It was Chinese New Year yesterday (Feb. 3, 2011). At 6 am, I skyped my siblings in Singapore (13 hours ahead) who were finishing off the traditional family reunion dinner. My sister teased me by showing me and quizzing me if I could still recognize the Chinese dishes my mom cooked. I identified them all – from bamboo shoots to sea cucumbers (it’s NOT a vegetable)! It is times like this that I feel nostalgic and homesick. I miss my mom and her cooking, and I miss my siblings. It’s the price I pay for choosing to live half way round the world from them. But I don’t regret my choice. Nevertheless, at times like this, I miss them.
At times like this, I also inevitably reflect on my identity. Identity is such a complex issue. “Who am I?” is a question that I have wrestled with for a long time. Last month, I told that to a classroom of primarily Diaspora ethnic immigrant church leaders when I guest lectured at a Seminary in Toronto, Canada for a cross-cultural communication course. I was asked to speak on the complexities of identity and culture especially in relation to the Christian faith. I approached the subject from a biographical perspective, telling my own story of identity struggles in relation to my culture(s) and how my Westernized Christian faith actually complicated matters.
Life used to be simpler. I used to take it for granted that I was Chinese and I thought I knew what that meant. As a youth, I would merrily go play soccer with my Malay and Indian friends for such is the multi-cultural reality of Malaysia, where I was born and raised. The multi-cultural friendships I formed with my classmates helped me learn to be a good “guest”. I learned how to be a good guest when visiting my Malay and Indian friends’ homes, especially during festive days like the breaking of Ramadan (Muslim) and the celebration of Diwali (Hindu). And they, likewise, were good guests when they visited me for Chinese New Year. In essence, we learned how to navigate the cross-cultural relationships, adept at being guests and hosts to each other’s cultures, being hospitable to each other.
Only when I came to Canada as an international student did I start to question my Chinese identity. You see, I have never learnt how to read or write Chinese. Besides my own name and a few words here and there, I am illiterate in Chinese. I wasn’t even fluent in spoken Chinese. First of all, there are various Chinese dialects and the two most dominant – Mandarin and Cantonese – were not my mother dialect. I spoke Hakka, which literally meant “guest people”. My Hakka ancestors somehow were a Diaspora within the Chinese empire, without a home province. Cantonese was the dialect of Guangdong and Hong Kong and Mandarin was the Imperial dialect (and hence official dialect). But the Hakkas were guest people found in various villages spread across different Chinese provinces.
Hakka was my mother tongue. I learnt broken Mandarin and Cantonese growing up from my parents who learnt it as part of economic survival – part of the package of living as a Diaspora Chinese. My parents were fluent in both Mandarin and Cantonese but somehow I never picked it up that well. Probably because I didn’t need to use them much. My schoolmates were all fluent in the national language of Malaysia – Bahasa Malaysia or Malay – the lingua franca of our state education. And in a multi-cultural setting, we resorted mostly to speaking Malay.
But I was also enamoured with another language – English. I was the youngest of six, and my older siblings all had an English-based education, especially in high school, thanks to the vestiges of British colonialism in Malaysia’s past. By the time I entered Grade 1, however, the national curriculum changed drastically from English to Malay as the medium of instruction. But I enjoyed the privilege of English immersion with my older siblings, encouraged by my father who dutifully bought us the English daily news for us to read.
So, I am fluent in English, Malay (obviously incredibly rusty now), and my mother tongue of Hakka, but illiterate and stammering in Mandarin and Cantonese, the two dominant Chinese dialects. This means that I am at a great disadvantage when it comes to navigating the Chinese communities here in Canada.
I cannot blend in. In fact, I stick out like the proverbial sore thumb. In my early years as an international student, I was already going to English-speaking worship services in the Chinese churches. I would be totally lost in a Chinese-speaking service. I was a stranger to my own culture. As a Diaspora Chinese from Malaysia, I also do not culturally blend with either the mainland Chinese immigrants or the Hong Kong Chinese, regardless of language. And I couldn’t find a “Malaysian” community or church anywhere. Like the true Hakka that I am, I am still a “guest” in mainstream Chinese culture.
What is Chinese?
