In the space of twelve days I will have taken two inter-continental and two transcontinental flights to attend two conferences. I will have slept in my own bed in sunny Los Angeles for only four of those nights and been away from my family in either Bochum, Germany or Chicago for the remaining eight. Thank God this kind of travel is far from normal for me.
The conference in Germany was incredible. It was the second of three symposia organized by Dr. Markus Höfner (Ruhr-Universität Bochum, Evangelisch-Theologische Fakultät) and funded by the Volkswagen Stiftung on “Theo-Politics? Conversing with Barth in Western and Asian Contexts.” Some twenty or scholars from Germany, the U.S., Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China gave papers on the role of theology and the church in the political sphere. We were all in conservation with the thought of Karl Barth (1886-1968), some more critically than affirmatively or indirectly than centrally than others.
What made the conversation so exciting was that the relationship between Christianity and either the state or civil society is so differently conceived in these contexts: state-supported (Germany), disestablished but still culturally dominant (U.S.), and heavily regulated and/or suppressed in key ways (China); associated with the legacy of colonialism (Hong Kong), but a historic defender of indigenous and even aboriginal identity in another (Taiwan).
Aside from contributing to discussions and taking a turn at moderating one long afternoon session (a job that I am oddly very good at), my task in this second symposium was to respond to Dr. Stephen Lakkis, Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Taiwan Theological College and Seminary, who had given a thought-provoking paper about the ideal role of the church in Taiwan. (Next time around, someone will be responding to my extended paper on recent male circumcision controversies in Germany and the U.S.).
I am now in the midst of attending that second conference–the annual meeting of the Pacific, Asian, and North American Asian Women in Theology and Ministry (PANAAWTM). Held at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, this year’s theme is the “Politics of Solidarity among Women of Color Scholars and Ministers.” With fond memories of my previous PANAAWTM experience and by judging from the warm interactions and high-quality discussions we had on the first evening, this year’s conference likewise holds great promise. (The responsibilities I must discharge here are two-fold: serve on a panel on “finding my scholarly voice” and lead a workshop on public speaking).
As a feminist, I am committed to telling the less glamorous side of these experiences and to highlighting the costs borne by others for my participation. While the arrival of Spring Break cut down on the number of classes I’ve had to miss, I still had to cancel one seminar to make it to Germany. My husband sacrificed 3 vacation days to provide “schlepping ” coverage (i.e., transportation of our kids to their two schools and back) and to spend more time with our children in my absence. At ages 4 and 6, they do not take my traveling for work well: my eldest cried when he heard that I was leaving for the first conference and my youngest was significantly more needy and clingy when I returned.
Beyond that, my being at the first conference meant that I couldn’t attend something I would have otherwise really have enjoyed: a free surf lesson and beach day event sponsored by my parent’s church. In between those two conferences, my suntanned kids told (true) stories of dolphins they had cited frolicking in the waves, friends that they saw stand up (and also wipe-out) while surfing for the first time, and apparently one small fish they had managed to catch and release with a net.
In ways that no one could have anticipated, I also missed being there for my 4-year old who fell, cut his lip at school, and had to be taken to the ER to get 3 stitches. :(
I say these things not out of guilt, for guilt involves a feeling that I have done something wrong. It’s not that, but deep appreciation of the sacrifices that loved ones continue to make for my career. Yes, these conferences involve “pains” on my behalf as well (e.g., being woefully behind on writing deadlines, AAR proposals to review, midterms to grade, and classes to prep, all while adding hours to my sleep debt due to jet-lag) but real or potential gains offset them. Most importantly, it is I who voluntarily undertook this course of action.
My small children, in contrast, have never chosen for their mother to be gone for a few days at a time 2-3 times per year. Is it indeed appropriate or conducive to their flourishing for me to maintain (let alone increase) this kind of business travel?
While I don’t yet have the answers, we in my family all feel tremendous relief that my next conference won’t take place until October.
Grace Yia-Hei Kao is Associate Professor of Ethics at Claremont School of Theology and Co-Director of the Center for Sexuality, Gender, and Religion. She is the author of Grounding Human Rights in a Pluralist World (Georgetown University Press, 2011) and is working on two co-edited book projects–one on Asian American Christian Ethics, the other on a theological exploration of women’s lives. You can learn more about her life and work on her personal website.