Growing up, I had never been particularly religious. The same may be said of Chinese people in general, so it is fascinating to me that there are so many Chinese Americans that are Christian, since these two identities are seemingly incongruous. So much so that the perception in mainland China is that converting means one is forgoing their heritage (Zhen, 2018). While I don’t completely agree, my assumptions about converting were quite similar. Despite this, I have many peers who see themselves as both Chinese and Christian. As such, I decided to investigate Chinese Christians and learn about how these two, juxtaposed cultures influence, or alter, one another to form a cohesive identity.
Immigration has always been one of the greater influences on US history. One of the modern immigrant influences shaping the US today is that of Asian immigrants. Ever since the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943 (Office of the Historian, n.d.), immigration from China to the US resumed and has grown continuously. Like all immigrants, their arrival commenced a cultural interchange between their homeland and their new place of residence. One example of this interchange is the conversion of many Chinese immigrants, and even temporary residents, to Christianity (Wei, 2012, p. 163). However, rather than assimilating into other churches, Asians, including Chinese immigrants, often established churches of their own.
Observations and analysis:
The first observation was done on March 1st, at Journey Community Church, or JCC, an off-campus church that serves UNC and Duke students. I went to the sermon with a friend of mine who attended regularly. We arrived at church before the sermon began, so I was left to mingle on my own with the attendees. No one really seemed to question my presence at church, despite having never shown up previously (aside from my preliminary observation). The lack of scrutiny of my presence was because I didn’t really stand out amongst the attendees. There were no Sunday clothes or other religious paraphernalia that marked identity, instead, showing up and looking Asian seemed to be enough.
The service began with a section called “OMW”, or “On My Way”, where a church member shares what God has been doing in their life. The speaker discussed how he felt that he was overly competitive in high school, especially regarding academics, to the extent that it affected his spiritual life. His story gives insight into his upbringing, both in the molds of a Christian and that of the stereotypical scholastic Asian. “OMW” was followed by the sermon itself, which was sort of like a lecture from the pastor. In some ways, it was literally a lecture, with many in attendance even taking notes, showing a tangible commitment to their faith. Besides the note taking, the sermon seemed pretty typical.
After the sermon, there was a free lunch, which I learned is commonplace in Chinese churches. This likely evolved from an early tactic used to attract poorer Chinese students as converts (Zhen, 2018); however, I think that its continued existence can be, in part, attributed to the focus on filial relationships in Chinese culture, with most of the church eating together, sort of like a family. Despite peculiarities here and there, there are few indications of Chinese and Christian identities mixing during the sermon.
My second observation was done on the 4th of March. This time, rather than attending a church service, I decided to reach out to one of the members of JCC and interview them. The person I interviewed was a church member named William. To start, I learned that he grew up in Chapel Hill, and was raised a Christian. Consequently, he had only ever attended one other church prior to joining JCC. When discussing his own identity, he identified as both Christian and Chinese. Will did however, make a point that, whether it was a result of his upbringing or surroundings, he doesn’t feel completely Chinese. The example that he gave me was the difference he feels between himself and his relatives in China, such as differences in mannerisms or beliefs. Personally, I was struck by how similar his experiences with being Chinese were to my own, since my assumption was that being Christian would change how he had experienced Chinese culture.
When I asked him about the influence of his Chinese identity on his faith, he told me that there wasn’t really any kind of differentiation in faith caused by being Chinese. He explained that Chinese churches were essentially Protestant churches, since they don’t differ from the basic tenets of Christianity in any major way, like Mormonism does. Any differences that do exist are inconsequential, such as eating lunch together. Although his identity of Chinese heritage didn’t affect his faith, it does affect how he practices it. He mentioned his choice of church was primarily influenced by the fact that it was majority Chinese. As such, his ethnic identity did affect the community that he worshipped with. I think that this realization can also be generalized to Chinese Christians as a whole, otherwise, there might not be any need to set up their own churches. According to Will, a side effect of his choice of church was that he ended up celebrating many Chinese holidays that he otherwise might not have, even if they were mostly a “get-together followed by a sermon”. In this, somewhat more subtle way, these two identities do seem to affect one another.
Looking at the evidence, my initial assumption of the identities of Chinese Christians is incorrect. While these two identities do interact with one another, I don’t think that they transform each other to any significant degree. Like William told me, the differences in belief in Chinese churches are completely trivial. And like-wise, Christianity has not developed a new kind of “Chinese-ness”. Both William and I have had similar experiences of growing up Chinese in the US, and members of Chinese churches actively participate in Chinese cultural events. Rather than transforming each other, I think the identities simply stay separate. Instead, they reinforce one another, as they form a community which preserves aspects of both.
Office of the Historian. (n.d.). Chinese Immigration and the Chinese Exclusion Acts. Retrieved from https://history.state.gov/milestones/1866-1898/chinese-immigration
Wei, M., Ku, T., Chen, H., Wade, N., Liao, K.Y., & Guo, G. (2012). Chinese Christians in America: Attachment to God, Stress, and Well-Being. Counseling and Values, 57(2), 162-180. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.2161-007X.2012.00015.x
Zhen, G. (2018). The Chinese Church in America: Living in a Grand Mix of Cultures. China Partnership. Retrieved from https://www.chinapartnership.org/blog/2018/5/the-chinese-church-in-america-living-in-a-grand-mix-of-cultures