Student of the Month: Kai Ngu
Updated: Mar 31
Kai (Sarah) Ngu, 吴凯灵 (they/their) is a MA candidate at Yale Divinity School. They have worked as a freelance journalist/writer for the past ten years, previously served on the executive council of Forefront NYC church in Brooklyn, and cofounded ChurchClarity.org. Born in Borneo, Malaysia, they grew up in California and New York—always by the water. They received their BA from Columbia University.
Why do you pursue a theological degree and what excites you in your studies?
Part of what it means to be part of a queer immigrant diaspora, especially of the religious variety, is to feel like the components that make up who you are are scattered and fragmented. I've been working for ten years as a freelance writer, until I decided, last year, to pursue graduate school to investigate these scattered fragments and figure out how they historically have interacted with each other and if they can cohere.
Right now, I'm pursuing a Master's in Religion at Yale Divinity School with a concentration in history, although theology is very relevant to the questions I'm asking. I'm particularly interested in studying interactions between Christian missionaries and indigenous populations with a focus on gender & sexuality. My area-of-love is Southeast Asia, a region of the world that is known for a rich tradition of gender pluralism, especially among religious ritual specialists (i.e. shamans). My focus is on Malaysian Borneo, where I was born and where a large percentage of the indigenous population is Catholic (mass conversions happened in the 20th century) so I want to understand the impact of Catholicization on the shamans -- who are mostly women or femme in some way -- of a local indigenous group. I'm also very interested in understanding how animism and queer theory can come together, as well as how religious syncretism between an animistic religion and Christianity looks like especially in light of disruptive climate & environmental events.
You are interested in shamanistic rituals in Southeast Asia. Have you done research in this area?
Right now I'm in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia doing a Malay language intensive course for six weeks, and then I'll be hopping over to Sabah to interview shamans of the Kadazandusun to conduct oral histories, and hopefully visit some local archives, for a month.
Can you tell us about your life as a journalist and writer?
I started reporting as a journalist in late 2015, and I've mostly hung up my journalist hat now that I'm in school. I used journalism to explore a wide variety of topics I was interested in, with a particular social justice angle: Gentrification of Chinese neighborhoods in NYC (where I lived for 13 years), Christianity & AAPI topics, labor & race, Christians & socialism, queer histories & Southeast Asian LGBT politics, etc. I was doing pretty alright -- I wrote for publications like Vice, NBC Asian America, The Guardian, Religion & Politics -- but I stopped because I hit a wall with journalism when I realized that the growing, burning questions I had could really only be pursued with the resources of the academy. Also journalism, for the most part, pays meagerly. But who knows, maybe I'll get back into it! I do love meeting new people, asking questions, digging through materials, and crafting a story in such a way as to pique the interest of the general public. Since you want insight into that life: Journalism requires dogged persistence (lots of follow-ups!) and the ability to improvise/adapt on the fly (I've shown up to rallies unable to speak the languages required, hoping to find someone who can translate for me there and then), and I think those skills have and will serve me well.
What has your experience been with PANAAWTM?
My first PANAAWTM conference, which was in Atlanta (2019), was quite life-changing. It was the first time I observed and experienced how various Asian religious practices can be integrated with Christianity (e.g. getting my Saju chart read by a workshop presenter, having an opening prayer to acknowledge our ancestors), which has really opened new doors for my spiritual practice. I felt immersed by the kind of "cloud of witnesses," aunties and peers, that I didn't know, until then, that I needed. I wasn't seriously considering academia then, but since I've decided to hop on this train track, I've been wonderfully surprised at and grateful for how willing various PANTAATWM folks (i.e. professors, doctoral students) have been to chat over Zoom or the phone with me to guide me in my decision-making, some of whom have never met me before!
Anything else you would like to share about yourself?
If you're interested in similar things, hit me up! You can contact PANAAWTM@gmail.com and ask to forward your message to me.