Yangshuo, China

Christianity in China

Book Review: Getting Saved in America: Taiwanese Immigration and Religious Experience

Carolyn Chen, Getting Saved in America: Taiwanese Immigration and Religious Experience. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008. ISBN978-0-691-11962-5. Hardcover, 230 pages.

T
hough this book deals only with immigrants from Taiwan to the United States, it has a much wider application, since many of the issues raised affect immigrants from Mainland China also.

Getting Saved in America “tells a story of how people become religious by becoming American.” The author focuses almost entirely upon immigrants from Taiwan in the 1980s and 1990s, which is when many of the Chinese churches in the United States began as Bible study groups initiated by these highly-educated newcomers. Anyone working with, or wanting to understand, Chinese churches in America today should read her carefully-wrought study, for it explains much.

When the first large batch of students left Taiwan to study in the U.S., they had definite notions of both “Buddhism” and Christianity. The former was associated with popular religion, with its multiple gods, ghosts, and ancestors, to whom worship must be given; to these young moderns, it all seemed superstitious. Christianity, though espoused by many educated middle-class folk in Taiwan, also appeared behind the times; besides, it was a Western religion.

“Buddhism” was wrapped up in society so much that it was an “embedded” religion, inextricably entwined with family, custom and tradition. It was something you did at the temple or before the household shrine, not a life to be lived. Christianity, likewise, did not impose demands, mostly because the Christians were not aggressive in evangelism or personal witness. They left you alone.

All that changed, along with pretty much everything else, when they landed at the airport. Cut off from family ties, the newcomers struggled to find a new identity in a strange and daunting environment. There was no one to help you find a job, or navigate the new legal, medical, and educational systems. Language remained a barrier for most, including professional men who had known success at home but felt like ignorant children in the new country.

Then you discover that some of your professors are Christians. That challenges your belief that Christianity belongs to an outmoded, pre-modern superstitious worldview. Furthermore, American Christians showed kindness and offered to help. More importantly, Christians from Taiwan, who were also highly educated, reached out with practical assistance, friendship, and a new perspective on life.

At first with curiosity, then with growing comfort, you found a new community to replace that large family network that had given support when you needed it back in Taiwan. Everyone was a “brother” or “sister,” “uncle” or “auntie.” They all believed in a heavenly Father who would take care of them, and worshiped Jesus as not only Lord and Savior, but also Elder Brother, always there to help and to guide.

The worship was a bit strange, of course, but lunch afterwards was free, and you could meet people who would introduce you to others who could help you find housing, a doctor or dentist, customers, or a job. The more you understood the Bible, the more it seemed to make sense. Perhaps it was, as they all claimed, the true revelation of the only God. At least the moral standard sounded a lot like the old Confucian values – hard work, thrift, and, above all, respect for parents and elders.

For, as tough as it was to succeed in this country, it was even harder to bring up your children here. Pretty soon, they were beginning to learn American ways. When you understood what they were saying, you didn’t like what you heard. They want to play; they don’t want to work hard; they demand freedom; they don’t show respect. Worst of all, their friends are into dating (in high school and college already!), alcohol, and even drugs. Why can’t they do what I tell them? Don’t they realize that it’s all about studying hard; getting good grades; gaining admission to the best universities; going to graduate school; finding a high-paying job; and then marrying someone who could help advance your career?

At least in the church you met like-minded folks with traditional morals. If your kids would hang out with the youth there, they would learn that God wants them to conform to traditional Taiwanese expectations. The new “family” of Christians supported you in your efforts to protect your offspring from an evil society that threatened to ruin them and dash your hopes for them.

As time went on, you began to see that if there is a God, and if he is holy, then you have a problem: You are not good enough to stand before his judgment. It’s not just about going through rituals; it’s about knowing, loving, and serving an almighty, transcendent Being. Maybe you’re not as good as you previously thought. Maybe Jesus is God’s Son, who died for our sins. What began as a very pragmatic program of gaining community and practical help began to transform your life.

