Chapter 8: Church on Sunday Afternoons
On the Move: An Immigrant Child's Global Journey
During the four years I lived in Louisiana, I noticed that almost everyone around me was deeply religious. Most families went to church on Sundays, prayed together before eating every meal, and mentioned Jesus on a daily basis. The fact that religiosity runs strong in the South may seem obvious to most Americans, but as an immigrant from the secular nation of China, I arrived with no notion of organized religion and no clue about who Jesus was—I figured that this guy must have been pretty important since both black kids from the inner-city and white kids from the suburbs frequently talked about him with equal reverence. Like the majority of the over one billion people in China, my family is non-religious. My parents believe in some traditional Chinese folklore and draw life lessons from the works of ancient philosophers such as Confucius and from their Chinese cultural heritage, but they never raised me to adhere to doctrines derived from one particular set of ancient scriptures.
Since my parents did not grow up in religious families, the only possible way for them to become religious would be through conversion. Many Asian immigrants converted to Christianity as a way to become more accepted as Americans, but my parents never adopted any formal religion, mostly because they didn't have the desire, time, or energy to do so. During my early childhood, they were incredibly busy working, going to school, and dealing with the excruciating challenges of staying afloat as immigrants; they simply did not have time to study scripture or to go to church. People who grow up in religious families often do not realize just how much effort it takes to suspend one's disbelief and become fully-immersed in a particular religion.
Pragmatism won out over all else in my parents' minds during their first few years in America; any knowledge or activity that did not directly (and I mean directly) help to put food on the table or to pay the bills was extraneous. If prayer or other rituals could magically increase my mother's salary or help pay my father's graduate school tuition, then my parents wouldn't hesitate to sign up for whichever religion offered the most effective and lowest-cost solution to their struggles. They were open-minded to the benefits of becoming religious, but none of the reasons they saw were compelling or practical enough for them to convert.
My family had some ephemeral spiritual beliefs (e.g., in ghosts, spirits, reincarnation) that we took with varying degrees of seriousness. But in the eyes of our Christian friends and neighbors, we were atheists because we did not believe in god as the Christian God (with a capital G). After a few negative experiences, my parents and I quickly learned that the term atheist had extremely negative connotations in parts of American society, especially in the South, so we consequently kept our mouths shut regarding our lack of religious beliefs. Many people we knew felt that atheists were anti-religious and were thus a threat to religion. My family was simply non-religious; we would never march in the streets to protest against religion or stand outside of churches handing out atheist pamphlets, partly because we didn't have time for these luxuries of self-expression that established middle-class Americans could afford to explore.
The first time I recall witnessing the touchy and personal nature of religious beliefs involved the creationism versus evolution debate. I loved reading science books in my spare time; I learned on my own about the Big Bang, the Earth's formation out of cosmic collisions, and the evolution of living organisms, several years before my friends saw these ideas presented in the classroom. Whenever I tried to explain these scientific concepts to my friends, usually on the school bus, I often found them vehemently rejecting my claims as falsehoods. They knew that God had created the Earth and all life, including human beings, during the seven days of Biblical Genesis. I had always been a science-minded kid, never willing to accept anything on faith, so I sometimes challenged my friends to prove their assertions. Not a good idea! They often grew frustrated with me and refused to continue these discussions. The typical "I don't want to talk about it" or "you're wrong" responses just shot out of their mouths like pre-programmed reflexes without any conscious thought whatsoever. I quickly learned it was unwise to challenge the factual veracity of religious teachings, and that even attempting to do so would offend my friends.
The other memorable incident that convinced me that I could not fight the deep-seated religious beliefs of everyone around me occurred in my neighbor's backyard when I was talking to Mike, Mr. Taylor's son. When we were playing on his swing set, Mike asked me which church my family attended, and I told him that I did not believe in God and that my family did not go to church. His immediate response: "What? You don't believe in God? You're going to Hell." He wasn't saying that out of spite. He did not sound angry or bitter. He was not trying to be mean to me; the words just came out automatically like a knee-jerk reflex. It was more of a compassionate I want to help you avoid going to Hell kind of tone rather than a you deserve to burn for eternity kind of tone.
At first, I didn't understand why people felt so uneasy about my lack of religion. I wasn't ever claiming that their religion was bad in any way; I wasn't trying to offend anyone. After these two incidents, though, I realized that mentioning certain aspects of science or even one's own atheism was an affront to my friends' religious beliefs. Because it hurt their feelings, even in some indirect way, I became more sensitive and simply learned to keep my mouth shut on anything related to religion when I was around my friends. If I talked about "safe" subjects such as toys and video games, then we would get along just fine. I made sure to never again mention that I did not believe in God for as long as I lived in Louisiana.