But when you think deeply about it, what does it actually mean to be “Chinese”? Does being fluent in the Chinese language mean you are Chinese? Would, say, an African-Canadian who grew up in China and being totally fluent with Mandarin and all the Chinese customs be regarded as Chinese? I suspect most Chinese would probably say, “No”. Then, being identified as Chinese certainly cannot be reduced to language mastery or with cultural mastery.
Is it purely biological then? I was born with Chinese genes, so to speak, and that makes me Chinese? Well, physical appearances do not make up for lack of cultural embodiment in the wider Chinese community. I am, what they say, a “banana” – yellow on the outside but white on the inside! My internal thought patterns, lifestyle, values and ethos are more Western than Chinese. Many second-generation born North American East Asians feel the same way. Except in my case, I am technically a 1st generation immigrant (as I immigrated in my 20s) but I feel like a 1.5 generation.
How did Western culture shape me so? That’s where my Christian tradition comes into the picture.
Christian = Western?
My first exposure to Christianity in Malaysia was when my third brother, Thomas, took me to Sunday School as a 10 year-old (approximately). It was a conservative Plymouth Brethren church. In my hometown back then, this was the only Protestant church in town. Thomas became a Christian in his late teens there and with my parents’ blessing took me to church. And I stayed. Even after Thomas left for university, I kept going to church myself, and eventually committed myself to following Jesus and got baptized around the age of 14.
Church was pretty much a sub-culture of its own. Everything was in English. We sang English hymns from the 18th and 19th centuries. We read from English bibles. The Pastor preached in English. We always spoke in English, even during fellowship reception time. And not only that, the theology was Western Christian theology. We read the 17th century Puritan Christians. Any Christian theologian or thinker worth reading beyond the 17th century was a Caucasian male who wrote in English. If I weren’t fluent in English already through my siblings at home, I certainly was by now thanks to church.
My Christian faith was entirely packaged in Western culture. To the point that I almost felt that to be a “genuine Christian” I had to leave my Chinese culture behind. Subconsciously, that was what I did. So I immersed myself into my Christian faith, and hence, into Western culture that it became my dominant identity. I took it for granted that Christianity was a Western religion and my faith conversion necessitates a cultural conversion.
Then I came to Canada. I became an English Literature major (again immersing myself into Western culture). I left my Chinese Christian Fellowship group on campus and drifted into the community that surrounds the Christian Reformed Chaplaincy. I felt more at home there, despite the fact that I was the only Chinese, and often, the only visible minority. My Christian faith and my thought patterns and values meshed better with this “Western” community. So I stayed. And I eventually fell in love and married a wonderful woman who was white/Caucasian.
In the midst of my university education, I learnt about cultural contextualization. I read about how globally, the Christian faith is contextualized, and hence practiced differently, in various different cultures. I read about how there actually is such a thing as, “Asian Christian Theology”! I realized now that I had been a victim of Western cultural imperialism and the little Plymouth Brethren church in my hometown was its unwitting agent.
Now, I want to rediscover parts of my Chinese culture and find ways where it might integrate with my Christian faith and Western culture. But I am not sure how to go about with this. Yet, it seems that parts of my Chinese culture had never left me and sometimes emerge from some hidden depths within me to assert its values over against Western sensibilities. For instance, once when I was looking for a mentor, someone suggested a name to me. I dismissed the suggestion immediately because he was too young! “He’s the same age or probably even younger than me!” I protested. But my friend asked, “Why do you think a mentor has to be older than you? Isn’t it about ability, experience and talent, rather than age?” I caught myself. The Chinese ethos of revering old age shaped me without me realizing it.
Even though I am now an ordained pastor in a primarily white/Caucasian denomination, and I have gained much respect and probably love from many “white” folks, there are still occasions where I don’t feel entirely at home. There is still a part of me that feel I am still a “guest” in Western culture. And encountering racism doesn’t help either. I had been called “Chink” and told where to go. I even encounter subtle racism in some Christian circles. I may be white on the inside but my yellow skin still makes me stick out like the proverbial thumb.
In the Middle
So, here I am, a Hakka Chinese, a “guest” in mainstream Chinese culture and, in some ways, still a “guest” in mainstream North American Christian church culture. When will I be given the privilege of being a “host”? Or, perhaps, when do I claim the authority of being a “host”? How do I do that? Am I caught in the middle forever?
