This is a space for faculty and graduate students in Stanford's Religious Studies Department to reflect on the ways in which their own work foregrounds issues of diversity, inclusion, and equity. We will feature a different graduate student and faculty member on a rotational basis. The current feature is:
Esiteli Hafoka is a PhD candidate in the Religious Studies Department at Stanford University. She received her MA from Stanford and her BA in Religious Studies and Ancient History from UC Riverside. Esiteli’s dissertation surveys Tongan historical narratives, ethnographies, social media, and personal interviews to argue that religion is essential to understanding Tongan collective identity in America. Her dissertation identifies religious threads connecting 19th c. Methodist Christianity, Mormonism, national Tongan democracy, and Tongan Crip Gang members in Utah. Esiteli’s research reveals the ways Tongans navigate their racial identity in America through a religious epistemology, and how, for Tongan Americans, religion and race are co-constitutional.
Out of about 60,000 Tongans in the U.S., Esiteli is currently the only Tongan PhD student at Stanford—it would not be a stretch to claim that she is the first Tongan PhD student at Stanford. As of 2017, there are six known Tongan women who hold PhDs in the U.S., and Esiteli is among a few in the pipeline. Doctoral students often address the loneliness of PhD study but her own experiences with loneliness are compounded by the pressures of representing an entire ethnic demographic. The added weight of becoming a parent in graduate school protracted Esiteli's time to degree, but she was fortunate to receive the DARE fellowship through the VPGE at Stanford to complete researching and writing her dissertation while still providing for her family.
I take an anthropological approach to studying religion. My research focuses on Buddhist responses to chronic and acute pain in Taiwan. Using ethnography to study how Buddhist monastics and hospital patients respond to pain is part of a larger move towards a more inclusive understanding of Buddhism. It challenges Buddhist Studies’ traditional disciplinary focus on philosophy, texts, and doctrine and allows us to add an additional focus on Buddhism as it is lived and practiced by the majority of Buddhists. This theoretical and methodological shift results in a turning away from religious exemplars and extraordinary individuals to focusing on non-elite Buddhists and ordinary experience.
Outside of my studies, I have written on Asian American Buddhism for Lion’s Roar, the Buddhist magazine. By the Pew Forum’s estimate, roughly two-thirds of Buddhists in America are of Asian descent, but Asian Americans have historically been underrepresented in mainstream American Buddhist publications. This is something I am hoping to see change. In light of the incidents of anti-Asian violence in the past year, this work feels more important than ever.
As a recent first-generation Korean immigrant woman in the States, I have found myself both as an insider and an outsider within various layers of community and identity: citizen and non-citizen, Asian/Asian American and people of color, Korean churches and predominantly white churches, and states in the South and in the West. This constantly shifting status, as disorienting as it can be for me at times, also offers a lens through which I can be both participant and observer, a role with which I hope to pursue in my academic work.
My research interests include Asian immigrant experiences and religiosity in a transnational context. I’m particularly interested in how Protestant Christianity in early 20th century America shaped and engaged in Korean immigrants’ embodied experiences. How were Korean immigrants racialized by state power and white-centered society? How did gender play a role in the process of immigration? How can we understand the lives of Korean immigrants reflected in Korea’s relationship to the imperial powers of America and Japan? And finally, how might we find these various inputs intersecting under the umbrella of Protestant Christianity? These kinds of questions have also spurred me to co-organize a panel on Race and Gender in Contemporary Religious Studies at Stanford University and to serve as a committee member in Anti-Racism/Pro-Reconciliation Ministry in Disciples of Christ.
I work at the intersection of Islamic Studies, Religious Studies, and critical theory, striving to understand how Muslims and non-Muslims labor to produce communities in which all members can live and thrive. Working with Muslims and in Muslim spaces has focused my attention on how racialized religious minorities make space for themselves, their aspirations, and their concerns within, and often in spite of, people and systems that seek to minimize, marginalize, and even eliminate them. I’ve been privileged to learn about human creativity, resilience, and integrity from living and working outside of the white, middle-class American context of my birth. These experiences and studies have helped me to question and unsettle many of the theories, methods, and materials we rely on in the academic study of religion, for example in regard to the extractive logics of much ethnography. And so I value discomfort and confusion as guides to my inquiries and search for a more collaborative and transformative mode of exploring our shared world.