While I learned about the taboo of challenging Christianity from my friends, my mother learned a similar lesson in the classroom. At the time, she had just started her job as an assistant professor and was teaching an introductory sociology class at LSU. One of her lectures was about religion. As a sociologist, she considered the church as one of the most important social institutions in a community. During the lecture, she analyzed the social functions of the church. When she reached the section on different religions around the world and their various forms of social organization, she mentioned atheism as a particular example: She said that many people around the world do not believe in God and therefore do not have a church as a community gathering place. She provided herself as an example: "For instance, I am not a religious person. I do not believe in God. My family does not attend church." She noticed that everyone in the room turned completely silent and stiff at that moment. She kept on lecturing, sensing that something was not quite right, but not yet realizing the shock that her casual remarks had just delivered to these bright-eyed college kids. When she finished her lecture, one shy student came up to her after everyone had shuffled out of the classroom. In the most sincere tone of voice she had ever heard from a student, the young man asked her, "I'm confused. You don't believe in God? Then how come you're so nice?"
I always felt lonely on Sunday mornings because every family except for mine would get all dressed up and go to church together, so I couldn't ever find any friends to play with me. I wanted to go to church on Sundays too, but not for religious purposes. I never had any desire to become Christian. I just wanted our family to go to church so that we could seem more American and, well, more normal.
I received my blessing in the form of Chinese school. In cities all across the nation, groups of Chinese parents organized local Chinese schools that were held on weekends. The primary purpose of these schools was to teach Chinese language, history, and culture to the younger generation, who spent most of their time immersed in American society and were at risk of forgetting their ethnic heritage. Chinese schools are often non-profit and charge affordable tuition just to offset their operational costs; parents volunteer to serve as teachers and administrators. The Chinese school (and related ethnic schools for Japanese, Korean, and other immigrant groups) is an important community institution which provides supplementary education for the kids and social connections for both the kids and especially for immigrant parents whose lack of English skills and American cultural literacy limit their connections in the society-at-large. Not coincidentally, supplementary education and social networking are two prominent roles of the church as a community organization.
Starting in my third year in America, I attended Chinese school every Sunday, and it became my equivalent of going to church. My parents enrolled me in a Chinese school that was actually located inside a church. The local Chinese school organizers rented church premises on Sunday afternoons to hold classes. On Sunday mornings, the wholesome dressed-up white families would go learn sacred lessons from The Bible, and then in the afternoons, the barbarian horde of Chinese heathen would invade the hallowed grounds and hijack it as a platform for teaching Chinese language and secular culture.
The Sunday school classrooms where we had class were always decorated with Christian memorabilia. In the mornings, kids would often sketch Biblical verses and scenes on construction paper and post them up on the walls. When we arrived in the afternoons, my mostly-atheist Chinese school peers would always be curious about what these words and images meant. They would inspect the artwork on the walls, flip through the Bibles, examine the holy crosses, and explore the premises like curious kids. Our teachers would often get agitated at the sight of this meddling behavior and yell at the kids in stern Mandarin Chinese, "Don't touch anything here! We are guests in this church, and if we don't want to be kicked out of here, then you kids better behave!"
These parents-turned-weekend-teachers were absolutely correct. They knew that if the churchgoers ever found anything out of place—even one Bible that was not put back in its proper location—they would be harshly reprimanded for not respecting the sanctity of church property. These unassimilated immigrants were easy scapegoats because of their minority status. I'm not saying that the churchgoers would actively and maliciously discriminate against us; after all, we were renting their property and had a responsibility to keep it tidy. But imagine if another group of people who were demographically similar to the churchgoers rented the church, say for weekend knitting lessons; they would probably be more lenient if the white amateur-knitters left the classrooms a bit disheveled than if the Chinese school students did. Minorities are less likely to receive the benefit of the doubt and are more likely to have their specific offenses generalized into group stereotypes. In this hypothetical example, the amateur-knitters might be warned about their specific act of messiness, but there would be no negative social stigmas attached to the group itself. In contrast, the reprimand of the Chinese school tenants would likely reinforce stereotypes of the Godless immigrants as filthy and disrespectful.
