink things and boys have to wear blue.”

So what color things did you buy?
“Yellow and green…”

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After my talk with Professor Chen, I rose to say bye. I gave her a belated congratulations and an early good luck, and was about to pack up my things when I noticed a picture hanging on the wall of her office.

“It’s a photograph of a Tibetan Buddhist pilgrim,” she explained. “These pilgrims walk to the city and circle the city, and every ten steps he prostrates to the ground. He has on a special apron and shoes, and carries blocks so when he goes to the ground he doesn’t skin his hands.”

“I think it’s very profound,” she said, then smiled and looked at me in the way she does every class—challenging me to think critically and somewhere along the way, learn something about myself, too.


Bettina Chang is a junior at the Medill School of Journalism. Contact her at [email protected]
Andrew Lo is a junior at the Medill School of Journalism. Contact him at [email protected]

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