At Home in Exile is first of all Russell Jeung’s story. He writes of his family’s immigration from China to the United States, his voluntary decision to live in Oak Park Apartments in the part of Oakland, California known as the Murder Dubs, and his shared efforts to develop community and seek justice despite enormous odds. The memoir itself is rife with self-deprecating humor, colorful characters, and intentional reflection.
But Jeung is not writing simply to share a story. He brings his unique combination of history and experience together to provide incisive perspective on Church, community, success, race, belonging and a host of other markers of identity that are inextricably linked. To pack history, cultural analysis, memoir, and spiritual reflection into one narrative that touches on so many themes often leads to a disjointed presentation, but Jeung avoids confusion. His storytelling, humor, and honesty invite readers to engage with unlikely community and consider the potential for Christian living.
The themes that appear originate in unresolved tensions he finds in his own life. He does not write from a “should have” or “I have all the answers” perspective but from respectful hindsight and intentional living. He grapples with working hard for material success and working hard towards community – values he sees demonstrated in his cultural heritage. He feels pulled between his callings toward social activism and his church ideas of evangelism. As his narrative evolves so do the identities he blends. Readers begin to understand his position as a Chinese-American; then they are led along as he examines relationships between outsiders and insiders, rich and poor, exiles and citizens, class and politics; the final ingredient is American Christianity, where it’s been and where it’s going. Though the tension between and among these identities never fully resolves, by the end of the book readers are aware of a clarity and purpose in Jeung’s writing.
At Home in Exile by Russell Jeung celebrates the journey while acknowledging the difficulty along the way. His tone is neither judgmental or romanticized. This book will stretch assumptions, challenge privilege, and redefine what it means to be blessed. Jeung honors the poor, gives dignity to the refugee and outsider, and acknowledges the influence of his blended cultural heritage on his conclusions and throughout the book. As I personally delve more fully into the global history of Christianity (not just European/North American), I find the richness of experiences and expressions heartening and beautiful and provocative and enlightening.
Your toes may get stepped on while reading this book, but sometimes that’s necessary so your feet can fit to walk in someone else’s shoes.
(Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for allowing me to read and review this book.)