While reading the 2020 winter issue of ChinaSource Quarterly, “Chinese American Christianity in History and Today,” an article by Timothy Tseng caught my attention as he wrote about the impact of the Chinese American Protestant church in the last fifty years or so.
When we consider the influence of the concept of “self” in Chinese culture, the process for self-identification for Chinese American individuals is predominantly related to parents and other members of the extended family. Through the parents, cultural values are transmitted to a child’s self-image. This includes their personal history coming into this country and their skills for communication and adjustment into mainstream American culture.
For many Chinese Americans, their Asian-ness is viewed as a liability. Some children of immigrants still view their parents as socially inept and are reluctant to take them to places frequented by white or black Americans. Some Chinese Americans may feel more protected or worthy when they are in the company of white or other non-Asian Americans. Others may react differently and prefer to keep company with Asian Americans only.
In light of these cultural backgrounds and situations, the newly emerged Protestant churches spoken of by Timothy Tseng in “Transpacific Transposition: 1965 to Present” have provided the Chinese American diaspora community a third place (besides the home and the workplace) to form their self-identity and shared identities.
Evangelical Christianity’s emphasis that all people are created equal, salvation is for all peoples, and being a new person in Christ nurtures a robust identity reconstruction that eventually connects Chinese from different geo-linguistic backgrounds together. Facing the broader challenges and unknowns, this shared evangelical identity becomes a meaningful addition to the familial or racial identity. I believe this cultural dimension is critical for understanding Tsang’s summarized factors that contribute to the progressing Chinese American evangelicalism.
As Tseng notes in his article, Chinese Americans are found along a continuum of worldviews between the traditional Chinese and the totally western. In the Chinese worldview, the family is the blueprint. One moves outward into the world but always refers back to the family, knowing that family formation is based on mutual support, loyalty, and a clear hierarchy. In contrast, in an individualistic worldview, one is to create one’s own destiny, with one’s rights and entitlements as the guiding light. The evangelical faith provides a helpful middle way between the two opposing views.
Understanding the cultural distinctiveness of the Chinese immigrant community doesn’t downplay the role scripture plays in reorganizing one’s philosophical frameworks, and the Holy Spirit’s role in illuminating one’s mind and hear—it helps us to further differentiate the substance of the gospel and the outward forms of the gospel. While building a shared identity within a church community may be culturally relevant at times, it is only sustainable by transformed self-identities that are rooted in the gospel.
Image credit: Don Barrett via Flickr.
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