I still have more questions than answers. But I think the step in the right direction requires that I re-envision my existential position. I am not caught in the middle. I am called to the middle! This vision is recently laying hold of me in more ways than one.
I believe God led me to this juncture for a reason. I believe I am who I am and what I am for a purpose. Maybe being the perfect “guest”, moving in and out of various circles, is of strategic importance in a multi-cultural world. Maybe I need to become a “guest-host” who not only receives hospitality but returns hospitality as well (metaphorically speaking). Maybe I am called to the middle as a peacemaker and a bridge builder.
- What are your struggles with identity issues?
- Do you have a similar clash of cultures or identities within your self?
Related Post: Church and Culture
21 thoughts on “Chinese + Christian = ?”
Hi Shiao Chong,
Thank you so much for taking the time to write this article and share your experience as a Chinese Christian. As an American born Chinese now studying in the United States, with parents from HongKong and growing up in an international school in Shanghai, I can relate to your experiences on so many different levels, and it has really given me new insights into my own life as well. Knowing that I am not the only one struggling, and that you are able to overcome the many different areas of struggles through self-acceptance and understanding, and always standing with the truth and the word of God, it has empowered me to be more self accepting and to share our unique points of views as third-culture believers.
Thank you Kloe! I am so glad that my experience and writing can be of help to you.
God’s blessings to you too and may you find wisdom and strength from him in your own personal journey.
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Of course I meant ‘bring down the dividing wall of hositliy’! Raj
Thanks Raj! I understood what you meant the first time. 🙂
Blessings to you as well as you do your part in bringing down that wall!
Dear Shiao Chong,
You peak well through your writing and convey security in your vulnerability – a real and refreshing blessing for me. Having become a follower of Christ from a Hindu background in 1975, I wrote an article title ‘Torn’ soon after and with a friend edited a couple of ‘black theology’ books around 1990: A Time to Speak and A Time to Act. Your journeys and discoveries don’t sound too dissimilar. The church badly need people like you to help bring the dividing wall of hostility (Eph 2) – and that’s just within the church. May God strengthen you as you strive to do his will.
There you are in Canada being challenged to serve Christ in obedience. I too am serving Him Segamat, Malaysia. Somehow all of us are caught in this cross cultural context. I am an Malaysian Indian serving in a predominantly Chinese but English-speaking congregation.
Bishop Hwa Yung recently spoke to a Senior Fellowship in JB where he mentioned, “We Methodist can no longer look to the Methodists in United States nor Britain today for examples. The church there is in decline. Rather primitive Methodism as practiced for the first 100 years from Wesley’s time was where the radical transformation changed lives and communities. Lessons can be learnt from them and applied today.”
Over here the church is at a pivotal point. The challenge is for us to make holiness a lifestyle and in being so be able to transform what was once a truly blessed land and nation.
Thanks for your comment Bernard.
I pray for God’s blessings on your ministry in Malaysia.
i am sheqhinah and i am looking for Bible in chinese version (mandarin),,
i am very eagerly to know about The Words chapter by chapter in chinese (mandarin) version.
will you help me to found it in online?
be blessed..GOD is GOOD all the time. Thank you.
Biblegateway has online Chinese versions. Click here: http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/ and scroll to the bottom to find the various Chinese versions.
Hope that helps.
Thanks Chong! Excellent article.
You highlighted the importance of authenticating a cultural Christianity(within a particular cultural context) without making that expression of Christianity the exclusive one. God(Jesus) came into a particular culture(Jewish) and will/should be lived out in all cultures.
Thanks Dave! And thanks for following my blog!
Thank you very much for expressing yourself so openly about your faith and your background. One of the things I love about being an American, I’m from the US but Canada counts too, is the multi-culturalism.
I guess I was a little confused about why you felt your chinese heritage clashed with your christian belief’s. I was also confused as to why you limited yourself, probably not, to writers from the 17th century and beyond. Christianity first reached china in the 7th century!
I happen to be a Roman Catholic and one of the things about our Church that i love the most is the multi-culturalism. Catholic meaning Universal. I enjoy that when I attend services on sunday in New York there is a Chinese or German or Vietnamese or Australian experiencing the exact same service that day.