The best part of Chinese school for me wasn't the education or the camaraderie with other Chinese kids; it was the simple fact that I had somewhere to go on Sundays. Now I could tell my friends that I went to church on Sundays just like they all did. And I wasn't even lying, since Chinese school was actually held in a church. I was one step closer to fitting in with my Christian friends. I proudly told my neighbor Mike that I now went to church so I was no longer Hell-bound. He probably found it strange that I went to church on Sunday afternoons; but then again, it wasn't unfathomable for Chinese people to go to church at different times.
Throughout elementary school, my classmates sometimes brought up the topic of religion, never as a focus of academic study or scholarly debate, but rather always in the form of a simple question: "Which church does your family go to?" Nobody asked the more logical two-question progression: "Does your family go to church? If so, which one?" It was assumed that all families went to church. Kids would ask each other this question on the school bus and in the playground when discussing what they did over the past weekend. For instance, "I went to a church barbeque with my family. What church does your family go to? Did your church have a special event this weekend?" Fortunately, I was already attending Chinese school by that time, so I could reply with confidence, "I go to the church on so-and-so street. It's an all-Chinese church." Everyone would always naturally assume that I attended a Christian church for Chinese people.
My cold sweat would subside as my peers bought my white lie every time, but one time my friend Raymond, whom I went to Chinese school with, overheard my response and interjected, "That's not church! It's located IN a church but we don't actually go there to worship! We go there to learn Chinese! It's a Chinese school!" Oh man, that was bad! That was doubly bad. Not only did he tell everyone that we did not go to church to worship God, but he also highlighted our differences by mentioning that we went there to learn Chinese, thus reinforcing our image as foreigners. It was like, not only would we be ostracized because we were not part of the Christian majority, we would be further scorned because we banded together in Chinese school to become even more foreign.
Raymond was always notorious for talking before thinking. On December 7th, 1992, the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, our third grade teacher asked the students what they knew about that incident. Several students replied that it was when the Japanese attacked a U.S. naval base in Hawaii. Then, some of them turned around and stared straight at Raymond and me, the two Asian kids who happened to be sitting together in the back of the classroom. Raymond got so upset and yelled out loud, "What are you looking at us for? We're not Japanese! We're Chinese! Can't you tell the difference? You're all so dumb!" Even though I felt uncomfortable that our classmates singled us out just because we looked more like the Pearl Harbor attackers than anybody else in the class did, I was embarrassed that Raymond spoke out so harshly against kids who didn't know any better. They weren't trying to be prejudiced or racist.
During my final year in Louisiana, I converted from being Christian to being Buddhist. Rather, I converted from trying to pass myself off as Christian to trying to pass myself off as Buddhist. I had stopped going to Chinese school, so I could no longer claim that I went to church on Sundays. It was time to find a new religion to pretend to join. By this time, the kids in my school had learned about many world religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam through history book lessons. My teacher portrayed all religions besides Christianity as relics of ancient history that were safe to study in the classroom. It was always something like, "Let's study ancient India. There was a guy and he got a lot of believers and he became the Buddha. Buddhists believe in peace, harmony with nature, etc..." or "Let's study ancient feudal Japan. They believe in Shinto, which emphasizes values X, Y, and Z."
This survey of world religions provided me with several suitable choices, but I never had to make up my mind until one day when counselors gathered students from several classes together in the school gymnasium. They were taking a survey about ethnic and religious diversity in our school (or rather, the lack thereof). We each had to say what nationality we were, and more importantly, what religion we were. Dammit. I started to grow nervous as student after student beside me stated their European countries of origin and their specific denomination of Christianity. As the counselors approached the kids who were seated right next to me, I frantically thought about what we had learned in class. When my turn came, I said with the utmost of confidence, "I'm Chinese and I'm Buddhist." (Imagine the uproar I would have caused if I had said, "I'm Chinese and I don't have a religion.")
At that moment, I made up my mind to say that I was Buddhist whenever anyone asked about my religion. It was a good religion to pretend to join since it seemed very exotic and fitting for an Asian boy; my peers didn't know anything about it so they couldn't ask me more detailed questions. Thank God (or Buddha or whomever) since I also knew almost nothing about Buddhism. Even though I was still probably Hell-bound, at least it wasn't as bad as being an atheist. Fortunately, I only had to put up a ruse during those last few months that I lived in Louisiana. As soon as I moved to New York City, I never again felt peer pressure to pretend that I was Buddhist. Kids in the big city were much more tolerant about religion or the lack thereof.
Copyright © 2007 Philip Guo