Women found added incentives: If God is our Father and Christians our family, then they don’t have to derive their identity from being a member of a demanding earthly family. If everybody is equal in Christ, then you don’t have to obey your mother-in-law; bear a son; spend all your time in the kitchen; orient your life around husband and kids. You can be free to become your own, independent person, with your own new and autonomous identity. Service in the church takes the place of family obligations.

For men, it is different. Mostly because of their lack of proficiency in the English language, they discover that they can’t advance in their profession as well as at home in Taiwan. There’s no network of older relatives and their connections to help you get a job. You sense that white Americans look down on you and don’t accept you as an equal. Once dependent upon success at work for your identity, you begin to question that standard of evaluation.

Christianity offers a new identity: Child of God, member of the family of God, person of worth, regardless of success or failure in your career. Positions of leadership in the church are open to men, giving them status in a Taiwanese community which they lack in the larger Caucasian society.

Both men and women experience a radical change in world view. A transcendent God who promises eternal bliss to his followers and threatens everlasting misery to those who reject him requires the highest standards of moral probity, not just in outward behavior, but in the heart. Reading the Bible (though not as often as the pastor says you should), listening to sermons, attending Bible studies, praying – all these help one form new habits of internal discipline that bridle the selfish passions we all struggle to control.

Though it’s hard to break into “American” (i.e., white) society, you realize that your church belongs to the larger evangelical Christian presence in America. As your English improves, you listen to sermons, watch TV programs, attend conferences, and enjoy Christian music, all the while forging a sense of belonging to a very significant segment of “American” culture, with which you increasingly identify yourself. In short, you become “religious” by moving to America, and “American” by becoming Christian.
Or Buddhist.

A small minority of Taiwanese immigrants turn to Buddhism to construct a new “American” identity. Cut off from the popular religion which permeates Taiwanese society, they stop going to the temple to worship gods; most don’t even erect the sort of household shrine that is ubiquitous in Taiwan. After all, you are an educated, modern person now, living in the most “modern” nation on earth.

But then you encounter Taiwanese Christians. They are not at all like the few relatively tame churchgoers you may have known back home. Here, inspired with evangelistic zeal, they invite you over and over to come to church to find the only true God. Worse, they accuse you of being superstitious because you claim to be “Buddhist.” Though your “Buddhism” didn’t mean much to you before, out of irritation at these pesky Christians you begin to re-examine the traditional faith of most Chinese. (At least white American Christians don’t pressure you to believe. If you can get over the language barrier, it’s much easier to relate to them than to Chinese-speaking Christians.)

Here in America, however, you find something different – a modern, scientific, and increasingly “American” religion. The temple offers classes on “pure” Buddhism, which is not like what you knew before. The focus is not on rituals to appease gods, but learning how to transform your inner self. Since Buddhism teaches that our problems come from desires that flow from the illusion that both we and this world are permanent, we need to re-train our minds to see the evanescence of it all, and to calm our emotions by constant “practice” of meditation, chanting, and quiet that re-orient the self away from the passions of this life towards an inner space where tranquility reigns.

American Buddhists try hard to reach out to whites and others with this same message, and engage in acts of social welfare; in this way, they forge an ”American” identity. True, the temples don’t offer the close community one finds in the Christian church, and the degree of assimilation with the dominant culture is relatively low, but at least it’s less demanding than being a Christian.

This careful study of an evangelical Chinese church and a prominent Buddhist temple in Southern California builds upon, and refers often to, the work of other sociologists of immigrant religion in China, including Yang Fenggang (whose Chinese Christians in America is reviewed in these pages). As both popular religion, “pure” Buddhism, and Confucianism continue to experience resurgence in China, and as PRCs settle down in the U.S., the book’s relevance for understanding immigrants from China will become even more evident than it is already. For example, I know several families from China whose “Americanized” kids are driving them crazy.

(For some possible implications of this book for Christian ministry, go to www.chinainst.org)