Last year I attended Easter Mass in Los Angeles. One of the first things that struck me was the diversity in the church. Every race must have been represented. I loved it and felt the Love of Our Lord there. Your heritage is very important. To celebrate it and to share it with others is an act of Love. Our Lords realm is not of this world and does not clash with your traditions.
I was suggesting in my blog that I felt my Chinese heritage was in conflict with my Christian beliefs as a result of the way Christianity was taught to me – packaged in primarily 17th century Western writers/theologians. You are right that inherently there is no conflict between Christian faith and any particular culture in general. There might be some elements of a particular culture that might be in conflict – for instance, traditional Chinese culture has the practice of ancestral worship that might be considered idolatrous from a Christian perspective. But it was how the Christianity that I was exposed to from the beginning was entirely packaged or even fused with a Western culture that it made me felt that Christian faith was incompatible with my Chinese heritage.
Thanks for sharing about your multicultural experiences. Indeed, those experiences can be very encouraging and enriching.
I just read this article. I’m a Christian woman who also happens to be East Indian but grew up in Toronto and am therefore also a Canadian. I currently live in the U.S.A with my Dutch, white husband of 17 years. I don’t have an Indian accent, I don’t dress in the typical cultural outfits, I cook very little Indian food (my 1/2 dutch children don’t like it so much), language wise very similar to you, so overall, I guess I don’t ‘represent’well…if the Indian culture is what we are talking about.
A pastor friend of mine linked me to your site Shiao, and I was absolutely thrilled to read your blog titled Chinese + Christian = ? I’m doing some work right now on leadership development and I felt that your perspective was right on!!
I especially appreciate the humour you bring to what could be a very painful and difficult subject. (your banana description….still trying to figure out what I’d be called :)) ….open to suggestions. 🙂
I also appreciated the comment about how you saw the Christian religion come from the Western world and then lived it out as such. Something I’m working on figuring out myself.
I’d love to have more conversations with you about this subject and see if God is leading us to impact the Kingdom together.
Thank you for taking the time to read this. Have a blessed day.
Thanks for the comment and for subscribing!
The banana description wasn’t my invention – it was actually a metaphor I heard being used by other Chinese to refer to Chinese like me. I have heard of the term “Oreos” (as in Oreo cookies) used for those who are dark on the outside but white on the inside? 🙂
If you are interested in reading further on Christian theology and cultural contexts, a good introduction, in my opinion is William A. Dyrness, Learning About Theology from the Third World (Zondervan: 1990).
Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to converse more on this subject. We can learn from each other as we explore this topic. I am still on the journey myself.
Stumbled on your article! Thank you! I think you incapsulated a lot of my feelings and thoughts! Hope you are well!
Thanks Albert! Glad that the article helps you. Blessings to you too.
Gideon passed this on to me this morning. I am in a wonderful class at Fuller called Doing Theology in a Global Context and so we are talking about this entire business of how culture and theology get intertwined. I wish I could put all the people in the class who are asking the same questions together: a how am I “Chinesely” Christian? group , how and I “Indianly” Christian? how am I “Indonesianly” Christian? etc. Christians in India are even asking How am I “Hindu-ly” Christian? Yeah. Lots of questions… I have a MASSIVE book on my shelf – a text book for that class – called The Dictionary of Global Christianity which has been a great resource as we’ve sailed around the globe peeking into the shades of the church. Bill Dyrness, the prof, says that as they were editing it, they realised that it was almost too soon for such a book because it is such a new field. Certainly, theologians are not used to explaining their theology from the depth of cultural roots that they need to be, probably because they haven’t really taken a step back from their own cultural air they breathe, which is hard, almost impossible to do. Factoring in the globalisation effects, the Western missionaries, and now the fascinating reverse missionary trend of global south to global north… these all make for rather complicated work. I just did a short paper on the changes between the first and second generation churches – a great book I find helpful is: Asian American religions : the making and remaking of borders and boundaries – Carnes and Yang, 2004.
But I hope you find this journey very fruitful. It’s a good moment in the world to ask these questions.
Thanks Angela! Sounds like a fascinating class! I envy you!
I have read some of Dyrness’ work in the past. In fact, it was his book, Learning About Theology from the Third World (1990) that I read in university where I learnt about cultural contextualization and about Asian Theology!
I wish like you we can have that wonderful round table about how each of us can be Christian + our ethnic culture.
Thanks for your thoughts and for the book reference.